Friday, July 3, 2015

Agape Love?

There has been a lot of talk this past week about love. In light of the Supreme Court decision, many in the broader culture are celebrating what they see as a triumph for love in the establishment of marriage rights for homosexual couples. They are also using various arguments based upon what they understand as principals derived from love to urge those who are not celebrating the decision to change their minds. Meanwhile, many Christians are trying to ensure they are not seen as unloving, while doing their best to express support for a biblical understanding on the issues. In various conversations, I have heard believers try to distinguish their understanding of love with what the culture is talking about by using the term “agape love”.

Agape love, we are told, is the highest form of love. It is said to be a self-sacrificial love and devotion. It is understood to transcend physical desires and is the highest expression of pure love. It is the kind of love God demonstrates though the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As such, “agape love” is understood as a technical term for a kind of love that is uniquely identified with perfect and divine love.

This understanding of agape love as a type of “super love” is not new. It has been around in Christian circles for a very long time. The special status of agape in part comes from the fact that the Greek language has many words that can be translated by the single English word love. Depending upon the context, each of these may carry a slightly more specific connotation than the general term love and agape can have the meaning of selfless and pure love.

Greek contains a word that is often related to sexual desire (ερος / eros) and another often associated with what we would call friendly affection (στοργἠ / storge). The Greek terms for love we find frequently in the Bible are phileo (φιλἐω) and agape (ἀγἀπη). It is often argued that phileo is a warm affection similar to what brothers might experience. It is said to involve a tender care and fondness. This is not an affection we would have for an enemy. We are told, however, that agape love is much higher and noble. It is supposedly the sacrificial kind of love that we are called to exhibit even to those who persecute us, etc.

Many preachers have milked these distinctions to emphasize the differences between mere feelings of affection and the transcendent love that God has for us, and we are to have toward others. The problem with this, as DA Carson points out in his book Exegetical Fallacies, is that the word agape is not actually a technical term for a higher form of love. We recognize that most words have a range of meaning (called a semantic range) and agape is no different. It is sometimes used for the kind of love many Christians associate with it, but not always. Even in the Bible, the word is used in various ways.

For example, in 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul uses the word agape to describe the love that Demas had for the world which led to him abandoning Paul. The word has sufficient semantic range that when the Septuagint translators were working to produce a Greek copy of the Hebrew Bible, they used the word agape to describe the incestuous lust Amnon had for his sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:4). In the same way, the word phileo is used at times to describe the type of love that many often associate with agape. For example, it is the word used to describe the love the Father has for the Son in John 5:20.

I think we are right to emphasize the pure, holy, selfless love of God as the standard to which all love should be measured. I am also sympathetic with believers looking to define concepts of love and affection in a biblical way. We should just be careful about making technical distinctions based upon biblical language that the writers themselves did not intend. As always, we need to pay attention to context in order to understand how a particular author is using his or her terms. All of the Bible, however, points us to the love of God in Christ. In Him we see all the fullness of love personified, agape and otherwise.