Wednesday, October 04, 2006

So You Thought You Knew About Love

Warning: Some technical language and Greek words. I could explain them all better, but you likely would not read that much, and you can get the book and read it all for yourself.

Many pastors and teachers have, at some time in their teaching, ridden fairly hard on the horse of distinguishing between the Greek words for love used in the New Testament. I must admit that at earlier times in my life I too have ridden that horse a little too hard. Yet in recent years, my study of Scripture has led me to conclude that such an approach should be almost abandoned. However, I have never sat down to formalize my reasons for that.

Due to the work of D. A. Carson, I do not have to. In his second article on “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” in Bibliotheca Sacra (Vol 156, May-June 99, pp. 132-134, which later became The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God), Carson lays out seven reasons for not tying God’s love exclusively to the agapao word group. I have summarized them here to five main ideas.

1. “Careful diachronic work” has shown that “homonymic clashes” (basically, words that sound the same) led to the rise of alternative words, such as “phileo” in place of “kuneo” (to kiss) because “kuneo” sounded a lot like “kuno” (and in some forms such as the aorist were identical). While “kissing” and “impregnating” gave opportunity for many “salacious puns,” kuneo became almost obsolete in favor of phileo. And so Judas betrayed Jesus with a “phileo.” Or to put it simply, there is a linguistic explanation for the rise of certain words, rather than a theological one.

2. The Septuagint does not consistently use the agapao word group for the higher love. In 2 Samuel 13, both phileo and agapao are used to describe Amnon’s attitude towards his half-sister, Tamar, whom he raped.

3. The Father’s love for the Son is described as both agapao (John 3:35) and phileo (John 5:20), with no apparent distinction in meaning. “Surely,” Carson says, “it is not that God is more emotional in the second instance than in the first.” In addition, Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10, loved the present world (agapao), something seemingly incongruent is agapao always means a “willed self-denial for the sake of the other.”

4. The fact that phileo can mean “to kiss,” does not require that it always means “to kiss.” Semantic overhang, or what is called illegitimate totality transfer (importing the entire semantic domain onto an individual usage) is, well, illegitimate. Words must be defined in context, and they only have one meaning in a given context. They do not mean two or three things, and they do not mean everything in the definition. So while a lexicon might give two or more meanings for a given word, in a particular context, we must select one meaning to apply. The use of the English word “love” provides a good example of the wide ranges involved in the Greek words. “Love” can mean “sexual intercourse, platonic love, emotional love, the love of God, and more.” The context must speak to the specific connotation.

5. 1 Corinthians 13 “cannot be reduced to will altruism.” The fact that a person might “give their body to be burned” or “give all that they have to feed the poor” does not necessarily show love. A person may do such an act of “willed self-denial for the sake of others” without love.

All of that to say this: Be careful when you harp on the meaning of original language words in Scripture (particularly if you use Strong’s or Vine’s to build your case). You might be riding a horse that turns up too weak to finish the ride.


Anonymous said...

Loved your post!

Chris Anderson said...

Good stuff, Larry.