What Is Love of God?: The Relation of Love, Fear, Hope and Speech

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
(1 John 4:18)

What relation has fear to love? Seemingly, it is punishment.

The obvious interpretation of this verse’s third clause is something like “fear of punishment does not indicate the presence of love.” But there is an oddity to this phrase, and I think a productive ambiguity.

The phrase in the Greek appears as “fear has punishment,” and this “has” (echei) brings the ambiguity to the verset’s interpretation. What does it mean for fear to “have” anything? A prima fascie reading maintains the idea of the fear of punishment, in which case it is said “fear is its own punishment/torment,” and the punishment referred to is the punishment of God (as in the preceding verse, “in the day of judgment”). This is a fear stemming from the idea that one remains (if secretly) guilty and is thus a fear ex ante facto of divine wrath. This interpretation certainly makes sense, but it remains a bit unsatisfactory in accounting for the odd wording and the unexpected antithesis of love and fear.

Many modern translations (the ESV among them, which I use above) translate the phrase as “fear has [to do with] punishment,” giving echei the meaning of including or involving (as in NKJV, “fear involves punishment”; see Stephen S. Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 51: 1, 2, 3 John, 1984, p. 260). This approach highlights the phrase’s ambiguity, especially when we ask, what sort of love are we examining?

Love of God and love of neighbor center the two “great commandments,” the latter of which stands in a metonymic relation to the former. Both agapic loves, I believe, can be read here in this short phrase. It is of course possible to read fear in this sense as involving the expectation of punishment. But, modulating our reading of the love which fear expels, is it not also possible to read fear in this sense as involving the desire for punishment on the Other?

This is certainly present in the idea of ressentiment, which employs a constellation of methods to sublimate self-loathing and, shall we say, fear, through various socially acceptable forms of causing or wishing pain on others. One thinks immediately of such cases as the scapegoating of foreigners and refugees. Ironically, it is the proletariat which is so easily encouraged to scapegoat in this way, for it is in part a displacement of the already latent sense of our own state of exploitation. Of course, one also thinks of those who believe in an eternal damnation in hell, for whom this belief always threatens to become a vessel of ressentiment (see Friedrich Nietzche’s critique of Tertullian in the first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, or simply consider Westboro Baptist Church‘s grotesque picketers).

Both the fear of expected punishment and the desire for punishment which derives from fear indicate the absence of agapic love. The social aspect (foundation?) of this reading is confirmed in the following passage:

We love because he [God] first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (vv. 19-20).

Thus the metonymic relation of the dual loves is revealed. One cannot love God if they do not love their neighbor. In this way, love itself is put into question: what is love of God? If the love of God by human beings is predicated on love of the human Other, how is love of God evaluated, if not at least principally by way of love of neighbor?

A manuscript variant renders the final clause of the above passage thus: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” This rendering creates an affinity in this idea of the love of God with the formulation of hope in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which, in a rare and welcome case of hypotaxis, he writes:

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? (Romans 8:24b)

Perhaps love of God may be illuminated through an examination of the nature of hope. It seems hope gets short shrift in ecclesial discourse in favor of faith, however, to the extent that a brief look at their opposition is in order.

Faith against Hope: Faith as a Closing Signifier

The word “faith” is somewhat ambiguous. In ecclesial discourse, the signification of faith is belief, as well as the quality of that belief, as in trust or assurance; but it also refers to the problematic idea of belief as a quantum, as in the idea of growing in faith; the quantification dynamic leads to the concept of being able to lose or gain faith, meaning that faith signifies some spiritual object, something like a substance which may evaporate, pour out or be replenished; from this objectification we arrive at the signification of content, by which the signifier “faith” by metonymy becomes not so much belief as what it is that is believed, from which is derived the idea of the faith, that is, the entire social-doctrinal apparatus which comprises the ecclesia. But of course the faith signifies not so much the church qua church so much as the facticity of the ecclesia to the extent that it is membered, in other words, that in which one participates by virtue of belief. It is important that faith as quantum and faith as participation synthesize an additional connotation in the idea of loyalty, a faith as adherence which is always susceptible to the threat of separation, of “falling away.” This meaning, while sometimes signified in the more commonly apt “faithfulness,” is more often enfolded into the seemingly simpler and more usefully ambiguous word “faith.”

