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Reviewed by:
  • Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement; and The Nature of Love: A Theology
  • Rem B. Edwards
Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. Thomas Jay Oord. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010. 225 + xii pp. $29.99 paper. And The Nature of Love: A Theology. Thomas Jay Oord. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2010. 195 + xii pp. $24.99 paper.

These two remarkable books, both published in 2010, share many themes but differ in significant ways, and each is very much worth reading and pondering. Oord’s The Nature of Love concentrates primarily on conceptual and theological themes relating to the very nature of love itself and what influential theologians have had to say about love. His Defining Love focuses on how the social and physical sciences impact our understanding of human and divine love. Both books presuppose and express many themes that are prominent in process theology such as: freedom is universally present (by degrees) in all creatures, especially us; predestination is abhorrent and untenable; God exists necessarily and everlastingly but not timelessly; God foreknows what is knowable but does not know future free decisions that have not yet been made; God’s general character or attributes do not change, yet God’s experiences and actions change as God interacts with creatures in time and history; God has real feelings, including his central attributes of genuine love and compassion; and God created our universe out of the ashes of some preceding universe (and ultimately out of an infinite series or strand of expanding and collapsing quantum universes). Personally, I disagree only with the last of these because I defend creation ex nihilo.

Significantly, unlike many who use the term without heedful attention to what it means, Oord recognizes that the very concept of “love” requires careful analysis and refinement. He is concerned primarily with “love” as biblically grounded and with what it ought to mean for theology today. His approach to love is historical, critical, analytic, and prescriptive, as developed through the many pages of his books. Let’s begin with his final formal prescriptive definition of the term in The Nature of Love. He gives it in bold as: “To love is to act [End Page 276] intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well being” (17). His emphasis is first of all upon objective acting. No one really loves unless they are willing to put it into practice, to “do something beneficial” (18). The subjective aspects of love—intentionality, sympathy, and empathy—are also stressed (21–22, 30–31), as is the ultimate objective of love, promoting overall well being, by which he seems to mean what many philosophers call “maximizing the good,” not just for the few, but for “the good of the whole” or “the common good” (19–21). Given this understanding of the nature of love, Oord is equipped to do battle with such giants of love-theology as Anders Nygren, St. Augustine, and contemporary “Open Theology” as represented mainly by Clark H. Pinnock.

In his chapter on Nygren, Oord argues that no matter how immensely influential he has been, what Nygren says about “agape” almost completely misrepresents the biblical understanding of “love.” Nygren holds that only God can love, agape style, and that although we sinful creatures of the world have no intrinsic value whatsoever to motivate it, God loves us anyway. With Luther, Nygren agrees that we human beings are so depraved that we have no inherent intrinsic worth, and that we are utterly incapable of agape love, though God is able to squirt some of it into us as through “a tube” (36–37). Oord maintains, to the contrary, that there actually is an intrinsic goodness in us for God to love, and the Bible assumes that we really are perfectly capable of loving in the proper biblical understanding of the term. He further argues that Biblical love, as applied to both God and us, contains elements of sacrificial agape, of desiring eros, and of communal philia (38–39, 49); and he thoroughly and convincingly documents this claim (38–53). These themes are also developed in the second chapter of Defining...