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Aaron Perry ~ Metaphor and Love

I can still see them. More than that, I can still sense them: The images from the first horror movie I encountered, unwittingly, at five or six years of age. This is more than a little disconcerting considering the images are rooted in the organ with which I make life’s major decisions. My brain is shaped, literally, with these images. Our brains contain images that, whether we want them to or not, facilitate our decisions and interpretations. Images are not simply pictures—which is why I can sense more than see the images from that horror movie. Including pictures, images are ideas, concepts, and representations. We try to harness image-power by using them to form our thoughts, to convince others, to explain to our children. We deploy these images everyday and often without thinking. They are called metaphors.

Metaphors are gifts of God.[1] Depending on their quality, metaphors either help us to think well or to think poorly. As a result, we must be careful which metaphors we use and which metaphors are already embedded in our thinking. Sometimes metaphors are found in just one or two words, shaping our thoughts and theology without us even realizing it.

This use of metaphor happens in our theology of love and law. How does love relate to the law? Or, to put it another way: What is the expert in the law doing when he answers Jesus’ question about the contents of the law, by saying we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and neighbor as one’s self (Luke 10:26-27)? Or, what is John Wesley doing when he described love as “all the commandments in one”?[2] He was not original in the description, but merely following Paul’s famous words that all the commandments may be “summed up” as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9).

It’s a challenging question—this, “What are they doing?” question—because we do not think without metaphor and, having grown so accustomed to metaphor, we may not recognize one when it is present. Perhaps Paul’s answer helps us see how metaphor influences our love and law theology. Paul’s metaphor is clear, even if we missed it. He uses a mathematical image to explain how the law relates to love: the commandments are summed up as love.[3] It is the metaphor Wesley wisely used. And it should challenge our metaphors of love and law.

It is tempting to shift metaphors when it comes to love. Have you ever heard the expression, “It all boils down to….”? The phrase is meant to capture (another metaphor!) the simplest reading of a complex situation or text. And boiling is a metaphor—a picture that may slip into our minds without us being aware. When my wife makes a sauce, it often involves boiling. Into the pot go the tomatoes or the apples and the combination of heat and water refashions the fruit into another (soon to be delicious) form. You may have heard—or even used—this metaphor to relate the law and love. “The law all boils down to love.”

But this is not the metaphor Paul uses. It is not a good metaphor. It is a dangerous metaphor. The boiling process, if left unchecked, will not stop at apple sauce, ready for my pork chop. No, unchecked boiling produces a charred mess—black, indistinct, unrecognizable as the fruit it once was. When we relate love to the law as a “boiling down,” we risk making love unrecognizable—removed from actions and form which it once entailed.

The temptation to boil the law down to love is strong for Christians in a pluralistic world, especially as we seek common ground with people of other faith—or no faith. The metaphor of boiling makes clear what happens with one strain of improper metaphors, but there are others. Whenever love promises to be the base reality of the moral law, then a boiling metaphor is in use. It can be expressed as, “it all comes down to love” or “love is the common ground.” “Love” promises to be the grand unifying theory of humanity. “At the heart of the matter,” (another metaphor) we are tempted to think, “is love. By focusing on love we can find unity with anyone and everyone.” The Beatles, perhaps, said more than they intended with the catchy refrain, “all you need is love.” The song’s verses are replete not with descriptions of love, but with negative phrases: “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done / There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung / Nothing you can say but you can learn to play the game / It’s easy.” Hidden within the song is the boiling metaphor: everything you do can boil down to love—regardless of the form.

But here’s why the metaphor is so wrong: the law does not boil down to love. Love is the summary of the law. When you add 3+5+7 you get 15 and if you take something away from the left side of the equation, you don’t get 15 anymore. Likewise, if you take something away from the law, you don’t get love anymore. Love is the summary of the law. Love contains all components of the law. If you want to love, put all these things together. If you want to love, it means not having gods ahead of the true God and honoring your father and mother and not bearing false testimony and not coveting, etc. These commands do not boil down to love; they add up to love.

The law is perfectly put together—fulfilled—in Jesus. Love is not the unifying trait of human beings; it is the nature of the Triune God. Love is not the vindication of a human race that really is, deep down, at one; it is the vindication of the Three-in-One God. The unity of the moral law, fulfilled as love, is not found when the law is stripped away but when the law of love lifts our eyes to the unified God.[4]

Do you see why the metaphors we use are important? If the law all boils down to love, then the distinctive of the Ten Commandments and the moral law and the life of Jesus are inconsequential to the form of love. Not only inconsequential, but potentially misleading. Everything but love can and must be removed for us to get to love. We’ve got to boil the law out of love. But in this boiling process, love is left without form, without taste, without color, without texture. It is left, as the boiling process eventually does, as a scorched mess. But if love is the summary of the law, then the commands of God and the life of Jesus are necessary to understanding love. And as the life of Jesus is shaped in us, we will be formed in love and “[t]he one perfect Good shall be your one ultimate end. One thing shall ye desire for its own sake—the fruition of Him that is All in All.”[5]



[1] Colin Gunton’s brilliant, The Actuality of Atonement (New York, NY: T.&T. Clark, 1988) helps in two ways, first to show us how metaphor is used constantly in everyday language and, second, to remind us that metaphors are gifts of God to help us, not human inventions to strive for God.

[2] John Wesley, “Circumcision of the Heart,”

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology vol. 2, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014, pp. 199-200.

[4] Oliver O’Donovan (Finding and Seeking) writes, “The teaching of a unified moral law is the vindication of monotheism” (p. 201).

[5] John Wesley, “The Circumcision of the Heart,”