But “faith” is not understood to be ambiguous. On the contrary, faith is taken to be a constant, a cynosure; and thus it is also that which makes constant, that which renders unambiguous. The signifier of faith can become a sort of idol not by closing the sign but in fancying it to be closed (by having faith in faith?): that is, by wielding it in its semiotic supplement in order to perform closure on other signs. It becomes thus a closing signifier. It is used thus when, by faith, scientific discourse is made to signify only a convenient godlessness (thereby enabling a kind of scientific skepticism through faith’s invocation). The closing signifier of faith operates upon the meaning of the ecclesial community (e.g., maintaining a tension between individuation and reluctant communalism); social concern (e.g., transforming a certain eschatological unconcern into the meaning of faith itself); and even language (e.g., collapsing biblical discourses to make of the text a sort of solid, monoplanar object).

The hope of salvation, the hope of the return of Jesus Christ, the hope of the resurrection of the “dead in Christ”, the hope of the latter resurrection of all who have ever lived; in other words, the hope of life for all people in an ultimate renewal—this hope can become (fore)closed into faith.

What I mean to say is that faith as a closing signifier operates upon hope as something that is seen, that is without horizon, that is closed, and in so doing colonizes hope as sign, impoverishing it of its meaning in order to signify a vague faithiness by which such discursive fields as community, concern for others and the functions of language are (fore)closed into objects for the benefit of a certain kind of discipline, to use Foucault’s term (I also draw on Barthes’ work on the idea of myth). Once established, any deviation from this closure, this status quo, that is, any attempt to reclaim hope from its appropriation by faith, any attempt to open up this (en)closed sign, makes itself susceptible to accusation and threat within an ecclesial ethos which thus remains self-assured in its own insecurity: for it seems to me that the closure of the sign is always an act of insecurity, a crackdown, a totalitarianism on the level of signification, which plays itself out in relations of power, the shaping of the possibilities for legitimate human action. Is this insecurity not reminiscent of the sort of fear of which John speaks?

I observe that this closure manifests most (in)visibly in its operation upon language and rhetoric; for, once enclosed, faith cannot be bothered to modulate its speech for a hearer that does not look like itself. The Other is submitted to a certain erasure in this state of affairs; but language itself is also erased. Under the closing signifier of faith, there is a desire to abolish language in favor of a supernatural (non)rhetoric (e.g., the calling).

Hope’s (and Love’s?) Rhetorical Orientation

But hope and language (and therefore rhetoric) seem to me to be closely intertwined. Whereas the signifier of faith may close speech into nonspeech, hope understands and embraces the openness, possibility and creativity (indeed, the diffèrance) of language. It seems to me that speech is the act par excellence of hope. For the movement which relies on the understanding of another is something only hope has room for; understanding is something one can only hope for, and until achieved must remain unseen. Hope revels in the creative possibility of speech. We can find this hope in nothing less than the principal act of Genesis; for is it not the logos by which all things are made, the Word, the Speech Act, the bereishit, which subjected the kosmos to futility, in hope, through the unfolding of meaning (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-3; Romans 8:19-21)? Insofar as speech requires time, this Logos is in the beginning a commitment to time itself, an unfolding (a diachrony) which in its very form constitutes time and so at once constitutes the certainty of death and yet the possibility of life.

This is the meaning of hope: the constitution of and trust in a potentiality, a possibility, a not yet.

Language’s relation to hope may illuminate its relation also to agapic love. Returning to our text in 1 John, we read that “We love because he [God] first loved us” (4:19). This primary love is only intelligible in and through the Logos, Jesus as exegesis/exegete, through the kerygma and the euaggelion.

Hope has to do with the potentiality inherent in the existence of a horizon. Whereas an idol collapses the horizon into a thing, as Ricoeur describes it, hope can only exist where the horizon remains.

Perhaps it is so with love of God. Certainly there is an essential gap, a horizon, between the Wholly Other and the subject. Importantly, love of the human Other cannot overcome this horizon any better, nor should it. Understanding requires this gap; to deny the gap between subjects is to deny the potentiality of understanding, and also to deny hope, if not love itself. It is this gap which simultaneously separates and constitutes selves (“a person is a person through other persons“).

Is it possible that speech, to the extent that it grounds the act of hope, can inform the idea of the love of God? It is certainly through language that the love of God toward us is made intelligible, but it is also the act of love (i.e., Jesus’ life, death, resurrection) which is made intelligible through the Logos, the word, the kerygma. Perhaps love of God lies in the participation of human beings in those acts, and in the dialogue with the logos which serves as their liaison.


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