Perfect Love as God’s Fundamental Attribute

By | November 21, 2023

In 1 John 4:8, the Bible says categorically that “God is love.” This suggests a hypothesis, namely, that love is God’s fundamental essential attribute. Can we plausibly derive all of God’s other essential attributes from the central attribute of love?

To do so we need three things:

  • A clear and plausible definition of love or, more specifically, of perfect love, love in its fullest possible realization.
  • A complete list of non-trivial essential divine attributes.
  • For each essential attribute in the list, a plausible conceptual derivation of that attribute from the concept of perfect love.

All three steps are tricky. The first step (defining perfect love) is constrained by our limited experience as human beings. While we surely know something about love—especially in regards to friendship, family, and God’s love displayed for us in the life of Jesus—how much do we really know about perfect love? Epistemic modesty would seem to dictate that our analysis of perfect love be provisional and thus open to further refinement. As creatures made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27) and blessed with God’s self-revelation through the Scriptures and through His Son, we should be able to understand God’s love to a significant degree. So, while we shouldn’t expect perfect clarity in our understanding of love, we shouldn’t be pessimistic either. Perhaps we know, or can come to know, much more about love by reflection on Scripture and human experience than we initially suppose.

The second step (a complete list of essential divine attributes) is complicated by the lack of any uncontroversially accepted list of God’s essential attributes. Nor, for those attributes that are generally agreed on, does everyone understand them in the same way. For this reason as well, our conclusions must be somewhat provisional. Even if we can derive most of God’s essential attributes from the concept of perfect love, perhaps there are others that are conceptually independent. In any case, we can safely exclude “trivial” essential attributes, that is, attributes like being such that 1+1=2 that describe any and every possible being. Since nearly all theists agree that God is maximally good (omnibenevolent), powerful (omnipotent), and knowledgeable (omniscient); omnipresent; necessarily existent; personal; unique; and ontologically fundamental, those are the attributes I shall focus on. I’m not going to worry about “classical theist” attributes like absolute simplicity, absolute immutability, absolute impassibility, pure actuality, and timelessness because I don’t regard these as essential, especially not when they are understood in an uncompromisingly strong/unqualified sense. If those attributes can’t be derived from the concept of perfect love, then so much the worse for those attributes, I say.

The third step (deriving the attributes) depends on the first and second steps. With respect to the first, the richer the content of our proposed analysis of perfect love, the easier it is to derive other attributes from it. With respect to the second, the more complete our list of non-trivial essential attributes, the more complete our argument that perfect love is God’s fundamental attribute.

In what follows I shall, first, propose an analysis of perfect love that I think does a good job of capturing the fullest possible realization of love (so far as I understand it). Following that, I shall walk through the attributes noted above and argue that they plausibly follow from my analysis. Finally, I will close with some thoughts on how this relates to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

1. What is Perfect Love?

Conceptually speaking, love is a relation. We typically think of it as a dyadic or two-term relation between a lover (L) and L’s beloved (B), where B is the focus or direct object of L’s love. I think this is too simplistic. As I see it, love is a triadic or three-term relation between a lover (L), L’s beloved (B), and an expression (E) of L’s love for B. I defend the triadic nature of love by urging that love that is completely unexpressed just isn’t love. As the Bible puts it, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) and “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). Love that doesn’t naturally result in activity that expresses that love is mere lip service.

Furthermore, love comes in degrees and in different kinds. L can love B more or less than L loves C. And the kind of love L has for B is limited by the kind of thing L takes B to be. One cannot (or should not!) love mere things like ice cream or money in the same way that one can (and should!) love other persons. Thus, perfect love, love in its fullest possible realization, is love of the highest possible degree for something of the highest possible kind. Since God is (by definition) the highest possible kind of being, perfect love entails that there is a Perfect Lover (God) who perfectly loves Himself. And since love of persons is a higher kind of love than love of things, the Perfect Lover cannot be less than personal. Perfect love is therefore the highest kind of interpersonal love. It is perfect love of a perfectly loving Person for a perfectly loving Person.

Interpersonal love, moreover, is teleological. L’s love for B is oriented toward B’s good. If I truly love my kids, for example, then I want and strive for their good. There are three facets of interpersonal love here that can be teased out:

  • Volition: In loving my kids, I want what’s best for them.
  • Cognition: In loving my kids, I have an accurate conception of what is good for them.
  • Practice: In loving my kids, I actively pursue what’s best for them. I do what I can to promote their good as I understand it.

In short, interpersonal love involves willing (volition) and working toward (practice) the true good of its object, as that good is known and understood (cognition).

All three facets of interpersonal love are necessary, especially when perfect interpersonal love is in view.

  • One who desires what is best for others and knows what is best for them but who won’t lift a finger to help when he can (practical facet is missing), does not love them as perfectly as he could. Perfect love is not mere well-wishing or projecting loving thoughts in their direction.
  • Having the best of intentions and actively pursuing what one thinks is best for others while being mistaken about that (cognitive facet is defective), does not love them as perfectly as he could. Perfect love requires an accurate understanding of the good lest one inadvertently do great harm to those one purports to love.
  • One who knows and actively pursues what’s best for others but only does so accidentally (e.g., while pursuing some unrelated goal) and not because it’s best for them (volitional facet is not focused on the beloved), does not love them as perfectly as he could. Perfect love is not merely beneficent. It is also benevolent.

