Ideological philology

Avid Hump readers (if there are any!) may have noticed in my piece on C S Lewis my passing mention of Lewis’s own philological error, or at least oversimplification, in his book The Four Loves.

In this book, based on a series of radio talks, he takes the four Greek words for “love” and endeavours to show how Christian love, ἀγάπη is unique and special. And so it is, but not demonstrably so from the words the Bible uses for it. Lewis describes στοργή as the kind of basic familial love that puppies in a basket or even a dysfunctional family around the TV experience. Φιλία he describes as the kind of intellectual love that exists between friends with shared interests, ερος as sexual love, and ἀγάπη as the self-giving love we learn from God. The overall distinction is certainly helpful in alerting us to the very disparate layers of meaning in our English “love”.

But it’s not always clear to his readers that Lewis bases his work on classical Greek, rather than biblical Greek: two of his words do not appear in the Bible at all, and as Don Carson points out in Exegetical Fallacies the distinction between the two that do, “philia” and “agape”, is not as clearcut as his book suggests. Carson describes how, far from being a distinctly Christian word, agape was gradually moving into the semantic range formerly occupied by philia throughout Greek literature from the fourth century. This was partly because the latter had acquired the meaning “kiss”, so that agape was used, as much as anything else, to avoid innuendo.

Yet this too is an endorsement of Lewis’s warning that the exact meanings of biblical words matter: if we insist on saying that “philia” simply means “brotherly love”, we miss the fact that the verb used for Judas’s far from brotherly kiss in the garden is “phileo”.

I was reminded of this yesterday by the news reports of the Anglican Synod’s rejection of the Bishops’ Report on sexual morality, which is widely reported (as is customary now, mischievously erroneously) as a victory for LGBTQI rights. In fact, it was only the perceived tone of the report that was rejected, on the vote of the clergy, whereas there was still little appetite, it seems, for any change in the Anglican doctrine of marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman. I wonder if part of synod’s hesitation to move is because of the intractable, if seldom-mentioned, problem of redefining monogamous marriage for the bisexuals whose initial “B” sits right in the middle of the sexual minorities community of solidarity.

My friend from university days, now the Bishop of Willesden, apologised in advance of the debate for the tone of the report, and for the offence it seemed to have caused gay Christians. But whilst admiring his irenicism I doubt, from what little I know of the matter, that there is any tone that would be acceptable to many campaigners short of both a complete reversal of historical doctrine and an abject apology for the old one.

Before getting to my philological main course, let me justify that pessimism by the placards held by the protestors outside the synod. “Anglicans! Repent your homophobia” was one. Evidently from the same printing press: “Anglicans! Stop opposing marriage equality”. And one I’ll return to, “Synod should reject bigot’s [sic] report”. Another indicator of what is happening is the tendency amongst “reasonable” bishops in their public comments to state the issue as the church’s “not yet being ready for change”, implying that the correct outcome is already clear, and it’s just a question of chipping away at the bigot’s bigots’ unfortunate slowness to comply. A more dispassionate and honest assessment from one observer was that the real question is which view of biblical authority will prevail.

But today, I want to concentrate on just one issue that seemed, in yesterday’s reportage, to be the main specifically Christian argument for change, and that was the insistence that many homosexual relationships exhibit love that is just as Christlike as those in conventional marriages, and therefore that gay marriage ought to be welcomed as an expression of God’s love. You’ll already be alerted from my introduction to the question of what kind of love is being invoked here, as there seems to be something of a shift between concepts in mid-sentence. The distinction between marital love and the love of God ought, one would have thought, to be transparent to anyone seriously engaged in the discussion.

I don’t think anyone is objecting to any absence of agape in same-sex relationships, where it ought always to be, but to the presence of eros where it ought not to be. If there’s any lack of agape it would appear to be in the attitude towards those Christian brethren being called “homophobes” and “bigots” (and, equally, in the attitude of any in the other camp returning such polemic, though to be fair one doesn’t see such Westboro Baptist sentiments expressed on placards outside, or comments within, the General Synod – if indeed one sees them given much weight beyond that completely marginal club at all).

