Agape and Eros
Religion & Liberty Online

Agape and Eros

This article by Mary D. Gaebler, visiting assistant professor of theological ethics at Gustavus Adolphus College, “Eros in Benedict and Luther,” from the Journal of Lutheran Ethics argues, “Lutherans, insofar as they derive their theology from Luther, should welcome Pope Benedict’s Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Luther, I think, would find this latest word from the Vatican surprisingly congenial.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

One of Gaebler’s main goals is refuting the interpretation of Luther characterized by the work of Anders Nygren, which radically dichotomizes the concepts of agape and eros. She asks whether Luther “categorically” rejects “the kind of self-love that Benedict points to in his use of the term eros? There is much in Luther’s work to suggest that he does not. My own reading points to a more Catholic Luther on this matter of eros, particularly in his mature work.”

The crux of the argument is whether, as Benedict states, “Fundamentally ‘love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions. At different times one or [an]other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions [eros and agape] are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love.”

Whereas Nygren argues that Luther finds no legitimate place for erotic love, Gaebler says that in Luther’s later and mature theology (during and after the 1520s), “Here we see the very interesting conflation between caring for others on the one hand, and preserving one’s own life on the other. No longer does the earlier “either/or” duality define the character of an action. No longer a matter of either self or neighbor, now both neighbor and self are addressed in God’s command to protect life.”

The strict and radical opposition and separation of agape and eros and the characterization of the former as divine and the latter as merely sinful is simply untenable. You can find great evidence for erotic elements of divine love, I think, in the covenant language of the Old Testament and the corresponding concept of chesed, or covenant-love. The Puritans certainly place a lot of emphasis on this and biblical wedding imagery.

In conclusion, I’d like to pass along this bit from Jonathan Edwards that seems to agree with both Luther and Benedict on this point (contra Nygren). It is taken from his Miscellanies (no. 301) and is titled “Man’s Nature, Self-Love, and Sin”:

The best philosophy that I have met with of original sin and all sinful inclinations, habits and principles, undoubtedly is that of Mr. [Solomon] Stoddard’s, of this town of Northampton: that is, that it is self-love in conjunction with the absence of the image and love of God; that natural and necessary inclination that man has to his own benefit, together with the absence of the original righteousness; or in other words, the absence of that influence of God’s Spirit, whereby love to God and to holiness is kept up to that degree, that this other inclination is always kept in its due subordination. But this being gone, his self-love governs alone; and having not this superior principle to regulate it, breaks out into all manner of exorbitancies, and becomes in unnumerable cases a vile and odious disposition, and causes thousands of unlovely and hateful actions. There is nothing new put into the nature that we call sin, but only the same self-love that necessarily belongs to the nature working and influencing, without regulation from that superior that primitively belongs to our nature, and that is necessary in order to the harmonious existing of it. This natural and necessary inclination to ourselves without that governor and guide, will certainly without anything else produce, or rather will become, all those sinful inclinations which are in the corrupted nature of man.

Edwards’ relevant point for our discussion here is that self-love, or eros as defined by Nygren, is not in itself sinful, but becomes such when it is the only guiding principle and exceeds its natural bounds.

C.S. Lewis, in his discussion of eros, discusses the element of need that is manifest in this aspect of love. Of course, on one level, there is a reality of “need” that is apparent in agape as well, insofar as there is need for an object to love. This recognition of the unity of love, manifested in different aspects, whether agapic, erotic, filial, or other, has led me to think of the potential for use of the term agaperotic love.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.