With the above points in mind, I propose the following definition of perfect (interpersonal) love:

Perfect love =def. (a) perfectly to understand, (b) perfectly to desire, and (c) perfectly to pursue the true good of the beloved.

I will now argue that the above-noted divine attributes can be derived from this conception of perfect love.

2. Deriving God’s essential attributes

Assuming that my definition of perfect love is roughly on target and that God essentially is Perfect Love, that is, love in its highest possible realization, it makes sense to ask how fundamental love is to God’s being. To what extent can we derive God’s other essential attributes from the idea that God is Perfect Love? I think we can derive all of the attributes noted above.

  • Omniscience. If God is Perfect Love, then God’s love is perfect in scope. There is no part of reality that God does not love perfectly in whatever way is most proper to its nature. And since love seeks the true good of its object, perfect love must fully and infallibly understand the true good of every part of reality and thus must fully and infallibly understand the nature of every part of reality, including any possible part of reality.
  • Omnibenevolence. If God is Perfect Love, then God perfectly desires and wills what’s best for every part of reality in whatever way is most proper to its nature.
  • Omnipotence. If God is Perfect Love, then God is able actively to promote the true good of every part of reality to the maximum extent proper to its nature. So God’s power must be universal in reach and sufficient to accomplish whatever He wants whenever that is what perfect love entails.
  • Omnipresence. The greatest good for anything is that its highest good be known, desired, and realized to the fullest extent compatible with perfect love. Hence, Perfect Love is itself the greatest good for everything that exists. And thus God, as Perfect Love, is present to all of reality with respect to His knowledge, will, and power.
  • Necessary existence. Since perfect love is itself the greatest good for everything that exists, the greatest possible realization of perfect love is a love that cannot possibly fail. Hence, as Perfect Love, God cannot possibly not be.
  • Personal. The highest kind of love we know is interpersonal love. Perfect love cannot be less than that. Because of its volitional, cognitive, and practical facets, Perfect Love can only be realized in a personal being having a will, a mind, and active power.
  • Unique. If there were more than one instance of Perfect Love, they would have the same nature and would necessarily be in perfect harmony, each perfectly knowing, willing, and pursuing the true good of the Other and everything else. Functionally speaking, they would be one, and so more than one instance of Perfect Love would be completely redundant.
  • Ontologically fundamental. If God is Perfect Love, then nothing extrinsic to God can essentially circumscribe or limit God’s knowledge, will, and power. If something extrinsic to God were more or equally fundamental, then that thing would circumscribe God’s knowledge, will, and/or power since God would have no power over it. Therefore, God as Perfect Love is ontologically fundamental.

3. Some thoughts on the Trinity

If what I have argued for so far is (roughly) correct, then there is a natural affinity between the thought that God is Perfect Love and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that God is essentially and intrinsically tri-Personal. Thus, if love is, as I have argued, a triadic relation, then the fullest possible realization of love must have an intrinsic triadic structure consisting of a Lover (L), a Beloved (B), and an Expression (E) of L’s love for B. It is not implausible to associate L, B, and E with the Father, Son, and Spirit of Trinitarian theology. So understood, the Father is the quintessential or primordial Lover. He is a perfectly loving Person who perfectly loves the primordial Beloved Son, another perfectly loving Person, and does so by enveloping the Son in the eternal embrace (E) of the Spirit, yet another perfectly loving Person.

While this is, I think, a very suggestive model for the Trinity, I do not think one can readily derive the Trinity from the mere concept of God as Perfect Love. The main hitch is that it is not obvious why the Lover, Beloved, and Expression of perfect love must be distinct Persons. Why can’t this be a merely reflexive relation whereby the primordial Lover perfectly loves Himself by embracing Himself, such that Lover, Beloved, and Expression of all refer to the same Person? And even if we somehow overcome that obstacle, there is a second potential hitch. If each Person has the same perfectly loving nature, then we seem to wind up with a symmetrical relation among the three Persons, each of which is equally Lover, Beloved, and Expression in relation to the other two. In short, the distinctive personal properties of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seem to drop out of the picture. Some Trinitarians will regard that as unorthodox because it doesn’t present the Father as the unique archē of the Trinity. So, Trinitarians may need to appeal to other ontological considerations, ones that are compatible with but not obviously entailed by the concept of perfect love, if they wish to derive the Trinity. I plan to write a follow-up post exploring one idea along those lines. Alternatively, Trinitarians might consider whether the distinction of Persons is one that emerges only in relation to Creation, a kind of emergent trinitarianism, if you will. The rough idea here would be that God as Perfect Love starts out in a mono-Personal reflexive relation of Self-Love but that, upon deciding to create something other than Himself, necessarily differentiates Himself into three distinct Persons (Father, Son and Spirit) so as perfectly to love Creation. Thus, it might be suggested that perfectly to love Creation God must simultaneously remain above Creation (the Father = God-as-transcendent-and-unlocalized) and be immanent in Creation both as “God with us” (the Son = God-as-immanent-and-localized) and as omnipresent (the Spirit = God-as-immanent-and-unlocalized). I’ll leave it to others to assess the orthodoxy of this latter proposal. As far as I can tell, it is consonant with Scripture, though arguably not with Tradition. It is a form of Trinitarianism and not Modalism, however, because the distinction of Persons is held to be real and not merely apparent.

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