Biblical Love 2: Response to the Father of Friends of This Blog

Don Johnson, a Canadian pastor and father (and father-in-law, respectively) of my good friends Duncan and Meg Johnson, offered a response to my last post on love, a post in which I argued that love is not an action:

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.

This is an argument worth a separate post, and any father (or even in-law!) of Duncan or Meg gets special treatment on my blog. So here we go!

Boiling Down the Arguments

Boiling down Mr. Johnson’s argument, I think I could state it fairly this way:

ἀγαπάω (agapao) is a matter first of the will, not the emotions (though these are not necessarily excluded), because ἀγαπάω is commanded while φιλέω (fileo) is not.

Fair? This is, of course, a quite common argument.

But there is an unstated assumption involved in it, namely that emotions can’t be commanded. This, then, usually combines with a further unstated theological assumption: it’s unjust for God to command people to do what they cannot do.

Still fair? These, of course, are quite common arguments in their own right.

A Respectful Response

God does, of course, command emotions: Rejoice evermore; rejoice in the Lord; weep with those who weep, et multi cetera.

But the real sticking point is probably whether or not God can command people to do things they can’t do. This question gets us into much deeper theological waters which I won’t wade into here (though my pastor recently did, and I agree with him!). I just want to point out the unstated assumptions in Mr. Johnson’s argument. We all have unstated assumptions, βλογάπη included, so this alone is not a criticism.

The waters I am willing to wade into here are the facts Pastor Johnson presents. Though completely true as far as they go, they call for more examination. Yes, ἀγαπάω is commanded while φιλέω is not.

But several forms of φιλέω are commanded of Christians:

  • There are noun combining forms using φιλέω that believers are told to have:
    • “Let brotherly love (φιλαδελφία; philadelphia) continue” (Heb. 13:1).
    • “Train the young women to love their husbands (φιλάνδρους; philandrous) and children (φιλοτέκνους; philoteknous) (Titus 2:4).”
  • Not all commands are grammatical imperatives. There are clearly laudable instances of φιλέω which we are meant to emulate, and which are therefore in a definite sense “commanded”:
    • Jesus’ love for Lazarus (Jn 11:3, 36)
    • The disciples’ love for Jesus (Mt 10:37; Jn 16:27)
    • God’s love for His Son (Jn 5:20)
    • God’s love for us (Jn 16:27).
    • Cf. 1Co 16:22 “If anyone has no love for (φιλεῖ; philei) the Lord, let him be accursed.”

When I began personal Bible study in earnest in the late 90s I came across Psalm 112:1, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!” I wanted to be blessed, so I figured I should find out what His commandments were. I literally started marking them, page after page. But I soon found out that God doesn’t always state our duties in the form of commands. Narratives, psalms, even Pauline prose introduce all sorts of duties (and graces) without using the imperative mood.

We have a duty to show φιλέω love as well as ἀγάπη love, and let me now suggest what I hope to prove in another post: the two are generally the same thing. Greek words are only confusing the discussion.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “Biblical Love 2: Response to the Father of Friends of This Blog”

  1. Mark, I see you have a tag on this subject: “dissertation”. I am assuming that means you have studied this in depth. As such, it is quite probable that it will be difficult to thoroughly discuss the subject on a blog.

    But let’s try to look at a few things you’ve stated in this post and see where it leads us.

    I think that in the first instance you haven’t quite boiled down my argument in the earlier post. And I was of course just writing something off the cuff, since I haven’t looked at this subject in a while. (My theories were developed while I was dating Dunky-boy’s mother, when the subject was near and dear to my heart!)

    I point out the imperative forms of agapao to suggest that there is a difference in the treatment of agapao and phileo in the NT. My assumption here isn’t that emotions can’t be commanded but that, in fact, agapao is commanded and phileo is not. The point of this observation is that the will is addressed with respect to one word, but never to the other.

    I think you are taking quite a bit of a leap to suggest that I think it is unjust for God to command people to do something they can’t do. It would be illogical to do so, however. It would be like that instance when Joe Biden in the last presidential campaign called on the wheelchair bound congressman to “stand up, Chuck”. Was he being unjust? At best, he was being illogical. (At worst, ignorant and unfeeling. But we like Joe, even though he says dumb things.) In any case, I don’t think the issue of justice crossed my mind on this point. My point is simply that imperatives always address the will, and the biblical data seems to suggest a difference between agape and philos in this regard.

    Whether emotions can be commanded or not, your examples don’t prove your point. You suggest commands to rejoice and to weep. What emotions are those, exactly? Rejoicing is related to joy, but you can ‘joy’ over someone else’s good fortune even if you don’t feel particularly joyful yourself, can’t you? The same is true for weeping. It is related to sorrow, but (even more than rejoicing) can be done without an ounce of personal sorrow in one’s own heart. Isn’t that what the professional mourners at 1st century funerals were all about?

    Further, though compound words connected with the idea of phileo are commanded, those words aren’t the same thing as philos, strictly speaking, are they?

    As for the list of references that imply commands, I don’t get it in most of them. The only one where I see your point is Mt 10.37. The rest don’t seem to make your point at all, but I won’t lengthen this by going through them one by one.

    Finally, I do agree, however, that we have more duties than those merely commanded. But there are many commands! Did you know that the book of James, for example, has an imperative every other verse? (I call it the most Old Testament of the New Testament books – which would stand to reason, being the first of the NT books.)

    I look forward to your further post on agape and philos.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Pastor Johnson,

    I’m just going to take up one argument of yours right now, because I believe it gets right to the heart of things. You weren’t comfortable with my claim that the commands to rejoice and weep were commands to have certain emotions.

    On joy I’ll ask a question: What do you gain by arguing that emotion is not a necessary part of the command to rejoice? I was apparently wrong in answering the question for you (suggesting that you gain a God who’s not commanding you to do something you cannot do), and I would genuinely like to know! =)

    On weeping, another question: Do you think that you can weep with those who weep without feeling any sorrow—and that you will be satisfying Jesus’ command? Do you think He really only demands the outward signs of weeping, but not the internal emotion that not only accompanies but produces it in normal life?

  3. Hi Mark

    I concede your points on rejoice and weep. You are correct that you can’t weep with those who weep and not be sorrowing with them.

    So where does that leave us? If we agree that emotions can be commanded, what does that make the individuals response to the command? Surely the will is involved, isn’t it? If the will is involved, how is the response not an action in the first place (an act of the will)?

    Perhaps the problem you have with the definition you cited at the beginning of your first post is the word “primarily” where it says “agape is primarily an action, not an emotion” (or something to that effect). The definition doesn’t deny an emotive component, but it emphasizes that the word is displayed in life by how you act towards someone (or something) else, rather than how you feel about it.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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