The Greek word agape has long been considered the pinnacle of all ideas in Christian theology. This word, which Carsten Johnsen calls the “term par excellence” of the Christian faith, has ruled the roost for decades, if not millenia.
Now . . . not so much.
Scholars and exegetes have begun to call into question the traditional understanding of this word. They have further called into question the tendency to pull apart agape and eros, insisting that 1) eros has a place at the table and 2) that place at the table may be right alongside agape, rather than subservient to it and 3) agape may, in fact, include eros.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not personally exposed myself to the literature that espouses these views. But I know they’re there. And I have personally interacted with scholars who seem enamored with (or at least intrigued by) this new view. A few months ago, in fact, I submitted an article to a publication entitled “Stripping the Song of Its Erotic Reputation,” that challenges the tendency to label the Song of Solomon as “erotic” (something I have written about briefly on this blog before). When I received the feedback from the blind reviewer, the person said that I did not “seem to be aware of the scholarly discussions on agape and eros” and that I seemed to interpret agape “along the lines of Nygren,” whose “views have been seriously criticized as overlooking linguistic evidence that allows agape to have a broader meaning including elements from eros.”
Now, even though I have read only about two paragraphs in my life from Anders Nygren, I have no doubt that my views have been indirectly influenced by him (though moreso by Carsten Johnsen). But I ultimately decided not to change anything about the article and, though there may have been other perfectly legitimate reasons for not doing so, the manuscript was not published.
This hasn’t been my only interaction on this topic, however. I have talked with other scholars who have mentioned the same objections as the blind reviewer. More relevant to Adventist history and theology is the claim that many who read and interpret A.T. Jones and E.J.Waggoner often do so through the lens of Nygren as well. This may be a fair critique as well, especially considering that – according to my study – Waggoner used the word agape only once and Jones never did so. But I think all these objections miss the point.
The reason this is so is because of what I have said, am saying, and will continue to say in the future. That is: what doth the scriptures say?
Granted, this may sound narrow-minded to say, and I realize that all of us interpret the Bible through thousands of influences (either direct or indirect), but I am not so much concerned with what modern scholars, theologians or any others write about the topic. The one determining factor is what the scriptures say.
Of course, there is one little fly in the ointment. As some have rightfully pointed out, the New Testament does use the word agape in ways that don’t quite jive with the traditional interpretation of it. Historically, Christian theologians have proposed that agape is completely a type of perfect, godly, unconditional love. It originates with God and is a part of His very essence.
The fly in the ointment comes when one recognizes that the New Testament uses the term a handful of times in other contexts. But that’s just it: it is done just a handful of times. In fact, of the 259 times that the New Testament uses the noun agape or the verb agapao, I have counted only six instances where the word is used in a way that seems to contradict the traditional understanding of it.
Besides the fact that it seems misled to base an argument on 6 out of 259 usages of a word, I think there is also a reasonable explanation for the usage of the word in these seemingly contradictory ways. Specifically, notice the way in which the word is used in these instances:
- “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love [agapao] the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces” (Luke 11:43).
- “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved [agapao] darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
- “For they loved [agapao] the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43).
- “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved [agapao] the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15).
- “Do not love [agapao] the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves [agapao] the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).