Ἀγαπάω (Agapao) Is Commanded While Φιλέω (Phileo) Is Not, So the Former Is More Volitional Than the Latter

Have you ever heard someone argue that ἀγαπάω is commanded in the New Testament while φιλέω is not, so the former is more volitional than the latter?

Immediately, anyone familiar with the work of linguist and biblical scholar James Barr should be suspicious. He warned that “belief in the necessary reflection of theological structures in the linguistic structures…causes the distortion of linguistic evidence.” This point of the standard view of ἀγάπη love is an excellent example of what Barr is criticizing.

The point is also very significant, because it is the primary exegetical argument proponents of the standard view make for seeing ἀγάπη as a volitional (that is, non-emotional) love. Without this argument’s support, arguing that ἀγάπη is volitional becomes much more complex and difficult (I would say impossible) because it means examining many different contexts to see whether the Bible actually says in sentences that Christian love is supposed to be primarily volitional.

Many linguistic arguments can be made against this point. Here are six.

  1. First, meaning is not tied as directly to morphology as this argument supposes. Speech-act theory has shown that you can “do” more things with a declarative sentence than merely make propositions. When the God of the universe speaks through Scripture, whatever He says in any grammatical mood constitutes a norm, something you must believe, love, do, etc. Just because a sentence includes no imperatives does not mean it includes no commands. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1), for example, constitutes a command: do not walk in the counsel of the wicked. So does “Jesus…loved him” (Mk. 10:21): we ought to love others, too. The imperative mood is not the necessary ingredient which creates obligations for the readers of Scripture.In fact, some imperatives in Scripture are not commands for believers to follow. Context makes this clear. Obviously, Jesus’ command, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (Jn. 13:27) is delimited by context to exclude everyone but Judas. “Be angry, and do not sin” (Ps. 4:4; Eph. 4:26) is not as straightforward an imperative as it sounds, either. It is delimited by its canonical context to exclude many reasons for anger.

    In addition, some sentences which contain no grammatical imperatives are still rightfully translated with one in English: “Τίμιος ὁ γάμος” and “Ἀφιλάργυρος ὁ τρόπος” (Heb. 13:4, 5) are both translated as imperatives: “Let marriage be held in honor” and “Keep your life free from the love of money.”

    Also, there are grammatical imperatives in OT prophecy which are sarcastic and therefore not meant as “commands” for anyone, and there are grammatical imperatives elsewhere in Scripture which are essentially optatives. These linguistic arguments mean that an examination of the full context of each use of ἀγάπη is necessary to determine whether or not the stress is on volition. The mere fact that there are no imperatives of φιλεῖν does not say anything either way about its volitionality. If the NT were longer, it could have used φιλεῖν in the imperative. The word appears only 25 times in the NT to ἀγαπᾶν’s 143. Ἀγαπᾶν itself occurs in the imperative only ten times in the NT. This argument appears to be guilty, then, of a kind of insufficient sampling—as are most arguments in the lexical theology tradition.

  2. A second linguistic argument against this point comes from NT usage. There are clearly laudable instances of φιλέω which believers 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). And 1 Corinthians 16:22 certainly constitutes a command to φιλεῖν: “If anyone has no love for (φιλεῖ) the Lord, let him be accursed.” If this were not enough, forms of φιλέω are coupled with imperatives and commanded of Christians. There are combining forms using φιλέω that believers are told to have: “Let brotherly love (φιλαδελφία) continue” (Heb. 13:1); “Train the young women to love their husbands (φιλάνδρους) and children (φιλοτέκνους)” (Titus 2:4). Interpreters regularly point out that men are commanded to love their wives (Eph. 5:25ff.) while women are never commanded to love their husbands. A woman’s love for her spouse is commonly thought to be natural. But Titus 2:4 constitutes such a command, and it uses a combining form of φιλέω—the supposedly natural and instinctive form of love—to do so.Is a theological conclusion—one in the domain of theological anthropology in this case—the best one to draw from the fact that φιλεῖν is never found in the imperative in the NT? Its presence in the imperative in the OT suggests that a linguistic explanation may be better: φιλεῖν in the imperative meant “kiss.” In Gen. 27:26 and Sng. 1:2, the verb appears in the imperative with that sense. Perhaps Jesus, in choosing ἀγαπᾶν for the Great Commandment, was not rejecting a lesser or even different form of love; He simply was not saying, “Kiss the Lord with all your heart.” Only a usage survey can say.
  3. Third, Roy Butler has listed the adverbial modifiers that accompany ἀγαπάω and φιλέω, and he notes that while positive words modify both ἀγαπάω (to love “in sincerity,” “in deed,” “in truth,” “unto the death,” “much,” “more abundantly”) and φιλέω (to love “in the faith,” “more”), negative modifiers accompany only ἀγαπάω (to love “little,” “less,” “in word,” “in tongue”). He comments with tongue in cheek, “From these facts it would be reasonable to infer that agapao connotes a love which, depending on circumstances, is good or bad; but phileo connotes a love which is good only.” But Butler’s faux argument is linguistically equivalent to the argument from grammatical mood which is the subject of this post. Interpreters using either would be finding theological significance where God put none.
  4. Fourth, does this type of argumentation work with any other NT synonyms? The three words for “wash”—νίπτω, πλύνω, and λούω—have very similar overall usages in the NT (55, 43, 55 times, respectively), but νίπτω is commanded more often than the other two combined. Is the kind of washing communicated by νίπτω a more volitional kind of washing?
  5. Fifth, does this method of study admit of degrees? Λαλέω is commanded proportionally almost four times more often than its closest synonym, λέγω. Does this mean that λαλέω speech is approximately four times more volitional than λέγω speech? (Does it mean, in fact, that φιλέω is not volitional at all since it is never commanded?)Does verbal inspiration truly demand that Bible interpreters find theological significance in every linguistic or stylistic choice? This is Bible Code reasoning.It may be objected that volition is not at issue in such simple external actions as washing and speaking, so it will be appropriate to take an example from the same semantic domain as ἀγαπάω and φιλέω: is λυπέω equal to πενθέω in volitionality since they are commanded the same number of times in the NT+LXX—with similar overall usages outside the imperative? No one has ever thought to argue this way (I would suggest that is because no one’s theology is pushing him to do so, whereas a particular theology is pushing the volitional-love view).

