Love in Paul (2): ‘agapeism’

In the last post the (rather clumsy) word ‘agapeism’ cropped up – that love explains everything of importance in Pauline ethics.

From The Apostle Paul by Rembrant (Wikipedia)

But is this the case?  And if so, what follows? What implications are there for Christian life and church ministry?

This series of posts is exploring those two questions.

A couple of big picture points that support the idea of agapeism in Paul and then a comment about words for love in Paul.

First, there are at least 5 areas in Paul’s life and thought where love is central

1. The apostle’s personal experience of God’s love and grace

2. Soteriology (salvation / atonement) – how Paul’s understanding of divine love is radically reshaped by the cross

3. Ecclesiology (church life) – how for Paul love is integral to the identity and communal life of new communities of believers in Jesus the Messiah and Lord.

4. Pneumatology (the work of the Spirit, human experience of God’s love) – Paul’s theology of how believers experience the love of God through the Spirit and are morally transformed.

5. Eschatology (overlap of the ages / future hope) – how the apostle sees love as a powerful ‘weapon’ in conflict with forces of sin and evil; love in the present as a foretaste of the life to come

Second, on a purely statistical measure, love permeates Paul’s epistles

Leon Morris pointed this out many years ago. Paul uses the noun agapē (love) 75 times, the verb agapaō (to love) 34 times and the adjective agapētos (beloved) 27 times. This totals up to over 42% of the usage of these words in the NT.

More than just numbers, Paul’s use of ‘love language’ fits a consistent pattern – it is always positive. Love describes the goodness of God and flows from God – it leads to believers’ love for God and of one another.

The other Greek word for love in Paul, used much less frequently, is phileō (to love, twice), It has numerous cognates such as aphilargyros (no lover of money), philadelphia, (brotherly or familial love), philanthrōpia (love for people); philoteknos (lover of children).

Phileō in Paul is never used to refer to divine love or human love for God. The sole appearance of philotheos (love of God) in 2 Timothy 3:4 is in negative contrast with philedonos (lover of pleasure).

The other two best known Greek words for love, storgē (affection) and eros (passion), are not used by Paul, or any of the NT writers, at all.

Third, their absence has led some Christians to theorize what amounts to a hierarchy of loves

This hierarchy starts with eros at the bottom as the ‘lowest’ form of love (linked to sex and passion), followed by storgē, then phileō and agapē at the top.

There are at least two problems with this. One is that it is an argument from silence. No-where in the NT is such a hierarchy suggested. Despite popular Christian assumptions, there is no solid basis to say agapē is a higher form of love than phileō or that eros is a form of love best to be avoided.

The other problem is that such hierarchy all too easily feeds into long-established dualistic tendencies in Christian theology where the body – with its passions and desires – is seen as less ‘spiritual’ than abstract ‘higher’ forms of love.

All sorts of distortions follow – not least deep ambivalence about sex, marriage and the goodness of the body. Historically that ambivalence expressed itself in distrust of women as a source of temptation and potential sin to men as well as the link of celibacy with spiritual purity and sex with impurity. But maybe that is a subject for another day!

However, after saying this, we are left with what to make of the remarkable fact of how dominant agapē is in Paul – and the rest of the NT. I’ll come back to this in the next post – stay tuned!

Should churches be kept open?

Last week, in the Republic of Ireland, the four Roman Catholic Archbishops wrote to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin requesting a meeting to talk about lifting the ban on people attending religious services under Ireland’s Level 3 Coronavirus restrictions. Level 3 is now in place for all 26 counties – with a high likelihood that it will go to Level 4 or 5.

In the North, religious services are permitted, highlighting the difference between ROI and the UK on this issue. Apparently, Ireland is currently the only place in Europe with such restrictions on public worship in place.

From a Catholic perspective being unable to attend Mass is not just an inconvenience, but strikes at the core of Catholic practice. The Archbishop’s letter talks of Mass not being simply a gathering of people ‘but profound expressions of who we are as a Church’.

This conversation echoes one happening in the UK. At the end of September a letter signed by 700 church leaders (including quite a few Presbyterian Church in Ireland ministers) across the UK was sent to Boris Johnston and the leaders of devolved parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, urging them not to stop people from attending church services.

As far as I understand, it was signed on a personal basis rather than being a formal submission from denominations and church networks.

To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill Cc: Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Members of the Welsh Parliament, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly

24 September 2020

Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life.

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’. Therefore, we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people’s lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whetherthe UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society –physically and spiritually –than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation’s wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting thosewho truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

Yours sincerely,

It is a debate worth having. What do you think? There are no easy right and wrong answers here.

