Are agapao and phileo really different in the New Testament? How about in John 21:15-17, Jesus’ famous conversation with Peter? What does the evidence say?
I just read a great little book which genuinely helped me understand my Bible better, Roy F. Butler’s little known The Meaning of Agapao and Phileo in the Greek New Testament (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1977).
I wrote an Amazon review of it:
This short, punchy work takes aim at the very common view that ἀγαπάω (agapao) and φιλέω (phileo) indicate very different kinds of love in the NT. Butler fires rapidly but with great precision, and he takes the time to do what few scholars seem to have done: he actually looks at all the uses of the two Greek words in the NT. He shows convincingly that every kind of use of phileo is matched by a synonymous use of agapao. The two words are synonyms, not denominators of vast and mutually excluding theological systems. He concludes that agapao and phileo both mean the same thing, and we have a perfect English word for it: “love.”
Butler was particularly helpful with John 21:15-17. He also writes with real verve, personality, and humor without going over the top.
Butler fails almost entirely to discuss linguistics and how it might enlighten the problem. For example, a discussion of sense and reference might have helped him not to overstate his case when it comes to what Moisés Silva might call a “technically charged” use of one of the Greek words in question. But Butler’s methods are still generally sound. Who can argue with usage? What this book may lack in linguistic sophistication, it makes up for in punchiness. A quick, genuinely helpful read—and this reviewer has been reading a lot on the topic.
Let me share just a few excerpts, too. These are Butler’s comments on John 21:15-17, the passage many have appealed to for a difference between agapao and phileo. I myself was already persuaded of almost all Butler’s views, but on this one I felt he tipped me over the fence I was riding and brought me down on his side. R.C. Trench was one of the earliest interpreters to see a difference between the two words for love in that passage, and Butler takes issue with Trench’s now classic interpretation:
Trench’s arguments have in them several elements that will not stand up under scrutiny. Of least importance is the fact that they make no logical sense. Inasmuch as Peter had used the verb phileo twice on his own account, why should he be distressed by Jesus’ use of it? Assuming that he might be so distressed, however, for reasons not perceptible to human intelligence, why in spite of his distress would he answer again with the same verb which so distressed him on Jesus’ lips? Most important is the fact that two plain and simple statements of John the writer are customarily overlooked by those who aspire to prove by this passage that agapao and phileo have different meanings. In point of fact, they must be overlooked if this passage is to be cited to establish a difference between the two verbs. They are…first: ‘He said to him for the third time’; and, second: ‘Peter was grieved because He said to him for the third time.’
After Jesus twice asked Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ using the verb agapao each time, John in his own person continues, ‘He said to him for the third time, ‘Do you love me’ using phileo. Now it ought to be obvious that unless the verbs are exact synonyms, John could not state that Jesus used phileo ‘for the third time’; as a matter of strict fact, Jesus had used agapao twice previously, and this was the first, not the third, time he had used phileo. Only if the two words are identical in meaning does John’s statement hold water. (p. 62)
I wanted to buy his argument, but I wondered if “for the third time” really demanded what Butler says. He anticipated my question. He argues in a footnote (pp. 83-84) that το τριτον never means “upon the third occasion,” but always, “for the third time.”
He argues in the next footnote against another common objection, this one voiced by Moulton and Milligan:, “In so severely simple a writer as John it is extremely hard to reconcile ourselves to a meaningless use of synonyms, where the point would seem to lie in the identity of the word employed.” Butler argues that “there are two mistakes in their thinking. The first is the assumption that a simple writer limits himself in the use of synonyms. The simplicity or complexity of a piece of writing is determined largely by its style. The second mistake lies in the implication that John himself does not use synonyms. John in fact customarily, even habitually, uses synonyms.” (p. 84)
One other big advance Butler made for me was to note that it’s not just that φιλέω and ἀγαπάω are used interchangeably in the NT. They are used interchangeably in very similar contexts and with the same objects: God, man, life, etc. In fact, he puts it this way: “For every occurrence of phileo there is an occurrence of agapao expressing exactly the same idea.” (p. 70)
Now, the reverse is not exactly true, but it’s close. It’s kind of complex!