Thursday, February 2, 2012

Two passages in Paul’s letters which have intrigued me for a while will not be found grouped amongst his most significant passages or at the heart of present or past  theological disputes. One might even claim that these passages are sort of “throwaway” lines that populate letters everywhere, not just Paul’s letters: their intent is genuine and the sentiments expressed true, but do they represent anything more than common expressions of love?  I think there is more going on in these lines than a simple expression of love, though I am not sure I can get to the bottom of it in a short post, which is also a way of saying, I am not certain I can get to the bottom of it. Here are a few ideas, inspired as I was in the midst of writing by a few tweets from a Twitter friend @Fikov58.

These are the two short passages, the first from 1 Thessalonians and the second from Philippians:

1)      9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10 and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10) (NRSV)

2)      9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless (Philippians 1:9-10) (NRSV)


These two passages are by no means identical, but in language, tone and context they are similar. The 1 Thessalonians passage, for instance, uses philadelphia, love of brothers (and sisters), utilizing the verb phileo, while the Philippians’ passage uses agape.  On the other hand, v.10 in 1 Thessalonians does use agape later in the passage when it states “indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters.” There is a clear correlation between the "loves" Paul sees in both communities and the manner in which it serves others in the community.

It is also the case that the churches in Thessalonica and in Philippi are encouraged in the love they currently demonstrate, but also to do so “more and more” (perisseuein mallon in 1 Thess.; mallon kai mallon in Phil. are equivalent in meaning).  This does not, to my mind, indicate that there is a lack of love in either church, only that they ought to continue to grow spiritually and the measure of that growth is love for one another.

There is one other correlation, though, which I find most intriguing. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9 Paul states that the Thessalonians have been “taught by God” (theodidaktoi) to love one another, the only occurrence of this word in the New Testament. I find this word intriguing. Is Paul saying that there was a special, spiritual manner or gift in which the Thessalonians in particular have been taught by God? Would Paul consider all Christians to be “taught by God” to love? Or is it broader than this: is the ability to love a divine gift, in which case love is made manifest in all people as having been “taught by God”? Whatever the manner of teaching, Paul indicates that one can continue the learning, as he encourages the Thessalonians to do so “more and more.” Is love self-taught? Is the presence of love in one’s heart, shared with others, the manner in which God teaches us?

The correlation with the letter to the Philippians is not with the exact phrase, “taught by God,” but with Paul’s prayer that their love “may overflow more and more” with “knowledge” (epignosis) and “true insight” (aesthesis). I find the juxtaposition of a growth in love with knowledge and insight fascinating, as we might not make this same connection between “love,” often reduced to a feeling nowadays, and “knowledge”. The word aesthesis was used by the Stoics to indicate information derived from the “senses” and “sense perceptions,” though our current translations of the New Testament point to “insight” or “moral experience.” What if Paul’s combination of words pointed to intellectual knowledge (epignosis) in tandem with “personal” experience, not precisely “feelings” and “emotions,” but more than sense perception? Could this be how Paul indicates that we are “taught by God” to love “more and more” - we rely not just on our “feelings” or “senses”,” but these experiential factors are clarified through our knowledge of God? Or does the love of God, poured out into us, create the experience of love so profound, with true insight, that it alters us intellectually, changes our minds, so that we can do what we are created to do?  Love one another more and more.

John W. Martens

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