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Love, Wesleyan theology, and psychological dimensions of both.

More than a few people praise love as the highest of virtues or the goal of human existence. Poets, preachers, and scholars champion love. A case can be made that all major religions reserve for love an important if not central place. And an increasing number of social scientists are attending to the promise of love.

Yet few people even attempt to be clear about what they mean by love.

Most theologians are no different when it comes to clarity about love: They fail to define it well, if at all. Most assume audiences understand their use of the word, "love." Yet these same theologians typically use love language inconsistently. Sometimes they use "love" to talk about doing good. Other times "love" is a synonym for "desire." Still other times "love" means to devote oneself, be ultimately concerned about something, or to worship. Occasionally, theologians even use "love" simply to talk about mutual relationship.

These same theologians often complain that popular culture poorly understands or misuses love language. They preface their use of "love" with qualifiers like "perfect," "godly," "holy," or "tough" to overcome popular distortions. They use classic Greek words like "agape," "eros," or "philia" to differentiate their views from more pedestrian loves. Despite these efforts, careful readers often discover ambiguities and inconsistencies in theological writings. For most people--including theologians--love is a "weasel word" (Wynkoop, 1972, p. 9).

When it comes to defining love and using that definition consistently, John Wesley is like most theologians. He fails to define it well. Careful readers will find his use of "love" inconsistent and sometimes confusing. Ironically, Wesley's frequent use of the biblical love language is partly responsible for this lack of clarity. Biblical authors are inconsistent in their love language (Oord, 2010b).

John Wesley argues, however, that love reigns as the supreme Christian theological and ethical category. It enjoys pride of place, he says, because love enjoys supremacy in the biblical witness. Wesley appeals to the preeminence of love more often and more insightfully than most theologians. He considers love God's reigning attribute, and he understands divine power in light of love. Wesley often considers Christian practices with issues of love front and center. He laces his moral and ethical directives with love language, because he believes love is the heart of true religion. Admirers rightly call John Wesley a theologian of love par excellence.

Scientists of various sorts and mental health professionals also do not fare well when defining love and using love language consistently. Careful study of their writings reveals ambiguity and incoherence too. Sigmund Freud's comment more than eighty years ago remains true today: "'Love' is employed in language," said Freud (1994), in an "undifferentiated way" (p. 49). Imitating Auguste Comte, some contemporary social scientists talk more about altruism than love, presumably because altruism seems more testable and less sentimental. But this practice rarely provides its intended lucidity. Altruism is also often not defined well. In sum, love language in science is often as ambiguous as in theology.

In what follows, I explore issues of love as a Wesleyan theologian. The writings of John Wesley and my experience as a member of Wesleyan-oriented communities influence this exploration. These resources also influence my own love proposals. I begin what follows by defining love; I subsequently explore John Wesley's thoughts on love. I argue that Wesley's theology of love--with important enhancements--is fruitful for theories and practices of psychology, something a growing number of psychologists in the Wesleyan tradition also recognize (see Armistead, Strawn, & Wright, 2010; Brown, 2004; Hardy, 2003; Leffel, 2004; Strawn & Leffel, 2000; Wright, 2010).

Along the way, I offer interpretations and proposals in the hope that Wesley's views of love and my own might together prove helpful for Christian psychologists considering the issues of love. While I am not a psychologist, I note briefly some work that has already been completed by those with education in psychology and sympathies to Wesleyan theology. And I hope my remarks spur others to pursue research programs in psychology consonant with Wesleyan-inspired views of love.

Defining Love

To proffer a Wesleyan perspective on love, I propose a definition I hope theologians, social scientists (especially psychologists), and philosophers find useful. My definition of love corresponds with the typical way John Wesley talks about love, although as I have already mentioned, Wesley is not entirely consistent in his love language.

I define love as follows: To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall wellbeing. While I doubt words fully capture what we want to say about love, I believe this definition is better than competitors and much better than no definition at all. I have written extensively on this definition elsewhere (Oord, 2004, 2010a, 2010b). To explain it briefly here, I offer short comments on its key phrases.

Acting Intentionally

When I say love involves intentional action, I mean at least the following four things. First, love is not accidental or unintended. While we should appreciate positive results generated by unintentional actions, we should not call unintended results the consequences of love. Loving action is purposeful; love is deliberate.

Second, love requires freedom. Entirely determined creatures cannot love. The freedom of love is limited, however, because freedom is always restricted to some degree. When loving, we choose among a limited number of options, but we are constrained by a wide variety of factors, actors, bodily constraints, and conditions. Sometimes these limit us to free choices between difficult options. Choosing the best option among those available--given the circumstances and constraints--is an expression of love.

