Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wrong About Agape?

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).
As I surveyed these instances where agape is used in an unorthodox way, it struck me that they were, perhaps, being used in an almost ironic way. That is, the great commission for humanity is to love God and people unconditionally, as God loves us unconditionally. Instead, some in Jesus' first-century audience (or Peter's or John's - or ours) were loving "praise," "the best seats," "the world," or "the wages of unrighteousness."

In a similarly ironic way, it was as if Jesus was trying to draw a contrast between the sold-out, unconditional devotion He has towards us - and, subsequently, what we should have towards Him and others - and the sold-out, unconditional devotion some have towards things, material possessions, and recognition.

So I do not believe that these six instances warrant a totally new interpretation of the word agape. Rather, they simply point out the ironic contrast between the unconditional love and devotion to Himself and others that God wants to implant in our hearts and the unconditional love and devotion we naturally have in our hearts towards self, things, and the world.

But then there's the problem of that pesky eros - a word that simply won't seem to die its eternal death. I believe this is so because it has been natural to the sinful heart ever since the days of Lucifer's rebellion in heaven. Thus, so long as there is sin in the universe, there will be eros. Of course, such a philosophical view towards the word - and force - doesn't simply sweep away the scholarly arguments about its place at that table.

But, again, what doth the scriptures say about eros?

Essentially, nothing.

In fact, the New Testament is completely silent on it - speaking neither negatively or positively about the word or concept. Thus, any discussion on eros that is based on the New Testament is, at best, an argument from silence.

This could, perhaps, be considered a "moral victory" for the pro-eroticists.

But I'm not so sure.

This is because there is one, single instance of the word in the LXX version of the Old Testament (the version that Jesus, Paul, and all other New Testament authors quoted from) and it is anything but positive. Speaking through the mouth of an immoral woman, Solomon quotes her as enticingly inviting a young man to "come, let us take our fill of love until morning, let us delight ourselves with love [eros]." She then goes onto say that "my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey" (Proverbs 7:18-19).

The point should not be brushed aside haphazardly: the only time the word eros is used in the whole Bible, it is used by an immoral woman who seeks to "make love" to a young man while her husband is not home.

And yet modern scholarship would have us believe that eros has gotten a bad rap, that it might be as legitimate - and attractive - a concept as agape and, more than that, may actually be included in agape (as Pope Benedict would have us believe, for instance, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, writing, among other things, that "agape and eros . . . can never be completely separated.").

Of course, I recognize the fact that the LXX was not inspired. Those who translated Solomon's words from Hebrew into Greek were not inspired the way Solomon was inspired (though some who bring forth the agape/eros melding do not have a high view of inspiration, anyway). This is granted. But, at the very least, those who translated the LXX were some of the earliest commentators and interpreters of the Old Testament. And I would trust their understanding of the word eros far more than I would trust the view of someone who is living 2300 years later.

So this is the point: let us not ascribe to eros more than the Bible does. And let us not ascribe to the Bible any positive view of eros. And let us not paint books, concepts, or Christianity with an erotic brush.

And, last but not least, let us continue to have a robust view of agape.


Dingo said...

Shawn, those 6 verses came up when I was doing a study of all the agape/agapao words in the New Testament about 5 years ago. The conclusion we came to then was that the usage was a message that is lost in the translation to English - that people were giving the same kind of devotion/ardor/cherishing to these things that God longs to experience in His relationship with them. We felt it was a kind of shock-value usage that would forcefully draw attention to the kind of relationship we have with the things of this world and lead us to see the wrongness of putting that quality of love into earthly things.

It is really sad but predictable to see the devil enlisting theologians to rob one of the most powerful words in existence to communicate the gospel of its beauty and power. That has happened to word after word, text after text and concept after concept. Yancy noted something like that when he observed that grace was the last unspoiled word in our gospel vocabulary and it was beginning to become tarnished through abuses as well.

We are running out of unspoiled words, but where such losses abound, grace much more abounds. God will not leave His Son’s good news speechless.

Anonymous said...

Eros and agape are as far apart as night and day.