The Five Loves—and the Highest of These Is Agape Love?
The following two-part article considers a popular topic within Christianity, agape love, from two perspectives.
In Part 1, Ken Boa synthesizes material from several teaching sessions from his series Biblical Principles for Marriage and from portions of his spiritual formation text Conformed to His Image (primarily from chapter 18, “Holistic Spirituality”). Dr. Boa focuses on agape love as one of the five forms of loves (based on the different Greek words). After reviewing all forms, he gives reasons for why agape is the greatest.
In Part 2, Michael Stewart questions the popular understanding within Christian circles regarding agape: Does agape hold a higher, special meaning? Is agapeunconditional? Should our understanding of “divine love” should be tied to the Greek word agapē? After considering philosophy of language, he argues for a different approach to the text to help understand what love means and how that understanding helps believers to love God, ourselves, and others well.[ez-toc]
Understanding the Terms and Their Forms: Αγάπη, Agapē, and Agape
For help in understanding how we use these terms—and why you’ll see different spellings and conventions depending on the resources you consult—we offer this explanation on the varying forms you’ll see.
aγάπη: The term as it occurs in Koine Greek is aγάπη (the letters are alpha-gamma-alpha-pi-eta). The mark over the second alpha (ά) is what’s called an acute accent mark.
agapē: Non-technical resources often transliterate terms into English, most often as agapē, in italics referencing the transliteration from a different language with the diacritical mark over an “e” (ē), indicating a long vowel sound, in this case the “ay” sound as in the word weigh.
agape: Given the prevalence of this term as a concept in Christianity, one often sees the simple reference to “agape love” apart from any nod to Greek origins.
Our usage follows these distinctions. Where we refer to the term itself, we might use the Greek (aγάπη) or its transliteration (agapē) depending on context. When speaking of agape conceptually, as is commonly employed in Christianity, we use the simple term “agape.” We follow this same pattern for other Greek terms for love. In the case of quotations from other sources, we preserve their adopted forms without alteration.
Perspective One—Agape Love: The Highest of the Loves (Ken Boa)
Luke Timothy Johnson called the church “a messy grace.” The same might be said of marriage—and of all relationships, to varying extents. This is why love, specifically the divine love known as agape, is so vital to any successful relationship, especially marriage. Without it, and without intentionality over time, all relationships eventually succumb to entropy and mediocrity.
Dissipation and disordering of love is our natural course when we are left to our own devices. But if we abide in Christ and walk by the power of the Holy Spirit, God can empower us to love in an unnatural—indeed, a supernatural—way that isn’t otherwise possible. It’s the quality of love described by the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians, the Bible passage that is read at so many weddings.
But before we discuss this higher love, let’s review the other forms of human love. Each of these loves can be elevated to what God intended for each to be when they’re infused with agape. These first four human loves are like flowers that can flourish in the garden of agape. By the same token, each also contains the seeds of its own unique form of hatred, when it becomes distorted and disordered. All five of these forms of love are different, and all play a critical role in sustaining the marriage relationship.
Five Types of Love
This Greek word isn’t on C. S. Lewis’s formal list of “the four loves,” but it’s mentioned in the book by the same name, so I like to include it. Epithumia is used in Greek literature (including the NT) and can be translated “desire.” When meant negatively, it’s translated “lust.” In a positive sense, it’s a genuine physical desire or appetite.
Whenever I think of this form of love, I think of an incident when I was young. Sitting at the family dining room table, I announced to my father and mother, “I love chocolate.” To this, one of them replied, “You can’t love chocolate.” They, of course, were thinking about a relational sort of love. But as a boy, I knew I could love chocolate—and I did … and still do (though my tastes have changed, from milk chocolate to now 90% dark chocolate).
Epithumia plays a part in the marriage context, where a physical union is both natural and proper—and dates back to our pre-Fall state: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:24–25 NASB).
This physical union is an expression of something deeper, a soul connection, which in turn expresses the spiritual union of that couple—and the still higher union of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Our culture today is pervaded by disordered epithumia. Physical union is commonly seen as just two bodies coming together, without any relationship at all. This impoverished view is evidenced by our language (e.g., “hooking up”). It’s also obvious in the films. Watch an older film, and almost always, it takes a while for the first kiss, and still more time for the romance to develop. In recent films, by contrast, the first kiss comes in one scene, and in the very next scene the couple—still virtual strangers—are shown in bed together. There’s no transition whatsoever. It’s a thin view of love, devoid of the richness and realness of a growing desire in the context of commitment.
Before sin and shame entered the world, epithumia, was part of the good creation; it was part of act one in the divine drama of human history. Interestingly, both Jesus and Paul point to this pre-curse, one-flesh union, quoting Genesis 2:25 in Matthew 19:5–6 and 1 Corinthians 6:16, respectively. That we now feel shame physically is a result of the fall. And not coincidentally, many who struggle with lust are also plagued by feelings of shame. Even in the context of the marital covenant, epithumia may be absent or minimized; this can be symptomatic of problem areas that need correcting, such as painful experiences of the past or poor communication in the present.
Thanks be to God, with Christ, our physical desires can be reordered, purified, and even enlarged beyond what we imagined possible.
Another word for love not found in the NT but often appearing in the Greek literature is erōs, from which we get the English word “erotic.” Eros is romantic love, or sexual love, but it goes beyond mere sensual or physical desire. It can be present with or without epithumia and leads to a powerful identification with another person. Two lovers experiencing eros are occupied, even preoccupied, with one another.
This type of love is referenced in the Song of Solomon, where the woman speaks of being “sick with love” (2:5), a love that she says is “better than wine” (1:2). The mutual admiration borders on obsession and reflects our modern understanding of “true love.” Yet, again, the language is indicative. You can “fall in” to this type of love, and you can just as easily fall out of it. The excuse “love made me do it” suggests that we often see this kind of love on the level of a god: as a force higher than ourselves that we simply can’t resist without denying who we really are. This, of course, is a lie straight from the devil.
Eros is a vital component of marriage, but it can’t sustain a marriage over the long haul. After 12–18 months, you better have something richer and more profound. You will also need philia (see below) and, above all, agape.
The next kind of love, storgē, is also not found in the NT. This love is one of affection or belonging. It’s the kind of love we have for our relatives, simply because they’re family. It’s usually foisted upon us at birth and is not a love that we choose. In fact, most of us, if given the choice, would not choose to love or be friends with our relatives. Personally, I have family members with whom I have almost nothing in common—but I still love them, simply because I grew up with them, and they’ve always been part of my life. (As a believer, agapelove has also infused this natural human love.)
Storge doesn’t have any illusions of grandeur; it provides a temporary security and a feeling of being comfortable in one another’s presence. This love offers an emotional refuge from the outside world. Home is where you “belong”—and return to—because you’re accepted there.
