Why Progressive Christian Theology Matters: The Primacy of Love (Bruce Epperly)

As we wander through these summer months, Bruce Epperly is drawing out attention to the question of whether and why progressive theology actually matters.  In today's piece he reminds us that the basic theological confession about God is that God is Love.  It is something, he says, we too easily forget in our quick embrace of God's power.  I invite you to ponder this question -- what is the primacy of love?  How does focusing on love change the way we envision God? 


Why Progressive Christian Theology Matters:
The Primacy of Love

Bruce Epperly

In his latest book, The Nature of Love (Chalice Press), open and relational theologian Thomas Jay Oord asserts that “if love is at the center of the biblical witness and the core of Christian theology, it should be the primary criterion for theology.” Yet, as Oord notes, “those who write Christian theologies have often not placed love and its implications at the center of their work.”

Theologians have often forgotten that the proposition “God is love” is the primary description of God’s nature. In contrast, many theologians are willing to jettison love rather than power when it comes to describing what is most central to God’s nature. To compromise on divine power is unacceptable even if this means God is responsible for tsunami and earthquake; while compromising on God’s love for broken and wayward people seems in line with orthodoxy. When power becomes definitive of God’s nature, justice is, then, viewed primarily in terms of punishment rather than healing and transformation and divine knowledge is described as controlling rather than freeing and supportive.

Progressive theology affirms “a metaphysic of love” (Charles Hartshorne) in which God’s power is defined as relational and healing rather than unilateral and coercive. One of my teachers Bernard Loomer spoke of two kinds of power: relational and unilateral. Unilateral power is, by definition, coercive; it controls and shapes, but does not receive. The goal of unilateral power is to exert as much influence as possible without being influenced by others. It speaks but does not listen; it creates but does not respond; it demands but does not negotiate. Uninterested in the unique experiences of others (its subjects), it desires conformity and obedience, rather than creativity and adventure. One of the worse things that can happen, from the perspective of coercive power, is for God to be surprised or influenced by creatures like us.

In contrast, relational power is responsive as well as creative; it welcomes the influence of others. It embraces the gifts of creation and encourages freedom and creativity. It embraces surprise as the opportunity to exert its own freedom in novel and innovative ways. My teachers John Cobb and David Griffin describe God’s power as “creative-responsive love.”

When power is defined in terms of love, its primary goal is healing and transformation. God’s power is, as Peter Schmiechen describes it, entirely “saving power.” God is on our side, forgiving even the faithless and violent as a means of their healing. Loving power, however, is not weakness: it is persistent and challenging of alienating behaviors. As I Corinthians 13 proclaims, loving power never ends.

Loving power is reflected in Jesus’ approach to healing and wholeness. The healing narratives reflect Jesus’ affirmation that his mission was to promote abundant life. Jesus did not blame the victim, nor did he identify disease with divine punishment. While Jesus recognized that behaviors and attitudes could play a role in disease, even those who struggled with their faith or previous misdeeds received his blessing.

Loving power is reflected in Philippians 2:5-11. Here God’s power is revealed in presence and relationship. Every knee shall bow – yes, every knee! – not out of fear but out of gratitude for a love that knows no end and that rules by letting go rather than demanding obedience. Often love is seen as something weak by those who see power as definitive of God; they want a God who can rain down hell-fire and brimstone and punish the opponent. Often they exhibit this same behavior in relationship to their opponents, drawing lines that divide rather than circles that include. Love is powerful; it is willing to go to the cross to bring wholeness to humanity; it is willing to forgive the enemy; and it is willing to become “unclean” so that others find healing.

Today, in this time of cultural and religious polarization, we need to emphasize the love of God and the embrace of otherness, rather than denunciation and division. Only the vision of a truly loving God, for whom love is the primary motivation in the use of power, can help us find a spiritual and cultural common ground. As progressives, we need to let the light of love shine, as we tell the good news of an infinitely creative, adventurous, persistent, and loving God.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including  Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. Those interested in his work on healing may consult God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus   and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice. His most recent bookFrom a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Music and Worship in the Small Church written with Daryl Hollinger, will be released by Alban Institute Books in August.


Steve Finnell said…
you are invited to follow my blog
Thomas Jay Oord said…
Thanks for this essay! I'm happy my work has been helpful in some way. But your comments here extend the conversation in ways I had not. I'm in your debt now!

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