I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
— W. B. Yeats, “For Anne Gregory”

Every Friday afternoon at Gutenberg College, students and tutors gather to discuss topics that come up in Western Civilization during the week. Recently, the following question arose in response to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a work of political philosophy that takes a notoriously dim view of human nature: Is Hobbes right in claiming that we are incapable of acting selflessly? In the final analysis, is even a Christian’s “love” for others nothing more than an enlightened love of self, shown perhaps “in hope of reward in heaven”?1 This is an age-old question, of course—older than Hobbes, older than the Scholasticism to which Hobbes was responding—but one that requires serious consideration from all of us in light of the nature and importance of Christian love.

  • The problem of love might be stated in the form of a syllogism:
  • We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves (“Golden Rule”: Mt. 22:39, Lev. 19:18, etc.).
  • To love our neighbors is to treat them as we ourselves wish to be treated
  • (Mt. 7:12).
  • We wish to be loved “for ourselves alone,” not out of any ulterior motive.
  • To love our neighbors on command is to love them out of an ulterior motive and thus not to treat them as we ourselves wish to be treated.
  • Therefore, to love our neighbors on command is not truly to love them.

For those who think they detect a hint of sophistry in this formulation of the problem, let me try a different one:

  • We are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind
  • (“Great Commandment”: Mt. 22:37, Deut. 6:5).
  • If we love God out of a desire for eternal life, do we truly love Him?

To attempt to do much more in this short essay than trace the contours of the problem as it presented itself to me would be presumptuous. Not only is the problem of Christian love old and complex, but I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher, except insofar as I have been unable to avoid grappling at some level with theological and even philosophical issues simply by virtue of being a Christian. Therefore, I will merely look briefly at the scriptural basis of the problem, examine two influential Christian views of it, and conclude with some personal thoughts.

Scriptural Basis for the Problem of Love

Love is the Christian virtue par excellence. Its importance cannot be overstated. Love, Jesus says, is the foundation of the Law (Mt. 22:40). Love is the Law’s fulfillment, Paul writes to the Galatians (5:14). What is more, love is so essential to who God is that John can write: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).2 And what is love? The “Golden Rule” provides a formal definition, and Paul gives us this interesting description of love in I Corinthians 13:5 (NIV): “it is not self-seeking.” More important than any definition or description, however, is the exemplification of love in Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Again and again, we see love epitomized in the same fashion: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). From these verses, we can make two important observations: 1) love involves the lover’s acting on behalf of others (“his friends,” “us,” “her”) and 2) love costs the lover, the greatest love costing him most (“his life,” “himself”). Here it might be reasonable to conclude that Christian love, modeled on God’s love in Christ, is antithetical to the self-love that Hobbes sees driving all human activity.

If it were only a question of adjudicating between the Bible and Hobbes, our task would be relatively simple. Unfortunately, in this matter as in so many others, the scriptural witness itself is complex. Many of Jesus’ messages appeal naturally to our self-interest, whether as promises of reward or warnings of punishment. If we care for the hungry, thirsty, etc., we shall have “eternal life”; if we do not, “eternal fire” (Mt. 25:31-46). Surely this is all the reason one needs to treat others mercifully, we might say. True, an important feature of this account of the Final Judgment is the fact that those who have done good are surprised by their reward, meaning they have not acted with that reward in view; but why would Jesus speak of rewards and punishments at all if he did not wish us to be motivated by them? On the face of it, it might seem that the Bible condones—if not advocates—a kind of “ethical egoism,” according to which each of us is always justified in acting in his own best interest.3 Indeed, many of the parables depict salvation as though it were simply the return on a good investment. (See especially Mt. 13:44-46.) The only difference between one who lays up for himself treasures on earth and one who lays up for himself treasures in heaven seems to be that the latter has better business sense (Mt. 6:19-21). Each of the two is fundamentally interested in the same thing: laying up treasures for himself. From this perspective, Christian love would be a sort of enlightened self-love not incompatible with Hobbes’s view of human nature.

Two Theological Views of the Problem of Love

We might restate the problem of love yet again as follows: What is the proper relation between love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self?

