Defining Love by Thomas Claridge

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’ (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, New International Version). 

Love plays a central role in many religions throughout the world. In Christianity, as the above passage emphasises, love is the ultimate virtue that a Christian may exhibit. Yet despite this, a concise definition of Christian love is difficult to come by. While insightful descriptions of love abound the various books of the Bible (‘love is patient, love is kind’ - 1 Cor. 13:4), as well as useful guidance on how to exercise love (‘do to others what you would have them do to you’ – Matthew 7:12) a concrete definition of love itself often eludes the reader. 

One possible definition is to perceive Christian love as the sum product of the Christian virtues. For if ‘love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy’, then a relationship could be described as loving if it is patient, kind, and not envious (1 Cor. 13:4). Such a definition of Christian love that requires the continued presence of Christian virtues and absence of their corresponding vices seems plausible. A loving individual could be seen as a Christian form of the Grecian megalapsychos, an Aristotelian term for an exceptionally virtuous individual; someone who has united the various virtues to achieve megalopsychia (“the crowning virtue”), which in Christianity would be love. 

If love is to be defined as the summation of Christian virtues, we should then enquire what those virtues are. St Augustine (in Book IV of The City of God) acknowledges the Roman-Grecian tradition of worshipping the four Aristotelian virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance as Goddesses in their own right. Declaring these virtues to be of value, St Augustine nonetheless explains that “they are gifts of the true God, not goddesses themselves.” Therefore they should not be exclusively worshipped, but instead considered as Christian virtues; consequently they became known as the four Cardinal Virtues

In addition to the Cardinal Virtues are the three Theological Virtues. These derive largely from the Biblical works of St Paul of Tarsus (specifically his First Epistle to the Corinthians as quoted earlier), and are commonly specified as being ‘faith, hope and charity’ (1 Cor. 13:13, King James Version). The three Theological Virtues have been emphasised in recent years, in ecclesiastical works such as Pope John Paul II’s Catechism of the Catholic Church and by recent Pontiffs, with Pope Benedict XVI penning Papal Encyclicals on charity (Deus Caritas Est), hope (Spe Salvi) and Pope Francis completing the final Encyclical on faith (Lumen Fidei) in July 2013.

Taken together, the three Theological Virtues and four Cardinal Virtues form the seven Christian virtues; which when united presumably define love (love is prudent, charitable, faithful, etc). However there are problems with this virtue-centric definition. The possession of these seven virtues may produce an accurate description of the virtues that a loving individual may possess, but they do not produce an exhaustive definition of Christian love because they exclude the notion of intention. 

To illustrate, let us take the virtue of prudence as an example. Prudence is defined by the Catholic Catechism as the “virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” It is the virtue of knowing what to do, and how to do it. 

Therefore suppose a father utilises his prudence or practical reason (which is inherently fallible, God being the only omniscient entity), in an attempt to discern the true good for his child; and mistakenly concludes that his son is becoming spoilt and consequently prone to greed. The father consults the Bible, in which he understands that disciplining wayward children is permitted; for ‘we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it’ (Hebrews 12:7-9). Consequently he reprimands his innocent child. 

In this situation, the father has clearly failed to possess true prudence; for he was not able to discern the truth of the situation and consequently chose the wrong means of dealing with his child. Yet if love is supposedly the sum of the seven Christian virtues, and this father does not possess true prudence, can we really declare that he therefore does not love his son? 

I do not believe so. His actions can be called loving because they were motivated by loving intentions. The father didn’t berate his child out of anger; he only intended to discipline the child for their own good, out of love. Therefore a definition of love must place due emphasis upon the intentions of an individual, for there is clearly a problem with defining love as the summation of virtues alone because it implies that only those who perfectly possess each virtue are capable of love.

St Thomas Aquinas emphasised the importance of intentions in determining the moral value of any action in his Summa Theologiæ. He recognised the disconnect between “the will’s own internal activity and its external activity”, essentially the difference between our intentions (the father’s desire to prevent his child becoming spoiled) and our subsequent actions (the unnecessary reprimanding). Because St Aquinas declares that “human acts get their specific nature from their end and objective”, we may describe the father’s actions (although misguided) as ultimately loving because they aimed at a virtuous end, the betterment of his son. 

