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!

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