Third, love involves motives. While we are likely never conscious of all our motives, an act of love has as its primary motive the promotion of well-being in some particular expression. Love's overarching motive is the doing of good. But what it means to do good in one situation may differ radically from what it means to do good in another. Lovers gauge prospectively how possible actions may or may not promote well-being. Motives matter.

Fourth, love involves a degree of desire. Sometimes the desire is strong; other times it is muted. While love is more than mere desire, desire always plays a role--in one way or another--in expressions of love. "Desireless love" is an oxymoronic phrase.

Sympathetic/Empathetic Response to Others

The second phrase in my definition emphasizes relationality. To say love involves sympathetic/empathetic response to others, including God, is to stress the relational nature of love. Love would be impossible for entirely isolated individuals, if such beings existed (1). We relate to many others, and others influence which forms of love become available for us to choose. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our relation to God is primary. We are able to love in any moment, because in relation God loves us first (1 Jn. 4:19). But this does not imply only Christians or those who believe in God act lovingly.

The labels "sympathetic" and "empathetic" are placed side by side in my definition to emphasize that lovers are internally constituted by others. Philosophers typically use the word "sympathy" to describe this "feeling with" aspect of love: sym-pathy. Many social scientists, however, often equate sympathy with pity (Armistead, 2010; Oliner and Oliner, 1995; Wispe, 1986). Because pity carries negative connotations, some social scientists prefer "empathy" to describe love's feeling "with" or "into" aspect: em-pathy. What social scientists mean by empathy, however, is virtually identical to what philosophers mean by sympathy. The important point is the genuine influence of love in relations. The underlying assumptions of D. W. Winnicott's (1971) object-relations theory coheres with my general emphasis upon the centrality of relations for love.

The "others" to whom we respond vary greatly. These others can be factors or persons in our environment, our own histories, or even the habits and members of our own bodies. These factors often include others with whom we have immediate relationships, such as friends, family, or foes. These others influence our choosing in positive, negative, or neutral ways. Psychologists are often well aware of diverse forces--whether immediate or distant--influencing the choices we make and habits we form.

To promote overall well-being

The final phrase in this definition of love may be most important. The most common biblical meaning of love pertains to promoting wellbeing. According to Scripture, for instance, to love is to do good: to be a blessing, promote happiness, embrace God's loving leadership in the Kingdom of God, live abundant life, benefit others or enjoy mutual benefit, and/or help those in need. The list of ways in which biblical writers use "love" to talk about promoting wellbeing is long and diverse.

Love can promote well-being in a variety of ways. Promoting well-being may involve enhancing mental and physical aspects of reality. It may involve working to secure sufficient food, clean air and water, adequate clothing and living conditions, personal security, and the opportunity for intellectual development. It may involve attaining the satisfaction of being cared for and sense of belonging. Promoting overall well-being may mean promoting the diversity of life forms and cultural expressions, appropriate levels of leisure and entertainment, and economic stability. It may mean acting responsively to secure a feeling of worth, medical soundness and physical fitness, deep personal relationships, social and political harmony, and the opportunity to develop spiritual sensibilities and practices. Loving oneself can be important for promoting well-being. Working to promote overall well-being may mean developing virtuous dispositions, habits, and character. To promote well-being is to act to increase flourishing in at least one but often many of these dimensions of existence (Oord, 2010a).

Unfortunately, some theologians use "love" as a synonym for desire, devotion, or relationship. Their use of "love" in these ways is influenced by culture, philosophy, and even Christian history. While these words are not essentially antithetical to love, they are also not essentially linked--they are not synonymous--with promoting well-being.

Admittedly, some biblical passages use the word "love" to mean desire or devotion, without reference to promoting well-being. But these passages are in the small minority. Unfortunately, they have shaped influential Christian theologies in unhelpful and confusing ways. Augustine should be criticized, for instance, as one for whom "love" means desire or devotion instead of the doing of good. Equating love with desire, I argue (Oord, 2010b), negatively influenced Augustine's Christian ethics and doctrine of God.

Desire, devotion, or relationship do not necessarily pertain to doing good. We can desire consequences we know are evil or sinful. We can devote ourselves to acting in ways that produce ill-being. We can relate with others in unhealthy ways. To overcome these limitations, I emphasize love as the promotion of well-being in my definition. In doing so, I follow the general biblical way of talking about "love" as doing good, without denying the role of desire, devotion, or relationships.

The word "overall" in the definition serves as guide for assessing potential recipients of our attempts to promote well-being. These potential recipients often vary widely, and sometimes those who love must evaluate competing goods. Love isn't necessarily easy!

To speak of promoting overall well-being also provides a conceptual basis for speaking coherently about loving ourselves. Love isn't just about doing good to others. After all, each of us is part of the "overall" in promoting overall well-being, and sometimes we need to promote our own good as part of promoting the overall good. Of course, love may also require us to act self-sacrificially at times. When we do, we at least partially undermine our own well-being for the sake of the common good.

