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Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind... Romans 12:2

Agape and Eros

by Anders Nygren

Translated by Philip S. Watson

Westminster Press, revised, 1953

764 pages

Reviewed by Vic Martens

This 741 page tome, currently out of print, is worth the considerable time it takes to plow through it. Nygren, a bishop in the Church of Sweden, has taken two Greek words which might both be translated "love" and used them to underscore two views of God's relationship with mankind which have coexisted within the Christian church since its beginning.

Nygren traces the connotations of these two words from classical Greek philosophy, through its influence on Judaism, the early church and up to the reformation. Agape, the word used of God's love in the Greek New Testament, denotes a love which gives freely, and is based on the character of the one loving rather than any merit in the object of the love. Eros, on the other hand, typifies the Greek philosophy of Aristotle, Plato and the gnostics, and denotes an acquisitive love which responds and aspires to the beauty or perfection of its object.

Properly speaking, only God can love in a purely "agape" sense, as only He is able to give of Himself without need for gain. God's agape love is displayed in His work of redemption; His gift of His only begotten Son to redeem sinners who were His enemies. Classical philosophy cannot conceive of purely selfless love or a God who is characterized by such a love. For the gnostics and later Christians who were influenced by them, God provides redemption because He longs for fellowship or praise from His creation, or because He needs to restore His creation to the original order to please Himself.

Likewise, Christians who were influenced by the gnostics and classical Greek philosophy have tended to view love as "eros." Augustine is presented by Nygren as one who could not overcome his classical worldview. Although he attempted to present agape as the basis of Christian love, Nygren concludes that Augustine's final analysis is in fact an attempt at synthesis of agape and eros. Augustine's influence on Catholic doctrine throughout the middle ages becomes evident, as monasticism, legalism, and ritualism all exemplify man's attempts to reach up to God (eros), rather than glorying in God's reaching down to man (agape).

The restoration of God-centered theology in Luther was key to the Reformation. Catholicism had built the doctrine of salvation through "faith formed by love [where]...[t]he whole of existence, therefore, presents the spectacle of a ceaseless ascent, an incessant pursuit of that which is higher" (pp. 739-740). Luther, on the other hand, centered on the doctrine of salvation "by faith alone." Luther's faith is in the God who is Agape, whose "love has made a new way for itself down to lost humanity. Once for all, and in a decisive manner, this has come to pass through Christ" (p. 741).

Return to Volume 8, Number 2.

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