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date: 18 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

The questions of love’s nature and its different forms were crucial to Martin Luther from the beginning of his theological career. Already as a young monk and theologian he struggled with the human incapacity to love God and sought a satisfying answer to this problem. He criticized the views of late medieval theologians such as Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel and developed his own interpretation on the basis of the distinction between human and divine love. In the 1930s, the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren presented an interpretation of Luther’s theology of love that became widely accepted. Nygren made a strong distinction between two kinds of love and called them eros and agape. In his view they were contradictory to each other. Only the latter, selfless and disinterested agape, which gives to the object its value, is proper Christian love. For Nygren, Luther is the main representative of Christian agape, which is directed from God to a human being and from that human being to a neighbor. A human’s love of God is actually excluded, and God is considered to be the object of faith.

The strength of Nygren’s view has probably prevented a larger discussion of Luther’s theology of love. Nevertheless, since the 1980s some scholars have criticized Nygren’s interpretation of Luther. Among Catholic Luther scholars, Peter Manns in particular was interested in Luther’s conception of love of God and its connections with monastic theology. On the Lutheran side, Tuomo Mannermaa came to Luther’s theology of love from the viewpoint of the relation between faith and love. For Mannermaa, “faith” in Luther’s view is above all real participation in Christ and through him in the life of the Triune God. This led Mannermaa to think about Christian love in terms of real participation in divine love. In understanding the ontological nature of love, Mannermaa thus clearly differs from Nygren’s value-theoretical approach.

When seeking answers to his questions concerning Christian love, Luther used elements of the theological tradition. As an Augustinian monk, he could adhere to many emphases of his own order: Christian life as love of God and one’s neighbor, receiving of God and his gifts and denying oneself, and living in Christian unanimity where Christians have one mind and one heart. Luther interpreted all these Augustinian aspects through his own understanding of self-giving divine love, which sets one in the other’s position in order to understand his or her needs. Such love fulfills the demand of the law, which orders one to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself. To love God means to consider him to be goodness itself and the source of everything good, as well as to will the same with him. In other words, one has to set oneself in God’s position in order to understand that the only living God wants and needs to be considered as such. Only then is one able to receive everything good from God and to serve one’s neighbors with everything one has. The self-giving divine love gives to its objects their existence, goodness, beauty, righteousness, strength, wisdom, and wealth. In this sense, everything comes from God. A human being is meant to love with a similar love, which is oriented to those who are “nothing,” sinful, weak, poor, foolish, or unpleasant, in order to make them living, righteous, holy, strong, wise, and pleasant. This kind of love does not “seek one’s own” from its objects but gives them what it is and has. However, it does not exclude love of good and of things, such as God himself and his beautiful creatures. They may and should be loved because of their divine goodness, not because of some benefit which one may get from them.

Luther often says that God is to be loved in one’s suffering, needy, and ailing neighbors. God is thus hidden within disadvantaged humans, so that his goodness is to be seen only through them. But God may also be loved when one has experienced his love and mercy. Then one experiences how God loves one who in himself or herself is “nothing.” This experience arises from love as thankfulness and from joy in God’s goodness. In both cases God is loved as a good and merciful heavenly Father, but without the intention of seeking for one’s own benefit from him. The love of God in this sense means that one does not “dictate” to God what is the good that she awaits from God, but is ready to receive everything that God wants to give.

Keywords: Martin Luther, love, faith, law, God, neighbor, self-giving, kenosis

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