The determinative motif

In the mid-1950s, my friend Joe picked up a transformational idea from his seminary professor Nels F. S. Ferré (1908-1971). Ferré had three conversions: (1) to a rules-based Christianity; (2) to radical questioning; then (3) to agape (undeserved, unconditional, self-giving love). Ferré said God’s love “is the determinative, distinctive motif of Christianity …. Agape constitutes Christianity’s ultimate principle of interpretation …. This determinative motif is …. based not on (human) merit, but on forgiving love.” For Ferré, agape love is grace, life’s determinative motif.

Yesterday, I heard an echo of Ferré when I read Barbara Holmes’ words: “I’ve spent a lifetime working … to unclog racism, sexism, gender, sexual identity bias. … often (with) the subliminal presumption that if dominant culture would just include others … all would be well.” Then she wrote that “if inclusion is to be meaningful … everyone and everything is included from the beginning, not … in socially constructed hierarchies … but included in a web of life set forth from the foundations of the earth.”

Sometimes I regress into us versus them thinking, but I receive Ferré’s determinative motif and Holmes’ radical inclusiveness as a woven-together, exotic, unending invitation to New Life.

Photo of Colby Hall (1866) at Andover Newton, where Ferré received a theology degree in 1934, and later was a professor of theology. Andover Newton is the oldest seminary in the US (1807).

2 thoughts on “The determinative motif”

  1. Ferré emigrated to the US from Sweden at age 13 after World War I. I’m not sure why he chose that word. He would sometimes say “the determinative, distinctive motif.” I might say, “the decisive reality.” You could take a survey among your friends or at your next cocktail party or virtual meeting. 🙂


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