On a larger scale, promoting overall well-being helps us affirm the justice of love in community and wider world. When we promote the well-being of a few at the obvious expense of the whole, we do not love. We act unjustly. Conversely, when we ignore the obvious suffering of the few, we do not love. Attempting to promote overall well-being does not mean we have to be fully aware of everything when choosing to love. Omniscience is not a prerequisite. But the justice of love prompts us to attempt to consider the wide-ranging possible consequences of our actions.

Deciding whose precise good we ought to promote is not always simple. Sometimes promoting the good of a stranger or enemy conflicts with promoting the good of those near and dear. Sometimes we choose between giving resources to one needy person instead of another. We cannot know all things when we ponder these choices. But the general principle of overall well-being reminds us we must avoid obvious injustices toward the few, marginalized, and needy when deciding how best to promote what is good.

John Wesley and the Language of Love

I have already mentioned that John Wesley never defines love clearly. Because of this, his statements about love can be conflicting. For instance, he sometimes teaches that Christians should not love the world (1987a, p. 255). Other times, he says Christians should love the world (1872b, p. 498). Apparently, loving the world in the first instance equates love with desire, devotion, or worship. The admonition to love the world, however, understands love as doing good. This ambiguous use of love language mirrors the ambiguity found in the Bible, although biblical writers mainly use "love" to talk about some form or way of doing good (Oord, 2010b).

In the majority of his writings and sermons, Wesley follows dominant love language in the Bible by simply using the word "love," without qualification, to talk about promoting well-being. Love is "benevolence," he (1986c, [section][section]1.2, p. 295) says, "tender good-will to all the souls that God has made." The person who loves, says Wesley (1986c), blesses others, benefits others, enjoys mutual benefit, or overcomes evil with good ([section][section]1.7, p. 298).

But Wesley occasionally prefaces love with "perfect" or "cold," qualifications that occur rarely in the Bible. Sometimes, he uses the phrase "holy love," a qualification not found at all in Scripture. Some Wesleyan scholars today speak of "holy love" to counter a popular view that love as sentimental and soft (Collins, 2007; Dunning, 1988).

I do not advocate using these kinds of qualifiers, however. I think all love is holy, in the sense that God is love's source and inspiration (Oord, 2010b). The popular characterizations of love these theologians fear are far from love's broad biblical meaning. Love, as understood in the vast majority of biblical texts, is not soft, sentimental, or permissive. In fact, it sometimes brings division (Mt. 10:34-38), because it wants to promote what is good and be a blessing.

Doing good is the "nature" of love, says Wesley (1986c). But he also thinks love takes various forms and produces diverse fruit. For instance, we often express love by choosing humility, gentleness, patience, self-control, etc. (Wesley, 1986c, [section][section]1.4, p. 296). We express love by helping the poor, being kind to strangers, encouraging those in the community of faith, forgiving one another, etc. All of these acts promote well-being. While the essence of love is singular, expressions of love are plural.

When love is understood essentially as promoting well-being--i.e., doing good--Wesley's (1986b) general statements about love and theology make sense. He considers love the heart of true faith: "Religion is the love of God and our neighbour, that is, every man under heaven." This means "love ruling the whole life, animating all our tempers and passions, directing all our thoughts, words, and actions" ([section][section]26, p. 556). Statements such as these provide a basis for regarding Wesley a premier theologian of love.

God is the Source of Love

Although Wesley read and recommended the best science and philosophy of his day, he drew primarily from the Bible when constructing his theology. He was a biblical theologian, because the Bible was his primary resource for matters pertaining to salvation (Jones, 1995; Wall, 2010). This practice of appealing first to Scripture shaped his views of love and of God as love's source.

Like virtually all theologians, Wesley drew more from some Bible books and passages than others when constructing his theology (Maddox, 2011). He prized the Apostle John's first epistle more than other books in the Bible (Wall, 2010), because it offers what he believed a profound and central Christian claim, "God is love" (4:8,16). Those who think some biblical passage opposes love, says Wesley (1986b), are guilty of invalid interpretation: "No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works" ([section][section]26, p. 556). Wesley used this hermeneutic of love in various arguments, sermons, letters, and hymns.

The Apostle John's first epistle also provides what Wesley (1985c, [section]6, p. 357) thought was the sum of the gospel: We love, because God first loved us (4:19). The verse emphasizes God as the source of the love that creatures express. "Love of our neighbour springs from the love of God," writes Wesley (1984b, [section]1.1, p. 510). John's letter also emphasizes that God can transform human lives so that sin need no longer reign. Based on this passage and others, Wesley (1985d) believed that love excludes sin ([section][section]1.9, p. 160). To put it another way, to sin is to fail to respond appropriately to God's call to love (Oord & Lodahl, 2005). A number of psychologists have explored sin and love from Wesleyan theological and contemporary psychological perspectives (Adams, 2004; Grover & Strawn, 2010).

