Blessed Passion of Love: The Affections, the Church Fathers, and the Christian Life

Besides Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, no passage in the Bible is more familiar than 1 Corinthians 13, the great chapter on love. As Psalm 23 is often recited at funerals, so 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings. Though some of its phrases, “understand all mysteries” or “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face,” may seem otherworldly to the bride and groom, everyone perks up when the reader reaches the final words of the chapter: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Understandably this verse resounds in the minds and hearts of all.

But the line in the chapter that stands out most conspicuously to me, and bids me to ponder St. Paul’s word, comes earlier. It reads, “love never ends,” or in another translation, “love never comes to an end.” What can that possibly mean, especially if one takes love in the conventional sense most familiar to us, love between a man and a woman, between parents and children, between friends, or love of neighbor. In all these cases love does come to an end. The person who filled your life with sunlight and music turns away, loses interest, or dies. Our lives change and we find new loves. And even the love of children or the love of parents comes to an end. How can love reach beyond the grave?

If one looks closely at the chapter, it is clear that the line “love never ends” is a turning point in the flow of thought. For the first part of the chapter speaks about love shown to human beings—“love is patient and kind,” love is not “jealous or boastful”—but the second half shifts the focus to God. It speaks about the marks of a mature faith when knowledge of God deepens and we no longer see things dimly as in a glass darkly. St. Paul calls up the language of Psalms to say that one day we shall see “face to face,” as, for example, Psalm 42, “When shall I come and behold the face of God,” or Psalm 105, “see his face always.” When St. Paul says “face to face” he is talking about seeing the face of God, not that of other human beings. And of course the chapter comes to an end with terms that have to do with our relation to God, faith and hope, and it is with these that Paul compares love: “Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” So the reader is invited to ask, Why is love greater than faith or hope?

St. Paul and other biblical authors use the term “love” in different senses. In this chapter he seems to begin with love of neighbor, but he ends with love of God. As in Romans 8: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.” Of course one might say that he is putting in his own words what had been received from Christ: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And your neighbor as yourself.” There is a double commandment here: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, St. Augustine observed that there are three commandments. The third is “love yourself,” to which love of neighbor is likened. Jesus’s words seem to speak of love in three different senses, yet only one word is used.

In Greek, however, there are several terms for love. One is the word we transliterate into English as agape. It signifies charity, care for others, love of neighbor, and it is the term for love used most often in the Bible. A second term is eros, which signifies passionate, sexual love. From it we get the adjective erotic. But this sense of love is seldom used in the Bible. A third term is philia, or friendship, but it is often translated as “love.”

In one passage in the Gospel of John the use of two different terms for love allow a distinction in Greek unavailable to us in English. In John 21, after the Resurrection, when Jesus meets his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, he says to Peter, “Do you love me?,” using agape. Peter answers, “I love you,” but uses the word for friendship. So his response is, “Yes, I am your friend.” Not much of an answer. Then Jesus again asks, “Do you love me?,” using agape, and again Peter says, “Yes, I am your friend.” Finally, the third time, Jesus asks, “Are you my friend?” Peter, being dull-witted, is grieved because this final time Jesus asked, “Are you my friend?,” and he says, “You know everything Lord; you know that I am your friend.”

Though the distinction between agape and philia, between love and friendship, is important, much more interesting is the distinction between love as charity and love as eros, between helping love and erotic love. The first Christian thinker to explore the use of these terms in the Bible was Origen, who lived in Alexandria at the beginning of the third century. He was a sophisticated thinker thoroughly rooted in the ancient philosophical tradition, but his major intellectual work was commenting on the Bible. For Origen as for all early Christian and medieval thinkers, theology was first and foremost an exercise in interpreting the Bible, what the medievals called sacra pagina, or sacred page. Origen wrote commentaries on many of the books of the Bible, including the Gospel of John, Paul’s letter to the Romans, Genesis, and the Psalms. As a learned student of the Bible he gave a great deal of thought to how the Bible speaks about love, and to explain and interpret the biblical understanding of love he wrote the first commentary on the Song of Songs, the beautiful poem on love in the Old Testament.

The Song of Songs is a collection of poems dealing with love and courtship. The language is sensual and charged with erotic imagery. On the surface it has no spiritual or religious aspects; it speaks vividly about the feelings two young lovers have for each other, their delight in each other’s body, and their desires. The book seems strangely out of place in the Bible. Yet it is precisely the Song’s erotic language that most interests Origen. He realized that the language of agape was not adequate when speaking about our relation to God. Something more was needed if we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and might; we need evocative and erotic language, words that speak of attraction, desire, union.