This is a rich and powerful form of love, but it can become disordered, when, for example, we take family members for granted, or show them disdain. We often do so because they’re “always there,” so it’s easy to miss them as gifts from God or as people to whom we’re called to show His higher love.
Jesus demonstrated storge when, while hanging on the cross, He hand-selected His close friend John to care for His mother after His earthly death. At the same time, throughout His life, He made clear that this form of love can also be a barrier or stumbling block. That’s because our families and homes can be the very places where spiritual warfare is most intense. We may even be forced to choose Him at the expense of our blood relations (see Mark 10:29–30 and Luke 9:59–62).
The next love, philia, does appear in the NT. It’s concerned with the love of friendship and companionship. This love is a product of mutuality of interests, time, insights, vision, and experiences. Philia is sparked when we find common ground with other people; we’re fixed on the same thing(s), rather than on each other as with eros.
Unlike storge, philia is a love we choose. These friendships are most profound when they center on “the mutual pursuit of the highest goods: truth, goodness, beauty, and the source of all these goods—God,” as I wrote in my dedication to Rewriting Your Broken Story (2016). I dedicated that book to 12 men with whom I’ve shared the strong bond of philia, infused by agape; to them, I wrote, “The things of the inner life become richer when they are held in common with treasured friends.” This epitomizes how God uses philia to enhance our lives.
Marriage would not be as God designed it without philia. Common interests are often cultivated while dating, but spouses must continue to cultivate them over time to prevent the closeness in the relationship from eroding. I’ve observed a tendency among spouses to let this realm of overlapping interests narrow as time passes. Relationships are not unlike the second law of thermodynamics: anything left to itself eventually diminishes; useful energy dissipates into disordered energy. The only way to overcome this is an intentional infusion of ordered energy.
Spouses do not need to share all of the same interests (that would be boring!), but couples should recognize the tendency to neglect the commonalities. It’s especially important to nurture these mutual interests during the parenting phase, so that when you’re empty-nesters, you don’t find yourself living with a virtual stranger.
One thing that brought Karen and me together was similar taste (a somewhat eclectic one, I admit) in music and film. When I taught at the King’s College while attending New York University years ago, we had box seats at the Metropolitan Opera. We continue to enjoy opera together when we have the opportunity and just last month attended the Met in HD performance of Puccini’s Tosca (which we followed with a long and stimulating discussion) together. We sometimes cultivate our shared love for foreign films by having little home film festivals (watching a bunch of one director’s movies, for instance). Similarly, we share a love for literature, and I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to her. All of these experiences enhance our mutuality, reinforcing every other aspect of our relationship.
When distorted, philia can be a world of “insiders and outsiders,” as C.S. Lewis describes so well in his essay “The Inner Ring.” Friendships can be a source of pride—evoking jealousy, envy, and other sinful attitudes—a downside to the fact that it’s a love of choice (unlike the humbler storge).
This brings us to the highest of the loves: divine love, or agape. This is another term (agapē) found in the NT and refers to a love not of emotions or feelings but of the will and of choice. This type of love can be defined as the steady intention of the will to another’s highest good. It is an ongoing benevolence—willing (-volence) what’s good or best (bene-) for another.
Agape love = the steady intention of the will to another’s highest good
God is the source of this kind of agapelove: “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This love is characterized by unselfishness and giving, even to the point of sacrifice. It’s an unconditional love that doesn’t judge based on performance.
This type of love is a tremendous gift and blessing, but sadly, many don’t grow up receiving it. I will sometimes look my grandson in the eyes (and not only on his birthday) and speak this kind of love, echoing God’s own words to His Son (in Matthew 3:17):
“You (Kenny) are my beloved grandson, and I am pleased with you.”
It’s important to use the word “pleased” instead of “proud.” Pride relates to accomplishment, and although there’s nothing wrong with being proud of what your kids and grandkids do, it’s also important to give them the gift of being. To say you’re pleased doesn’t imply perfection, but it does imply they don’t have to change anything for you to take pleasure in them.
And therein—in this unconditional nature of agape—lies the dilemma, the power, and the pain of marriage. Marriage is two people each making an unconditional covenant of commitment to an imperfect person. Forgiveness will be necessary, because you will let each other down. But you can still love (agape) each other because it’s a love of choice.[panel style=”primary” title=”The Five Loves” text_align=”left”]Epithumia — Legitimate physical desire
(disordered form: lust)
Eros — Romantic love or sexual love
(disordered form: leads to illicit relationships, treating other people as gods and sole sources of our personal needs)
Storge — Affection or belonging, as shared by family members
(disordered form: disdain or ungratefulness; taking for granted)
Philia — Friendship and companionship, a love of openness that is occupied with common interests and activities
(disordered form: manipulative relationships, one-upmanship, cliques)
Agape— A willful choice to put another’s interests above one’s own; an unselfish, giving (even to the point of sacrifice), and unconditional love
(with God as its source, it is never disordered; elevates and correctly orders the other four loves, making them human-divine loves that fulfill God’s original intentions) [/panel]
The Source of the Loves
Agape shown on the human level mirrors and is powered by God’s own causeless and ceaseless love for us. It’s a love based on His choice to love and accept us while we were still sinners, even when we didn’t deserve it. Colossians 3:12a says we’re “chosen of God, holy and beloved.” Our identity is secure in Him. You can’t choose someone accidentally, and neither did God choose us by accident. Those of us who are in Christ are holy and beloved, no matter if we feel that way or not. The result is a capacity (which we didn’t have before we trusted Christ and received His Spirit) to do what the rest of the verse says: “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12b).
“He gave us more and better than we deserved, and He now calls and equips us to give others better than they deserve.”
So the basis and pattern for our unconditional love and forgiveness of others is God’s own forgiveness and love for us (“just as the Lord forgave”; Colossians 3:13). He gave us more and better than we deserved, and He now calls and equips us to give others better than they deserve. We have the ability, by His power at work in us, to put their interests above our own, taking the same, humble attitude that Christ had when He took on human flesh (Philippians 2:5–8).
This other-centered mindset isn’t natural. It’s supernatural. And our capacity for it is directly proportionate to our grasp of who and Whose we are. The more we grasp that our security, significance, and satisfaction are found in Him and not in people, the more secure we are.
Agape transforms relationships, because even if it’s not reciprocated, it doesn’t destroy us. We can still love even when we’re hurt or wronged (even when, as Paul says, we have “a complaint against” someone). It’s a love that is not merely theoretical but is expressed in action. Just think, God didn’t stay in heaven—His love caused Him to give His one and only Son (John 3:16), sent to earth as the most tangible expression of love ever known.
Agape transforms relationships, because even if it’s not reciprocated, it doesn’t destroy us.
