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.