In the introduction to his commentary on the Song of Songs Origen explains that the biblical writers almost always use one word when speaking of love, agape. Even when an author is speaking about sexual love, indeed of sexual intercourse, the word used is agape in its verbal form. So for example in Genesis we read that Isaac “took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her”—not as a neighbor but as a wife! Or Jacob and Rachel: “Rachel had beautiful eyes and was beautiful and Jacob loved Rachel.” According to Origen, in these passages the biblical writers used the term “love” (agape) to mean “have a passion for.”

In the scriptures there are only a few passages where eros is used, and then usually in its verbal form. For example, in Proverbs it is said, “Love her [wisdom] passionately [i.e., love her with eros]; embrace her and she will exalt you” (Prov. 4:6). And in the Wisdom of Solomon it is written, “I have become a passionate lover of her [Wisdom’s] beauty” (Wisdom 8:2).

In these passages the scripture uses eros because it is speaking about love of Wisdom, that is of Christ who is “our wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:30). Origen took this to mean that the language of passion or desire is fitting not only for sexual love but also for spiritual love. Therefore, says Origen, when one comes across passages in the scriptures that speak about love for God we should take agape to mean eros, or passionate love. So when Jesus says, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul and all your might,” he means that we should love God passionately. As the soul begins to glimpse the beauty of the Word of God, Christ, it falls “deeply in love with his loveliness and receives from him a certain dart and wound of love.” Origen is alluding here to Isaiah 49, “he made me [Christ] a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away,” a passage the church fathers loved.

The technique Origen used to interpret the Song of Songs is called allegory. Allegory is a Greek word that means “another sense,” and it signifies a method of interpretation that was developed centuries ago to give a fuller or deeper meaning to events, things, persons, and words than their plain sense. Take for example the parable of the sower. When Jesus says that the seeds that fall among weeds will be choked, those that fall on the path will be ground down, and the ones that fall in good soil will sprout and yield much, he is not giving a lesson on farming or gardening. The seeds and the soil are an allegory, referring to the different ways the Word of God is received by those who hear it. Classic examples of allegory in English are the fascinating poem of Edmund Spenser, the Faerie Queen, and the once popular spiritual writing, Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

St. Paul uses the term in a well-known passage in Galatians in which he says that Sarah and Hagar, the two wives of Abraham, are an allegory; Sarah signifies the heavenly Jerusalem and Hagar the earthly (Gal. 4:21–31). In Ephesians Paul says that the coming together of Adam and Eve is an allegory of the union of Christ and the church. “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24). This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31–32). And in 1 Corinthians he takes the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea (Exod. 14:21–31) as a “type,” that is, something that points to something else, of baptism, and the rock from which they drank in the desert (Exod. 20:1–13) is a type signifying Christ (1 Cor. 10:1–11).

We do not know whether the Song of Songs was written as an allegory, that is, whether a spiritual meaning is built into the text or was discerned by later interpreters. Though the topic is debated endlessly, in truth the question cannot be answered. We do know, however, that from ancient times Christians interpreted its passionate love as the love of the individual believer—or the church—for Christ.

Origen’s aim was to domesticate the language of erotic love for Christian use, and in doing so he laid the foundation for the elaboration and flowering of the great tradition of spiritual writing in Christianity. For example, in a passage from St. Bernard, one of the most profound spiritual writers in the church’s history, commenting on the first verse of the Song, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth,” he writes, “Those to whom it is given to utter these words sincerely are comparatively few, but any one who has received this mystical kiss from the mouth of Christ at least once, seeks again that intimate experience, and eagerly looks for its frequent renewal.”

The Song of Songs gave Christian spiritual writers, and hence the Christian people, an entire book of the Bible filled with erotic language, imagery, and scenes to express our deepest feelings about Christ. For that which unites us most intimately with Christ is not faith, or hope, but love. And nothing is more characteristic of Christian tradition than the language of the heart. At the beginning of the Confessions Augustine writes that it is the “heart that is restless until it rests in God.” He said that the “flame on the altar of the heart” is the “burning fire of love”; “We direct our course toward God with love”; and “By God’s gift we are set on fire and carried upwards; we grow red hot [a striking word, still used to refer to sexual desire] and ascend. We climb the ‘ascents of our hearts,’” citing the psalmist. After reading Augustine, one can understand why Origen wanted to fill the word agape with the overtones of eros.

Although the church fathers based their thinking on the scriptures, they did not read them in isolation. They were well-educated men informed by the best philosophical thinking of their day, not biblicists or fundamentalists or fideists; that is, they did not rely solely on what they knew through revelation. They took seriously what non-Christian philosophers had thought about the emotions, or to use a fancier term, the affections, in the moral life.

