4) Distinctive traits of agape

3.3.4 Distinctive traits of agapê

There is a one-sided interpretation of Paul (e.g. Nygren) that would define agapê as that which is primarily unmotivated by anything lovable in the recipient, a love for those who have no merit or are even enemies.

It is true that the model for Christian love is God’s love for us ‘when we were still sinners’ (Rom 5:6).

God’s love in Christ is altogether unmotivated by any pre-existing merit in its object. In loving us, God makes us lovable—’creat suum diligible’ (Luther). Now it is vital to clarify how this aspect of God’s love in Christ is reflected in the Christian’s love for his neighbour. Is this love also ‘unmotivated’—is agapê in Paul essentially a love for ‘enemies’?
Certainly, agapê in Paul,
  • is a pardoning love (cf. 1 Cor 13:5d; 2 Cor 2:8; 1 Thess 5:15);
  • it is endlessly patient (cf. 1 Cor 13:4; 1 Thess 5:14);
  • it knows how to overcome evil with good (cf. Rom 12:17-21),
  • to overlook differences of (even religious) opinion (cf. Rom 14:1, 15:7)
  • and to repair the divisions to which any community is liable (cf. 1 Cor 16:14; Gal 5:15);
  • it continues to love in the face of no return (cf. 2 Cor 12:16: [If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But be that as it may…]);
  • it does not confine itself within ‘reasonable’ limits (cf 1 Cor 13:7: [bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things]).p.147-148

But even with all these characteristics, Christian agapê is not the same as God’s love for us as unworthy sinners and enemies. “…God’s love in Christ… has now created a community, whose members are worthy of love (cf. 1 Cor 8:11; Rom 14:15)…”p.148

The Christian loves other believers because they are sons of God, his own brethren ‘for whom Christ died’. Furthermore, if true agapê could only be for those who are unloveable, then God’s love for us would cease now that he has made us lovable.

As with the words “brother” and “brotherly love”, “agapê in Paul has overtones of human warmth and affection. Membership of the community engages the whole man.”p.149

Does this mean that God’s love for the unlovable “is not the model of christian love?”p.149 It is not in the sense that we give value to something that was previously without value. However our love is certainly patterned after God’s love in the sense that it is without self-interest. “Christian love reflects God’s unmotivated love in as much as it is utterly selfless.p.149

In the community of Christ, “…the Christian no longer ‘lives to himself’ (cf 2 Cor 5:15), but ‘imitates’ the selflessness of Christ, who did not ‘please himself’ (cf 1 Cor 10:33-11:1; Rom 15:1-3);”p.149

In the community of [brethren] in Christ, God takes humanity to himself and loves with a truly human heart. Christian agapê is the fulfilment of the new Covenant, whereby God puts his own will in the hearts of the members of his Church to make of it the beginning of a transformed humanity.p.149

Updated 2009-10-20 (build:63) by Andrew Fountain