Wesley believed creaturely love emerges from awareness--explicit or implicit--of God's love. "It is in consequence of our knowing God loves us," says Wesley (1987f), "that we love him and love our neighbour as ourselves. Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow creatures" ([section][section]17, p. 67). The love we find in Christ "constrains us not only to be harmless, to do no ill to our neighbour," Wesley (1987f) argues, "but to be useful, to be 'zealous of good works'; 'as we have time, to do good unto all men'" ([section][section]17, p. 67). In these passages and most others, Wesley's language of love fits my own definition of love as entailing the promotion of well-being.

God is not only the source of our love, argues Wesley, God also enables or empowers us to love. To express this love, says Wesley (1986g), we must cooperate with God. We must be "workers together with him," he says, citing the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 6:1). God
 will not save us unless we "save ourselves
 from this untoward generation;"
 unless we ourselves "fight the
 good fight of faith, and lay hold on
 eternal life;" unless we "agonize to
 enter in at the strait gate," "deny ourselves,
 and take up our cross daily,"
 and labour, by every possible means,
 to "make our own calling and election
 sure." ([section][section] 3.7, p. 209)

The biblical phrases in this quote all emphasize the cooperative role humans must play.

Because of God's empowering grace, we can work out our own salvation and continue "the work of faith, in the patience of hope, and in the labour of love" (Wesley, 1986g, [section][section] 3.8, p. 209). Wesleyan scholar Randy Maddox (1994) calls Wesley's belief that a loving God invites our cooperating response "responsible grace" (p. 19). God empowers the possibility of creaturely cooperation. This emphasis upon a necessary creaturely contribution distinguishes Wesleyan theologies of love from theologies in other Christian and non-Christian traditions. For instance, Anders Nygren's theology of love stands in stark contrast to a Wesleyan theology on this point of creaturely cooperation and on other points (Oord, 2010b). This Wesleyan emphasis might also shape a distinctive way to understand psychotherapy, because it emphasizes the role creatures must play to cooperate with God's activity for healing.

Love and Freedom in Wesleyan Theology

John Wesley emphasizes creaturely freedom--what he typically called "liberty"--and its relation to love. He believes the Calvinist doctrine of predestination undermines the Christian logic of love, because it denies that Christians freely participate in the work of salvation. "The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made," argues Wesley (1987d), "but he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel" ([section][section] 19, p. 148)." God "strongly and sweetly influenc[es] all," says Wesley (1987c), "and yet without destroying the liberty of his rational creatures" ([section][section] 2.1, p. 43).

Creaturely freedom is not self-derived, however. Wesley argues that God gives freedom to creatures. One of Wesley's (1986g) most important sermons, "On Working Out Our Own Salvation," takes a portion of a Pauline letter as its text: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God that works in you, both to will and to do his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13). In light of this passage, Wesley (1986g) says, "the very first motion of good is from above, as well as the power which conducts it to the end" ([section][section] 1.4, p. 203).

This initial work of divine love is what Wesley (1986g) called "preventing" grace, or what is now commonly called "prevenient grace" ([section][section] 1.4, p. 203). This is God's grace--active divine love--preceding creaturely response. "Through the grace of God assisting me," says Wesley (1987g), "I have a power to choose and do good as well as evil" ([section][section] 11, p. 24). Because God first acts on our behalf, says Wesley, we can and must respond to work out our salvation (Leffel, 2004).

The issue of freedom is particularly important for a Wesleyan approach to psychology. Wesley was adamant that humans (and perhaps also nonhuman animals) possess a measure of freedom. A trend in psychology away from affirming human freedom opposes this central Wesleyan affirmation. Wesleyans will often argue human freedom is always limited, whether by past histories, bodily and brain constraints, cultural norms, and personal habits. But they typically resist the idea that scientific theory requires researchers to regard humans as bereft of freedom altogether.

Wesley believed Christians are not the only ones whom God's prevenient grace blesses with the possibility of love. God offers all people "some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world." "Heathens, Mahometans, and Jews," says Wesley (1986d), "still retain (notwithstanding many mistakes) that faith that worketh by love" ([section][section] 2.3, p. 500). This means "no man sins because he has not grace," says Wesley (1986g); he sins "because he does not use the grace which he hath" ([section][section] 3.4, p. 207). Wesley's notion of universal prevenient grace grounds a view of inclusivism in response to those of other religious traditions.

Can a Loving God Take Away Creaturely Freedom?

