letters to surfers

Question : You write a lot about love, but have avoided giving me a definition of the word.

Answer by Robert Brow   (www.brow.on.ca)   December 2000

The philosopher Wittgenstein said the meaning of a word is its use. I would want to add that the "use" is strictly limited to a dialogue between two persons in a particular situation. (It could be a writer and a reader). If the two persons are not agreed about the language game for that word in that situation, there will be a misunderstanding. Wittgenstein believed that philosophical problems were due to such misunderstandings. And the same applies only more so in theology.

Definitions only work when some person or a group of persons give a definition which others agree to abide by in their conversation together. This happens in the sciences, but meanings get fouled up when there is a model shift as from Newton to Einstein and suddenly words like mass, gravity, acceleration, and velocity subtly change their meaning. Eventually scientists try to drill one language game into all practitioners of that science.

Most of our conversation is using words that we understand with that person in that context, and when there is a misunderstanding we can try to explain. There are only a few definitions in the New Testament.

In 1 Corinthians 13 we have one such attempt to give a definition of what Paul's view of love is. Jesus also used parables to clarify the use of a word as the word "neighbor" in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Obviously the definitions found in dictionaries only reflect some common uses of the words listed.

What then do we do when we are trying to do understand the New Testament use of the word "love" in a particular situation - loving enemies, loving God, loving a wounded person on the road, loving other Christians. The art is to try to picture how the writer and the Christian group he belonged to was wanting to use the word. That is why the New Testament cannot be understood from outside a personal experience of the love of God and the resultant love for others. And even with a personal experience of the love of God we may need to have the meaning of the words clarified by further Bible study and the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

When we move to adopting a theological model (mine is called Creative Love Theism) we inevitably try to fit the use of words in each text into an explanatory model that we intend to use in preaching. That is why to my mind being self-conscious about the model we are using (and the other models people use) helps us understand what others are doing with that text.

But we have no proof that we are right, and we certainly have no definition we can use across the board and in all situations. The definitions that we find in theological books only apply in a discussion with that writer and perhaps in the denominational group he or she belongs to.

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