Agape, Phileo, and Eros: Sorting Through The Meanings

New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE) (5 vols.)

I’m sure many of our readers have heard all sorts of info about the differences between three words for love: agape (αγαπη), eros (ερως), and phileo (φιλεω). I’ve heard a few of these discussions myself and they often leave me a little concerned because they aren’t always overly accurate. I could do a write-up of it myself, I suppose, but the NIDNTTE does a much better job than I could do. Here are some excerpts from the entry on love/agape (as a noun, verb, and adjective):

One should not infer that this word group has some kind of intrinsic “divine” meaning, as though the terms by themselves indicate selfless, sacrificial, pure love. In the LXX (Septuagint), for example, the verb is used of Samson’s attraction to Delilah (Judg 16:4), of Saul’s initial liking for David (1 Sam 16:21), of King Hiram’s political friendship with David (1 Ki. 5:1), of Solomon’s attachment to his numerous pagan wives (1 Ki. 11:2), of the people’s devotion to vain things (Ps 4:2 [LXX 4:3]), of the wicked’s love for unrighteousness, evil, and cursing (11:5 [10:5]; 52:3–4 [51:5–6]; 109:17 [108:17]), of the love for death that characterizes those who hate divine wisdom (Prov 8:36), of greediness for money and wealth (Eccl 5:10 [5:9]), of the rulers’ passion for shameful behavior (Hos 4:18), of the desire for a prostitute’s wages (9:1)….

It remains true that in the vast majority of its NT occurrences, ἀγαπάω is used with reference to a distinctive Christian virtue, but this fact witnesses to the significance of the theological concept, not to any positive qualities inherent in the word itself

 Here’s the section specifically on agape, eros, and phileo:

It has become commonplace—not only in popular literature but in scholarly treatments as well—to say that while English has only one word for “love,” Greek has three, each of which has a clearly distinguishable meaning: ἔρως (vb. ἐράω) supposedly has a negative connotation and indicates a desire for personal satisfaction, so that it is often applied to sexual matters (this word group is rare in the LXX and totally absent in the NT); φιλία/φιλέω (phileo) is said to be a somewhat neutral and colorless term, referring primarily to friendships and family relations; ἀγάπη and ἀγαπάω, (agape) finally, signify a self-giving attitude that seeks the best for others, even if unlovable (some of these distinctions owe much to the influential work by A. Nygren, Agape and Eros [1953]; earlier, Trench (p. 43) had argued that ἔρως and its cognates had been corrupted by the world, and “they carried such an atmosphere of unholiness about them … that the truth of God abstained from the defiling contact with them”).

This approach is problematic, however. Not only does it give an oversimplified picture of the Greek vocabulary—it is also inaccurate in several respects. To begin with, Greek has more than just three words whose use can come within the broad category of “love,” such as ἀντέχω , ἐπιθυμία, ἐπιπόθησις G2161, ἵμερος, κολλάω, πόθος, σπλάγχνον, στοργή, and others. And, of course, it is far from the truth that Eng. has only one word to express the concept of love in its various forms….

More important, it is misleading to suggest that the three Gk. words in question have inherently favorable or unfavorable meanings. As noted above (sect. 1), there are plenty of negative contexts in the LXX where ἀγαπάω is used. By the same token, ἐράω freq. occurs in positive contexts; Philo, for example, links this vb. with “good things,” “virtues,” “perseverance and temperance,” “peace,” “truth,” “wisdom,” etc. (Leg. 2.55, 80, 83; Somn. 2.40; Spec. 2.258; Virt. 1.62), and he can speak of ἔρως as “heavenly” and “divine” (οὐράνιος, θεῖος) and as the source of all virtue (Virt. 1.55). As for φιλέω, it is true enough that this vb. occurs freq. in contexts of friendship, and that often it is used in the mild sense of “to like (something)” (cf. Gen 27:4 et al.), but it can also be applied to Jacob’s strong love for his son Joseph (37:4 [= ἀγαπάω in v. 3]), to a person’s love for wisdom (Prov 29:3), to the love for parents (Matt 10:37), to God the Father’s love for the Son (John 5:20), to Jesus’ deep love for Lazarus (11:3 [= ἀγαπάω in v. 5], 36); to the Father’s love for the disciples in response to the disciples’ love for Jesus (16:27)… (etc).

One more note:

That ἀγαπάω (agapao) and φιλέω (phileo) can be used interchangeably in some contexts is certain: “I love [ἀγαπῶ] those who love [φιλοῦντας] me” (Prov 8:17 LXX, where the two terms render the same Heb. vb., אָהַב; cf. also 21:17; Lam 1:2; and Jos. Vita 1.198; LSJ cites Xen. Mem. 2.7.9); and John himself can employ these two vbs. as simple synonyms, as is especially clear from the formula “[the disciple] whom Jesus loved” (ἠγάπα in John 13:23; 21:7, 20; but ἐφίλει in 20:2). Moreover, as noted above, John sometimes applies ἀγαπάω (agapao) to negative expressions of love (3:19; 12:43), and φιλέω (phileo) to divine love (5:20; 16:27). 

