What’s love got to do with it? In commentaries and in Bible studies, I often encounter the variety of words, in the Greek, used for the English word “love.” People ask lots of questions about the meaning and use of them in Scripture. At the same time they are also asking about a “hierarchy” of love – “is there a word that means ‘God love?'” There are perhaps several questions that can also be asked:
- How do modern-day Christians use and interpret the various Greek words for “love”: eros, philos, and agape? The answer is often given as a hierarchy of love ascending to God-love in the word
- How did the first century Scripture writers understand the differing words? How did they intend to use them?
- How does OT and NT scriptures use the words.
It is perhaps the latter question that is the foundation. Boring (425) provides an excellent summary:
The word used here for “love” is ἀγαπάω (agapaō), the verbal form of ἀγάπη (agapē). The interpreter should first dispel the tradition that has become almost sacrosanct that there is some magic in the meaning of the Greek word agapē. There is certainly something special about the Christian understanding of love for God, neighbor, and world as expressed in the NT. But this is not bound up with the meaning of a particular Greek word. The author who composed in Greek was in approximately the same situation as the English interpreter in having several words for “love” that overlapped in meaning. In Greek as in English there was and is no single Greek word with an inherent meaning that refers exclusively to the kind of love with which God loves the world and with which Christians are commanded to love God, each other, and their neighbors. Let it clearly be said: agapē was not such a word. Neither Jesus nor Christians invented this word, found in the LXX in a variety of senses: for the love of God (Deut 6:5) and neighbor (Lev 19:18) as here, but also of adulterous lust (e.g., Jer 2:25, 33), and of the love of money (Eccl 5:9). It is used as a synonym for ἐπιθυμία (epithymia) in Wisdom of Solomon 6, and for φιλία (philia) in 7:14; 8:2. The NT takes over this variety of usage of agapē. It is used in 2 Pet 2:15 for Balaam’s love for money. In Luke 6:32 it is used for sinners’ love for each other. In John 3:19 it is used for the love of evil people for the darkness. In addition, both agapē (noun) and agapaō (verb) are used as synonyms for φιλέω (phileō) / φιλία (philia), as in the celebrated but misunderstood John 21:15–17. Likewise, phileō, supposed in the traditional interpretation to express mutual love as in friendship, inferior to the self-giving love of agapē, is in fact used both for the deepest self-sacrificing love of both human beings and God (Matt 10:37; John 5:20; 11:3, 36; 16:27; 20:2; 1 Cor 16:22; Titus 3:15; Rev 3:19). When Christians use the word love with reference to God, to the deepest human relationships, and of the stance they are called to exercise toward the world, the content of this word is not to be filled in from the supposed meaning of a special Greek word, but from the understanding of God’s nature made known in Christ. It is from this revelatory perspective that we come to know love as unmotivated and unmanipulated, unconditional and unlimited. Such love is not a matter of feeling, which cannot be commanded in any case, but of commitment and action. It is at the farthest pole from sentimentality and is related to the OT word for “covenant love” or “steadfast love” (חסד ḥesed).
This is not the only opinion on the meaning of the various Greek words as used in the NT, but it one of the only commentaries I have found that explores how the words are used in the OT (LXX). Later in this commentary, other views are presented.