Perspective One Conclusion: Divine Love as the Foundation
Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Colossians 3:14)
Letting God infuse us, our marriages, and all of our relationships with His agapelove is the only way our various human loves will be ordered correctly, elevated, and sustained for the long term—becoming what God intended them to be.
Love as the world defines it is anemic; it’s a thin broth, unable to sustain a robust relationship, particularly a marriage relationship. We need something more. Only divine love provides the proper foundation for a successful marriage, or friendship, or any other relationship.
Today, will YOU be a vessel of this love of God—letting Him love other people in you and through you, as you? When you do, not only will others be changed, but you will change too—becoming more in practice who He has already made you in position: holy, blameless, and acceptable in His sight.
Prayer: Father, thank you for pursuing us, choosing us, and loving us with an everlasting, unconditional love. Your love is causeless, ceaseless, and measureless. Help us to walk in that love and manifest it to other people this day. In Christ’s name. Amen.[divider style=”solid” color=”#7f7f7f” opacity=”1″ placement=”equal”]
Bonus One: Put It Into Practice—Be Your Spouse’s Student
Based on exercises from A Guide to Practicing God’s Presence.
Out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21), make it your goal to put your spouse’s (or another’s) interests above your own by becoming his or her “student.” Study the things your spouse (or other person) needs, loves, and enjoys (tangibles and intangibles). Then, do one thing that you know will delight, serve, or (happily) surprise him or her. Don’t do it to get something in return, but let God’s delight be your reward as you become the earthly conduit of His unconditional grace, forgiveness, love, and patience.[divider style=”solid” color=”#7f7f7f” opacity=”1″ placement=”equal”]
Perspective Two—God’s Love in Greek: Is the Meaning of Agapē Divine Love? (Michael Stewart)
Philosophy of Language
While it sounds silly to say that words don’t have a meaning, it might be more appropriate to say that words have a range of meaning, or a range of usage which affects the meaning of words. That range, usage, effect, and meaning are all context dependent, and the contexts vary (e.g., textual context, grammatical context, historical context). I note this not to make meaning seem to be something more elusive than it should; on the contrary, the goal is to gain precision where possible so that meaning doesn’t elude the reader, or that mistaken meaning doesn’t cloud judgment across varying contexts.
While mistaken meaning might result in mild blunders or be characterized in some scenarios as just an unfortunate academic mishap, mistaken meaning can have devastating results when the sought-after meaning is dealing with terms of significance, like love. As considered in the context of marriage (as in Ken’s article above) spouses with different definitions of love—or different understandings of what the other spouse means by love—can find themselves at severe odds and in danger of dissolving the relationship. Outside of marriage or other romantic relationships, misunderstandings over the meaning of love have great consequence: What does it mean to love my children? My pet? My neighbor? My coworker? My church? My country? What does it mean to love God? What does it mean to love as God loves?
Misunderstandings of meaning and their resulting communication issues are a frequent factor in relational difficulties. Patient precision can clarify and prevent relational ruin. This need for precision and clarification is also needed when it comes to the language of matters of faith. For failed understanding can needlessly and irreparably shipwreck someone’s faith. This occurs not simply because someone has a bad definition or understanding of a term, but also when they have a faulty philosophy of language.
And that is why I’m adding what I hope is a helpful addition to this post on agape love. So much has been written about it and taken for granted, especially in popular literature and internet posts, that it suffers from faulty assumptions that run the risk of causing confusion regarding what the Bible teaches, what we should think about love, and how it is that we understand and show love.
Just Give Me the Definition
There is the false concept that a definition will unlock the meaning of a term and that is all that is needed for understanding its usage. It’s not the case that definitions fail to convey meaning—it’s simply that a definition tied to one word is a dangerous assumption about how language functions. We inherently understand this when it comes to our own language, but we tend to apply different rules when approaching unknown languages or language that we’ve deemed “particular” or “technical” or even “religious.” Let me explain.
Consider any of the following sentences:
- I believe it will rain today.
- I believe my wife loves me.
- I believe my wife.
- I believe in school choice.
- I don’t believe in God.
These sentences each use the same word believe, yet its usage and meaning differ among the sentences. Believe, in these cases, can mean to think, have confidence, trust, support, or confirm the existence of. At the core of each meaning is the concept of assent, but in each case, assent is shaped differently by means, reasons, circumstances, objects, etc. While all these words can be synonymous with believe, their differences are highlighted when contrasted with one another. For example, while believe can mean “think” or “support,” it’s not the case that “think” is synonymous with “support.”
However, if we take a word like believe and want to understand it more fully in terms of its theological significance, there is a popular line of thinking that assumes that somehow knowing the Greek word is the key to unlocking its theological meaning—and that gaining this singular meaning is how we’ll understand every usage of that word moving forward.
One word, particularly as it relates to NT word studies, tends to encourage this approach. That word is love.
God’s Love in Greek
There are several Greek words that are rendered “love” in modern translations. In the NT, two of those words, listed below in their noun forms are:
- agapē (ἀγάπη)
- philia (φιλία) (Though this word is almost always translated “friendship,” it’s translated “love” in James 4:4; this root, however, is present in the word “philadelphia” (φιλαδέλφεια), translated in the Bible usually as “brotherly love” or “love of the brethren.” There other words using this root in compound form to convey love and a particular object, such as “love of money.”)
The verb forms (“to love”) of the two words above are:
- agapaō (ἀγαπάω)
- phileō (φιλέω)
That there exist these two words within the Bible (and even more words in the larger corpus of Greek literature) does suggest a range of usage that could be obscured by English translations that employ one word. However, it does not follow that:
- the Greeks demanded a greater exactness or precision regarding love than do English speakers.
- the concepts conveyed by the various Greek terms are concepts not conveyed or inexpressible in English.
- the usage of those Greek words remained static such that the exact conveyance carried over to every context.
- the various Greek terms were never used interchangeably or synonymously (in single or multiple author scenarios in varying or same contexts).
These distinctions are important because of potential misunderstanding of the popular teaching regarding “divine love” or a “God-kind-of-love.” Most often, it is taught that agapē depicts this kind of love. Note well: it is not the case that agapē cannot or does not convey divine love. It is simply the case that:
- the word itself does not necessarily depict that concept
- every usage of the word does not have to depict that concept
- usage of other words for “love” do not or cannot convey that concept
Perhaps there are scenarios in which agapē is meant to convey specifics regarding God’s love. But it is not the word by itself that necessitates this meaning. It is the word within a context through which the meaning is conveyed.
