Biblical Love

by Sep 1, 2009Dissertation, NTScholarship, Piety3 comments

First Corinthians 13:4–7 is a list of fifteen specific actions that love performs on behalf of other believers. That should immediately dispel the notion that love is primarily a feeling or an emotion. Although true love will carry emotion with it sometimes, feeling is not a necessary ingredient of love, nor is it the basis. Therefore, biblical love is not a feeling: it’s an action.1

A blog named after love has a duty to define love correctly. Or at least, this blog-named-after-love does. The above statement, which I got out of a high school Bible textbook, is not the definition this blog will put forward. Instead it’s a good example of why the meaning of love has become a (the?) major theological theme of this blog.

Let’s examine the author’s claim that the Love Chapter should dispel the very notions I’ve tried to promote on βλογάπη.

Most simply, I would argue that the passage he cites makes it clear that love is not an action. Take it away, D. A. Carson:

Though some have attempted to strip God’s love of affective content, making it no more than willed commitment to the other’s good, the philology does not support this view, nor does 1 Corinthians 13, where the apostle insists it is possible to deploy the most stupendous altruism without love.2

Remember that part of the passage?

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (ESV)

Giving away all you have and delivering your body to be burned are actions, good actions, good actions that can be performed without love. So love must be something different from apparently good actions. Love, Paul is saying, is the one righteous motivator for actions, the only motivation that makes actions count as “good.”

Even if 1 Corinthians 13 made love an action, several of the verbs Paul uses to describe love are emotions: love rejoices (2x) and hopes.

I think that the author of the comment at the top of this post knew better than to banish emotion from love, because he followed up his comment with this: “As we examine each of these actions [in 1 Cor. 13], we need to humbly inspect our own hearts to see if we truly love other members of Christ’s church.” If love were an action, we wouldn’t need to inspect our hearts. If we were performing the action, we’d know—no cardiogram necessary.

Love may not be “a feeling,” full stop. But it’s something internal. It’s, as Edwards would say, an inclination of the soul. It’s a delight and a pleasure. It’s a bent. It’s a fruit of the Spirit’s work in the Christian. It’s a lot of things, but it’s not an action.

I hope I’ve undispelled a notion for you today. May God help you and me love Him with all our hearts. It will require His power.


1. Don’t ask.

2. “God’s Love and God’s Sovereignty,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156: 623 (July 1999), p. 259.

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  1. Don Johnson

    I have defined agape love as an act of the will for a long time. I haven’t done a comprehensive study for a while, but tonight took a quick look at the verbs agapaw and philew in the NT. Agapaw appears as an imperative 10 times in the NT. Philew never appears as an imperative. I don’t recall if there are any other synonyms used in the NT.

    In any case, it appears that agapaw, at least, is addressed to the will and is something the will can do, whereas philew is not.

    While I wouldn’t want to say that there is no emotional component to agapaw, I have always contended that its first component is the decision of the will without regard for any response in return. I think the usage in Scripture bears that out.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Scott Aniol


    I would argue (and I think Mark would agree) that affections (like love) are certainly components of the will, but that does not make them actions per se.

    And I would also clarify that feelings (I don’t like to use the word “emotion,” because it’s so imprecise) certainly never define affections, but they’ll always be present to some degree or another.

    So you’re right, I think, to insist that the will is involved here. But the fact is that we will never act merely upon intellectual knowledge. It is always affections that move the will to act upon that knowledge.

  3. Don Johnson

    Hi Scott (and Mark)

    I think a lot of confusion in this discussion involves the terms used. While I appreciate what you try to do with the distinction between affections and emotions, I think the distinction is less clear than you make it.

    I’ll say more in the post where Mark gave me a starring role!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3


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