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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xii. ἀγαπάω, φιλέω.

We have made no attempt to discriminate between these words in our English Version. And yet there is often a difference between them, well worthy to have been noted and reproduced, if this had lain within the compass of our language; being very nearly equivalent to that between ‘diligo’ and ‘amo’ in the Latin. To understand the exact distinction between these, will help us to understand that between those other which are the more immediate object of our inquiry. For this we possess abundant material in Cicero, who often sets the words in instructive antithesis to one another. Thus, writing to one friend of the affection in which he holds another (Ep. Fam. xiii.47): ‘Ut scires illum a me non diligi solum, verum etiam amari;’ and again (Ad Brut. 1): ‘L. Clodius valde me diligit, vel, ut ἐμφατικώτερον dicam, valde me amat.’ From these and other like passages (there is an ample collection of them in Döderlein’s Latein. Synon. vol. iv. pp. 98 seq.), we might conclude that ‘amare,’ which answers to φιλεῖν, is stronger than ‘diligere,’ which, as we shall see, corresponds to ἀγαπᾶν. This is true, but not all the truth. Ernesti has successfully seized the law of their several uses, when he says: ‘Diligere magis ad judicium, amare veto ad intimum animi sensum pertinet.’ So that, in fact, Cicero in the passage first quoted is saying,—‘I do not esteem the man merely, but I love him; there is something of the passionate warmth of affection in the feeling with which I regard him.’

It will follow, that while a friend may desire rather ‘amari’ than ‘diligi’ by his friend, there are aspects in which the ‘diligi’ is more than the ‘amari,’ the ἀγαπᾶσθαι than the φιλεῖσθαι. The first expresses a more reasoning attachment, of choice and selection (‘diligere’==‘ deligere’), from a seeing in the object upon whom it is bestowed that which is worthy of regard; or else from a sense that such is due toward the person so regarded, as being a benefactor, or the like; while the second, without being necessarily an unreasoning attachment, does yet give less account of itself to itself; is more instinctive, is more of the feelings or natural affections, implies more passion; thus Antonius, in the funeral discourse addressed to the Roman people over the body of Caesar: ἐφιλήσατε αὐτὸν ὡς πατέρα, καὶ ἠγαπήσατε ὡς εὐεργέτην (Dion Cassius, xliv. 48). And see in Xenophon (Mem. ii. 7. 9. 12) two passages throwing much light on the relation between the words, and showing how the notions of respect and reverence are continually implied in the ἀγαπᾶν, which, though not excluded by, are still not involved in, the φιλεῖν. Thus in the second of these, αἱ μὲν ὡς κηδεμόνα ἐφίλουν, ὁ δὲ ὡς ὠφελίμους ἠγάπα. Out of this it may be explained, that while men are continually bidden ἀγαπᾶν τὸν Θεόν (Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:27; 1 Cor. 8:3), and good men declared so to do (Rom. 8:28; 1 Pet. 1:8; 1 John 4:21), the φιλεῖν τὸν Θεόν is commanded to them never. The Father, indeed, both ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Υἱόν (John 3:35), and also φιλεῖ τὸν Υἱόν (John 5:20); with the first of which statements such passages as Matt. 3:17, with the second such as John 1:18; Prov. 8:22, 30, may be brought into connection.

In almost all these passages of the N. T., the Vulgate, by the help of ‘diligo’ and ‘amo,’ has preserved a distinction which we have let go. This is especially to be regretted at John 21:15-17; for the passing there of the original from one word to the other is singularly instructive, and should by no means escape us unnoticed. In that threefold “Lovest thou Me?” which the risen Lord addresses to Peter, He asks him first, ἀγαπᾷς με; At this moment, when all the pulses in the heart of the now penitent Apostle are beating with a passionate affection toward his Lord, this word on that Lord’s lips sounds far too cold; to very imperfectly express the warmth of his affection toward Him. The question in any form would have been grievous enough (ver. 17); the language in which it is clothed makes it more grievous still.1 He therefore in his answer substitutes for the ἀγαπᾷς of Christ the word of a more personal love, φιλῶ σε (ver. 15). And this he does not on the first occasion only, but again upon a second. And now at length he has triumphed; for when his Lord puts the question to him a third time, it is not ἀγαπᾷς any more, but φιλεῖς. All this subtle and delicate play of feeling disappears perforce, in a translation which either does not care, or is not able, to reproduce the variation in the words as it exists in the original.