Let’s look at a popular and easily understood example from John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.[note]The Bible references appearing in this post, unless otherwise noted, come from The Holy Bible, Berean Study Bible, BSB. Copyright © 2016, 2020 by Bible Hub. Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.[/note]
The verb “loved” there is translated from the verb form agapaō (ἀγαπάω). One could categorize this as divine love, and they wouldn’t be incorrect. However, the use of agapē in this context doesn’t necessitate this categorization. It is the subject who loved—God—that necessitates the characterization. Had some other verb been used there, it still would have been the case that this was a divine love, given that God is the one who loved. In fact, John does use other verbs to express God’s love:
The Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does (John 5:20).
Here the word translated “loves” is the verb form phileō (φιλέω). Would we then say that this sort of love between the Father and Son falls short of divine love since it isn’t agapē? Of course, not. Does it depict a different aspect or nuance of love since John uses a different word? Maybe. But we can’t assume so solely on the basis of these two verses. John might have chosen different words to distinguish some nuance or difference, but he might also have chosen these words for the sake of variety.[note]Or we might ascribe this to Jesus instead of John since Jesus is the speaker in both these instances and John is reporting what He said.[/note]Those are options that shouldn’t be ruled out, but these are options that would be left unconsidered for those who assume static, “sticky” word meanings.
Furthermore, John uses agapē in contexts in which the concept of divine love seems unfitting. In the very same chapter in which Jesus tells Nicodemus that “God loved the world,” we learn (just three verses later) that “men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil” (3:19). Do men love darkness with a divine love?! Of course not. Nor does such an understanding make sense in verses like 2 Timothy 4:10, in which Paul writes to Timothy, “Demas, in his love of this world, has deserted me.” There the word is the verb form is agapaō (ἀγαπάω). Note that just two verses prior, Paul uses the same verb form to depict those who love, not the world, but the appearing of the Lord. Consider this translation (BSB), which chooses to translate with the term crave: “From now on there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but to all who crave His appearing.”
Understanding the Meaning and Definition of Agapē
In asking these questions about the specificity of agapē, I’m not suggesting that there is no definition of agapē or meaning of agapē. What I am suggesting is that words or concepts like agapē or love develop nuance and change in usage over the course of time based on factors like frequency, popularity, culture, etc. These changes are the reason why discovering a word’s meaning demands contextual observation and understanding. This is why when you look up most words in the dictionary you will see listed numerous definitions to capture a range of meaning, dependent upon context. Do all words follow this pattern? Not necessarily. Words that are newer, less frequently used, or technical might not follow that pattern. Take the term for the machine I’m using to type this article as an example. Laptop has a narrow range of meaning. It is narrower than, say, computer (a computer could refer to differently types of machines or a person who actually computes). I wouldn’t expect the term laptop to gain much greater range than it currently has. But one should expect a broad-reaching, timeless concept such as love to increase in usages over time.
Surveying the Significance of Agapē in Academic Resources and Popular Sources
To understand more about the nature of love, the meaning of agapē, and how these are presented in both popular and more academic writings, I offer a brief survey of just a few resources that speak either to love in general, agapē specifically, or the nature of language (especially Greek).
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible[note]The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1. ed. Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, 68–69, s.v. “agape,” James Daane.[/note]
In his discussion of agapē and phileō, James Daane notes that the Hebrew language has “only one word for love,” but also notes that the Hebrew word for love “has a rich variety of meanings.” However, Daane declares that the NT “makes finer distinctions of meaning.” This is an intriguing statement since Daane’s first characterization of agapē is “that love demanded of man by the law of God and for man’s neighbor, whom man must love ‘as himself.’ Agapē is, therefore, the fulfillment of the law as it relates to both God and fellow man.” Yet this characterization of love that fulfills the law is an idea first captured in the OT, which supposedly lacks the finer distinction of the NT.
But of those NT distinctions, Daane admits, “While the NT with its two words for love makes finer distinctions of meaning, even in the NT the distinctions are blurred in actual usage so that the meanings of each overlap. It is in the imprecise usage that the true meanings of love, particularly of agapé and eros, appear in Biblical thought.”
I’m not sure how it is that “true meanings of love” are (or can be) revealed in “imprecise usage.” A better understanding could be had if meaning were understood as something that is discovered in the context of the sentence in consideration of its components and surrounding context rather than something necessarily imparted by an individual word. Curiously, the difficulty in such an approach is known by Daane, who critiques the Anders Nygren work Agape and Eros for its “sharp distinction between agapé and eros [that] does not comport with all the biblical data.”
Agape and Eros
Anders Nygren’s oft-cited work traces the history of the motifs of agapē and erōs, presenting agapē as the Christian ideal.[note]Noticeably absent in Nygren’s work is the usage of agapē in “negative” contexts like the verses mentioned here, like John 3:19 or 2 Timothy 4:10; nor does Nygren interact with the other word for love found in the NT, phileō.)[/note]
Nygren considers agapē to be “a distinctive and original feature of Christianity.”[note]Anders Nygren. Agape and Eros, Parts I and II. Trans. Philip S. Watson. London: S.P.C.K., 1954, 61.[/note]
Of its distinctiveness, he writes, “It is the Christian conception of the fellowship with God that gives the idea of Agape its meaning.”[note]Agape and Eros, 67.[/note]
Specifically, for Nygren, that fellowship finds distinction (and separation from the OT commands) in that it directs love toward enemies and sinners.
Nygren gives these four summaries of “Divine love”:[note]Agape and Eros, 75.[/note]
- Agape is spontaneous and “unmotivated.”
Nygren calls this “the most striking feature of God’s love.”[note]Agape and Eros, 75.[/note]
What he means in this characterization (also called “groundless”) is that the love is not conditioned on anything intrinsic to the object of love. The love is unmotivated by the object. This is the “unconditional” love of God so often described in Christian jargon.
- Agape is indifferent to value.
Nygren admits that this summary “does not really add anything new to what has already been said.”[note]Agape and Eros, 77.[/note]
This summary attempts to avoid any erroneous conclusion that God, having evaluated the righteous and unrighteous, chose to swap the normal order and love the sinner instead or that the righteous are loved because of their righteousness.
- Agape is creative.
Agapē’s creative quality, according to Nygren, follows from its indifference to value. Given that God doesn’t love that which is inherently worthy, Nygren concludes that agapē infuses worth to the now-loved, but once-unworthy object: “Agape does not recognise value, but creates it. Agape loves, and imparts value by loving. The man who is loved by God has not value in himself; what gives him value is precisely the fact that God loves him. Agape is a value-creating principle.”[note]Agape and Eros, 78.[/note]
- Agape is the initiator of fellowship with God.
In this point, Nygren makes clear that there is no pursuing of God from man’s side.