In his commentary on the Song of Songs Origen seems to be engaged in an exercise in biblical lexicography, but the issues he addressed were philosophical and theological, not simply philological. His interpretation of biblical language addressed an ancient philosophical debate about the affections in the moral life. According to the Stoics the life of virtue required detachment from the passions, those unruly emotions that drive human behavior against reason and often against our best intentions toward unwanted and unwelcome ends. The Stoic sage strove to live free of the disordered impulses that deflect one from pursuing what is good and noble. Consequently the passions, that is, the emotions, had to be rooted out, extirpated. Tranquillity of soul was the ideal.

Some Christian thinkers were attracted by the Stoic view and thought that Jesus was the model of a life free of passion. It is a hard case to make: Jesus weeps; he has compassion on the sick and infirm; he drives out the money changers in what seems an act of outrage and anger. For that reason other Christian thinkers took a different view. How can love be a matter of indifference? The Stoic way of thinking rests uneasily alongside the biblical injunction to love God with all one’s heart and is hard to reconcile with passages in the Bible that urge the believer to thirst for God as the deer for flowing streams (Ps. 42). And the scriptures are filled with references to emotions such as joy, gratitude, sorrow, compassion, and zeal. Psalm 4 even says, “Be angry and sin not.” Following Origen’s lead Christian thinkers defended the passions and interpreted the biblical language of love with the help of the Greek philosophical tradition. In antiquity the passions were understood to derive from two fundamental human impulses, desire and fear. As there were four cardinal virtues, wisdom or prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, so there were four cardinal passions, desire, joy, fear, and grief. Desire is the yearning to possess something we do not have, and fear is aversion to what we do not want.

In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa took up the topic of the passions and love. Like Origen he wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs, but his most considered views on the passions occur in a work titled On the Soul and the Resurrection. There he addresses the question whether “desire” is a necessary emotion in a mature Christian life. He knew, of course, that in some places in the Bible “desire” has negative overtones; for example, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Yet Gregory realized that desire and love were closely related. He said flatly, “We are led to God by desire, drawn to him as if pulled by a rope.”

The church fathers knew that it was not only truth or goodness that attracts us to God but also beauty. Often in the scriptures the language used for God has to do with seeing: splendor, glory, face, beauty, that is, with what delights the eye. Recall the words of the Psalmist: “One thing have I asked of the Lord . . . that I will behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4). When the soul has glimpsed the beauty of God (the highest beauty, what the medievals called summa pulchritudo) it yearns—desires—to see more. Gregory’s writings are filled with a cornucopia of images to depict the longing for God: a lover asking for yet another kiss or a person tasting a sweetness that can be satisfied only by another taste. Even Moses who had spoken with God “face to face” was not satisfied: “He sought God as if he had never seen him. In the same way, all those in whom the desire of God is deeply imbedded, never cease yearning for more. Every delight in God becomes kindling for a still more ardent desire.”

With all our other loves, such pedestrian things as love of chocolate or of ice cream, when we have that which we love the desire comes to an end. Even in erotic love the intense experience of sexual love dissipates when it is fulfilled. Indeed, often our enjoyment falls short of expectation, and in the very moment of satisfaction we begin to desire something else. With the love of God, however, each fulfillment only intensifies desire. It is, says Gregory, like watching a spring bubble forth from the earth. No matter how long we stand there, the spring brings forth new water. Gregory writes, “Every desire for the Beautiful which draws us on . . . is intensified by the soul’s very progress towards it. And this is what it means to see God; never to have this desire satisfied.” Dante understood what Gregory was talking about when he spoke of loving “that good beyond which there is nothing to long for.”

Though desire, eros, draws us to God, Gregory realized that desire can be acquisitive and self-centered, driven more by our needs and pleasures than the object we seek. Hence Gregory says that as one comes into the presence of God desire gives way to love, and what was formerly sought in desire is now possessed in love. In other words he is deepening Origen’s original insight. Love is more than eros; Gregory calls it an “interior disposition” by which the soul becomes attached to the beautiful, to God. That is why Paul said “love never comes to an end.”

Faith, as the Book of Hebrews has it, is the “conviction of that which is not seen” (Heb. 11:1). When one can see, faith is no longer necessary. In the same way, we hope for that which is not present. In the words of St. Paul, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). But the love of God can never cease, for it is through love that we “cleave” to God, to use a beautiful old word in the King James translation of the Psalms (Ps. 73:28). For “if love is taken from us how will we remain united to God?,” asks Gregory. Desire is a restless activity, a yearning for something one craves but does not possess. Love, however, has within it the possibility of repose, satisfaction, and joy that comes from delight in the presence of the beloved. Desire feeds on absence; love lives off presence.

