This page provides a range of key resources on the place of love in Christian ethics. Many, but not all, of these are available online (some though requiring a subscription to be accessed).
The initial section points to some helpful introductory pieces in dictionaries, handbooks and readers. It is followed by resources relating to Scripture and then to classic discussions in or giving an account of the Christian tradition. After pointers to some general contemporary writings on love in Christian ethics there are some more specific resources relating to situation ethics and to the relationship of love and justice.Last Updated on 4 October, 2021 by Andrew Goddard
Dictionary Articles and Readers
There are a number of short dictionary articles that will begin to orient you to some of the issues.
- “Love” in IVP Dictionary, Chpt 2, Part One, pp. 9-15.
- “Love” in SCM Dictionary, pp. 354-9.
- “Love” in Hastings, Mason & Pyper, Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pp. 394-7.
- “Love” in McGrath, Alister E. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. WileyBlackwell, 1995, pp. 350-4.
- “Agape” by Amy Laura Hall in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, pp. 3-4.
The following gives a guide to discussions of the key biblical material:
Probably the most cited biblical texts in relation to love in Christian ethics and so worth reading and reflecting on (perhaps even looking at a commentary or two) are the following:
- Lev 19.18, Mt 5.43-48 and 22.34-40 (and parallels), Rom 13.8-10, Gal 5.13-14.
The Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics has a number of relevant articles:
- Nijay Gupta on “Neighbor Love”
- Ramon Luzarraga on “Charity, Works of”
- Julie Maddalena on “Self-Love”
- Thomas Ogletree on “Love” and “Love Command”
- Sondra Wheeler on “Enemy Love”
A short, strong critique of limiting NT ethics to love is found in Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, pp. 200-204. A (not very good) scan of this is online here.
Other helpful discussion relating to Scripture include:
- Furnish, Victor Paul. The Love Command in the New Testament, [pp. 194-218 give helpful summary and a later short overview in relation to neighbour is provided by him in “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament” in The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Fall, 1982), pp. 327-334 and on JSTOR].
- Richard Burridge on ‘The law and love’ in Imitating Jesus, pp. 50-55.
- Amy Laura Hall, “Complicating the Command: Agape in Scriptural Context”, Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 19 (1999), pp. 97-113.
- Larry Hurtado, “God’s Love and Responding Human Love: The Basis and Nature of Ethics in the New Testament”
- Sean Winter – “Paul’s Ethics and Paul’s Experience: Law and Love in Galatians“
If you wish to find more detail, then helpful accounts of the biblical terms and teaching can be found in –
- Van Gemeren (ed), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis Vol 1, pp. 277-98.
- Colin Brown (ed), New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol 2, pp.538-51.
- For a very brief introduction to the centrality of love in Augustine see On Christian Doctrine Book 1, Chpts 35-40 (part also in Boulton, Wayne G., et.al., From Christ to the World, pp. 26-7)
- For a discussion of Augustine’s ethics more broadly, including his treatment of love see Bonnie Kent’s “Augustine’s Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine.
- A more detailed and technical discussion of Augustine’s understanding of love can be found in Oliver O’Donovan’s The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine key sections of which (Introduction: The Problems of Self-Love (1-9), Four Aspects of Love (10-36), Self-Love and the Love of God (37-59) and Conclusions (137-159)) are online here.
- To get a broader grasp of Augustine’s love-ethic see Grenz, Stanley, The Moral Quest, pp. 130-41.
- Diana Fritz Cates, “Love: A Thomistic Analysis” offers her own contemporary account of love but also introduces Thomas Aquinas’ thinking.
- A controversial reading of the tradition was offered by Anders Nygren in his book, Agape and Eros whose argument is explored by William Werpehowski in The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, pp. 433-448. A discussion of these two forms of love in the work of Karl Barth is offered by David Clough in “Eros and Agape in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics”, International Journal of Systematic Theology, 2 (2000), pp. 189-203.