From these points, Nygren concludes that man, being the recipient of God’s agapē, is in turn, an agent who loves God unconditionally—and not because God is man’s highest good. He writes, “Love towards God does not seek to gain anything.” It doesn’t “seek to gain even God Himself or His love.”[note]Agape and Eros, 94.[/note]
Love: A History
In his book Love: A History, philosopher Simon May characterizes agapē as “one of the most influential words every coined” on his assumption that Christianity adopts the term based on its frequent use in the Septuagint. May discusses the broad usage of agapē in the Septuagint, specifically in contrasting this broad usage of agapē with its previous infrequent use prior to this Greek translation of the OT.[note]Simon May, Love: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, 21.[/note] This broader usage in the Greek version of the OT illustrates the difficulty of singling out agapē as an unconditional, God-like love, as it covers even aspects of “love” that we’d think more appropriately characterized be erōs (such as Amnon’s desire for Tamar in 1 Samuel 13).[note]Love: A History, fn. 37, p. 260.[/note]
The emerging presence of agapē in the Septuagint is a good example for considering how usage influences meaning. On one hand, it’s possible that the broader usage in the Septuagint is illustrative of the understanding of agapē at the time, as a word capable of covering the entire range of desire expressed in the OT. On the other hand, it’s possible that this new or unconventional usage influenced how agapē was understood, so much so that its meaning (or range of meaning) begin to change.[note]Whether either is the case is not an object of inquiry here. To make such a determination, other factors would need to be considered, such as use of other terms for love (for example, the Septuagint does use phileō and erōs), discovering why those distinctions were made, understanding usage of words for love in extant texts, discovering how representative those texts are, etc.[/note]
That sort of change might seem unsettling to some, but it is the nature of language to do just that. It’s why a word like nice once had a meaning quite the opposite of its current usage, and how pop culture slang can take a word like bad and turn it in to its opposite, meaning something good. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, in writing on this phenomenon, specifically as it relates to love and the NT, says of the observed change that it is like “witnessing the dying of one usage while the other has already reached its vigorous youth.”[note]Warfield, B. B. (1918). “The Terminology of Love in the New Testament.” The Princeton Theological Review, XVI(1–4), 2.[/note]
May’s conclusions that there exist too-rigid-borders between the “types of love”—what he calls “thinking of love in an artificially compartmentalised way”—is merited. In discussing passionate desire, friendship, and altruism (think: erōs, phileō, and agapē) May argues, “these are not separate types of love but the three key modes of attention … whether for friends, children, parents, lovers or spouses.”[note]Love: A History, 25.[/note]
His way of understanding loves seems a more richer human experience and a more accurately reflection of what takes place in relationships: “We arguably see all three [types of love] in the love of Jonathan for David and, in a more qualified way, of Ruth for Naomi. More importantly, we see all three modes of attention in Israel’s love for God, sometimes spoken of in rapturous-erotic tones redolent of the Song of Songs, sometimes in terms of the devotion, favour and conversational intimacy of friendship, sometimes in terms of unreserved submission to the will of the loved one.”[note]Love: A History, 25. One should not assume that May’s declared erōs present in the relationship between Jonathan and David assumes a sexual love. May writes that “there is no evidence” of “what we would today call an actively gay relationship.”[/note]
Beyond rejecting the siloed approach in which types of love fit neatly into their holding places, May, from the beginning of his work, questions whether the emulation of divine love is possible or wise: “My overall theme is that, especially in a secular age, we should model human love not on how God is said to love us but on how we are commanded to love God.”[note]Love: A History, 13.[/note]
For May, that means obedience.
May’s argument regarding the OT’s concept of love as obedience (contra the Greek concept of natural desire toward something) points out the volitional nature of love. “It would make no sense to say that one loves God with all one’s heart and soul and might, but nonetheless decides, case-by-case, whether to ignore of follow his will.”[note]Love: A History, 27.[/note]
Love’s relationship to obedience is clarified by Jesus:
Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and reveal Myself to him. (John 14:21)
Here we see that there is no need to pit the “Hebrew” idea of love-as-obedience against a Greek idea of love-as-uniting-with-the-good. Christ’s description of the close relationship of love and obedience reveals its ultimate result as the unity with the ultimate good—a revelation of God to the obedient lover and a promise of abiding:
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23)
Bill Mounce Blog (best-selling Greek textbook author)
Bill Mounce (author of Basics of Biblical Greek), in a blog post, characterizes the pre-Christian usage of agapē as a “colorless word without any great depth of meaning,” yet speaks to the possible evolution of word meaning, offering, “Perhaps it is because the word was so colorless that the [NT] writers chose it to express a specifically Christian kind of love.” But before one thinks that Mounce writes to defend the typical understanding of the special nature of the word, Mounce warns,
All those great talks you have heard about αγαπη love being an undeserved love for the unlovely really has nothing to do with what the Greek word meant in the Koine. Rather, the word was infused with God’s love and so after the first century carried the biblical nuances of God’s love.
φιλεω overlaps in meaning with αγαπη so care needs to be exercised in assuming there are always specific differences in meaning between these two words.
Mounce’s distinction is important. It simultaneously shows the synonymous usage of words we translate as “love,” while helping us understand that meaning is not a special power residing within a word, destined to follow it wherever it goes. Meaning is discovered in context and is shaped by cultural usage.
There is a well-known and often cited prooftext of the importance of understanding the nuance among the types of love; it is the interchange of Jesus and Peter in John 21 regarding Peter’s love for Jesus. “Do you love me?” Jesus repeatedly asks? And Peter responds three times, “I love (phileō, φιλέω) you.” Yet, two out of the three times Jesus uses the word agapē, only in the last instance using the word phileō.
What does the variation in word usage signify? Mounce reminds us, “The fact of the matter is that Leon Morris [NT scholar] has proven the John likes to use synonyms, and variations do not necessarily have any meaning other than stylistic concerns. And the variations here make no sense if φιλεω is a watered down form of love (e.g., “like”).”
Could the varying usage by Jesus be purposefully signifying? Of course. But the fact of word change does not demand it.
“The Terminology of Love in the New Testament”
B. B. Warfield’s classic work on the types of love offers a middle position of sorts on how to understand synonymous usage. Note that what he says here first applies to classical Greek. Though the Bible was written in Koine Greek, the principles outlined here apply to language in general:
What we mean to say is that, as synonyms, these terms do not so much cover a common ground over the edge of which each extends at a particular place to occupy an additional field all its own; as that they are so used that, within the common ground which they all alike cover, each has a particular quality or aspect which it alone emphasizes, and which it alone is fitted to bring into sight. If we should endeavor to hit off the special implication of each with a single word, we might perhaps say that with στέργειν it is nature, with ἐρᾶν passion, with φιλεῖν pleasurableness, with ἀγαπᾶν preciousness. The idea of love includes all these things, and these terms come severally to mind, therefore, in speaking of love, whenever love is contemplated from the angle of the special implication of each. … It is probable that no one of the terms is ever used wholly without some sense in the speaker’s mind of its specific implication.[note]”The Terminology of Love,” 3.[/note]
Warfield’s commentary gives nod to both the flexibility and flavor of each word, noting that authorial experience and authorial considerations influence usage as well. However, in John’s usage of the different words for love, Warfield something more than mere synonymous usage:
From a passage like John 21:15–17 we learn something of the specific meaning of both words. The two words appear here side by side in contrast with one another, with the inevitable result that what is distinctive of each is thrown into relief. That anyone should doubt that the words are used here in distinctive senses would seem incredible. … It is, however, as Moulton and Milligan remark, “supremely hard in so severely simple a writer as John, to reconcile ourselves to a meaningless use of synonyms, where the point would seem to lie in the identity of the word employed.”
