Christians believe that God’s love is at the center of their faith. Similarly, the Holy Qur’ān refers to God as “Al- Wadūd,” that is, the Loving One. So is God’s Love a quality of Essence or a quality of act?

Common Word Conference at Yale University, 2008

09 December 2022

What do We Mean When We Say that “God is Love”?

We read in the Holy Bible that “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)


Because of this verse, and others like it, Christians believe that God’s love is at the very center of their faith. Similarly we read in the Holy Qur’ān that one of the Beautiful Names of God is “Al- Wadūd,” that is, the Loving One.


However, in the months since the open letter “A Common Word between Us and You” was published, as well as the Christian response “Loving God and Neighbor Together” (known popularly as the “Yale response”), many Muslims and Christians have asked just exactly what we mean when we speak of the love of God, and whether we mean the same thing. In what follows below, I will attempt to address this question in relation to two more specific questions – one which has been raised by Muslims, and one which has been raised by Christians.


A question which has been raised by some Muslims is whether love is an eternal, essential quality (ṣifa) in God, or whether it is a “quality of act” (ṣifat al-fi‘l). Many Western Christians are unaware that both Islamic thought and the Eastern Christian thought of the Syriac- and Arabic-speaking churches make the same distinction between qualities of God’s Essence and qualities of God’s acts. Qualities of Essence are those qualities which have subsisted in God from eternity, without reference to temporal created things. Qualities of act are those qualities about which one can speak meaningfully only in relation to the temporal (muḥdath) universe which God has created. Thus, Knowledge is a quality of Essence, since God has known God’s own self from all eternity, but Forgiveness is a temporal quality of act, since God forgives only in relation to sinful human beings who need to be forgiven.


So is God’s Love a quality of Essence or a quality of act? That is, is God’s Love eternal and uncreated? Most Christians would answer this question with a strong “yes.” In a moment I will address why I believe that Christians answer “yes,” and what they mean by that, but first let address what I understand that Muslims mean by this question (and I hope that you will correct me if I misunderstand).


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