Perhaps the hook to the Beatles 1967 hit, “All You Need Is Love,” conveyed more truth than the writers knew.
We come into the world as helpless infants totally dependent on the love of our parents. Throughout childhood and adolescence parental love is essential to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. In adulthood we look to marriage for, what we hope will be, a union of life-long intimacy. And in the twilight of life, when physical and cognitive faculties decline, we depend on the loving care of our family and community.
No need is more basic to human flourishing, and few things less understood, than love.
Depending upon whom you ask, love will be said to be a feeling, a desire, an emotion, a commitment, or the ever-so pietistic “non-judgmentalism” of “never having to say you’re sinning.” As an ideal, it may be considered real or illusionary, possible or impossible, or conditional or unconditional with expressions limited to one’s lover, spouse, family, country, or the global village.
Above the muddle of conventional notions stands the testimony of John, “God is love,” revealing that love is central to God’s nature. And because we are beings made in God’s image, created to love and be loved, love is central to our nature, as well.
But what is love, really? And how is it distinguished from our human conceptions?
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis parses love into four expressions: storgē (affection), eros (romantic love), philia (friendship), and agapē (charity).
Storgē relates to affection primarily between family members. Lewis describes this as the natural love parents have for their children and children for their parents; it can also characterize the tenderness one has for close acquaintances.
Eros is what is normally meant by “being in love.” Derived from sexual attraction and desire, eros is expressed in the romantic love between a man and woman. Like storgē, eros is designed into our nature. Lewis notes that without storgē, none of us would have been reared, but without eros, none of us would have been born.
Philia is love between friends—groups of “two’s and three’s” drawn together by a common interest. From an evolutionary perspective, philia is superfluous because, unlike storgē and eros, it is unnecessary for either our arrival or survival. Rather, Lewis offers, “it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
These natural love expressions are exclusive, reserved for those who are intrinsically lovable by virtue of shared genes, interests, or sexual attractiveness. Collectively, they are a part of common grace—God’s benevolent provision to flourish creation.
By contrast, agapē is inclusive, seeking the highest good of others irrespective of natural affinity, merit, or attractiveness. Characterized by self-giving and sacrifice in the supreme symbol of the Cross, agapē is the commerce of those who, under the Yoke of Christ, are being transformed into his likeness by loving as he loved. For that reason, agapē is often distinguished from the other loves as “divine love.”
Therefore, if storgē, eros, and philia are a part of our design as beings made in the image of God, they must be intrinsic to the Godhead, too.
Love in the Godhead
Throughout scripture, storgē is communicated in the relationship between the Father and Son. Jesus informs a group of well-wishers urging him to eat, that his food is to do the will of his Father. To an awestruck crowd gathered at the Jordan, the Father introduces Jesus as his beloved son. Joining the intimate scene is the third member of the Godhead who is often referred to in relation to the other members as the “Spirit of the LORD [YHWH],” the “Spirit of the Lord” or the “Spirit of Christ.”
United in sovereign will and purpose, the Holy Trinity also enjoys the eternal fellowship of philia, which is particularly evident in the cooperation of the divine fraternity in its earthward reach.
Jesus discloses, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” (John 6:44) and, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Later, Jesus identifies the Spirit as the one “who goes out from the Father” and “will testify of me” (John 15:26). It’s a point that Paul picks up on when he writes, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
In mutual commendation and testimony, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit display a love that opens the door for our communion—for “through [Christ] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).
These and other examples indicate that divine love includes storgē and philia. But what about eros? In what way is divine love reflected in the intimate union between a man and woman?
Scripture tells us that when a man and woman come together, they become “one flesh.” This is more than metaphor; it’s ontology.
In sexual intercourse the complementary physiology of a man and woman enables them to fulfill a primary function of biological life that is impossible for any single person or pair of same-sex individuals: reproduction. Their physical union also prompts and strengthens the formation of important physiological and emotional bonds between them. At the same time, their “oneness” is limited by the physical restrictions of their material bodies.
God, as spirit, has no such limitation. Without material constraints, the union of the Trinity is like that of light.
Light is composed of massless particles called photons. Consequently, when two light beams converge, their interpenetration is not hindered by their physical make-up. Rather, they intermingle completely to form a single beam.
For instance, when separate beams of red, green, and blue come together in equal proportion, something strange happens: those three lights of primary colors produce one beam of pure white light in which the constituent beams are no longer distinguishable.
When the “Light of the World” invited Philip to believe that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” he evoked a similar union—one whose interpenetration is complete and whose Oneness absolute—a Union of which human eros is but a penumbra.
Graciously, God’s love is not confined to heaven, but issues endlessly from the headwaters of the Trinity toward every stream and rivulet of the human heart.
The highest expression of God’s love toward man is agapē. At creation, God made free-willed beings with the ability to reject him. When they did and fell under the judgment of their own rebellion, he provided for their deliverance by submitting himself to the punishment they justly deserved.
However, the love that is most characteristic between God and man is storgē. The apostle John writes that “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Paul tells the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). In his letter to the Roman church, Paul goes one further: believers are not only children, but “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16). Jesus uses the illustration of the vine and branches to convey his organic relationship with those who are “in him.” These are all references to storgē.
To a lesser degree philia characterizes the divine-human association. Jesus calls “friends” those who obey his commands—and on a few occasions, those who exhibit faith, like the paralytic whose sins Jesus forgave.
With regard to the collective body of God’s people, the Church, the divine relationship is strongly illustrated by eros. In the Old Testament, eros between Yahweh and Israel is suggested in the Song of Songs and in the story of Hosea and Gomer. In the New Testament, parables about the marriage feast and references to the “bridegroom” and “bride” evoke eros, revealing the sacramental cast of the marital union as instituted by God, and the nature of Jesus’s relation with his Church.
As in the Godhead, Christian love encompasses more than agapē. In addition to the giving of self to others (agapē), it includes the familial affection in community (storgē), the warm friendship between members (philia), and the intimacy of communion (eros).
Indeed, in both vertical and horizontal dimensions, Christian love binds us to each other as it binds us to God, sacramentally, through Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Through Baptism we enter the community (the Church) founded by God and are united with him. By participating in the Eucharist, we regularly join that community to receive divine nourishment.
And that’s just the beginning. Motivated out of love for God and love for neighbor, the Christian lover ever labors to expand the community of love through the Great Commission, making disciples who are learning to do the very things that Jesus commanded us to do, and becoming the very people he designed us to be. In that sense, the Lennon and McCartney hook has it right.