the greatest of these is love

February 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm 17 comments

Christiana said in the comments of my deconstructing daniel post:

I think many people are confused about what the essentials really are. They will die on the hill of textual dating, marriage roles, politics, clothing, music styles, church polity and organization etc all the while leaving, justice, mercy, faith and love in the dust.

Which reminded me of a recent post from James McGrath’s blog, Exploring Our Matrix. My wife and I have both benefited from the post this week. It is a refreshing reminder, and a surprise that this emphasis is so easily neglected or forgotten. I’m just reproducing the post below because McGrath did such a good job.

The Greatest of These Is Love

I’m grateful to Richard Beck for highlighting Paul’s own words on an important subject. Paul is famous for his emphasis on faith, and much contemporary Christianity follows his lead on this point.

Yet when it comes down to it, Paul says that there is something more important than faith – more important even than the sort of faith Jesus talked about as capable of moving mountains:

If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13).

Richard’s own conclusion is likewise worth quoting:

The defining criterion of Christianity isn’t faith. It’s love.


Entry filed under: belief, Christianity, faith. Tags: , , , .

reconstructing daniel? the authority of paul (or someone)

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sabio Lantz  |  February 7, 2010 at 2:59 am

    But Love DOES take faith !!
    Ain’t nothing logical about Love.
    Love is what binds us.
    Nice post

  • 2. Mike AKA MonolithTMA  |  February 7, 2010 at 8:48 am

    The love verse is frequently quoted, but even more frequently overwhelmed by bibliolatry and legalism.

  • 3. Temaskian  |  February 7, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    But that would mean that as long as you love, then you’re a Christian. Which is not true, nor accepted by any Christian.

    So it’s just a platitude. It sounds nice to say Christianity is defined by love, when it clearly isn’t.

  • 4. atimetorend  |  February 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    “The defining criterion of Christianity isn’t faith. It’s love.”

    @Temaskian: I didn’t read the quote the same way, as a comprehensive definition of what a Christian is, but rather what should characterize a Christian. And as such it seemed a helpful corrective to those who define Christianity more in terms of professions of beliefs. It seems that should be helpful both for Christians themselves, or for non-Christians are evaluating Christianity. But I see what you are saying as well, it is not a complete definition.

    Personally I have a hard time if someone tells me I am morally suspect if I do not intellectually believe X, Y, and Z. But it makes more sense to me if someone tells me they are a Christian and they believe love to the most important thing about their beliefs.

  • 5. Titfortat  |  February 8, 2010 at 9:08 am


    I wonder what happens to the de converted if they become atheist in the process. Wouldnt this mean that love is just a bunch of neurons firing in your head and giving you nice physical sensations. Is there any atheist out there that can tell me what Love is from a logical standpoint? Afterall, if you cant explain it logically as an atheist then wouldnt that mean youre just guessing?

  • 6. atimetorend  |  February 8, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Titfortat, what’s wrong with just guessing? :^)

    I had an interesting discussion with a friend a while back, one who has made the slide from ultra-fundamentalist Christianity to a more progressive form, though still quite orthodox. He told me it didn’t matter to him if Love was a supernatural feeling involving the soul or some hormonal love juices that get squirted in his brain when he thinks about his wife, it is still love to him, and he believes it is from God either way. I look at it a bit like that, regardless of what the origination of the love I feel, it is very real to me, and no less real if I think about it one way or another. Sure, the feeling can be used as part of an apologetic to point to the God of the bible, or can be naturalistically described to debunk that apologetic, but either way it is still love, right? And still a mystery to us in the way we experience it.

  • 7. Liberum Credo  |  February 8, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Christs Law of Love is, in and of itself, an altogether good thing. It is unfortunate that so much of the rest of the Bible, so many of Christs followers, prophets, and Popes have so much to say to the contrary.

    The conclusion

    The defining criterion of Christianity isn’t faith. It’s love.

    sounds very nice, but it flies in the face of two millennia of practicing Christians. Love should be practiced by Christians as a primary rule, but to love your neighbor is no more the defining criterion of Christianity than getting angry is the defining criterion of demon worship, or eating is the defining criterion of worshiping Adephagia.

    Living a loving life should be the focus of every Christian, but in the same way it should be the focus of every Jew, Buddhist, and Atheist. Shortly said, this is a prime example of an amature theologan waxing romantic about what he believes to be a unique virtue of his religion, when it is in fact an integral part of the human condition.

  • 8. atimetorend  |  February 9, 2010 at 4:03 am

    LC, I don’t disagree with what you wrote, as far as it critiques the quote as a Christian apologetic or a quote defining Christian. And fair enough, because the author of the quote (Beck) did call it the “defining criteria”. But I looked at the quote as a corrective to an overemphasis on faith, however that word is defined, in conservative Christianity. Also, I see it as a point of common ground between Christians and not-Christians. Because, as you noted, living a loving life should be an integral part of the human condition.

