A close friend and fellow minister of the gospel is writing a series of short articles for his church bulletin on the classic “four kinds of love.” After he and I discussed, with the gracious spirit of Christ, the nature of his topic and the potential abuse it can elicit, he sent me the four articles that will soon be published. As I expected, they were well written, helpful, and void of the all-too-common mistake of reading more into a single word than is exegetically healthy. I am thankful for my friend’s mind and heart.
His writing was stemmed, in part, from the popular “The Four Loves” by well-known Christian author C.S. Lewis. In his beloved book, Lewis expounds on the four Greek words for love: Storge, Eros, Philia, and Agape. These, in order, often are referred to as affection, passion, friendship, and sacrificial. No doubt the entirety of the semantic range for these Greek words is somewhat different; it is true that the full meaning of philia is somewhat different than agape. It can certainly be a helpful exercise to notice the ways in Scripture that each of these “kinds” of love are expressed. Proper word studies are an important and valuable part of good Bible study.
But more often than not, things go terribly wrong.
If you have listened to even a small number of sermons in your life, chances are very good that you have heard a well-intentioned pastor contrast the “kind” of love present in a verse over and against another “kind” of love simply because of the Greek word being used. So, if “agape” is used in a verse, then that verse must be saying something very different than if “philia” had been used. As D.A. Carson says in his book Exegetical Fallacies, this is all “linguistic nonsense.”
The biblical examples of how such a method of reading, teaching, and preaching fall short are numerous and it is not my intention to elaborate fully here. I will mention only a couple that are of interest. First, the Gospel of John describes the Father’s love for the Son. In John 3:35, a form of the word “agape” is used. In John 5:20, a form of philia is used to describe the same action. There is no noticable difference in what John is trying to convey in the Father’s love for his Son, yet based on traditional methodology, we would have to plug one meaning into John 3 and another meaning into John 5. Second, the incestuous rape of Tamar found in 2 Samuel 13 is described using the word “agape” for Ammon’s love for his half sister. When is the last time you heard a preacher exhort that the “agape” love of God leads to him raping and defiling us?! And so on. This is not limited to just the word love. Anytime we place all our eggs into the basket of etymology, we are in danger of falling prey to bad exegesis.
The better approach is to allow word studies to help us understand how words have been used in varying contexts throughout Scripture (and other literature) that provide both a meaning, but also flexibility to convey a wider range of use than we might originally think. The danger I see, especially among younger, diligent Christians, is that once the “magic” of word study becomes unveiled, we begin to think that a good Bible dictionary is the answer to all of our theological questions. If a sermon or class is built solely around “digging the meat” out of a single word until all the juice has been extracted from it, there may be much more to the passage than you will have learned.
This is why context must remain king in our reading and in our study. Preachers do well to preach from a pericope of Scripture that is multiple verses long and should refrain from delimiting the text to only one or two verses. Such an approach to preaching will make the “word” approach much more appealing. We always want to keep the author, the recipients, the date of the writing of the letter, the circumstances of the letter, and so forth in mind when reading a verse within a chapter within a letter. I used to think “what does this verse mean to you” was a problem for churches. Now, it can be whittled down to, “what does this word mean to you?”
In conclusion, there is great merit and benefit to understanding the differing kinds of love and how they work together. We can find many examples of that in the greater narrative of Scripture. Let’s just be careful to not pack too much meaning into the root of a word and create a host of problems for ourselves and our listeners. Such a course of action would be downright un-agape.