Warfield understands this purposeful switching of terms as a narrowing of focus (not compared to other disciples) and searing of conscience (in light of previous denials) on the phileō between Jesus and Peter.[note]”The Terminology of Love,” 194–196.[/note]
Warfield traces the evolution of usage and meaning for agapē and other terms for love from classical Greek to Koine in their use in both the Septuagint and NT. In doing so, he illustrates further the difficulty in ascribing restrictions and special status to a word like agapē. In the Septuagint, agapē is anything but special:
Because ἀγαπᾶν has become the general word for love, what was exceptional in the classics has here become the rule. In the Septuagint the word has lost the precision of its specific notion and become merely a general term to express a general idea. A much nobler term for love has come into general use for the expression of the broad idea of love; and this ennobles the whole speech concerning love. But the word itself has suffered loss in thus permitting itself to be applied indifferently to all kinds and conditions of love.[note]”The Terminology of Love,” 43–44.[/note]
On the other hand, Warfield notes that for whatever generalizing effect took place due to wider usage, there was the addition of an elevating effect upon because of the nature of the subject matter:
… the application of it to describe the higher aspects of love as presented in the [OT] revelation added great stretches to its range upwards. We are in the presence here of a double movement through which ἀγαπᾶν was prepared for its use in the [NT]. … As it was the noblest word for love in Greek speech, its range could be extended, on its becoming the general word for love, only downward. It was extended also upwards only by becoming the vehicle for the deepened conception of love which has been given to the world by the self-revelation of God in the Scriptures. When we open the Septuagint, therefore, and see ἀγαπᾷν lying on its pages as the general term for love, we are in the presence of some very notable phenomena in the preparation of the terminology of love in the [NT].[note]”The Terminology of Love,” 44–45.[/note]
But such an elevating effect has its limits, and Warfield warns against a “careless manner of speaking of ἀγάπη … as if it were in some way a gift of revealed religion to the world, not to say a direct product of divine inspiration.”[note]”The Terminology of Love,” 164–165.[/note]
Mark Ward (editor, Bible Study Magazine)
Mark Ward (Ph.D. in NT Interpretation) has a gift for distilling linguistic issues, delivering them in appealing and accessible video explanations on his YouTube channel. In his video below on agape love, he gives a helpful overview of approaching biblical texts (English, Hebrew, or Greek), answers the ubiquitous “What does agape love really mean?”, and points to other useful commentary on the issues, such as D. A. Carson’s observation that brings to let another issue of textual “significance” if we assume that changing terms necessitate changing meanings.
The examples from the resources mentioned above exhibit some level of understanding of linguistics, theology, or philosophy. But as Mounce notes, the teaching of the special nature of agapē love is a common theme in lay audiences. “How many youth talks have been given on the different types of love, based on the different Greek words? More than I can count, for sure.”
To that I say, “good!” But because of the prevalence of such teaching and the ease with which this topic is misunderstood, efforts should be made to correct erroneous thoughts. Many lay teachers (and ministers) aren’t getting their information from knowledgable sources (nor does education guarantee correctness in “academic” sources). Quick internet searches for the highest ranking sites in search engines often are the study those teachers have the time of ability for. Upon taking in some information, they might not have the training or ability to determine what’s authoritative or correct. And the material that’s out there, in some cases, is little more than clickbait. Let’s look below at how agape is presented in some of the higher ranking sites for internet searches for “agape love” or “what does the bible say about agape love.”
Part of the appeal of popular sites is in the tease to deliver insider knowledge on otherwise “hidden” meanings of the original languages of the Bible. It’s no surprise that the current top-ranked article appearing in Google searches is titled “What Does Agape Love Really Mean in the Bible?”[note]https://www.christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-does-agape-love-really-mean-in-the-bible.html[/note] Who doesn’t want to know what something really means?
In that article, Alyssa Roat begins with an example from English (much like I begin my portion of this article, and with the same example that Ken began his portion):
“I love chocolate,” we say, and, “I love you.” Obviously, the love we have for a significant other, a favorite food, and a friend are all different (hopefully). However, the English language doesn’t lend itself well to making these distinctions.”
Yet Roat, giving the example in English and giving the explanation in English somehow still makes the distinction. She continues:
The Greek language used in the Bible, however, does make those distinctions. Even though the various Greek words for love are all translated to the same English word in most instances, they held different meanings for the Greek-speaking readers.
Whether the language makes those distinctions is undetermined from the words themselves. As we’ve seen, it is possible that the different words convey the specific distinctions we’ve discussed, but not necessary. Nor does the converse situation limit meaning if a language only has one word to represent the range of meaning. As Roat proves, English, with its one word, nevertheless conveys to its reader different meanings because the English reader—like the Greek reader—knows the difference between a friend and a candy bar.
Roat echoes the popular line that “Agape love, in the Bible, is love that comes from God,” but she is not ignorant of other uses: “However, a person can also agape or wholeheartedly love the wrong things. 1 John 2:15 warns believers not to love the things of the world.” It must be the case that Roat holds that agapē is not only “love that comes from God,” but also “wholehearted” love. Both could be the case, but these sort of articles almost always lack the clarification or explanation of why we see both usages.
One wonders if the reluctance to clarify comes from not wanting to destroy that which “preaches well” or in this case, ranks well in internet searches. Unfortunately, rather than receiving clarification, unknowing readers are left with confusion. For the same articles declares, “Agape love does not come naturally to us in our sinful state.” If that’s the case, then how does Roat explain her own example in 1 John 2:15 in which agapē appears? The every verse talks about man in sinful state:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not from the Father but from the world. The world is passing away, along with its desires; but whoever does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:15–17)
In answering the question, “What is agape love?” the popular site Got Questions also states, “Agape love does not come naturally to us. Because of our fallen nature, we are incapable of producing such a love. If we are to love as God loves, that love—that agape—can only come from its Source.”[note]https://www.gotquestions.org/agape-love.html[/note]
This statement is supposedly proven by citing examples… while ignoring verses to the contrary. This Got Questions article mentions Romans 5:5, Galatians 5:22, and 1 John 3:16, and then declares, “Agape love is always shown by what it does.” If agapē is always shown by what it does how it is that sinners, according to the language used in the Bible, are said to exhibit agapē?!
