About that Greek word for Christ-like love

A few weeks ago, in one of my sermons on love and marriage, I talked about how the ancient Greeks had four words for love, whereas in English we’re stuck with just one. Our English word gets quite a workout, expressing everything from “I love these bite-size packs of Skittles” to “For God so loved the world…” Our overuse of the word “love” risks watering-down what should be the most powerful human emotion or virtue.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have this problem, we often say. They used eros for sexual or romantic love, philia for the love that characterizes friendship, storge for affection, and—best of all—agape for the other-directed, self-sacrificial, and long suffering love with which Jesus Christ loves us. I think I even said as much in my sermon.

Sorry… This wasn’t right at all.

Just a moment’s reflection makes this clear: There was no word for Christ-like love because no one had ever imagined such a thing. Paul’s beautiful and challenging hymn to agape, 1 Corinthians 13—so familiar to us (or at least us pastors who officiate weddings) that we often take it for granted—spoke of an agape that was alien to pagan philosophers of Paul’s day. Paul (and the rest of the early church) took the nearest equivalent word and defined it upward.

N.T. Wright says it better than I can:

The specific meaning of the word agape which we find in the New Testament isn’t the result of the early Christians discovering a word which already said exactly what they wanted to say and latching onto it. Rather, they seem to have settled quickly on this word as the best available one, and they then gave it the fresh privilege of carrying a new depth of meaning in which some aspects of its previous career were highlighted and others were set aside… Nobody until then had really glimpsed, in quite the way those early Christians did, the challenge to embody a virtue so profound, so life-changing, so community-defining, so revolutionary—both in its nature and its effects, and in the moral character needed to aspire to it—that people in Paul’s own day thought he was mad. Indeed, people ever since, even within the church, have balked at the challenge and settled for second best. Or twenty-second best. Agape sets the bar as high as it can go.

N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 183-4.

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