Carson on Agape and Some Word Fallacies

For my write-up today on D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies: Second Edition, I’ll use as my starting-point a post that I wrote not long ago, in which I critiqued the evangelical tendency to differentiate between the Greek words for love—-agape, phileo, and eros—-and to make a big deal about their use.  I’ll quote my points from that post in their entirety, then I will evaluate what I said according to what I read in Carson, as well as touch on other points that Carson makes.

I was writing about James Barr’s contribution to The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Two: The Hellenistic Age, and I said the following:

“On page 105, James Barr says in a footnote that the Greek word agape is used in the Septuagint of II Samuel 13:1, 15 for ‘the pathological love of Amnon for his half-sister Tamar’. Amnon initially loved Tamar, but he hated her after he raped her.

“I’ve often heard evangelicals make a big deal about the different Greek words for love. C.S. Lewis (who wasn’t exactly an evangelical, but who has inspired evangelicals) wrote a good book called The Four Loves. There is eros, which is romantic love. There is phileo, which is friendship. And there is agape, which is unconditional love for one’s fellows—-a love that desires the well-being of others. I once heard a sermon that said that the Greeks considered agape to be so special that they called it the love of the gods, or divine love.

“I don’t claim that this entire characterization of Greek words for love is spurious, for there might be something to it. But I do think that the issue may be more complex than many evangelical sermonizers present. Agape is unconditional love and concern for the well-being of one’s fellow? Did Amnon have that kind of love for Tamar? I don’t think so. Yet, the LXX refers to Amnon’s love with the Greek word agape.

“I did not read the entire entry on agape in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, but I read there how the word was used by the pre-biblical Greeks. The article said that agape often means ‘to be satisfied with something’, ‘to receive’, ‘to greet’, and ‘to honor’. It can refer to friendship among equals, to sympathy, or to preferring something (or someone) over something (or someone) else. The article acknowledges that agape can be used interchangeably with eros and phileo, yet it also affirms that there is a different nuance to the word agape. The article states that agape does not have the warmth of phileo, and it is more discriminating than eros. Whereas eros is ‘seeking satisfaction wherever it can’, agape ‘is a free and decisive act determined by its subject’ and ‘is a giving, active love on the other’s behalf.’ Agape was also used for the love of God (which I take to mean God’s love), as God lifts up the lower.

“I suppose that this overlaps with how evangelicals have defined agape: as not a feeling, but as a decision to value the well-being of others. But I doubt that agape means that every single time that it appears, for consider Amnon. Plus, the TNDT indicates that agape does not always have a deep meaning. Often, it can simply mean to be satisfied with something.”

I have some points about my post, in light of what I read in Carson.  First of all, like me in my post, Carson critiques the way that many evangelicals have made a big deal about the Greek words for love, as if there is a significant difference between agape and phileo.  Carson, like me (and, of course, prior to me), notes that the LXX uses agape to refer to Amnon’s “love” for Tamar.  But Carson also raises other points.  While he acknowledges that phileo and agape may convey different nuances, he refers to examples in which they are used synonymously.  And, against the argument that agape is prominent in the New Testament over other words for love because it was especially fitting to describe God’s special love, Carson states that agape was prominent in Greek literature, period, from the fourth century B.C.E. on, and that it was replacing phileo because phileo “had acquired the meaning of to kiss as part of its semantic range” (page 52).

That brings me to my second point.  In my post, I consulted the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and I discussed how the word agape was used by pre-biblical Greeks.  Carson would most likely take issue with my approach in that case, for he notes that Greek words can change in their meaning and use over time, as can English words, for that matter.  (An example that comes to my mind is the word “gay”.)  Consequently, when seeking to understand a Greek word and its use in the New Testament, Carson would see what the word means and how it is used in Hellenistic Greek, not pre-biblical Greek (which was what I did).  On page 37, Carson implies that Bauer’s lexicon on New Testament and Hellenistic Greek is preferable to LSJ (though he does say that the LSJ covers Hellenistic Greek, too) for understanding the New Testament.

That brings me to my third point.  Carson appears to believe that it’s acceptable to try to understand the meaning of a word in a biblical passage by seeing how that word is used elsewhere.  But he is also against what he calls “verbal parallelomania”.  On pages 43-44, he criticizes scholars who interpreted John 1 in light of Mandaean literature and Hermetica, which are “dubious even on the grounds of the dating of the sources”.  For Carson, even if John 1 and these corpora use similar terminology, that does not mean that we can read Mandeanism into John.  Both could have separate agendas.  We have to let John be John, and these corpora be themselves.  Context is key.

Fourth, Carson lambastes the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  The first time that I heard about Exegetical Fallacies, as a matter of fact, was when somebody criticized me for appealing to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament to make a point, and referred me to Carson’s book.  The TDNT may manifest a theological bias at times, and it may also confuse mentality with language.  (I do not know how Carson thinks that the TDNT does this, per se, but what he means by confusing mentality with language is making generalizations about Hebrew or Greek thought on the basis of their languages—-saying that the Hebrews lack a neuter gender because, for them, everything is vivid and alive, or that Greek was more appropriate for the New Testament because it had a past, a present, and the future, whereas the Hebrew only had a perfect and an imperfect, and the New Testament wanted to talk about the past, the present, and the future.  Carson thinks that these statements are false because languages can use the neuter to refer to the living, and books in the Old Testament in places also had concerns about the past, the present, and the future, yet God arranged for it to be in Hebrew.)  But, for me, the TDNT is a good source about the history of the usage of Greek words.  At least it gives me leads about where to look!

I’ll turn now to how my latest reading of Exegetical Fallacies reminded me of things that I heard or read from John MacArthur, back when I was a fan of his.  First of all, both Carson and MacArthur criticize placing a significant amount of weight on etymology is seeking to determine the meaning of Greek words.  MacArthur said that the word “independent” has nothing to do with “in-de-pen-there-is-a-dent.”  People can use words without regard to those words’ etymologies.  As Carson notes, when people say “Good bye”, they often are unaware that it is an Anglo-Saxon contraction of “God be with you”.  I think that, on some level, I was aware of this principle.  I was one time in a Bible study group on the Book of Colossians, which was using Kay Arthur’s curriculum, and the leader of the group was making a big deal about a Greek word having a certain preposition in front of it, and she asserted that the preposition gave to the word a nuance that the word without the preposition lacked.  When I looked at how the word was used with and without that preposition, however, I didn’t see that much of a difference: from the context, I concluded that the words were synonymous.  I do not dismiss that adding a preposition to a word can add to the word a nuance, but I don’t think that’s always the case.  Again, you have to look at the context. 

Second, I remember reading MacArthur say that Romans 1:16 uses the Greek word dunamis for “power”, and that dunamis is from where we get the word “dynamite”.  Carson does not criticize MacArthur specifically, but he does have issues with that particular sermon point, for Romans 1:16 is not about dynamite, plus the Gospel is about a constructive rather than a destructive power.  MacArthur, who knows a lot about New Testament Greek, probably was not saying that Romans 1:16 was using dynamite as a metaphor.  But he did make the point that we get the word “dynamite” from dunamis, and I think that he was trying to do something similar to those who equate the two—-to communicate how powerful the Gospel is.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Carson on Agape and Some Word Fallacies

  1. Jay Matthew Barnes says:

    Thanks for this particular rambling!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think your most powerful point is for sure, the use of context. Very important.


  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your comment, George!


  4. Pingback: Church Write-Up: Christ’s Transfiguration and Miracles; Real Presence; Agape | James' Ramblings

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