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them (Luke 6:32; note, too, that this verse calls into question the “unmotivated” quality of agapē we discussed earlier).
Popular encyclopedia sites also follow suit:
Britannica mentions agape in reference to human and divine love as well as its designation as a special meal. Where it stands on agape as the highest form of love is clear:
In Scripture, the transcendent agape love is the highest form of love and is contrasted with eros, or erotic love, and philia, or brotherly love. In John 3:16, a verse that is often described as a summary of the Gospel message, agape is the word used for the love that moved God to send his only son for the world’s redemption. The term necessarily extends to the love of one’s fellow humans, as the reciprocal love between God and humans is made manifest in one’s unselfish love of others.[note]Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “agape.” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 3, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/agape.[/note]
Similarly, Wikipedia declares agape to be the highest form of love:
In Christianity, agape (/ɑːˈɡɑːpeɪ, ˈɑːɡəˌpeɪ, ˈæɡə-/; from Ancient Greek ἀγάπη (agápē)) is “the highest form of love, charity” and “the love of God for man and of man for God”. This is in contrast to philia, brotherly love, or philautia, self-love, as it embraces a deep and profound sacrificial love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance. According to 1 Timothy it comes “out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned”. It goes beyond just the emotions to the extent of seeking the best for others.[note]Wikipedia contributors. “Agape.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Sep. 2022. Web. 21 Sep. 2022.[/note]
Biblical Love and the Common Claims about Agape
It’s often claimed that agape love is unconditional, undeserved, sourced in God, and pure, and that this is the settled and consistent meaning where agapē is present. But this can’t be—not if we’re going to be completely biblical. Verses like the ones cited in this article (Luke 6:32, John 3:19, 2 Timothy 4:10) make it clear that sinners exhibit agapē. Is that not a disordered love, not sourced in God? How then do we rescue a concept of “biblical love”?
First, I think we might gain clarification if we would use the term biblical less frequently, or at least use it less frequently as a modifying adjective in this sense of “moral” or “right” or “special.” It seems more accurate and safer to speak of “Christian love” than “biblical love.” I’d advocate the same for other terms we often see paired with “biblical,” e.g, biblical marriage, biblical worldview, biblical manhood, etc.
What Christians mean when attaching the descriptor “biblical” is an accurate understanding of some truth as interpreted correctly from the inspired revelation of God’s Word, recorded in the Bible. Being biblical can carry connotations of being right, true, having the real answers/meaning. Yet in this pursuit of biblical love, many have ignored what the Bible says in favor of conclusions arrived at too hastily or adopted because of a repeated, almost universal teaching.
If we free ourselves from defending “biblical love” we can be free to observe what it is the Bible, excuse the term—really says. Having discovered that, we can then weigh various arguments regarding the words that the Bible uses and let the evidence lead us to correct conclusions.
The Unconditional Nature of Love
Unconditional love, as it’s often discussed in relation to agapē, doesn’t point out some special characteristic of the love itself so much as it says something about the unloveliness of love’s object: God loves sinners. And that sort of love is unconditioned on the worthiness or behavior of the sinner. But if we claim that it is the steadfast nature of the term agapē to denote this unconditional love, severe problems occur when the direction of agapē is reversed, that is, when sinners love God. Is our love toward God unconditioned? Do we love Him without reason? Do we love Him without regard to His worthiness?
Must then, we not talk of unconditional or divine love? No, we must. But we must understand its concept or principle that is greater than the word or words that convey it. The nature of love is shaped by the subject and object in conjunction with whatever verb is present. Consider the example given by my friend Ken, above. He writes of eros, “This type of love is referenced in the Song of Solomon, where the woman speaks of being “sick with love” (2:5), a love that she says is “better than wine” (1:2). He’s not wrong conceptually. Song of Solomon is erotic. But the word appearing in the Greek version of this book isn’t erōs at all—it’s agapē. And the love that’s better than wine? It references the bride’s pining for the groom to “kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” The word translated “kiss”? That’s phileō.
It’s reasonable to talk of a divine love. That’s the story of the Bible. And it’s reasonable to talk of God’s love as unconditioned. It’s reasonable to talk of any activity of God as unconditioned. For God does not act on the condition of any external force.
It’s not reasonable, or good—or loving—to speak of love or specialized words in ways that don’t reflect what we see in the Bible or don’t reflect the normal course of language usage.
Nor is it reasonable to use the fact of synonymous, ambiguous, or versatile language to nullify specificity. There is such a thing as unconditional love. There is such a thing of love that points more to friendship than romance. And it’s okay to declare one’s usage of specific terms to point out such things (which I believe to be Ken’s purpose in his article above). But we must be careful when ascribing those same intentions or demands of specificity to other and all writers because they were Greek or used different Greek words.
Perspective Two Conclusion: Revolution in the Terminology of Love
The language of Scripture is special. But not because of the words it employs. The words are special, but not because of their inherent nature. The special nature is in the Scripture’s having been inspired by God. And it is because of this inspiration that we can discuss the love of God and the words used to describe it, exactly as they appear in the Scriptures without need of creating categories and characteristics that those Scriptures don’t support.
It’s attested by multiple scholars that the NT influences not only our understanding of love, conceptually, but also has had a lasting effect upon a previously infrequent and banal term, agapē. Warfield called it “a complete revolution … in the terminology of love.”[note]”The Terminology of Love,” 1.[/note] Whatever revolution comes next in the way we understand and speak about love, may we speak it with fidelity to the Scriptures so that we may love God, keep His word, and in that obedience know the meaning of the love of God.
Bonus Two: A Survey of Dictionaries, Lexicons, and Other Word Helps
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG)[note]Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 5–7.[/note]
BDAG notes the “paucity” of agapē in the general Greek literature, attesting to a “presumed colloquial flavor of the noun,” but notes “no such stigma attached to the use of the verb.”[note]BDAG, 6.[/note] In defining terms, BDAG gives definitions (as shown in bold below) and formal equivalents (italics):
1. the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love (without limitation to very intimate relationships, and very seldom in general Greek of sexual attraction).
This quality is further explain in the contexts “of human love” and “of the love God and Christ.” BDAG gives a second definition, noting that agapē had come to designate a “love-feast” practiced in early Christian centuries.[note]2. a common meal eaten by early Christians in connection with their worship, for the purpose of fostering and expressing mutual affection and concern, fellowship meal, a love-feast[/note]
BDAG groups agapē usages according to the division of “human love” and the “love of God and Christ,” but offers no further adjectival descriptions of agapē such as “unconditional” or “divine.”