In my own theological research, I have explored the question of God's ability to take away creaturely freedom. To be more precise, I have asked whether God has the ability to fail to provide, withdraw, or override the freedom and/or agency God gives. This question resides at the heart of a number of theological conundrums, such as the problem of evil, the unjust distribution of resources and opportunities, biblical inerrancy, and the relation between science and religion. In the name of love, I have argued that God cannot take away the freedom and/or agency God grants to creatures.

I call my own position on this matter essential kenosis theology (Oord, 2010a, 2010b). This view says God necessarily gives freedom and/or agency to creatures, because God's eternal and unchanging nature of love requires this ongoing giving. God is not voluntarily self-limited, according to essential kenosis theology. But outside forces or laws also do not limit God. God is involuntarily self-limited, because God's eternal nature is love. God must love; God cannot not love. And part of what it means for God to love is that God necessarily provides freedom and/or agency to others, and the exercise of this freedom/agency cannot be negated.

Essential kenosis theology resolves many questions in Christian theology. Perhaps the most crucial is the question why a loving God fails to prevent genuine evil. According to essential kenosis theology, God cannot prevent genuine evil, because creatures to whom God necessarily grants freedom and/or agency can choose evil (2). Essential kenosis also resolves other questions about divine revelation, distribution of goods, and the explanatory conflict between science and theology (Oord, 2010c), but I will not develop the answers here.

It's hard for me to overemphasize my belief in the potential helpfulness of essential kenosis for psychotherapy. It answers key questions believers ask about God's role in causing or preventing evils. In essence, psychotherapists who adopt essential kenosis can counsel clients that God should not be blamed for causing or allowing genuine evil. Instead, free creatures, agents with causal power, and sheer chance--not God--are to be blamed for the evils we all face.

I am uncertain whether John Wesley would affirm the essential kenosis theology I propose. Wesley generally construed God's power in terms of empowerment, says Randy Maddox (1994, p. 55), rather than total control or overpowerment. In a sermon on God's providence, Wesley sounds like he would endorse something like my theology of essential kenosis: "Were human liberty taken away," says Wesley (1985b), "men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done" ([section][section] 15, p. 541). In this passage, Wesley seems to agree with the basis of my assertion that God cannot withdraw, override, or fail to provide freedom and/or agency to others. But other passages in Wesley's corpus are less supportive of my position.

An essential kenosis understanding of divine power obviously differs from those describing God as exerting always or even occasionally the kind of sovereignty that entirely controls creatures or situations. It offers important resources for overcoming the problem of evil and emphasizing the moral responsibility of free creatures. Wesley was keen to emphasize the importance of freedom for creaturely decision-making. But he did not follow the logic of freedom and love to provide an adequate answer to the problem of evil.

Are We God's Slaves or God's Family?

John Wesley's view of divine love makes a psychological difference in how Christians perceive themselves in relation to God. The logic of his view leads away from versions of eternal security typical of some theologies. The logic of love and freedom insists that creatures must themselves decide to respond appropriately to God, although Wesley claimed that this possibility for decision was itself derived from God's initial--prevenient--actions.

Instead of what many today call "eternal security," Wesley stressed what he called, "Christian assurance." This assurance was not based upon God's sovereign election of some for salvation. It was based instead upon the assurance God loves us all. Because God's name and nature are love, we can be confident God loves us all the time. Arguing from a psychological perspective, Wright, Dimond, and Budd (2004) assert the importance of a person knowing on a deep level that God loves him or her. This knowledge played an important part in the formation of Wesley's own theology, they note, and likely affects how believers today regard themselves in relation to God.

Wesley makes a distinction between those who consider themselves God's slaves and those who consider themselves God's children. Both types of people are Christian. But those who consider themselves children are assured of God's love and "follow the more excellent way." Christians should "rest not till that [Spirit of adoption] clearly witnesses with your spirit that you are a child of God," says Wesley (1986d, [section][section] 1.13, p. 498). Christians should "cry to God that he would reveal his Son in [their] hearts, to the intent [they] may be no more servants but sons, having his love shed abroad in [their] hearts, and walking in 'the glorious liberty of the children of God'" (Wesley, 1986d, [section][section] 2.5, p. 500). As one who loves us, God is "the Parent of all good" and our own "Parent and Friend" (Wesley, 1872a, p. 359). And we can feel the love of this Godly parent in our hearts.

Those who know themselves to be children of God act differently. They "walk in all the good works whereunto [they] are created in Christ Jesus." Those who consider themselves God's children attain "a measure of perfect love." God "enables [them] to love him with all [their] heart and with all [their] soul." Being assured of God's love, they "go forward" in the faith, listening to "the voice of God to the children of Israel, to the children of God" (Wesley, 1986d, [section][section] 2.5, pp. 500-501).