- Another account of the tradition, offering readings of Augustine, St Francis, and Martin Luther is Daniel Day Williams’ “The Three Forms of Love”, from his book The Spirit and The Forms of Love.
- C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves is still widely discussed and worth familiarising yourself with. The original radio talks which the book expanded can be heard (about 30 mins each, here accompanied by a Doodle of their contents) or read online:
- Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est focussed on love and the Roman Catholic cardinal, Avery Dulles, discussed it in relation to Lewis and Nygren and other recent writers in Love, The Pope and C.S. Lewis.
Contemporary Love Ethics
For other accounts of the role love should play in Christian ethics including its relationship to rules (sometimes expressed in terms of rule-agapism and act-agapism) see –
- Attwood, David, Changing Values, pp. 32-59.
- Oliver O’Donovan, “Christian Moral Reasoning” in IVP Dictionary, esp pp. 124-7.
- Grenz, Stanley J. The Moral Quest, pp. 174-8 & 276-97.
- Meilaender, Gilbert, Faith & Faithfulness, pp. 47-57.
- Holmgren, Stephen, Ethics After Easter, pp. 127-51.
- Jackson, Timothy P., “The Fate of Charity” in The Priority of Love and online as PDF at http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i7407.pdf (See especially pp. 15ff on other foci)
- A review of recent (particularly Roman Catholic theological discussions of love) is found in Brady’s “Love and Recent Developments in Moral Theology” which can be found as one article in a whole edition of the Journal of Moral Theology with articles devoted to love.
- Another review of earlier key discussions is Stephen J. Pope’s “Love in Contemporary Christian Ethics” (at JSTOR) from The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 165-197 which looks at 4 books from the early 1990s.
- Edward Vacek, “Theocentric Love Ethics”, Religions, Vol 8 (2017) and “Divine Command, Natural Law and Mutual Love Ethics”, Theological Studies, Vol 57 (1996).
- John C. Peckham, “Ethics of Love? Morality and the Meaning of Divine Love”, Andrews University Seminary Student Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2017).
- Amy Laura Hall, “Love: A Kinship of Affliction and Redemption” in The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, pp. 307-321.
Part of this question, especially if considering love in relation to moral rules/law, revolves around “situation ethics” –
- “Situation Ethics” in SCM Dictionary, pp. 586-8.
- Extract from Fletcher’s book “Situation Ethics” in Gill, Robin. A Textbook of Christian Ethics, pp. 113-20.
- Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch. The Puzzle of Ethics, pp. 123-32.
- Seven short videos (totalling about 35 minutes) can be found on the Philosophy and Ethics YouTube channel
- For critiques see
- Stanley Hauerwas first set out his view that ““if Christianity is primarily an ethic of love I think that it is clearly wrong and ought to be given up, since our moral experience reveals that such an ethic is not sufﬁcient to give form to our moral behavior” in ‘Love’s Not All You Need‘ reproduced in his Vision and Virtue and more recently and briefly set out in this online interview (both video and transcript).
- An evangelical response in J.I. Packer’s “Situation Ethics”
Love and Justice
- Linda Woodhead, “Love and Justice” in Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol.5, No.1, T & T Clark, 1992. Online here (but requires subscription to access I think).
- The most significant recent discussion of and contribution to this debate comes from Nicholas Wolterstorff, most fully in his book-length study, Justice in Love. The following give helpful tasters/introductions and then critiques:
- Justice and Love in Scripture (video of 1hr lecture from Wolterstorff)
- The Just Limits of Love (or Why an Ethic of Pure Benevolence is not Sufficient for Morality) – transcript of a Wolterstorff lecture accessibly setting out main lines of his argument.
- Jonathan Chaplin’s review and response to the book in KLICE Ethics in Brief.
- Paul Weithman’s review of the book
- J. Daryl Charles’ review essay “Toward Restoring A Good Marriage” in Journal of Church and State Vol. 55, No. 2 (Spring 2013), pp. 367-383 (link requires JSTOR access)
- Timothy P. Jackson’s review in Notre Dame Philosophical reviews