You may have heard sermons that distinguish between the three types of love: eros, for physical, sensual love; phileo, for friendly or brotherly love; and agape, for divine, unconditional love. As a young Christian, I learned the idea that agape is really special and better than the other kinds of love. To think otherwise would have been “inconceivable.”
A classic case in sermons where this sometimes becomes a big deal is in John 21:15-17. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Jesus with agape love, but both times, Peter answers that he loves with phileo love. As the sermon unfolds, you hear that Peter is being a bit of a smuck by only responding with phileo love towards Jesus instead of the spiritually superior agape. So the third time, Jesus lowers the bar and simply asks if Peter will love Him with phileo love, whereby Peter still responds with phileo love. A variety of applications are usually given here, one being that in his divine agape love, Jesus graciously condescends towards us by acknowledging our inability to love God back unconditionally, or some other such idea.
Well, I am embarrassed to say it, but I must confess it. I have used this teaching myself with other people without thinking much about it. However, the problem is that the illustration here is well-meaning but most probably unwarranted. It is a common example where sometimes fallacies in Biblical interpretation, such as “word studies,” can lead people astray.
Exegetical Fallacies That Can Trip People Up
When studying the Bible, there are a number of helpful tools available to assist us in better understanding the text of Holy Scripture. Bible scholars typically refer to this type of work with such tools as being exegesis, or “to draw out,” the meaning of the text. This is in contrast with methods of eisegesis, or “to draw in” a certain meaning from the outside. To use eisegesis is a bad thing, since it is thought to impose a foreign idea into the text and gloss over the original intent of the author. Instead, you want to focus on the exegesis of the text. The goal is therefore to properly interpret, or draw out, the meaning of the text as opposed to reading something into it.
For example, a concordance, like this one online, is a type of tool that can help the student of Scripture to look up where the words in one passage show up in another passage. You can even look up the Hebrew or Greek roots of a particular word to find its meaning. But a tool can be easily misused and the example of agape versus phileo provides a good case study.
Many assume that the Greek word agape is a type of “unconditional love” that specifically belongs to God, the type of love that we should strive for in our relationships with God and other people. Granted, agape is still a great word to describe the love of God. You would think that once you learn this meaning of agape that its application is universal. But just because the etymological root for agape could be an expression of divine love does not necessarily mean that agape is used this way consistently throughout the entire Bible (agape is sometimes transliterated as agapao).
For example, in the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Septuagint, 2 Samuel 13:15 describes Amnon’s rape of and incest with his half-sister Tamar as an act of “love”…. guess what… using the word agape.
Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love (agape) with which he had loved (agape) her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go! (ESV)
Or how about this one:
Here is 2 Timothy 4:10, talking about someone named Demas who forsakes the mission with the Apostle Paul and instead embraces the values of worldliness, “loving” the present world, where this “love” is ….yes, again… referred to as being agape:
For Demas, in love (agape) with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia (ESV).
…but people loved (agape) the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil (ESV).
And also 2 Peter 2:15:
…they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved (agape) gain from wrongdoing.
So much for the absolute, universal meaning of “divine, unconditional love” for agape.
This really should not completely surprise us. The meaning of words can change over time or vary in different contexts. Just think about what the English word “gay” meant a hundred years ago versus what it typically means today. When someone now says that they are having “a gay ole’ time,” they might raise a few eyebrows. Just as English word usage can vary today, the same can be said for Hebrew and Greek word usage in the Bible.
You need not freak out too much over this, but it is best to be cautious. The Greek agape still refers to God’s unconditional love at least some of the time in the Bible, so you can still keep your agape bumper sticker on your car and even leave that tattoo on your arm, (if you are inclined to do that type of thing!!)… but you will have some explaining to do. So unless you want to keep backpedaling every time agape does not mean what you think it means, you might consider twice before you emblazon an ancient Greek word on such a prominent surface!
Exegesis… Not to Be Confused With the “Eggs of Jesus”
Unfortunately, the failure to recognize this difficulty can become a real problem for some enthusiastic students of the Bible. Technically speaking, this difficulty is simply one of a number of exegetical fallacies, which is also the name of a very helpful, though rather advanced textbook in Biblical studies by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and New Testament scholar D. A. Carson. Carson’s main argument is that sometimes Bible teachers can fall into rather rigid patterns of thought in how they interpret, or do exegesis, of the Bible. The responsible interpretation of Scripture requires not only a good use of available tools, like concordances and word studies, it also requires a certain nuanced approach that avoids rather wooden and therefore artificial readings of Holy Scripture. So while it is helpful to do word studies of various terms in the Bible, we still need to remember that the proper interpretation of Scripture always needs to pay attention to other matters having to do with the context of a particular passage.
Word study fallacies are not the only kind of Biblical interpretation fallacy. There are others. A couple of excellent blog postings provide some helpful examples of these other different fallacies, one by Michael Patton of Credo House and another at NTGreekStudies.com.
Back to John 21:15-17 for a moment…Frankly, scholars are divided as to the meaning behind why agape and phileo are used in this passage. Some argue that there still could be a real theological difference here between how agape and phileo is used, but it is also plausible to think that the Gospel writer is using these differences for the word “love” in merely a rather stylistic way, as opposed to teaching a particular doctrinal point, as suggested by the notes of the NET Bible. In other words, it could simply be that agape and phileo are merely synonyms. The backstory on this issue is that studies in Greco-Roman literature over the past several decades have cast a shadow over the traditional assumptions made by a number of older, 19th-century Bible scholars regarding the history and usage of agape and phileo during the New Testament era. The ambiguity over how best to understand agape and phileo is mainly why most English Bible translations today do not make a distinction in English between these different words for “love” in this passage.
Why Is This So Important?
Some Veracity readers might get a little dazed and confused by talk about exegetical fallacies, but the discussion is really important. In many respects, such fallacies in Biblical interpretation are not always absolutely terrible. A lot of pastors today, even very popular and accomplished ones, can be prone to making mistakes like these from time to time. If the teacher can acknowledge and admit their error, then so much for the better! But when it comes to certain groups or individuals who are bound up in serious theological error, the consequences can be pretty bad.
If you look at just about any “Christian” marginal movement or false teaching today, you can generally find some fallacy with respect to how they misinterpret some passage of the Bible. Someone presenting a particular case may sound really knowledgeable, even able to spit out references to the original Greek, etc., but it really requires that the student of the Bible verify and examine the assumptions being made by so-called “Bible teachers” who sound a bit “off.” You should not blindly accept the claims made by someone for discovering the “real meaning” of a particular passage without asking if the teacher has really done their homework.
A little bit of Greek can be exceedingly dangerous.
Granted, most Christians never have the luxury to learn the ancient Biblical languages in-depth, so at some point you have to trust that your pastor or teacher is on the right track. It is surely true in my case: I have never seriously studied New Testament Greek or ancient Hebrew, and I probably will never have the time to undertake such a study.
Therefore, it is important for pastors to have good seminary training, if at all possible, where they can properly learn these ancient languages, in order to help members of their flock navigate these types of issues. So if you hear someone spout off with something that seems a bit cagey, find someone you can trust who knows the ancient languages with whom you can consult. Furthermore, read your Bible in multiple translations, if you have the opportunity. If you read the study notes in one Bible, try to find a different study Bible and compare the notes. The main idea here is to use the tools that God has given you to study His Word, but please do so critically, and please do so responsibly.
To read the Bible any other way would be “inconceivable.”