Considering ourselves children of God makes a psychological difference and, therefore, a practical difference in how we live. I believe a contemporary psychology research program could build upon the slave vs. son/daughter distinction Wesley makes. The program could ask Christians a series of questions to establish how each saw their own identities in relation to God. A separate set of questions might ask for self-reports or friend reports about how and with what frequency those being studied express the fruit of spirit, acts of mercy, or virtuous attitudes and habits. Wesley would not be surprised if this research demonstrated that those who consider themselves members of God's family instead of God's slaves more consistently lived lives of love.

Relational Community and Love

In my definition of love, I stressed the importance of relationships and the "other." This stress highlights the importance of how Christians think about the individual and community in light of Christian faith.

Wesley saw the importance of both community and personal accountability. For Wesley (1984c), "Christianity is essentially a social religion." He believed "that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it." He clarifies the importance of community when he says that Christianity "cannot subsist at all without society, without living and conversing with other men" ([section][section] 1.1, pp. 533-534).

Wesley's view of the importance of community for love comes out clearly in his (1986f) sermon, "On Schism." "To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love," says Wesley. He continues:
 It is the nature of love to unite us
 together; and the greater the love, the
 stricter the union. And while this
 continues in its strength, nothing can
 divide those whom love has united.
 It is only when our love grows cold,
 that we can think of separating from
 our brethren. And this is certainly
 the case with any who willingly separate
 from their Christian brethren.
 The pretences for separation may be
 innumerable, but want of love is
 always the real cause; otherwise they
 would still hold the unity of the Spirit
 in the bond of peace. It is therefore
 contrary to all those commands of
 God wherein brotherly love is
 enjoined: To that of St. Paul, "Let
 brotherly love continue;"--that of St.
 John, "My beloved children, love one
 another;"--and especially to that of
 our blessed Master, "This is my commandment,
 That ye love one another,
 as I have loved you." Yea, "By this,"
 saith he, "shall all men know that ye
 are my disciples, if ye love one
 another." ([section][section] 1:11, pp. 64-65)

Of course, Wesley often appealed to individuals to express love. As a theologian living in and influenced by the Enlightenment, he affirmed the role of personal agency. He believed individuals possess a degree of liberty when responding to God's activity in light of and under the influence of other pressures. But he believed strongly the interconnectedness between individuals and Christian community was both essential to love and a gauge of how well Christians love. This Wesleyan interconnectedness has proven a valuable conceptual resource for Wesleyan Christians today--especially theologians and psychologists in the Wesleyan tradition--as they ponder the symbiotic relationship between persons and community (Brown, Marion, & Strawn, 2010; Cobb, 1995; Holeman, 2010; Maddox, 1994; Marion and Brown, 2009; Oord and Lodahl, 2005).

Wesley's Circle of Love

In a world of limited resources and multiple obligations, lovers must decide which recipients they will give their God-derived good gifts. Theologian Thomas Aquinas talks about the tensions that arise when making these decisions as "orders of love," whereby the lover usually has greater obligations to some (e.g., family members) than others (e.g., strangers). Scholars in contemporary science and theology discussion of love sometimes appeal to Aquinas's orders of love model both to support and criticize evolutionary theories (Pope, 1994).

Like most theologians, Wesley thought God loved everyone. His favorite verse to talk about God's universal love was Psalm 145:9, "The Lord is loving to every [person], and his mercy is over all his works." And Wesley especially emphasized that we ought to love God and our neighbors as ourselves (Maddox, 2011).

Wesley did not devote significant attention to resolving the conflicts that arise when choosing between various obligations. Following the Apostle John, he (1985a) argued for "a peculiar love which we owe to those that love God" (p. 82). By this, he meant a special love for fellow Christians. But Wesley also emphasized love of enemies, strangers, and the downtrodden--what he called "works of mercy." "The love of our "neighbour naturally leads all that feel it to works of mercy," says Wesley (1986i). "It inclines us to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to visit them that are sick or in prison; to be as eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame; an husband to the widow, a father to the fatherless" ([section][section] 5, p. 191).

Wesley did envision a kind of ordering love, but his ordering differed from the one Aquinas envisioned. Wesley (1986h) explains this ordering in terms of a series of concentric circles with love in the center. These circles represented the centrality of love for the person and the expressions derived from love. He puts it this way:
 In a Christian believer love sits upon
 the throne which is erected in the
 inmost soul; namely, love of God
 and man, which fills the whole heart,
 and reigns without a rival. In a circle
 near the throne are all holy tempers;
 --longsuffering, gentleness, meekness,
 fidelity, temperance; and if any
 other were comprised in "the mind
 which was in Christ Jesus." In an
 exterior circle are all the works of
 mercy, whether to the souls or bodies
 of men. By these we exercise all
 holy tempers--by these we continually
 improve them, so that all these
 are real means of grace, although this
 is not commonly adverted to. Next
 to these are those that are usually
 termed works of piety--reading and
 hearing the word, public, family, private
 prayer, receiving the Lord's supper,
 fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that
 his followers may the more effectually
 provoke one another to love, holy
 tempers, and good works, our
 blessed Lord has united them together
 in one body, the church, dispersed all
 over the earth--a little emblem of
 which, of the church universal, we
 have in every particular Christian congregation.
 ([section][section] 2.5, p. 313)