Is this unreasonable special pleading by churches? Is it in danger of being perceived as putting ‘our’ interests (the need to meet for worship) above the health of others? Where does government start to ‘overstep’ its role? At what point does government concern to protect public health (and in Ireland a chronically underfunded health service and woefully inadequate ICU capacity) become overly destructive of other critical aspects of life?

Notice that neither the Catholic Archbishops nor the UK church leaders are talking about economic damage. This is very welcome. While of course crucial, evaluating policy via a narrow economic lens is profoundly destructive. Rather, the UK letter talks of the ‘dehumanising’ effect on people’s lives and, like the Archbishops, that gathering to worship God is essential for human life to flourish.

Ian Paul is someone I read and highly respect. He was interviewed on Sky News about the UK letter which he signed. Here’s his take. (And it’s very well worth reading his reflections on communicating in this sort of public context on his blog here). And see how he well be brings the conversation around to hope, fear and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love in Paul (1)

In researching and writing a book on love in the Bible, some interesting things come to the surface.

Did you know, for example, that agapē (the noun for love) does not appear once in the book of Acts? Another is the curious marginalisation of love in many systematic theologies and in NT theologies. There are surprisingly few full length treatments of love in the NT.

And when it comes to Paul, I suspect that love is not one of the first things that many people associate with the apostle. More likely you’ll think of justification, or mission, or modern debates over women in ministry or church leadership etc.

So it has been refreshing to read Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. I read it over the summer when working on an academic article on love in Paul. More than anyone I’ve read recently, Campbell (rightly) puts love front and central in Paul. He calls this ‘agapeism’ – that love explains everything important in Pauline ethics.

The other refreshing thing about Campbell’s big book is how he doesn’t just unpack Paul’s theology and leave it there. His whole enterprise moves in the direction of application to the complexities of our modern world.

Here’s a flavour of Campbell talking about how Paul talks about the love of God revealed at the cross.

This is the first post of a series on love in Paul.

The story about Jesus centered on the cross is a story of love. To speak of a God acting definitively in Jesus as he goes to the cross is immediately to grasp that God is love and to a degree that we find hard to fathom. This God was prepared to die for us – the critical import of Rom 5:6-10. The Father and the Spirit delivered up their beloved Son for us to a horrible death, and the Son obediently accepted this fate, sacrificing himself for our sakes. And they did so while were yet sinful and hostile. There is no greater love than this – a love, it should be emphasize, that was revealed ultimately in the ghastly event of the cross and that must never as a result be reduced to mere sentimentality. Jesus loved us enough to die hideously for us when we stood on the side of those who executed him. Love is this sort of action, and it characterizes our God all the way down.

Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of Paul’s Love, p. 257.

Cruciform love is just one way Paul talks of the love of God. We’ll explore a few more in the posts to come.

Why go back to (physical) church?

The local church I belong to has not met physically together since March. Since we don’t have our own building and there will likely be further lockdowns, we don’t really know when we will meet face-to-face again.

Since these are musings, allow me to explore a question:

‘Why not keep doing church from home?’

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot going for it.

First, hasn’t it been an unexpected blessing actually to have Sunday as a day of rest rather than another day of frenetic activity? Church leaders have a Sabbath too – the preaching is recorded during the week. Isn’t it a pleasure to curl up on the sofa, cuppa in hand, to watch church online? It’s also so much more flexible given how many people’s work commitments include weekends. If you can’t make ‘live church’, you can always tune in at a more suitable time.  

Second, isn’t online church still ‘real church’? There is worship, prayer, preaching and even communion. Community is built as people connect over video before or after the service. There can be virtual Bible studies and youth events during the week. The calling of all Christians to witness, to serve and to love God and neighbour isn’t changed by how they meet on Sundays. Indeed, maybe online church can help to free us from equating ‘church’ with a couple of hours per week on a Sunday morning.  

Third, online church seems much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than traditional church. Just think of all those car journeys saved. Just think of the millions spent on church buildings and the cost of construction, heating, insuring, equipping and maintaining them. Might online church help us to re-evaluate our expensive attachment to bricks and mortar?

So, what do you think? Is the Coronavirus pandemic a time for a radical reimagining of church? Are we better off staying virtual?

I think my answers to those two questions are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

‘Yes’, this is a good time to think hard about traditional church – to ask why we were doing what we were doing. What lessons can we learn for doing church differently in the future? It would be interesting to hear your answers to that question.