The discussion is somewhat technical, I suppose, and I did edit the above quotes to make it easier to read. The point is, be somewhat wary when someone tries to give dogmatic statements about the meaning of agape, phileo, and eros!

 The above quotes are found in Silva, Moisés, ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis 2014. s.v. agape.

 Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Act of Faith and the Intellect (Van Mastricht)

The second volume of Petrus Van Mastricht’s “Theoretical-Practical Theology” was recently published in English. I’ve mentioned volume 1 here before, so I won’t give a long explanation of it, but Van Mastricht (1630-1706) is one of my favorite Reformed theologians. This second volume covers topics like Faith, Theology Proper, and the Holy Trinity. It is solid exegetical and practical theology at it’s scholastic best! Here’s a section from Van Mastricht’s discussion of faith and the intellect:

Indeed in the intellect faith requires: 1) Knowledge of the promises of the gospel, of God and Christ (John 17:3; Is. 53:11; 2 Tim. 1:12); 2) Assent, given not only implicitly to the whole Word of God (Acts 24:14; Luke 16:29), but also explicitly to the fundamental dogmas, and in particular to the promises of the gospel, without which there cannot be any reception of God or Christ (Phil. 3:8, 10). In particular, 3) assent to this great proposition: Christ is that once-promised Messiah without whom there is no hope of salvation at all (John 11:25-27; 1 John 2:22, 4:2-3; Acts 4:12). But finally, 4) a theoretical knowledge and assent is not sufficient, but a practical knowledge, by which you have been convicted and the will is moved to take hold of that which has been offered, namely, God and the Mediator (Rom. 7:18, “I know…”; v.21, “I find…”; v. 24, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?”).

Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, p. 8.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christians Living in Harmony (Marshall)

The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: 1 Peter

In 1 Peter 3:8a the apostle calls Christians to be like-minded. This doesn’t mean that Christians need to have the same political views, dress the same way, agree on the same way to school their children, or agree on the same Bible translation to use. It means something much deeper. Here’s how I. Howard Marshall explained it:

They should live in harmony with one another. The Greek word (literally, “to be of like mind”) means that Christians should have the same basic aim of serving God and loving one another, instead of being guided by individual, selfish interests. This is important advice in a world where individualism holds sway and everybody is encouraged to do his own thing. Obviously Peter does not mean that each person has identical aims, but rather that the dominant aim of every Christian must be the same, namely to love and serve God, and that other aims are derived from and subordinate to this one.

Christians, therefore, will work together and not act in isolation. Rather than competing with each other’s interests they will help one another to achieve what is God’s will for their lives. In other words, if I believe that God is calling me to do something particular in my life, then it must harmonize with my duties toward other Christians in helping them to do what God calls them to do. I must resist the temptation to think that my specific calling from God is so important that I must not allow concern for other people’s needs to deter me from pursuing it.

 I. Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 1 Pe 3:8.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Much We Need Thy Tender Care (Brooks)

Works of Thomas Brooks (6 Volumes)

We know that God cares for his people. We’re called to cast all our anxieties on the Lord, because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). He’s mindful of his children (Ps. 40:6). It’s very clear throughout Scripture that the children of God are cared for!

In his booklet “A Heavenly Cordial”, Thomas Brooks gave a brief but detailed explanation of God’s care for us. Here it is (edited slightly for length and readability).

God’s care …

Is an extensive care, a care that reaches, that extends itself to all the saints, whether rich or poor, high or low, slave or free, etc. 2 Chr.16:9, Zech. 1:10,11.

Is an intensive or earnest care: he cares for all as if he had but one to care for (Zech. 1:14).

Is a pleasant and delightful care (Is. 31:5) and not a wearying, tearing, tormenting care. It is such a pleasant care as an indulgent father exercises towards a son, an only son, a son that serves him (Mal. 3:17).

Is an effectual, prosperous, and successful care, a flourishing care. Men many times rise early and go to bed late and take a great deal of care at home and abroad, with nothing to show for it. But the care of God is always successful (Dt. 11:12).

Is a singular, peculiar care. God cares more for them than he does for all the world besides. The father’s care over the child is a peculiar care, and so is the Lord’s care over his people a peculiar care. God’s general care extends to the whole creation, but his special care centers on his saints (Zeph. 3:16-20, Ps 36:6).

It is a very tender care. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, he shall gather the lambs with his arms and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” Is. 40:11.

It is an abiding care, a lasting care. “They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abides forever” (Ps. 125:1, 2). “He that keeps you will not slumber” (Ps. 121:3, 4). …This constant care of God over his people was signified by these two types, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that did not leave Israel until they were in possession of the land of Canaan, which was a type of heaven.