The fact is that the New Testament, whilst commanding the love of married couples, treats love as an exacting demand on Christian marriages, not as a grounds for them: it’s “Husbands, love your wives,” not “Lovers, get married.” On the contrary, the demands of eros in the New testament are uniformly subordinated to the requirements not of love simpliciter, but of love as interpreted through, and disciplined by, God’s law and right behaviour.

And so John the Baptist goes to prison and death not because he criticises any lack of Herod’s agape for his brother Philip’s wife, but for his unlawful eros in marrying her. And Jesus clearly shows solidarity with John’s position, not with the feelings of “that fox” Herod.

Paul, in turn, shows no concern whatsoever to discover whether the love of the man in 1 Corinthians 5 for his father’s wife (presumably widowed and not still married to his father, or he’d presumably have his father to reckon with more than Paul) is genuine and Christlike – it is just wrong for him to have her, in the view of ungodly pagans. He is “bigoted” enough to have the man put out of the church till he repents, rather than welcoming him for the sake of diversity and inclusiveness.

Someone may point out that in the same letter Paul advises young lovers to marry rather than burn with illicit passion. But we forget that this is in the context of young people already betrothed, usually by their parents’ choice and only hopefully with their own consent. Their “eros” was to be channeled into that socially and religiously sanctioned relationship, and the “agape” that Paul elsewhere commands was to be cultivated in it. The betrothal/marriage relationship itself was, in that society, virtually as much a given, rather than a choice, as the character of ones children is – whom one is also commanded to love (agape) irrespective of biological affinty (storge) or likemindedness (Lewis’s philia). You were not free to marry your neighbour’s betrothed, and neither did Paul bemoan the unfairness of that limitation on the choice of love – indeed, he limited it further for widows and widowers by insisting they must remarry “in the Lord”.

In the same way, if I love my neighbour’s wife more than my own (even if my neighbour is dallying with someone else and my wife is older), or come to that if I love my sister, true Christian agape is expressed by biting back on my eros, whatever the personal cost.

This is likewise true, of course, for that group solely excluded from the present inclusive agenda: the paedophiles and paederasts (the latter an oddly prevalent predilection for homosexual Catholic priests, it seems), who plead in vain the genuineness of their love even when it appears requited. Social taboo still trumps love here – we’re entirely in the world of prison sentences, stripped knighthoods, and papal apologies.

Now, there are of course other factors to be considered in the doctrinal debate over human sexuality. But whilst gender confusion may seem an intractable problem for our generation, philological confusion should not be: if we are ignorant of the difference between agape and eros we are blameworthy. For, quite apart from the current issue, it has always been known that it is entirely possible to have Christian and Christlike love for another, whilst simultaneously being sinful in our sexual dealings with them.

Abélard’s affair with Héloïse may have become a romantic legend, and it shows the complexities of the human condition as much as any current conundrum. But the Church does nothing for the cause of Christ by apologising in retrospect for ever disapproving of the relationship, and promising in future that we will accept such love as self-validating.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Ideological philology

  1. Noah White says:

    I can’t remember where I first had this pointed out to me, but there was a prominent Christian leader who endorsed same-sex marriage by appealing to marriage as the “highest expression of love” (so why wouldn’t we want to endorse marriage of all kind?). But I seem to recall Christ saying “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends”. Not to downplay the very real, and very painful emotion behind people with such struggles, of course. But we too often conflate eros with agape; and as you say it could have a good deal to do with us only having one word for “love”.

    In my ethics class last semester, we talked about Kant’s disgust with Latin as a language due to its imprecise nature as opposed to German. Latin has no word to distinguish generic “bad” from “evil” and thus Kant felt that the whole western/Christian ethical system was crippled and all based on pleasure/pain (from there he forms his categorical imperative, and the rest is history). My professor pointed out that we have a similar problem in English. We can distinguish “bad” and “evil” but we cannot distinguish “good” and capital-G “Good” all that easily. So we start to conflate things that are pleasurable with things that are True, Good, and Beautiful.

