Agape, Philos, Eros: A False Division?

In meandering thoughts this summer, I came to reflect on love, and how in general conversation, we tend to make distinction between Agape, Philia, and Eros. Plato and Aristotle had their own ways of talking about the different “kinds” of love, but for the most part, we Christians tend to define those words this way:

Agape: Deep love, unconditional love, divine love, almost out of reach for the mortal. It is the love God has for us and that we endeavor to return to God.

Philia: Brotherly love (ex. Philadelphia), love between friends, “platonic” love, love without romantic attraction. While acceptable to have this kind of love for God, it is often described as lesser than Agape, which is what we seemingly ought to strive for with God.

Eros: Romantic love, desire, sexual attraction, love between two spouses, not often talked about in relationship to God. This “kind” of love seems to be merely a human endeavor. My sense from a lot of Christians is that eros is almost dirty; we would never ascribe eros to God or Jesus; oddly, that seems almost too intimate or messy. How do we wrap our heads around a God who somehow “feels” Eros for creation?

In the Bible, though there may be other examples, the clearest example in my head of a gospel writer potentially suggesting a difference in love is in John’s gospel, 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Simon Peter three times if he loves him. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter, John uses “agape” in Jesus’ question and “philos” in Peter’s answer. The third time, Jesus uses “philos” and Peter uses “philos.” Many, many times, I’ve heard people try and make some sort of quasi-intellectual argument for Jesus trying to highlight the kind of love he wants from Peter (Agape) and Peter only being able to return the lesser love (philos), or something like that. Certainly there is some weight in such an interpretation, but as I step back and consider the way in which we are created, I have some objections to even the notion of thinking of love as divisible.

Instead of letting Aristotle or Plato define love, I feel more comfortable starting with the premise “God is love.” God, though expressed in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one, the ultimate paradox (something that we remarkably come close to imitating in community and marriage). If God is love, and is the fount from which all human love is made possible, how can love be divided? It cannot.

Furthermore, if God created all things good (friendship, marriage, sex, plants, animals), then God must have some part in experiencing them (interestingly, John Milton in Paradise Lost imagines that the angels in heaven spend their time having sex…). God cannot create something that is extricable from its creator.

This kind of thinking is similar to what I suggested about the way we think about power; instead of starting with a definition that excludes God and then try to explain God using that definition, we should start with a definition that includes God and explain everything else in that light. Therefore, even if we keep the distinction between “types” of love, somehow we have to come to grips with the fact that Jesus also experiences and blesses agape, philos, and eros.

Shane Claiborne always makes reference to our “lover Jesus,” capturing the language of some of the early church abbas and ammas, who recognized that intimacy with Jesus was akin to that of a romantic relationship. I think that language gets at the element of eros that God is present in.

Yet, I still feel that in the end, any division of love into “kinds” or “types” diminishes the all-encompassing love of God; all love is Agape, or an attempt at it. We may not achieve perfection in love, indeed only God can, but I believe all of our attempts to love are an effort to be in the image of our creator. What we call “types” of love, I think are really just expressions of it. In the same way God is expressed as Father, Son, and Spirit, yet remains one, love is expressed in a myriad of ways, sexuality and friendship being two of them. Many people know the experience of seeing one expression of love lead to another (friends who become spouses).  I think anyone who has been married for a long time understands that all of their expressions of love towards their spouse deepen over time and become more like the Agape that we know God is capable of. Sex as an expression of love becomes less the principal way of communicating love as the married couple moves closer to one another an better imitates the love between Christ and his church. Indeed, Agape is sacrificial love that brings the many into one.

The implications of this re-understanding of love are far-reaching especially in the area of sex, sexuality, and singleness, which I hope to dwell on in my next post.



  1. Derek · January 9, 2010

    Nice reflection, Brian; I’m not sure if I’d talk about love as divisible either but, yes, more having to do with quality or, as you say, capability.

    While reading your thought piece, I was reminded of Brother Lawrence’s “Practice of the Presence of God” (was his reach for practical, moment-by-moment relationship with God reflecting Agape-Philos?) and of Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle” (going deeper, the meditative/mystic moves toward giving their being entirely and experiences Agape-Eros?).