This is not an exegetical so much as a theological question. Let us therefore turn to two influential Christian theologies of love: that of medieval Christians in the West and that of Martin Luther. In the following simplified account, I rely primarily on the first volume of American philosopher Irving Singer’s trilogy The Nature of Love,4 which traces the development of love as an ideal from Plato to Luther. Singer, who died in 2015 after more than fifty years at MIT, was not a Christian, but he exhibits a genuine appreciation for the Judeo-Christian tradition inasmuch as it “first makes the love of persons into a philosophical concept” (270). He shows both the patience for thorny theological questions and the ability to penetrate to the heart of them. Most importantly, perhaps, he is an “outsider” without theological commitments who may help us to a broader understanding of the issues at stake (314).

The first theology of the problem of love may be characterized as that of medieval Christianity in the West, taking its basic shape with Augustine (354–430 ad) and receiving its most systematic form with Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 ad). Like Plato and Aristotle before them, the medievals believed that it is human nature to do all things out of a desire or “love” (Greek eros) for happiness (164). The medievals differ from the Greeks in identifying the source of this happiness with a person (God) rather than an abstraction (the Good) and in denying that we are capable of achieving it on our own. Because we are finite creatures, our love for happiness is naturally misdirected at finite things, which cannot satisfy us (316). We need God to redirect our love toward its true object, not only by showing us what to love but also by supernaturally enabling us to love it. Thus Augustine distinguishes between two types of self-love: caritas (directed toward God and neighbor) and cupiditas (directed toward the world and temporal things) (316). Only caritas—natural self-love enlightened and transformed by the Holy Spirit—would meet the requirements for Christian love.

This view was adapted in influential ways by Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090–1153 ad), an abbot and theologian who identified four stages in the development of our capacity to love (188-190). The first stage, corresponding to Augustine’s cupiditas, sees us striving for temporal goods in an effort to satisfy our desires. Upon discovering that temporal goods can neither make us happy nor cure us of our mortality, in the second stage we find ourselves turning to God—not for Himself but for what He can do for us. The third stage is the result of a spiritual transformation whereby through prolonged contact with God and repeated turning to Him, we come to love Him for His own sake. In the fourth stage, hardly reachable this side of paradise, we come to love all creation for the sake of the Creator. Herein consists true happiness.

For Augustine, Bernard, and Aquinas, loving God and truly loving oneself are different perspectives of the same thing, even if the latter perspective gradually falls from view. If they were in conflict, says Aquinas—a logical impossibility—there would be no reason for us to love God (169). But all this struck some as problematic. Anticipating Luther, Peter Abelard (c. 1079–1142 ad) reasoned that if true love for God is for His own sake, self-love must be toxic (195). “To love God properly,” Singer summarizes, “one had to renounce even the desire for [happiness],”5 which seemed absurd to Abelard’s more orthodox contemporaries. If love for God is happiness, how can one renounce one without renouncing the other? Moreover, if to desire happiness is human and yet a proper love for God must be free of the desire for happiness, then no human being is capable of loving God properly, and we are commanded to do the impossible.

This is Luther’s conclusion and represents the second of our two theologies of the problem of love. “No one,” writes Luther, “is able to love God from his whole heart, etc., and his neighbor as himself … No one is godly purely for God’s sake or solely because it is right and godly. Nature always will and must seek some reason why it should be godly” (326-327). Human nature prevents us from being able to fulfill the commandments of love and thus from earning salvation. Unless we accept this and have faith in the salvific power of God’s work in Christ, whose love fulfills the commandments to the letter, we are lost (328). Then, if we do catch ourselves loving God or neighbor truly, it is not really ourselves that we have caught doing so but the Holy Spirit (329). What is more, Christian love (Greek agapē) is incompatible with self-love (313-314). Luther writes pointedly, “If [men] should work good in order to obtain the Kingdom, they would never obtain it, but would be numbered rather with the wicked, who, with an evil and mercenary eye, seek the things of self even in God.”6 With a single blow, says Singer, Luther dashes the Gothic spires of medieval spirituality to the earth (325).