Its entry for the verb form agapaō follows an expected pattern:
1. to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love 2. to have high esteem for or satisfaction with something, take pleasure in 3. to practice/express love, prove one’s love
The verb, too, is further classified according the divisions of love by humans and of “transcendent beings.” Of interest is the note mentioned the previously discussed interchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21: “φιλέω may be used interchangeably here.” Supporting evidence for this position includes John’s frequent use of synonyms for other term within the same chapter.
The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (WSNTDICT)[note]Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000.[/note]
WSNTDICT defines agapē as “love, affectionate regard, goodwill, benevolence,” and makes special not that in reference to God’s love, agapēis a “willful direction toward man.” Regarding synonymous usage, agapē is “spoken more especially of good will toward others, the love of our neighbor, brotherly affection, which the Lord Jesus commands and inspires.”[note]Love feasts as indicated by the plural agapai are also noted by this resource.[/note]
For the verb agapaō, WSNTDICT defines: “to esteem, love, indicating a direction of the will and finding one’s joy in something or someone.” While this resource gives the nod, conceptually to “brotherly affection” in the noun form, of the verb it notes that agapaō “differs from philéō, to love, indicating feelings, warm affection, the kind of love expressed by a kiss. Of the exchange in John 21, phileō is viewed in some sense as superior:
Peter in his answer used the expression sú oídas hóti philṓ se, “thou knowest … that I am your friend [philéo].” That was an upgrading by Peter of his devotion to Christ. The Lord, however, intuitively knew that Peter had not accepted His determination to die while He could avoid death (Matt. 16:22, 23). Not only did Peter not acknowledge Jesus as his friend, but denied that he even knew Him (Matt. 26:69–75), even as Jesus had predicted Peter would (Matt. 26:31–35). The Lord did not accept Peter’s self–upgraded love from agápē (26) to philía, friendship. We love (agapáō) God because He first loved us (1 John 4:10). But none of us, especially Peter, earn the right to declare ourselves friends (phílos) of God. He alone can declare us as such, even as He did Abraham (James 2:23).
WSNTDICT further expounds upon the higher nature of phileō:
Agapáō and never philéō is used of love toward our enemies. The range of philéō is wider than that of agapáō which stands higher than philéō because of its moral import, i.e., love that expresses compassion. We are thus commanded to love (agapáō) our enemies, to do what is necessary to turn them to Christ, but never to befriend them (philéō) by adopting their interests and becoming friends on their level.
Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT)[note]Balz, Horst Robert, and Gerhard Schneider. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–.[/note]
EDNT discusses the noun and verb together along with a third term, agapētos, meaning “beloved.” This group is characterized by a “sober kind of love,” deemed less affective than other forms.[note]quoting from Warnach, Sacramentum Verbi (= Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology; ed. J. B. Bauer; 31967, p. 518)[/note]
Other than this note on the nature of agape, most commentary in this resource is devoted to usage across the NT.
The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (M-M)[note]Moulton, James Hope, and George Milligan. The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930, p.2 [/note]
Though an older resource, written prior to later discoveries in Greek texts, it is worth noting the opinion at the time on the difference between agapaō and phileō as used by John:[I]t is extremely hard to reconcile ourselves to a meaningless use of synonyms, where the point would seem to lie in the identity of the word employed. Gildersleeve’s remark that “ἀγαπᾶν is a colder word than φιλεῖν and less intimate” will hold for “profane” Greek; but this is emphatically a case where the needs of a new subject take up a rather colourless word and indefinitely enrich it. In NT ἀγαπᾶν is purged of all coldness, and is deeper than φιλεῖν, though the latter remains more human.
Lexham Theological Wordbook[note]Nettelhorst, R. P. “Love.” Edited by Douglas Mangum, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, and Rebekah Hurst. Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Bible Reference Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.[/note]
For the noun form, the Lexham Theological Workbook defines agapé simply as “love,” noting, “This term means ‘love’ but can also denote ideas such as benevolence or goodwill. It delineates between love “in a general sense” and the “love of God,” those this delineation might refer more to examples of usage than to word qualities. Of the famous interchange in John, it notes, “These two words for love are used somewhat interchangeably in passages such as John 21:15–17. However, occasionally there is a distinction between agapaō and phileō. Since phileō has the sense of friendship attached to it—along with affection and an agreement or similar interests—it is not always a suitable a synonym for agapaō.” However, in its opening discussion on the meaning and nature of agapē, it is written: “The noun ἀγάπη (agapē) carries the sense of affectionate regard or benevolence toward someone.”
Of the verb, this definition and explanation are given: to love, to esteem, to like. This verb refers to a kind of love that expresses personal will and affection rather than emotions or feelings. Of note is the recognition that agape does not always have as its object something noble:
The NT uses the term agapaō not only to express interpersonal relationships, but also to describe love for things. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of loving the best seat in the synagogue (Luke 11:43). Similarly, John 3:19 speaks of people loving the darkness (compare 1 John 2:15). The nt also stresses that sometimes people love what is wrong. For instance, Balaam loved the wages of wickedness (2 Pet 2:15).
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (Louw-Nida)[note]Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 292–293.[/note]
Of the noun and verb group, Louw-Nida gives this definition: “to have love for someone or something, based on sincere appreciation and high regard—‘to love, to regard with affection, loving concern, love.’” The distinctions between agape and philia, their synonymous use, and the question of a higher divine love are the focus of Louw-Nida’s introduction the these terms. As such, the entirety of the initial entry is germane to our topic:
Though some persons have tried to assign certain significant differences of meaning between ἀγαπάω, ἀγάπη and φιλέω, φιλία, it does not seem possible to insist upon a contrast of meaning in any and all contexts. For example, the usage in Jn 21:15–17 seems to reflect simply a rhetorical alternation designed to avoid undue repetition. There is, however, one significant clue to possible meaningful differences in at least some contexts, namely, the fact that people are never commanded to love one another with φιλέω or φιλία, but only with ἀγαπάω and ἀγάπη. Though the meanings of these terms overlap considerably in many contexts, there are probably some significant differences in certain contexts; that is to say, φιλέω and φιλία are likely to focus upon love or affection based upon interpersonal association, while ἀγαπάω and ἀγάπη focus upon love and affection based on deep appreciation and high regard. On the basis of this type of distinction, one can understand some of the reasons for the use of ἀγαπάω and ἀγάπη in commands to Christians to love one another. It would, however, be quite wrong to assume that φιλέω and φιλία refer only to human love, while ἀγαπάω and ἀγάπη refer to divine love. Both sets of terms are used for the total range of loving relations between people, between people and God, and between God and Jesus Christ.