Agape vs Eros

In thinking about my last post, on the “Peter Pan” problem in the Church today, I remembered some of my earlier thinking on the difference between the types of love discussed in the Bible, and its relation to my argument. The Bible discusses three types of love: agape, philios, sturge. There is a fourth, culturally significant type of love, not even mentioned in the Scriptures (Eros), but it permeated the culture of the biblical (and our) world.

God’s love is primarily expressed as agape, which is self-sacrificial and one of its fundamental aspects is that it imparts worth to the recipient. God sacrifices for us and gives us eternal worth where we had none. It is the foundation of Paul’s argument about Jesus in Philippians 2:1-8.

So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:1-8

The root of the Christian heart is this sacrificial agape and it comes to fruition in Christian maturity. Agape is unique in the galaxy of love in that it is a love not defined by feelings, but instead by actions, actions of self-giving, sacrifice, and imparting of worth to another. One translation of agape, common in the King James, is charity. True charity gives to the undeserving with the purpose of making something out of nothing. Our modern culture resists charity because at its core, there is the inherent realization of the lack of worth and if we moderns are nothing else, we are worshippers of our self-worth, our self-esteem, our self-whatever.

Influenced by our culture we tend towards Eros, personified in the “look at me” center of our post-modern culture. Eros sees worth or desirability in something and wants it for its own. It takes or wants to possess, rather than give. Self-love is Eros, seeing (or imagining) the worth of what you see in the mirror and happily possessing it. There is a “deservedness” in Eros. I am reminded of a line from an old McDonald’s commercial that wonderfully illustrates the point, “You deserve a break today.” The idea was that you would take your break, what you, if you looked at yourself, deserved at McDonalds.

Today, our culture is obsessed with rights. Not the general or inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational rights of all human beings under God, but the individual rights that belong to me, what I believe is mine. The great sin in our culture is to “diss” someone; not to give to someone what they believe is their right. We are not talking about simple respect here; we are talking about deflating a person’s sense of significant self in any way. People are killed for this.

The new Peter Pan culture I discussed in my previous post finds its center in Eros, but an Eros that never truly arrives. It is always becoming, wanting to be worth a little more than before however that worth is judged. Take your pick: beauty, money, possessions, whatever, if you are defined by what people think of what you look like or what you have (house, car, super tv, sound system, the best technology the moment can produce), then Eros defines you. The struggle for those subjugated to Eros then becomes growing that worth, or holding onto what you have as long as you can. There was a bumper sticker from the 80’s that I think defines the secular male version of this struggle: “He who dies with the most toys, wins!”

James comes at the problem from a different perspective (James 2:1-7) when he chastened the Church for giving the rich man a coveted seat at worship while telling the poor man to, in effect, stand in back out of the way. James warns us that we are to “show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” [Emphasis added.] No partiality could be explained as seeing no worth in the person, in their riches or lack of (Eros), but only seeing Christ in them, the hope of glory, which by definition is the agape of God. In Him, we all share the same worthlessness as well as the imparted worth of the blood of Christ. We all have washed our robes white in the blood of the Lamb. We should all, along with Paul, attribute everything the world sees as value (see Philippians 3:3-11) as dung, to be flushed away, of no consequence.

Note: The Greek word translated dung/refuse/rubbish/etc. is literally the common street word for human excrement. We have softened it up for cultured consumption, but Paul was making a very strong point that was not lost on his original hearers. What the world deems valuable, the body of Christ flushes out as excrement, not worth keeping in any way.

That is why Eros has no place in the Scriptures and why God gives agape pre-eminence in His Word.

The new Peter Pans are trapped in the web of Eros, while Christ calls them to the freedom of agape. This is no easy task in the post-modern culture in which we live. Every venue that touches our eyes and ears screams more. Even the recruiting for our military entices with “Be all that you can be.” There are mirrors on every wall telling us if only we…we would be the fairest of them all. It is no wonder they avoid marriage and the commitments and changes it brings, the nakedness of heart and soul it demands (see my recent post Hubble Tuesdays: Two Become One).

We have the key: be like Christ; abandon Eros and embrace agape, having the same mind as our Lord. May God, in His mercy, grant us the grace to, as Nike says, just do it. So, what are you waiting for?

You may also want to look at my previous posting Love of God, Love of Man for information on the other two Greek words used for love in the Bible.

Update: Welcome to those coming to this post from the CXLVI Christian Carnival hosted at The Evangelical Ecologist. Stay a while, wander around and let me know what you think, but most of all, grace and peace to your day.

  2 comments for “Agape vs Eros

  1. Paul O'Rear
    October 31, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    Bill – what was your source for interpreting ‘skubala’ (dung, refuse, rubbish) – “common street word for human excrement.” Just curious –

    BTW, did you receive my email about the Bible software I’m using?

  2. October 31, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Paul, several sources but the immediate was A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament: Volume 2 Romans-Revelation. Vines also notes this meaning. Its more “vulgar” context is a Koine “street” usage. Classically in Liddell and Scott you will find dung and refuse, but the New Testament was written in trade Greek, not classical Greek and most of its common meanings are taken from the Koine usage, which is how Paul’s original audience would have understood it.

    This is its only occurance in the New Testament. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Greek word studies) notes:

    Nastiness and decay are the constant elements of its meaning; it is a coarse, ugly, violent word implying worthlessness, uselessness, and repulsiveness.

    It is only used once in the Septuagint and that is in the Appocrapha. Paul was making the starkest contrast possible and our toning it down does a disservice to his intent, ALIMHO.

    Yes, I did get the email. Thanks.

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