Agapao and phileo
…in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity…
Titus 2:7 (KJV)
I’ve often heard about the two different Greek words for ‘types’ of love: agapao (agape) and phileo. Perhaps it’s interesting to look at this. It always interested me.
Word origins (etymologies) don’t necessarily show meaning. The component parts of words also often don’t. Here’s a modern example. It’s common for an excited person to exclaim ‘I literally exploded!’ Should humankind continue 1000 years, a generation could believe from ‘literally’ that in 2021 we often actually exploded in excitement. Another example: someone says you are ‘a nice person’ – if you rely only on source origin, the Latin source of the word ‘nice’ means ‘ignorant’ or ‘foolish’. So it is important!
Often in Christian tradition ‘agape’ always means the ‘higher’ God’s love toward humanity, and ‘phileo’ means the ‘lower’ brotherly love. This ‘blanket’ or universal view is mistaken: the difference in meaning had all but disappeared by the New Testament period – normally, they were interchangeable. For example:
1) Agapao and Phileo interchange in John’s Gospel, and New Testament. In John 3:19 men loved the darkness rather than the light, and in John 12:43 men loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God; ‘loved’ here is ‘agapao’… but neither example is unconditional or unselfish.
2) In John 5:20 the Father loved the Son, and in John 16:27 the Father loved the disciples who loved God; ‘love’ here is ‘phileo’… but neither example is lower love.
3) They’re used interchangeably together as in John 3:35 ‘the Father loves the son’ and 15:9 ‘…has loved me’ (agapao) – yet John 5:20 speaks of the Father’s love (phileo) for the Son.
The word ‘agape’ became popular in Greek literature around 4BC; ‘phileo’ was more common in usage before that, along with ‘eros’. ‘Phileo’ steadily became associated with ‘kiss’, and so increasingly ‘agape’ was used for standard love.
The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament: the LXX) raised ‘agape’ to the ‘higher’ meaning of love. There was a time when people thought the LXX translators had actually created the word themselves.
So, whilst there are more important things to worry about, it’s still important to recognise that too much distinction between ‘agapao’ and ‘phileo’ can lead to faulty outcomes. A blanket or universal view is to be avoided, and distinctions limited to local individual Bible passages.
Heavenly Father, may your Spirit help us in continually seeking doctrinal truth. In Jesus name, Amen.
Study by Andrew Montgomery
About the writer:
Andrew Montgomery is a Deacon in the Edinburgh congregation of Grace Communion International.
Gilmerton New Church
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