    All this to say that language is indeed powerful, and shapes our worldviews more than we’re aware. Great post!

  2. Noah White says:

    Whoops, I meant to say that Christ’s words were pointed out to me by someone–not an original thought of mine!

    • Jon Garvey says:

      It could have a good deal to do with us only having one word for “love”

      Or less charitably, it could have somethoing to do with being able to use the ambiguity of English to ideological advantage. It’s not as if there’s ever been an ignorance in society of the difference between marital and spiritual love. I was aware of it even as a teenager when a naive (but not altogether inexperienced!) girl in my church youth club responded to someone’s mention of the advice “not to be yoked together unequally with unbelievers” by saying “What about love, then?” Even the other kids realized that Christian love is something you do, not something you catch involuntarily like measles.

      Thanks for reply, Noah.

  3. Jay313 says:

    A more dispassionate and honest assessment from one observer was that the real question is which view of biblical authority will prevail.

    And this is the question, when it comes to churches establishing their own doctrines.

    The problem in this country (the U.S.) is different than it is in Britain, however. Here, the debate is not about church doctrine, it is about whether church doctrine on marriage should be the law of the land. A great number of U.S. evangelicals seem to believe that we are dishonoring God and turning our back upon his moral law if the state recognizes same-sex marriages as “legal” in the eyes of the law.

    When I worked for Dallas County, I had a gay boss whose partner of 20 years died suddenly. County policy considered the man nothing more than a roommate or friend, so my boss got 1/2 day off to attend the funeral. He came to work and shut his office door and wept for five days. I have seen gay and lesbian friends unable to obtain health insurance for partners they’ve lived with for years. I have seen gay and lesbian friends unable to obtain health information or make health decisions for dying partners because they are “unrelated” to the patient. The list goes on.

    The church does not have to change its doctrine or teaching on marriage in order for the law to address such situations. We should not force non-Christians to live by our moral principles. If we need a biblical precedent for such an idea, it is found in places such as Zech. 7:9-12 and Jer. 22:3, which enjoin the king and the nation to do justice to the “stranger” who was not a part of the covenant, as well as to the orphans and widows (the least among us). As Jeremiah says later in chapter 22:

    15 Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar?
    Did not your father eat and drink
    And do justice and righteousness?
    Then it was well with him.
    16 “He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy;
    Then it was well.
    Is not that what it means to know Me?”
    Declares the Lord.

  4. Jon Garvey says:


    We should not force non-Christians to live by our moral principles.

    That’s certainly true, Jay. But even so the situation is more complex than that. For it’s not only Christians who have a view about marriage as the approval of man-woman commitments, and legality interacts with public, as well as Christian morals. In the end, no morality is private, or society would allow bribery, incest and whatever else, in fact, some people held to be their own standard.

    In the UK we had enacted civil partnerships to cover the kind of questions you raise about property and so on, but within a few years that was deemed not enough, and marriage had to be redefined. Oddly enough, a heterosexual couple have just lost a case for being allowed to have a civil partnership, because they did not wish to get married, but wished the legal protection!

    Then again, the issue as it’s rapidly developed on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrates it is far from a matter of private rights – the question becomes (in relation to churches) a question of doctinal issues being deemed questions of legal discrimination – hence the blacklisting of Catholic adoption agencies, the dismissal of Christian marriage registrars wishing to delegate same-sex marriages on grounds of theoir own conscience, and potentially the ending of charitable status for churches that will not change their doctrines.

    Lastly, framing the matter in terms of Christians keeping their mores “in house” makes the assumption that Christian ethics are a set of esoteric private rules of no value to the world, whereas historically the legal and moral framework of the West grew because Christians regarded Christ as Lord of the world, not just the Church.

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