Attempting to explain why Luther was compelled to such a doctrine, Singer speculates that it had less to do with anything the Reformer found in Scripture than with his discouraging experience as a monk (329-331). Singer believes the fundamental difference between our two theologies of love—that of the medievals, with its focus on the transformation of man’s love, and that of Luther, with its focus on the communication of God’s love—lies in their different understandings of human nature. “Regardless of what they call themselves,” he writes, “men seem to fall into two classes: those who believe that human nature is inherently good, and therefore capable of an ideal love, and those who do not—Hsün Tzu versus Mencius, Hobbes versus Locke, Schopenhauer versus Hegel, Proust versus Stendhal” (342). Luther’s understanding of human nature would be that of Hobbes, while the medieval Christian understanding would be that of Locke. Our answer to the question with which we began—Is Hobbes right in claiming that we are incapable of acting selflessly?—would depend on whether we were more like Luther or the medievals in our thinking.

Concluding Thoughts on the Problem of Love

I am not persuaded that the medievals’ view of human nature and that of Luther differ as radically as Singer suggests. Both views identify self-love as fundamental to humanity, and both deny that this self-love can ever become true love for God on its own; in this sense, both are closer to Hobbes than to Locke. Not even with respect to their views of justification do the inheritors of the medieval tradition and the theological descendants of Luther seem really to disagree.7

While Singer provides us with a useful history of the problem of love, and while he does—as promised—help us to a clearer view of the conflict surrounding it, that conflict is not between different Christian understandings of human nature. Ultimately, it is between modern and traditional understandings of love, as Singer’s conclusion makes clear. Simply put, do we wish to “be ourselves” or to be truly happy—to “become what we are” or what we were meant to be?8 Is man an end or has he one?9 Singer conceives the final stage of love to be a “reverential attitude” that accepts all things, oneself included, exactly as they are without wishing them any different (348)10 … without wishing them, as Aristotle put it, “well” (348-9).11 For my part, I cannot help recalling the words of Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 10:39).

Upon further reflection, then, I do not believe the third premise of our original syllogism to be true. We do not wish to be loved “for ourselves alone” and out of no ulterior motive because that is not how we love ourselves. Just as we wish ourselves truly happy—“well”—we want others to wish us truly happy and to treat us accordingly. Whether they do this out of an ulterior motive is of secondary importance to us.

And what about the problem of love in its other form? If we love God out of a desire for eternal life, do we truly love Him? Well, we have it on good authority that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). As long as our relationship with God is based on a purely natural love of self, however enlightened, it is doubtful that we can love Him as we ought. Whether, as Augustine believed, this love of self must be transformed by the Holy Spirit; whether the Holy Spirit must create in us an entirely new faculty, as Aquinas held; or whether, as Luther had it, the Holy Spirit must actually do the loving for us, Christians agree that we need a miracle. Hobbes is right about human nature, but that is an insoluble problem only for those who do not believe in a God for whom “all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). I wish them well.


1 Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Penguin Books, 1985, p. 193.
2 Emphasis mine. Scripture quotations are from the ESV version unless otherwise noted.
3 For more on ethical egoism, see Moreland, J. P. “Ethical Egoism and Biblical Self-Interest.” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 59, 1997, pp. 257-68.
4 Singer, Irving. The Nature of Love: Plato to Luther. University of Chicago Press, 1966. Parenthetical page numbers refer to Singer’s book.
5 Cf. Spinoza’s famous dictum: “Whosoever loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return.”
6 Quoted in Ramsey, Paul. Christian Ethics. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950, pp. 134-135.
7 The historic “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was signed on 31 October 1999 by representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Of particular interest are paragraphs 15 and 21: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works … When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification by consenting to God’s justifying action, they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities.” See Long, Stephen D. Christian Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 60-62.
8 Cf. the subtitle of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, “Wie man wird, was man ist” (“How one becomes what one is”).
9 Cf. “ends” and “means” in Kant’s ethics, to which Singer alludes favorably on p. 352.
10 Cf. Nietzsche’s amor fati (“love of fate”), which Singer calls the “love of life” (309).
11 While Aristotle’s definition of friendship or “brotherly love” (Greek philia) emphasizes intentions rather than actions, it is in the same spirit as the Golden Rule.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.