An emphasis on intentions crucially recognises that love is possible, even if we imperfectly do not possess all virtues. The father did not possess true prudence, yet he still loved his son, because his intentions were good. A definition of love that recognises the importance of intention also acknowledges the fallibility of man, that imperfect individuals who have not perfectly attained all virtues are still capable of love. 

The importance of intentions in defining love is that just as good intentions can indicate love, the absence of good intentions can condemn good acts as unloving and hollow. This is demonstrated in the Parable of the Unjust Judge; “there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’” (Luke 18:1-5). 

The judge has clearly performed a virtuous act (granting justice). Had our definition of love solely focussed upon someone’s actions conforming to the seven virtues, we would be able to declare that by the end the Judge somewhat loved the woman; for he was granting her justice (a Cardinal Virtue). Yet the Judge certainly doesn’t love the woman, because his help was motivated by selfish reasons and nothing more. Crucially, it was the absence of good intentions behind his good act that led us to condemn the Judge as unloving. 

Therefore intentions are important. A definition of love which neglects intentions may result in many individuals technically displaying the appearance of love outwardly through good acts, yet without kind intentions to back them up, these good acts would be merely hollow imitations of genuine Christian love. It is for this reason that in giving to charity, we should ‘not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men’ (Matthew 6:1-2). Such individuals are clearly motivated by the applause they receive, and not out of the loving help they confer. 

Is this to say that good intentions alone can define what Christian love is? No, for good intentions alone are not enough; for “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:14-17). Similarly ‘let us not love with words or tongue but with actions’ (1 John 4:18). Therefore a definition of love cannot focus on intentions alone, but also on actions. 

If good intentions without accompanying actions are useless; and actions without good intentions are hollow, can we define Christian love as a combination of the two; as acting upon good intentions? Possibly; for if someone has both good intentions and acts upon them, they are displaying love. Yet as we saw from the example of the disciplining father, one can harbour good intentions, and be ready to act upon them to help others, yet still be led into committing misguided and harmful actions, as the father did in wrongly punishing his child. 

Another example of this may include a teacher who, with the good intention of encouraging their students to work harder, resolves to constantly criticise their work in the hope that ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’ (Romans 5:3-4). The eventual result is some students, feeling incompetent, subsequently lose hope and give up on their studies. 

What then can we conclude? Clearly loving ends are no guarantee of loving means. The problem is that acting upon loving intentions may unwittingly harm the object of our love (as both the father and teacher did). Therefore how do we keep our love from turning sour, and ensure it harms no one? To resolve this final problem, we come full circle; to the descriptions of love found throughout the Bible which did not serve as standalone definitions of love themselves. For if one has loving intentions and the consequent will to act, but not a complete grasp of all seven virtues, one could end up committing harmful acts by mistake. Recognising that humans are fallible and rarely attain all seven virtues, we should consult objective guidelines for love, to prevent us from mistakenly causing harm. For this purpose the many descriptions of love that are found in the Bible prove useful. Although not sufficient as definitions of love in themselves, they provide guidelines for how to practice Christian love. Therefore if an individual has good intentions, and intends to act upon them, the various Biblical descriptions of love provide a guide to what those actions should be. 

An example of such a description is that love is ‘not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’ (1 Corinthians 13:5-7). Therefore if one has good intentions and intends to act upon them, but the actions pursued become rude or self-seeking, love should be expressed differently. 

Consequently we arrive at a three-part definition of Christian love, comprised of good intentions, the willingness to act on those intentions, and the resultant acts conforming to Biblical descriptions of love. For without loving intentions, our acts are hollow. Without acts, our loving intentions are worthless. Should we possess both, we certainly love, but this love may misguidedly harm others; it should therefore also conform to the descriptions of love found in the Bible. 

The significance of this definition of Christian love is that it doesn’t make love exclusive; something that only completely virtuous individuals can truly express. Instead, it recognises mankind’s fallibility, yet argues that anyone (even someone without all of the seven virtues) is capable of love. This recognition of humanity’s shared capacity for love is crucial to remember today, in the face of an increasingly divided globe.