‘No’, despite what I’ve said so far, online church feels second-best. Theologically there is an essential physicality to the Christian faith. The Word became flesh and came to live among us. We are embodied people made by God to relate to one another, and that happens best in person. A central thread of the Bible story is that of God’s people, together as a body called to worship, love and follow their God. Jesus’ command to break bread and drink wine in his memory is best obeyed sharing the communion meal together around the Lord’s table. If love includes caring for others, it’s hard to do that well via a screen. Young children, I suspect, come off worst from the shift online – they need physical relationships, play and learning with friends.

But there are other problems with online church. It all too easily ends up being a product designed to fit the personal preferences of its ‘customers’. It encourages individualism and erodes the difficult calling of genuine community. We can choose whom we hang out with and when. It generally suits those with comfortable homes, internet access and who are relatively self-sufficient and makes invisible those who don’t. My guess is it will weaken a church’s commitment to mission. And it also enforces an already powerful trend where worship, teaching and even Bible reading is all mediated via a screen. This tech take-over of church is now almost complete and, I think, has profoundly dehumanising results – it narrows further our worship of God to listening passively to a screen.

So, while I’m grateful we have been able to continue to ‘meet’ as a church, my hope and prayer is that we will be able to worship together again ‘in the flesh’ once more – as Christians have done from the very beginning of the church.   

[These ‘Musings’ are from the latest edition of Vox]

The Age of Disappointment

There is much excellent writing by talented authors on the cultural, social and political challenges of our times. This is one of the best.

David Brooks in The Atlantic on ‘America is Having a Moral Convulsion’

It could also be called ‘The Age of Disappointment’ or ‘What Happens When Trust Disappears’ or ‘Why Trump is in power’ or even ‘The Disintegration of America’.

Some clips below – but well worth a read in full.

And for followers of Jesus, Brooks’ forensic analysis raises all sorts of questions. And not only in the USA – many of the trends he talks about are present throughout the West, and are certainly here in Ireland.

Christians are to be people of the gospel – of good news. The story Brooks tells is an unremitting tale of bad news. Societal fragmentation, injustice, fear, despair, depression, insecurity, anxiety, familial breakdown, rage, violence, selfishness, individualism, the collapse of a civic commons and institutional decay.

A tragedy for the church, it seems to me, is when it mirrors the distrust, fears and hopelessness of the world. Brooks’ comment about (some) American evangelicals is telling

Evangelicalism has gone from the open evangelism of Billy Graham to the siege mentality of Franklin Graham.

Any Christian leader reading this article and especially Brooks’ final paragraph, should, I think, be asking ‘How can I, how can our church, embody Christian virtues of trust, faithfulness, kindness, justice, love of God, neighbour and even enemy?

Not in order to ‘save’ America, but to fulfil the Christian calling of being people of the gospel, people of hope, faith and love.

From David Brooks

Trump is the final instrument of this crisis, but the conditions that brought him to power and make him so dangerous at this moment were decades in the making, and those conditions will not disappear if he is defeated.

… The emerging generations today … grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile. Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious. Their worldview is predicated on threat, not safety.

Unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest social trust in America are among the most marginalized …

Black Americans have been one of the most ill-treated groups in American history; their distrust is earned distrust …

The second disenfranchised low-trust group includes the lower-middle class and the working poor…

This brings us to the third marginalized group that scores extremely high on social distrust: young adults. These are people who grew up in the age of disappointment. It’s the only world they know … In the age of disappointment, our sense of safety went away. Some of this is physical insecurity: school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality, and overprotective parenting at home that leaves young people incapable of handling real-world stress. But the true insecurity is financial, social, and emotional.

… In this world, nothing seems safe; everything feels like chaos.

… When people feel naked and alone, they revert to tribe. Their radius of trust shrinks, and they only trust their own kind. Donald Trump is the great emblem of an age of distrust—a man unable to love, unable to trust.

… By 2020, people had stopped seeing institutions as places they entered to be morally formed, Levin argued. Instead, they see institutions as stages on which they can perform, can display their splendid selves. People run for Congress not so they can legislate, but so they can get on TV. People work in companies so they can build their personal brand. The result is a world in which institutions not only fail to serve their social function and keep us safe, they also fail to form trustworthy people. The rot in our structures spreads to a rot in ourselves.

The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat … We’re seeing a few key shifts.

From risk to security

From achievement to equality

From self to society

From global to local

From liberalism to activism

For centuries, America was the greatest success story on earth, a nation of steady progress, dazzling achievement, and growing international power. That story threatens to end on our watch, crushed by the collapse of our institutions and the implosion of social trust. But trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts—by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned. Sometimes trust blooms when somebody holds you against all logic, when you expected to be dropped. It ripples across society as multiplying moments of beauty in a storm.