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Home arrow Religion arrow The Theological Roots of Christian Gratitude

Some Comparisons and Contrasts

Debate about what it means to love has led to much confusion. For example, in discussing Christian anthropology there are some distinctions that are often asserted to be crucial to its understanding. I am thinking, for example, of Law and Gospel, eros and agape, altruism and self-love. Let’s briefly take these in turn: first, the supposed distinctiveness of Law and Gospel.

It is often claimed the Christian Gospel replaces the Law with love, whereas Jesus’s claim is to have fulfilled the Law, not to have overthrown it: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). In effect, he extends and deepens the demands of the Law so that motives, not simply acts, are included. But this is implicit also as we see in the Israelite view of life; indeed it is explicit in the idea of the covenant relationship that the Israelites believed God had established with them. God’s demands are on the character of the whole person, not the objective observance of rules and regulations.

Second, a contrast is often assumed to exist between eros and agape. However, they also need to be explored together: they are not conflicting dimensions of love such that eros is to be eschewed and agape embraced. Anders Nygren (1890-1978), a Swedish Lutheran theologian, argued that agape was, in opposition to eros, the only true characterization of Christian love (Nygren, 1969). Eros is human love and therefore essentially self-regarding: only God is capable of agape, he claimed, because only God is capable of unconditional love. But this is a mistake.

In Genesis, when God is said to have seen on each day of creation that the world was good (Heb., tobh), he took pleasure in it and anticipated doing so in the future. The point is that his behavior is always true to his nature of self-giving love so that his feelings are invariably well-disposed toward human well-being and that of the whole of creation. It is thus in contrast to the human situation in which feelings are themselves capable of dominating behavior; indeed Hume was of the opinion that all human behavior was stimulated by the emotions to the exclusion of reason.

Yet humans are made in the image of God and therefore are capable of acting with the same sacrificial self-giving love as God. In any case, eros is not simply feelings; both eros and agape are to be enjoyed. Human beings are one in body, mind, and spirit; to fail to recognize the proper sensitivity of human beings to beauty and the world of the senses is to deny the reality of their bodily presence. That is impossible if one is to be true to oneself.

A third mistaken contrast is made between altruism and self-love. To give oneself to the service of others will not be helped normally if, in so doing, one neglects one’s own well-being. Jesus’s response to the question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” includes, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 19:16b, 19b). What each believer wants is to commend the love of God to all; this is impossible if we are not at the same time wanting ourselves to love God more. It is to embrace the Christlike understanding of what it means to live in the image of God.


We human beings, made in the image of God, are capable of taking responsibility for one another, for our environment, and for ourselves. A world appreciated as a creation in which God is graciously present is one for which we can be truly grateful and in which we can grow into being grateful persons. As professionals, therefore, we can give ourselves to the well-being of the persons whose interests we share without diminishing ourselves or our capacity to take and accept responsibility for ourselves. This opens up the question of responsibility: how can we become “response-able” and thus learn to be responsible? In the following chapter, I examine what it means to accept gratefully our God-given curiosity and inquire into God’s creation, other people, and our own nature.

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