Theological Mistake #5: Love words

Previously I have mentioned the danger of using a grid of systematic theology to interpret individual texts in Scripture. We all come to the text with preunderstandings and presuppositions, that is true, but when we do exegesis, we want to set those aside as much as possible and listen to what the text is saying. This is what we mean when we talk about a “fresh reading” of the text.

There is another method that leads to theological mistakes: the “word study” or “theological dictionary” approach. I have mentioned this in a previous post, but I was struck by an example this week, and would like to share it with you. My premise is that you cannot and should not do theology based solely on the meaning of Greek or Hebrew words. Words have no single meaning, just potential meanings. The meaning occurs within a context. Words, with their latent meaning(s) contribute to the overall meaning of a sentence in concert with other words.

My example is a famous one, the Greek word agape and its verbal form agapao. This word is roughly equivalent to our English word “love,” but we often been told that agape is “divine love,” or “God-like love.” I have even heard that we, as Christian believers, should not just “love” others, we should “agape” them. This was popularized by the little C.S. Lewis book, The Four Loves, where Lewis tried to divide the Greek vocabulary for “love” into four categories: storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (romantic love), and agape (charity). I have read this book, and Lewis surely does not erect high walls between these four kinds of love. His arguments are nuanced, but his treatise is more doctrinal and conceptual than findings based on the meaning of these words. Lewis, the great classicist, knew better than to push meanings based individual words, yet a superficial reading of his book has fueled the idea that agape is the epitome of “divine love” (what Lewis calls “Gift-love” as opposed to “Need-love”).

Now I am all for teaching people about the love of God, and the Bible has much to say about this. But to tie this to a Greek word is a theological mistake. The Greek word agape was in common use long before the New Testament authors employed it. It was already a standard word when the translators of the Greek Old Testament did their work (the LXX). It has a base meaning of “affection,” but is a word with almost as many variations of meaning as our English word “love.” Let me give two examples.

First, from the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament translated roughly 250-200 BC). In Judges 16:4 we find this ” Some time later, [Samson] fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah.” The word used is the verbal form of agape. This is not divine love, charity, or gift-love, but erotic, romantic love. I might translate this, “Samson became infatuated with a woman …” He wanted her badly in a sexual/romantic way.

Second, from 2 Timothy 4:10, ” … for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me …” Again, a verbal form of agape. I’m not sure which of Lewis’s four categories this should be put, but I don’t think it is divine love or gift-love. Paul is condemning Demas here, and this seems to be “need-love,” satisfying of selfish desires in a passionate way.

So what does this all mean? For one thing, it should cause us to reconsider the usual interpretation of the conversation between the Risen Christ and Peter in John 21:15-17, where much is made of the use by Jesus of the verb agapao and Peter’s answer using the verb phileo. In the first place, it is very doubtful they originally were speaking Greek, so any argument here is based on John’s Greek text rather than the historical event. But, even giving John the right to make a theological point by using these two words, we are wrong to think that agapao is somehow a superior type of love to phileo. This is a theological mistake based on a word study approach to the text, and misses the larger lesson here: Jesus is giving Peter three opportunities to redeem himself for his three denials. It is not a rebuke but a restoration and commission to the Great Apostle, and surely not a lesson in Greek verbs.

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you Lovers!

Mark Krause


One thought on “Theological Mistake #5: Love words

  1. Thank you! I’ve long thought people have made too much of the word itself. In certain contexts, it certainly does speak of an unconditional, divine sort of love. However, any casual survey shows this is not always the case.

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