This is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love
336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK or £9.99 ebook
BEN: On pp. 86-87 you rightly note that agape rarely occurs in the LXX of the OT and where it does occur, it does not refer to God’s love. And yet agape and its cognates are all over the NT– quite the contrast. You suggest this is to be explained by the fact that a deeper understanding of love, presumably due to the Christ event, led to the preference for a term for love that didn’t carry previous baggage or issues with it. Can you say a bit more about this?
PATRICK: This is an argument from silence, but I think it makes best sense of the facts that you have summarized. I rely on Leon Morris’ classic 1981 study Testaments of Love here. The facts are striking. In the NT agapē appears 116 times and philia (friendship) just once. Of related words, agapaō occurs 143 times and phileō 25 times; adjectives agapētos (beloved) 61 times and philos (friend) 29 times. In total, agapaō words appear 320 times and phileō words 55 times. Other Greek words for love like storgē (affection) and eros (passion) do not appear in the New Testament at all.
So why did the NT writers start using what was effectively a new word for love? I find Morris persuasive – he suggests that it is not so much that agapē creates a new meaning for love, but that the revolutionary gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ so transforms previous understandings of love that a new word is needed to express it. (I think this sort of thing goes on quite a bit in the NT in light of the Christ-event. Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’ fills that concept with new meaning in line with his unique understanding of his messianic mission; Paul and other NT writers ransack the OT and Greco-Roman culture for metaphors and images to explain the cross; John fills logos, a word known to Jews and Greeks, with revolutionary new Christological significance).
BEN: I love your chart on p. 105, and with your permission would like to nick it and use it for my students. The interesting thing is that John and 1 John are the texts with the most references to agape love, and after that Ephesians and then Romans. Pondering this for a moment, you hold up the notion that Paul should be seen as an apostle of love, as much as say the Beloved Disciple (whoever he was— but that’s a discussion for another day. Bauckham and I agree it’s not John Zebedee). What strikes me is that Paul and the BD are also the very ones who talk the most about conflict with others, being hated by others, judging the sins of various persons other than one’s self, and justice issues to some extent. It seems we’ve have swallowed our culture’s message about real love being tolerant, non-judgmental, not demanding when it comes to various ethical mores etc. What is your diagnosis as to why this has so infected or affected the church itself, rather than us being a change agent for real agape on the cultural notions ? How can we go about reversing these trends?
PATRICK: You are welcome to nick the chart of appearances of agapē in the NT Ben! It comes from Robert Yarbrough’s BECNT commentary on 1-3 John. Before trying to answer your question can I point to the surprising fact that Acts is the only book in the NT where agapē does not occur – not once. Connect this to all those gospel sermons in Acts and a good case can be made that ‘God loves you’, while true, is not how the first Christians understood the gospel. The gospel is preached in Acts without mention of God’s love. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day …
To reply to your actual question (!) I think Paul and John talk so much of love because they understand from pastoral experience, and from theological revelation, that love is the essential requirement for their new communities to survive and thrive. They are anything but naïve. In the letters of 1-3 John there seems to have been communal tension and external pressure and this is pretty well everywhere in Paul. We struggle to appreciate just how unprecedented were the first Christian communities in the ancient world. It had never seen anything like Jews, Gentiles, slaves, slave-owners, men, women, Scythians, barbarians, Roman citizens, rich and poor belonging together in relationships of mutuality and equal status before their God. Such diversity is difficult and requires costly love; it means the ‘strong’ making space for the ‘weak’ (Romans), it means putting others first, it means leaving your ‘worldly’ status behind (1 Corinthians, James). It means being accountable to one another – including disciplining each other if necessary.
There is a spectrum in the contemporary church here. At one end are churches made up of a loose coalition of Western individualists with all their assumptions around autonomy, rights, liberty and self-sufficiency. This will be a church where the depth of mutual accountability pictured in the NT seems pretty alien. It’s doubtful such a church is going to go anywhere costly and difficult. At the other end of the spectrum are some missional churches who have confronted this head-on in creating ‘total church’ communities that demand very high levels of buy-in. While effective in countering Western individualism and rightly focused on mission, they can have a downside. Recent reports in Christianity Today recount the fall of one well-known leader over a bullying style and serious relational damage done in the churches and organization he led. Strong leadership without love is also a dead-end.
Love and mission, love and truth, love and accountability need to be held together – that’s a challenge of leadership and vision.