    It’s a brain-buster to not talk about love as divisible, because the basis of communication is describing what we are talking about, which by default will be exclusive, this-not-that expressions. Quality or continuum seems to be what you’re describing–though not a linear or progressive continuum–otherwise, we’d have to pass through philos to get through eros to get through (any number of 16 Greek types of love) to get to Agape.

    What about a spherical continuum? –where the center is that holy, self-giving, always-seeking-the-best-for-the-other kind of love and where all other dimensions meet in purity. At the surface (isn’t that our cultural metaphor where we start to get to know someone?) there is a mix of relating; friend, helper, confidante, and so much more.

    In a spherical continuum of love, different paths to the center starting at different places on the surface, take on different appearances and dynamics; but, if they are growing deeper, they take on similarities (or common traits) as they approach the Agape center.

    Hmmmm, sorry, didn’t mean to take up so much space; feels like this extended metaphor could be fruitful–I’m going to go journal on it some more.

    • brianjgorman · January 9, 2010

      Thanks, Derek, for your thoughts. You’re right, that a good part of “dividing” love is a matter of communication (the philos/eros having probably the most frequent usage in normal conversation, i.e. “I love him like a friend,” vs “I’m in love with him.”). I didn’t really say it above, but another aspect that contributes to the problem is the idea that I *feel* love, as though an emotion, which therefore can equate sex with a certain kind of love, or makes love associated with happy emotions. Agape love is more of an action, I believe–sacrificing, giving, creating–and while can produce good feelings, does not always equal good feeling.

      A spherical continuum makes sense, though I think what I’m trying to get at is a collapsing of distinctions, that there is only love. The love I have for a friend is the same love I have for an enemy is the same love i have for my spouse is the same love I have for God, because love is about giving of oneself for the other. Human love is an attempt at God’s love, which is perfect and unwavering and always self-giving. The ways we express love and go about the self-giving aspect differ person to person, which is why sex, for instance, can easily be self-serving and therefore does not equal love. I hope to go more into the eros/sexuality side more in my next post.

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  3. Greg Tarlton · July 6, 2010

    I oppose the idea that division diminishes the nature of God’s Love. I believe that this concept itself flows out of the fleshy mind rather than a the spiritual mind of Christ which we as new birth creation believers are to operate in. It leaves no distinction between sense knowledge and revelation knowledge which we as supernatural believers posses. It leaves no distinction between the believers spiritual, heart birthed divine Love and a serial killers love for his mom, or the prostitutes love for her John. Or the immature teenagers love for a sick minded hollywood star.The very lack of a defined distinction is why the world sees nothing different in the religious fleshy church of our modern opinionated ideas that castrate the supernatural power of the real Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  4. brianjgorman · July 7, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    I hear what you’re saying, and I’m not sure that what I said in my post is entirely in opposition to “distinction.” For instance, I’m not saying that we’re capable as humans to love as fully as God, but rather that all of our genuine love is an attempt at what people have called “agape,” an attempt to love like God does.

    Certainly, people mature in their ability to love, and the way they express it.

    Growing spiritually is ought to lead us to a deeper and fuller capacity to love, but that doesn’t change the fact that (to use your example) a serial killer’s love for his mother is genuine, or that, while misguided, a teenager’s obsession with a Hollywood star is trying to imitate a deeper love.

    I, in fact, think that this assigning specific “types” of love to humans and to God is what has distilled a full picture of God. For Christians, the cross is the ultimate expression of love, the embodiment of agape (divine, sacrificial love), philos (on behalf and for his friends), and eros (a compelling, self-drawing act). But for Christ, that is the way he loves, no separation needed. As we imitate Christ, that is what we are called to do, and to believe that Christ draws us into loving like our Creator.

