What is love?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties’, which is accurate, but that’s not what we usually use love as. Love is more likely to be a verb than a noun – for instance, I love you rather than Love is what I have for you.
The term ‘love’ first appears in the Bible (at least in the ESV) in Genesis 22:2: ‘He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”‘
In this context, as in many other contexts throughout the Bible, love refers to what we think of now as paternal love. An oft-used – but still applicable – metaphor is that of a mother bear protecting her cubs.
But not all love in the Bible is paternal. The four most common words in original Biblical manuscripts are phileo, agape, storgē, and eros.
I. Phileo: Love of Friendship
Phileo, which is used most noticeably in contrast to agape in John 21, is a Greek term referring to a companionable love: one between friends. To use the term ‘love’ for one’s friends nowadays would be considered rather strange, so certain translators may choose to render this as a less amorous term; nevertheless, it is still a form of love.
Companionable love is an important but lacking aspect in society in modern times. Love is a term that has become increasingly polarised in recent times, hence the taboo nature of love among friends. This definition is virtually unknown nowadays, the word typically meaning either relational (among family members) or amorous (between lovers) love.
II. Agape: Love of Esteem
Agape refers to a love born of esteem for that which is loved. This, too, is an obsolete usage in modern English, typically replaced by ‘respect’ or ‘awe’. Though used rarely outside of the Bible, it appears 320 times in the New Testament.
An agape love wants only the best for that which is loved. It is unselfish and is best exemplified by 1 Corinthians 13, which serves well as a general description of the term. In other words, this is a platonic love.
III. Storgē: Love of Relation
Storgē is a love for one’s relation. Purely platonic, it is rare in the Bible, usually appearing only in the sense of negation (e.g., ‘unloving’ in Romans 1:31).
At its most basic form, however, storgē refers to a love for one’s family member – for one’s spouse, child, parent, relation, or even pet.
IV. Eros: Earthly Love
Eros is a curious case. Referring to a love existent for the lover’s benefit, it does not appear in the Bible, despite being a common Greek term. Why?
Well, eros represents all that the Bible opposes. It embodies egocentrism, lust, and self-satisfaction all in one. Eros is an earthly love, one which desires more for itself. It has the implication of sexual love, but by itself, sexual love is not morally inclined. Indeed, it is encouraged in the Bible, and it is the way God’s relationship to us is portrayed (translated typically as a form of the word know).
But nevertheless, eros is absent from the Bible for two reasons: firstly, it carries with it the baggage of its Roman origins: Eros (whose Roman counterpart was the more famous Cupid) was the Greek god of lust (though not always explicitly; he is also sometimes portrayed as the god of ‘sexual attraction’). And secondly (and more to the point), it is clearly not a part of the Bible’s vision. Marriage is, indeed, a temporary, earthly thing, and its facets should be enjoyed (as God directs), but eternally, our love and complete allegiance is to God, not to one another. It is a brotherly love that we are commanded to share eternally, not a sexual one.
In conclusion, the term love may be misleading. It can refer to friendship, honour, family, or lust. At any rate, it is a mistake merely to read passages containing this term without context or understanding. Properly interpreting love is not something to be taken lightly.
But it is supposed to be more common than it is. We are to have brotherly love for each other (see Hebrews 13:1, which puts it succinctly). So do so.
Love one another.