I observe in conclusion that ἔρως, ἐρᾶν, ἐραστής, never occur in the N. T., but the two latter occasionally in the Septuagint; thus ἐρᾶν, Esth. 2:17; Prov. 4:6; ἐραστής generally in a dishonorable sense as ‘paramour’ (Ezek. 16:33; Hos. 2:5); yet once or twice (as Wisd. 8:2) more honorably, not as==‘amasius,’ but ‘amator.’ Their absence is significant. It is in part no doubt to be explained from the fact that, by the corrupt use of the world, they had become so steeped in sensual passion, carried such an atmosphere of unholiness about them (see Origen, Prol. in Cant. Opp. tom iii. pp. 28–30), that the truth of God abstained from the defiling contact with them; yea, devised a new word rather than betake itself to one of these. For it should not be forgotten that ἀγάπη is a word born within the bosom of revealed religion: it occurs in the Septuagint (2 Sam. 13:15; Cant. 2:4; Jer. 2:2), and in the Apocrypha (Wisd. 3:9); but there is no trace of it in any heathen writer whatever, and as little in Philo or Josephus; the utmost they attain to here is φιλανθρωπία and φιλαδελφία, and the last never in any sense but as the love between brethren in blood (cf. Cremer, Wörterbuch d. N. T. Gräcität, p. 12). But the reason may lie deeper still. Ἔρως might have fared as so many other words have fared, might have been consecrated anew, despite of the deep degradation of its past history;2 and there were tendencies already working for this ill the Platonist use of it, namely, as the longing and yearning desire after that unseen but eternal Beauty, the faint vestiges of which may here be everywhere traced;3 οὐράνιος, Philo in this sense has called it (De Vit. Cont. 2; De Vit. Mos. 1). But in the very fact that ἔρως (==ὁ δεινὸς ἵμερος, Sophocles, Trach. 476), did express this yearning desire (Euripides, Ion, 67; Alcestis, 1101); this longing after the unpossessed (in Plato’s exquisite mythus, Symp. 203 b, Ἔρως is the offspring of Πενία), lay its deeper unfitness to set forth that Christian love, which is not merely the sense of need, of emptiness, of poverty, with the longing after fullness, not the yearning after an unattained and in this world unattainable Beauty; but a love to God and to man, which is the consequence of God’s love already shed abroad in the hearts of his people. The mere longing and yearning, and ἔρως at the best is no more, has given place, since the Incarnation, to the love which is not in desire only, but also in possession. That ἔρως is no more is well expressed in the lines of Gregory Nazianzene (Carm. ii. 34, 150, 151):

Πόθος δ᾽ ὄρεξις ἢ καλῶν ἢ μὴ καλῶν,
Ἔρως δὲ θερμὸς δυσκάθεκτός τε πόθος.

1 Bengel generally has the honour ‘rem acu tetigisse;’ here he has singularly missed the point and is wholly astray; ‘ἀαπᾶν, amare, est necessitudinis et affectûs; φιλειν, diligere, judicii.’

2 On the attempt which some Christian writers had made to distinguish between ‘amor’ and ‘dilectio’ or ‘caritas,’ see Augustine, De Civ. Dei, xiv. 7: ‘Nonnulli arbitrantur aliud esse dilectionem sive caritatem, aliud amorem. Dicunt enim dilectionem accipiendam esse in bono, amorem in malo.’ He shows, by many examples of ‘dilectio’ and ‘diligo’ used in an ill sense in the Latin Scriptures, of ‘amor’ and ‘amo’ in a good, the impossibility of maintaining any such distinction.

3 I cannot regard as an evidence of such reconsecration the well-known words of Ignatius, Ad Rom. 7: ὁ ἐμὸς ἔρως ἐσταύρωται. It is far more consistent with the genius of these Ignatian Epistles to take ἔρως subjectively here, ‘My love of the world is crucified,’ i.e. with Christ; rather than objectively, ‘Christ, the object of my love, is crucified.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G25,G5368.]

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