We might illustrate Wesley's vision of the Christian who loves through the diagram in Figure 1. This diagram not only shows the centrality of love itself. It also reveals that love for those in need often lay closer to the center of Christian commitment than either love expressions of piety or love for fellow believers in the Church. But the model serves best to showcase Wesley's emphasis upon the kind of person who develops a life of love.

The "Tempers" of Love as Developing Virtuous Character

The circles illustration highlights the importance of what Wesley called "tempers" or "holy tempers." Today, we might call these personality traits, habits, virtues, attitudes, or character. Wesley's emphasis upon developing holy tempers identifies the importance he placed not just on loving in a particular moment but on becoming a loving person (Strawn & Brown, 2004).

In response to God's grace, the Christian can develop holy tempers as evidenced in a guileless character. The mature lover has "real, genuine, solid virtue," says Wesley (1986a). This holy character develops when love and truth "unite in the essence of virtue or holiness" ([section][section] 2.11, p. 289). In light of these statements and others, many Wesleyans (e.g., Boyd, 2007; Leffel, 2010) have constructed virtue ethics theories to account for the formation of the loving person.

Wesley took pains to distinguish his own position on love from that of moral philosopher Frances Hutcheson. While Wesley believed humans are capable of benevolence and could develop virtuous characters, he disagreed when Hutcheson claimed this capacity is innate in humans. Benevolence and holy characters can only be developed in response to God's initial working: we only love because God first loved us. Christians ought to work with God--co-operate--to develop loving characters. This capacity is God-derived, not innate: "Whoever improves the grace he has already received, whoever increases in the love of God, will surely retain it," says Wesley (1986a). "God will continue, yea, will give it more abundantly; whereas whoever does not improve this talent cannot possibly retain it" ([section][section] 1.5, p. 284).

Early in his life, Wesley highlighted holiness in the Christian life. He frequently called such holiness, "Christian perfection." He saw a strong link between holiness, perfection, and the psychological dimensions of love (Holeman, 2010; Mann, 2006). "What is holiness?" Wesley (1872d) asks rhetorically. "Is it not essentially love? the love of God, and of all mankind? ... Love is holiness wherever it exists" (p. 292). Of Christian perfection, he (1986e) says, "the sum of Christian perfection ... is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself ... these contain the whole of Christian perfection" ([section][section] 1:4, p. 74).

The mature Christian develops habits of holiness, and this maturity allows the Christian to perceive the world differently. The Christian "is enabled to taste, as well as to see, how gracious the Lord is.... He finds Jesus' love is far better than wine, yea sweeter than honey or the honeycomb.... He feels the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto him; or, as our Church expresses it, 'feels the workings of the Spirit of God in his heart'" (Wesley, 1987b, [section][section] 11, p. 173).

Recent work in Wesleyan theology and psychology has explored the role of what Wesley called "affections" in moral psychology, or what are now more commonly called "emotions" (Maddox, 2001, 2004; Strawn, 2004). While not negating the importance of cognition and rational decision making, Wesleyan scholars argue that morality stems in greater degree from our responses to others in light of our own affect, emotions, habits, and/or character. This moral psychology draws from Wesley's (1987a) emphasis upon the "inmost soul" or "heart," from which he believed beneficence and virtue "continually spring forth" ([section] 4, p. 46).

The transformation of the heart, attitudes, or what Wesley called "tempers" begins with the believer experiencing the love of God: "We cannot love God, till we know he loves us," says Wesley (1984a, [section][section] 1:8, p. 274). This experience resides in the Christian's emotions or character, and it is from this seat that the Christian can respond appropriately or inappropriately to God's initial love. "The key value of the strange warming of our heart in Wesley's mature heart religion," says Maddox (2001), "was that it created the possibility of a responsive heart' (p. 16). This means, says Maddox, that "the problem of sin must ultimately be addressed at the affectional level" (p. 17). Change of the affect, tempers, or heart required more than rational decision. Wesley insisted that Christians participate in the means of grace, Christian practices and disciplines, worship and Eucharist, and activity in the community of Christ.