The knowledge of God is not a sudden glimpse of a strange, unfamiliar reality but a deep, abiding joy that continually changes the lover. “Through the movement and activity of love,” writes Gregory, “the soul clings to [the good] and mingles with it, fashioning itself to that which is being continually grasped and discovered anew.” In other words, as we draw closer to God in love we are gradually formed in the image of God. Without affections or feelings there can be no vibrant Christian life. Christian faith is not primarily about knowing things; it is about feeling things. You may recall that in the Confessions Augustine said that as a young man he had read a book of the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero called Hortensius that dealt with wisdom or philosophy. In recalling the book, Augustine said that it “had changed my feelings.” The book did not give him a new perspective on wisdom, nor did it change his opinions; it moved him to love wisdom itself. Suddenly everything else seemed vain and empty, for Wisdom lit a fire in his heart.

Augustine chided the Stoics for condemning compassion as an emotion of the weak. He even thinks that fear and anger are necessary in a mature Christian life. The question is not whether one is angry or sad but why and to what end. Fear and desire, pain and gladness, the four cardinal passions, have an honorable place in Christian discourse. To support his argument he brings forth biblical examples, for example, joy, in doing good works, for it is written, “God loves a cheerful giver.” St. Paul rejoices with those who rejoice, is jealous for the faithful at Corinth, feels pain in his heart and grief. It is not possible to live a grown-up Christian life without emotions that spring from love of the good and from holy charity. One day fear and grief will be gone, but joy and gladness will remain. “Only someone utterly cut off from truth would say that love and gladness will have no place” in the life to come.

Early Christian thinking on love of God comes to sublime expression in the writings of Maximus the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century. He is the last of the great thinkers of the early church, and in some ways the most demanding for modern readers. He was a courageous theologian who suffered grievously for his faithful witness in the last great controversy over the person of Christ—whether Christ had a human and a divine will. His tongue was cut out of his mouth so he could not speak and his right hand severed so he could not write.

In addition to writing technical theological works, he was a profound spiritual writer who wrote with the authority only experience can give. Like earlier thinkers he knew that without passion, without feelings and emotions, human beings would be unable “to hold fast to virtue and knowledge of God.” “Desire,” he writes, “brings about an insatiable spiritual movement that drives us toward divine things,” that is, to God. Knowledge without passion does not bind one to God. And to drive home his point he alludes to 1 Corinthians 13: love “gives reality to faith” and “makes hope present.” He understood that knowledge of God is participatory. It is not knowledge from a distance; rather, it is a knowledge that changes the knower. For only those who have been cleansed, purified, and transformed can know and love God. That is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

Maximus loved paradoxical phrases such as “temperate madness,” “sober inebriation,” “moving rest.” “Blessed passion of love,” the title of this chapter, is one of those phrases. In using the phrase he was searching for words to say what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “seek the face of the Lord always.” For the soul that loves God is moved by an eros (and he boldly uses that word rather than agape) that is without end and never ceases. In other words when the Bible uses the term agape with respect to God it has the meaning of eros. “Knowledge of divine things without passion does not persuade the mind to disdain material things completely, but is like a mere thought of a thing known by the senses. . . . For this reason there is a need of the blessed passion of holy love that binds the mind to spiritual realities [i.e., God].”

In reading the church fathers it is well to remember that some of the most profound thinkers in the church’s history gave as much thought, if not more, to the spiritual life as they did to the great questions of theology. Yet this aspect of Christian thought and practice is not nearly as well known as the famous debates over the Trinity and Christology. It is, however, no less important. For Christian faith is an affair not only of learning to think rightly about God but also of learning to feel rightly, to love God with all our heart, and mind and soul. Lacking concepts in the mind and words on the tongue we cannot speak about what we know, but if we do not love the God to whom these words lead us we do not understand. Love is itself a form of knowledge. Without love reason can only carry us so far; it remains tethered to the earth. As Augustine wrote in the Confessions, addressing God, my desire was “not to be more certain about you, but to be more stable in you.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from the chapter “Blessed Passion of Love: The Affections, the Church Fathers, and the Christian Life” in The Spirit, the Affections, and the Christian Tradition edited by Dale M. Coulter and Amos Yong. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Pier Francesco Sacchi, Four Doctors of the Western Church, 1516; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Robert Louis Wilken

Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.

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