It is an active care, a care in which the Lord actively preserves his people, protects them, makes provision for them, stands by them, and so on. God surrounds his people with care. He is on their left and on their right, in front of them and behind them.

You can find this discussion on page 420-421 of Thomas Brooks’ Works, volume 6.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Increasing Our Spiritual Gifts (John Owen)

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 4: The Reason of Faith
Owen, vol. 4

God gives his people spiritual gifts so his people can bless others and bring him glory. Peter tells us to use our gifts to serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10). But the Christian might ask a question: How do we receive spiritual gifts or how do the spiritual gifts we have grow or increase? Obviously God, by his Holy Spirit, gifts his people. As far as attaining or increasing spiritual gifts, John Owen had a nice discussion about this topic in his “Discourse of Spiritual Gifts.” Here’s what he says about attaining and increasing spiritual gifts:

…In the first place is required a due preparation of soul, by humility, meekness, and teachableness. The Holy Spirit taketh no delight to impart of his especial gifts unto proud, self-conceited men, to men vainly puffed up in their own fleshly minds….

Secondly, prayer is a principal means for their attainment. This the apostle directs unto when he enjoins us earnestly to desire the best gifts; for this desire is to be acted by prayer, and no otherwise.

Thirdly, diligence in the things about which these gifts are conversant. Study and meditation on the word of God, with the due use of means for the attaining a right understanding of his mind and will therein, is that which I intend. For in this course, conscientiously attended unto, it is that, for the most part, the Holy Spirit comes in and joins his aid and assistance for furnishing of the mind with those spiritual endowments.

Fourthly, the growth, increase, and improvement of these gifts depend on their faithful use according as our duty doth require. It is trade alone that increaseth talents, and exercise in a way of duty that improveth gifts. Without this they will first wither and then perish….

Owen, Works, Vol. 4, p. 519-520.

 To summarize, we can grow in our God-given spiritual gifts by being humble, praying about them, diligently studying the Word, using them, and by cultivating our natural gifts.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015



The Freeness of Grace… (Toplady)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady (6 vols.)

Augustus Toplady used the term “legal fear” to describe the fear people have that makes them think they need to earn God’s favor. They’re afraid that if they don’t do enough to meet God’s standards he will not accept them. It’s a fear that tells a person he cannot be certain of God’s love – to do so would be presumptuous. At other times, Toplady noted, legal fear says

“You must bring…a price in your hand to God the Father or Christ’s redemption will profit you nothing. Do not undervalue yourself by supposing that you can do no good work before you are justified. I tell you that you must work for life and justification. You must do good works in order to be accepted – and fulfill a string of terms and conditions, seeing you are to be saved for your works, because of your works, yea, according to the merits of your works.”

That’s what legal fear says. Toplady responds:

But thou, O believer in Christ, flee these abominable doctrines. Listen not to them, as you value the glory of God, the freeness of grace, the riches of Christ, the interests of real holiness, and your own happiness. Remember that the conditions of fallen man’s salvation are two, and no more: namely, perfect atonement for sin, and perfect obedience to the law. Both of these conditions Christ has completely fulfilled, in the stead, and for the infallible salvation, of every soul that comes to his blood for cleansing, and to his righteousness for clothing. “To what end, then, serves faith?” To let thee into the knowledge, possession, and enjoyment of this free and finished redemption. “And to what end serve good works?” Not to entitle us to God’s favor, or even to pave (much less to pay) our way to his kingdom: but to glorify his name, to adorn his gospel, to evidence our adoption, and benefit others on our road to heaven.

Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 3 (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 369.

 Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

“Receiving” in Article IV of The Apology of the Augsburg Confession

Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531) uses the terms “receive” or “received” (etc.) well over thirty times (I lost count!). This is very significant because Article IV is on justification sola fide. I don’t have time and space to explain all the details here and now, but this article uses the terms “receive” or “receives” so many times because it is echoing Scripture’s truth that a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by works. In other words, faith receives a gift: God’s mercy, forgiveness, and the righteousness of Christ. Faith is not a work that God rewards with justification now or in the future. Justifying faith doesn’t give anything to God, it receives from him. Faith is the open hand of a beggar receiving a blessing from God. Here are just a few examples of how Article IV uses the “receive” words (I’ve emphasized them in bold):

“Faith justifies and saves, not because it is a worthy work in itself, but only because it receives the promised mercy.”

“By faith alone in Christ – not through love, not because of love of works – we receive the forgiveness of sins, although love follows faith.”

“…A promise cannot be received except by faith alone.”

“…We receive Christ’s benefits by this [faith] alone.”

“Because faith receives forgiveness of sins and reconciles us to God, we are <like Abraham> counted as righteous for Christ’s sake before we love and before we do the works of the Law, although love necessarily follows.”

There is obviously more to the discussion. I just wanted to point out a great emphasis in the Apology that I thought was helpful and edifying!

The above quotes were taken from Article IV of the Apology in Concordia.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015