The transformation of the heart was so central to Wesley's theology that he considered it more important than affirming correct theological ideas. "I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas," said Wesley (1987b). "I believe [God] respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head" ([section][section] 15, p. 175). A number of Wesleyan scholars today stress the importance of Christian practices ("means of grace") and Christian community for the development of Christian character (Blevins & Maddix, 2010).

Love's End: Happiness

My definition of love has a decidedly teleological nature. This includes what Strawn and Leffel (2000) calls the telos of psychoanalysis: "the restoration of an individual's capacity for personal relatedness and subsequently their capacity for love" (p. 39). Love's telos--the intentional promotion of overall well-being--suggests an ethic of eudaimonia. This fits nicely with Wesley's own belief that the Christian life of love brings authentic happiness. In fact, he thought this love-centered happiness the ultimate goal of religion (Lancaster, 2010; Miles, 2010).

To the question, "For what end did God create man?" the Westminster Catechism answered, "To glorify God and praise him forever." By contrast, Wesley (1987f) thought people ought to adopt a different answer: "You are made to be happy in God" ([section][section]10, p. 64). God meant for humans to enjoy this happiness on both heaven and earth. For "to bless men, to make men happy," says Wesley (1754), "was the great business for which our Lord came into the world" (p. 19).

Happiness comes from loving both God and neighbor, said Wesley. "Is it misery to love God? to give Him my heart who alone is worthy of it?" he asks rhetorically. "Nay, it is the truest happiness; indeed, the only true happiness which is to be found under the sun." And Wesley (1986i) asks, "Does anyone imagine, the love of our neighbour is misery; even the loving every man as our own soul? So far from it, that, next to the love of God, this affords the greatest happiness of which we are capable" ([section][section] 3.2, 3, p. 189). In fact, the loving sympathy with the neighbor in distress, he (1986i) says, "actually contributes to the Christian's genuine happiness" ([section][section] 6, p. 192).

This love of God and neighbor resides as the heart of Christianity and the ultimate reason for our existence. Such love is "the happiness for which we were made," says Wesley. It begins in the love of God shed in our hearts, develops in a loving character--tempers--formed in relation to the Spirit, and finds evidence in the testimony of Christian's works of love expressed in the world (Wesley, 1987f, [section][section]17, p. 67). For this reason, love is "the queen of all graces, the highest perfection in earth or heaven, the very image of the invisible God, as in men below, so in angels above" (Wesley, 1986h, [section][section] 3:12, p. 321).

The happiness love brings is meant to be shared. "If you love mankind, it is your one design, desire, and endeavour to spread virtue and happiness all around you," says Wesley (1987e, p. 13). This involves acting "to lessen the present sorrows, and increase the joys, of every child of man; and, if it be possible, to bring them with you to the rivers of pleasure that are at God's right hand for evermore" (p. 13). Christians are "zealous of good works," and they imitate their Master by "going about doing good" (Wesley, 1872c, p. 591).

I am unaware of any psychologists in Wesleyan communities or with Wesleyan theological commitments involved in the more recent work of positive psychology. But I think Wesley's general teleological ethic of love fits well with the broad research paradigm supporting positive psychology. Wesley believed we can be healed from malady and negativity. But he also believed that identifying and supporting the positive aspects of life were central to our experiencing the true happiness God intends. A research program in positive psychology and Wesleyan theology could bear significant fruit!


I hope to have shown in this essay that John Wesley's theology of love can be a helpful resource to Christians in general and psychologists in particular. Along the way, I added my own love proposals in my attempt to expand or strengthen Wesley's own work. Working from a clear definition of love that coheres with typical love language and Wesley's typical use of "love" helps us understand both the centrality of love for Wesley and the potential importance for love in contemporary psychology research and practice. I would be especially pleased if psychologists were inspired to adopt particular ideas herein as the basis of research programs, aspects informing their theories of psychology, or resources for the work of psychotherapy.


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Thomas Jay Oord

Northwest Nazarene University

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Thomas Jay Oord, School of Theology and Christian Ministry, Northwest Nazarene University, 623 S. University Blvd., Nampa, ID 83686, USA. E-mail:


(1.) I explore what this means for God's relations--whether internally as Trinity, with creatures, or both--in Chs. 4-5 of my (2010b) book, The Nature of Love.

(2.) This is one aspect of my five-fold solution to the problem of evil. The other aspects include God as the fellow-sufferer, God as healer, God as one who squeezes good from the bad God did not originally want, and God as one who calls us to cooperate in overcoming evil. I have offered this five-fold solution in a number of papers, but I have not yet published it in book form.

Thomas Jay Oord (Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology, Claremont Graduate University, 1999) is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University. He is the author or editor of nearly twenty books, including Defining Love and The Nature of Love. In addition to his work on love, Oord also does research on science and religion, Wesleyan/holiness theology, relational theology, and postmodernism.
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Date:Jun 22, 2012
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