  • 9. Lorena  |  February 9, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    Well, if I go by stats on the writings of Paul, I’ll have to say that no, it isn’t love which defines Christianity. What defines Christianity is unforgiveness from God, thus requiring the violent death of his own son, as well as laws and do’s and don’ts.

    Paul spent much time writing about why the law yes, why the law no, why Jesus better than the law, and what not.

    One verse on love defines the Christian faith not.

    Yes, the verse is nice. It would be nicer, though, if there were many more verses like it, and if such verses really were at the center of the Christian faith.

  • 10. Laughing Boy  |  February 9, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    The defining criterion of Christianity isn’t faith. It’s love.

    Paul (for one) teaches that love should be the defining characteristic of Christians, but, love is not the defining characteristic of Christianity. Christianity is defined in Christ, a Person possessing a full range of characteristics, including anger as well as love. Open any gospel account randomly and you’ll be within a paragraph or two of Jesus exhibiting anger, “yet without sin”. Paul is cautioning the Corinthians against an academic form of the Christian life; one that is “full of knowledge” but fails to change the heart.

    I disagree that loving acts are an “integral part of the human condition.” A cursory look around (or better yet, within) is enough dissuade me of that notion. The value of humans is based on their reflection of the Imago Dei. That, in turn, is the basis for loving each other, which we are freed to do— compelled to do—by knowing God’s love for us, i.e. Christ.

    Yes, the verse is nice. It would be nicer, though, if there were many more verses like it,

    There are.

  • 11. Cally  |  February 10, 2010 at 4:14 am

    There is one other problem in Christian circles is that they think they can love any and everyone without really getting to know them. Then a whole slew of problems come about like high minded imaginations and voices and various ideologies that go crazy. Sometimes practical love is a hard thing to find in Christian circles and yet it is the very thing they need.

    Thank God we’ve got someone like Dr. Phil to keep us all practically straight about love.

    God knows having Oprah around will keep us all emotionally charged in the love arena.

    Sorry, yes I am clinically crazy. I’m trying to work through 30yrs of religion and I keep hoping I’ll find a God. :)

    And atheism scares the sh@# out of me.

    Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    Oh I think way too much. :)

  • 12. Liberum Credo  |  February 10, 2010 at 7:21 am


    Atheism scares me too. I was Mormon for 20 years, and miss the reassurances that the religion gave concerning the afterlife. For me it is a matter of refusing to live in denial. I am a scientist, so I go with the evidence and try to live with the consequences. There are lots of online support groups for people who are recovering from religion, I would suggest you start there.

    Best luck with your journey.

  • 13. Liberum Credo  |  February 10, 2010 at 7:37 am


    Yes, I agree that he was trying to correct the overemphasis on faith, but it could have been worded a bit better to prevent the issues around the definition of Christianity. Unfortunately the overemphasis on faith goes back to the Bible and the leaders of the religion. It would take a major cultural shift to move that emphasis to the content of the religion. I would support that shift wholeheartedly; it would do the whole world a lot of good if people compared their religions by values rather than by what name they give to God.

    I also agree that there is a lot of common ground between theists and atheists which is commonly overlooked. We want the same general things out of life, and usually have much the same values as our theist neighbors, we just choose to pursue those values for their own sake rather than for the sake of a deity.


  • 14. Dan DeMura  |  February 10, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Is there any atheist out there that can tell me what Love is from a logical standpoint? Afterall, if you cant explain it logically as an atheist then wouldnt that mean youre just guessing?

    Forgive me if I assume, but it appears that your position is that without the “doctrines” of Christianity one cannot “explain” what love is… but is there really a clear cut explanation of love even within Christian circles?

    A Christians actions could be labeled “loving” by an insider, but from an outsiders perspective… anything but.

    And what about every other religion out there, I’m sure they have doctrines definitions and conditions which in their view explain love and yet their doctrines are mutually rejected. They too could do something that someone within their faith would call “loving” but again an outsiders perspective may not.

    So in a way… We’re all left guessing…

    But how about this… ” love your neighbor as yourself “… which if taken simply leaves no room for personal doctrine… even an atheist can follow this one, and thus explain it… no?

  • 15. Titfortat  |  February 10, 2010 at 11:39 am


    Its ok, I forgive you. Im not Christian. My question was more philosophical in nature. Seeing as most atheists are “science” based I was wondering if they could describe love without it being a physiological response. Though Im not sure if they did it would be logical. ;)

  • 16. atimetorend  |  February 10, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Interesting that the responses against using the verse as a definition of Christianity come from both theist and atheist perspectives.

    I’ll agree, it isn’t a comprehensive definition of Christianity, and certainly Paul did not mean it that way. And I have not read enough Richard Beck to know where he is going with it either. But I still hold it can be a helpful corrective for those who over-emphasize other attributes of their faith.

  • 17. Liberum Credo  |  February 10, 2010 at 8:55 pm


    Well, you certainly raised an interesting point. I am not sure there is anything rational about love. I am one of the most boringly rational people I know, but I don’t mind making a few exceptions for a good cause :-] Love is the most powerful force in my life, and I like it that way, whether I can explain it or not.


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