    A final comment under this point: in the NT, ἐλέγχω is commanded twice as often as it synonym ἐπιτιμάω. However, if the LXX is included, the proportion of imperatives to overall uses is very similar between the two verbs. Perhaps this demonstrates that an effort to discern meaning from the relative frequency of synonyms (in various moods, even) invites linguistic pitfalls. We simply do not have all the Κοινή usage evidence.

  6. Sixth and last, the verb ἀγαπάω is used in statements like “people loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19) and in imperatives such as “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1Jn. 2:15). Many interpreters recognize that such uses make it clear that ἀγαπάω does not always mean Christian love. These interpreters insist, however, that the noun ἀγάπη can and does communicate Christian love. But the noun ἀγάπη, of course, is never found in the imperative mood! By giving up ἀγαπάω, they give up their key objective support for the view that ἀγάπη love is more volitional than others.

The argument that ἀγαπάω is more volitional than φιλέω because the latter is never found in the imperative mood has insurmountably grave linguistic problems. It is probably the weakest point in the standard view of ἀγάπη love.

If you made it this far, even if you are not a regular reader of my blog, you may have gathered that this is an excerpt from my dissertation (slightly blogified). I’m not sure if it’s good form to post excerpts from an ongoing work, but the web is an evolving medium and I’m taking the risk. I do so in part to ask you to interact with me. I just turned in the chapter containing this material. Prepare me for my committee’s barrages by giving me any critique you like.

Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 127.

Admittedly, this particular paragraph could be consistent with the overall point, because it would not matter whether ἀγαπάω is commanded of believers, only that it is commanded. But this paragraph is illustrating the general truth that grammatical form and theological meaning are not tied together in the way the standard view of ἀγάπη is supposing.

Lane comments, “By virtue of its position at the beginning of the sentence, τίμιος, ‘respected,’ is emphatic. The simple adjective is used imperatively here, and in 13:5 as well. This is a usage closely related to the imperatival participle, which is common in the Koine.” In other words, syntax—the smallest unit of context—can “overrule” grammatical form. William Lane, Word Biblical Commentary, Hebrews 9–13 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 508.

One example is “Your kingdom come” (Mt. 6:10). Randy Leedy suggests that “in classical Greek this would have been an optative.” Lecture notes, Exegesis of Matthew, Bob Jones Seminary, 10/7/01.

Greg Mazak anticipates this argument. Emotional Life of Jesus, 158.

Butler, Agapao and Phileo, 52.

Both mean “rebuke” or “reprove.”

Note what this means: 1 John 2:15, a usage of ἀγαπάω which clearly does not fit the standard view of what ἀγάπη means, has always been a full ten percent of its evidence for a major supporting point.

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.


  1. Don Johnson on May 13, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Mark, early in this article, you describe the traditional view of agape “as a volitional (that is, non-emotional) love.” Later you say, it “is more volitional”. It seems to me that both of these are not the same.

    I would argue that agape is more volitional, but not that it is non-emotional. I suppose a better term might be “more consciously volitional” since one could argue the will is involved with phileo also.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Mark L Ward Jr on May 13, 2010 at 9:03 am

    That’s good, Mr. Johnson. An inconsistency I need to address, for sure.

  3. Christian Memes | βλογάπη on October 27, 2010 at 6:08 am

    […] If you’ve read this blog for long, you’ll know that I think “love is an action, not a feeling” is another unjustified meme. […]

  4. Charlie J. Ray on December 30, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    Emotions cannot obey commands.

    • Mark Ward on January 3, 2019 at 9:56 am

      You need to read Desiring God. Emotions cannot obey commands, but people can. And the Bible says, “Rejoice evermore,” among many, many other commands to feel what we typically call emotions.

      One of the passages that Piper brings up that has stuck with me and come to my mind many times over the years is Deuteronmy 28:47-48:

      Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.

  5. Charlie J. Ray on December 30, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    Also, you would need to define what an emotion is. If the Bible is propositional revelation, it seems to me that it is meant to be understood with the mind, not felt emotionally.

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