  5. Greg Tarlton · July 7, 2010

    Hi Brian
    This is a interesting subject of disscussion and like you alluded to, it has been theologically dissected for generations. My point is that a new birth creation heart (wineskin) does not love with the same capacity of an unsaved unregenerate spiritual dead heart. The agape love found in a christion home is not that found in an unbelievers family. Only those who possess the Spirit of Christ can truly love with the God-kind of love-agape which Christ brought and revealed at the cross. Real love-agape flows out of a spiritual heart that is the home of “Christ in us”. Agape is the product of a heart that is inhabited by God (Love) Himself. Real Love the God-kind of Love is recognizable as a fruit which flows out of the eyes, words and presence of the sons of God (Love) and not just a simple worldly expression or act by those who have never been born-again of the Spirit of Love.
    Loving you Brian

  6. brianjgorman · July 7, 2010

    I’d have to disagree with you, in part. I certainly think that those following Jesus have the potential for a love that better imitates God. That is in large part what it means to be a Christian–to love God and love neighbor, and to learn that love from Jesus. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s not possible to mature and deepen in love fully without participating in Jesus’ life and death, and following him.

    Yet, I think don’t think there’s “Christian” love and “nonsaved” love. God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and he also begins to teach people what love looks like through the love they develop for one another. As Christians, we learn what it means to love sacrificially, like Jesus, to love our enemies, and what loving God looks like. God does call us beyond the love we develop for our families; following Jesus adds something distinctive to how we love and how we express it, but that does not lessen the reality of someone else’s love.

    My whole point is that some of what we (or the world) has called love is not (calling sex “making love”, for example, or naturally equating romantic infatuation with love), but they are attempts after a genuine, deep love that God offers and teaches.

  7. Greg Tarlton · July 8, 2010

    Sir Brian
    In the few short exchanges we have had I believe we will not come much further into agreement. I say this kindly that I believe our main difference would be found better in what I sense is your Calvinist based non-supernatural reason based (head knowledge) Christianity. As opposed to a more Arminian position which allows for and recognizes by way of revelation knowledge a deeper and greater revelatory respect for the new birth experience. Real Love is the product of a supernatural indwelling God, who said that He is Love. Unforgiven sinners no nothing of this Love and have no capacity to operate in this God-kind of Love. And in all fairness God allowing the rain to fall on the just and unjust has nothing to do with the new birth creation experience which is of the Spirit and born of God (Love). This is a statement that would apply more correctly/properly to the Mercy and Grace of God. If you re-read my past comments I have broken a supernatural Gospel understanding down into a very easy to understand position. Jesus told you that it is by your Love that the world will know that you are of Him. Not that we all have the same love but have not learned to develope it as good as the next guy down the block. But that you possess a divine distinction, that you have been given the very nature of God/Love through your union with Christ and the Holy Spirit who inhabits the true believer. If this is not a supernatural God-kind of Love then why do you think that Jesus died for you anyway, you could have just went to China and sat in the lotus position Brian until you became enlightened to and in tune with KI force, after all according to you we all know how to love. The God-kind of Love is a verbing-noun, it is about a person living in you and flowing/operating through you. Most scholars agree that the disciples coined the word AGAPE as it was taught by Jesus as a revelation to a sinfully separated world from God/Love. This God-Agape is not about philosophical speculations made by pagan or cultic minds. Or even about Inter-Faith theologians who like to portray that your okay and I’m okay we are all okay we all just operate in a universal brotherly love. ….Well gee Brian maybe we can just all pack up and go to India this Sunday, skip church and sit at the feet of Swami Guru Loveranada. because he can love just as good as Peter and John, right! Of course you know I’m rubbing it in a bit Brian but can you see what your emasculation of God’s supernatural Gospel leads you to! Brian when the manifested Agape-Love of God comes UPON you, it will draw you to Christ and spontaneously melt you down into a puddle of repentant tears. “Jesus is Lord” is the divinely copyrighted confession of a born-again heart that has been recreated by a supernatural sovereign God-Love. Not the flippant casual remark made by men who have not been born of LOVE-AGAPE-GOD.
    Brian God’s Love flows from the heart not theological perspectives locked up in books or man made opinions.
    Loving you Brian

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