Christian Ethics 350: The Love Commandment

October 1, 2007
Allen Verhey

Megan Morr

In the gamut of human experiences, love surely is one of the most desirable—and most complicated. After all, myriad novels, poems, and pop songs have been written about wanting it,
keeping it, losing it, and just plain hating it.

In the class "The Love Commandment," offered in the Duke Divinity School, the Bible is one of the most fertile sources for thought and debate about the nature of love. Not surprisingly, this text does not present the same notions of love offered by popular culture.

And even within the context of the Bible, the way one understands love depends on which stories one reads, says instructor Allen Verhey, professor of Christian ethics. "What I want students to see is that the narrative you use to define love will shape the way you understand love," he says. In the Christian tradition, "the narrative behind love is the self-giving love of the cross."

Verhey's students, for example, consider the perspective of Anders Nygren, a Swedish theologian who calls for self-sacrificial love. Nygren discounts the worthiness of love's object, since God loves people because of his nature, not because they merit it. Verhey hopes to challenge these views.

"No human being can lay claim on God's love, but in a way he recognizes the worthiness of his own creation when he continues to love them," Verhey says.

With the discussion of Nygren, Verhey brings in the feminist voices of writers Barbara Hilkert Andolsen and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who explore the ways in which the idealization of self-sacrificial love has created unrealistic expectations for women's private lives (such as a mother ending her career to rear children).

Beyond questions of self-sacrifice, the course deals with two commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22: 37) and "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22: 39).

The course material encourages students to think through the complex implications of these commandments: how the love of God and neighbor are connected, what it means to love one's neighbor, who qualifies as one's neighbor, and whether the phrase "as yourself" connotes an imperative to love oneself.

Ethics play a role as well. Readings examine the relationship of love to politics and the law, as well as choices involving abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and lying.

Anna Kate Ellerman Th.M. '06 says she took the course because it served her research interests in both Christian ethics and pastoral care. And, she wanted to study with Verhey, whom she describes as "the epitome of a pastor and a scholar."

"It's one thing to talk and think about how we as Christians ought to love God and neighbor," says Ellerman, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton University. "It's another thing to put these ideas on the ground and to consider how we might practice them."

Professor

Allen Verhey earned a B.A. from Calvin College, a B.D. from Calvin Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Yale University. He has taught at Duke for three years. Previously, he was the Blekkink Professor of religion at Hope College. He also served as director of the Institute of Religion at Texas Medical Center. His recent publications include Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, and Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture, and the Moral Life.

Prerequisites

Introduction to Christian Ethics
Introduction to Christian Theology

Readings

In addition to works by philosophers, ethicists, and theologians such as St. Augustine, Karl Barth, Sören Kierkegaard, and Reinhold Niebuhr, students read a range of texts that include a speech on love and compassion by Mother Teresa, excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Strength to Love, and reflections on the situation-ethics debate by Verhey's colleague Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of theological ethics.

Assignments

Working papers, which summarize readings and raise questions

Responses to working papers 

Research paper