I heard several references to the work of Anders Nygren at the recent Oxford University conference I attended, “The Evolution of Morality.” Nygren’s agape theology continues to influence more than seventy years after its publication.
I have been quite critical of Anders Nygren’s views of agape. For instance, in my recent book, The Nature of Love, I devote an entire chapter to evaluating his work.
Below are excerpts from my discussion of Nygren’s work. These excerpts come from the chapter’s introduction and conclusion. They give a taste of what I think of Nygren’s agape theology.
Anders Nygren was the most influential theologian of love in the 20th century. His effort to highlight the significance and superiority of agape enjoyed far-reaching success. Many Christians educated during the second half of the century and into the 21st were taught Nygren’s fundamental claims: agape is the Christian form of love, and we discover the meaning of agape by reading the New Testament. Thanks largely to him, many Christians in the Western world know about and value the ancient Greek word, agape.
Nygren’s famous book, Agape and Eros, influenced Christian education in churches and universities around the world. His agape theories were and are preached regularly from Christian pulpits.
The particularities have garnered extensive scholarly response. Yale ethicist Gene Outka, for instance, says Nygren “so effectively posed issues about love that they have had a prominence in theology and ethics they never had before.” Outka concludes: “whatever the reader may think of it, one may justifiably regard his work as the beginning of the modern treatment of the subject.” Edward Collins Vacek says Nygren’s “insights are splendid, his mistakes are instructive, and his views are still very much alive.” The 21st century still feels the influence of Anders Nygren.
Nygren argued the Bible supported his views. In fact, he claimed to portray the authentic view of Christian love as expressed in the New Testament. Because I join Nygren and many other Christians who consider the Bible chiefly authoritative for theology, I take seriously any influential view of love claiming to be the authentically biblical view.
An exploration of Nygren’s ideas, however, shows he reads the Bible through his own particular lens. And that particular lens is not always helpful. Nygren’s theory of agape does not fit the biblical witness well.
Although I strongly criticize Nygren’s work in the chapter I devote to his work, Nygren’s ideas provide an important entry into what the Bible says about love. Although much of Nygren’s agape theology should be rejected, it nevertheless helps us see more clearly what ideas should be incorporated into an adequate theology of love.
Agape is NOT the Only Form of Christian Love
Nygren’s thesis that agape is the only authentically Christian love — excluding all other loves — collapses under careful examination of the biblical witness. His agape arguments are largely unwarranted in the light of the Scripture. Biblical writers use agape with diverse meanings, and they present the meanings of philia and eros in positive ways. The biblical witness suggests Christians should express agape, philia, and eros, rightly understood.
Christians who believe agape is the exclusively Christian form of love should change their belief. Other forms of love are also legitimately Christian. Careful definitions of each form are necessary, of course. I have proposed definitions of agape, eros, and philia to help contemporary Christians reclaim the diversity of the biblical witness to love.
The Bible Portrays God’s Love as Sometimes Eros and Philia
Contrary to Nygren’s view, the stories and teachings of Jesus, the letters of Paul and John, and the diverse texts of the Old Testament tell us creaturely actions and responses influence the form that God’s love takes. Creatures affect the precise ways in which God loves. God seeks and maintains relationship – including friendships – with creatures in creation. The fact that others influence God’s love and God has fellowship with creation suggests God’s love includes eros and philia dimensions. An adequate theology of love should affirm the various forms divine love takes.
Not only should contemporary Christians embrace agape, eros, and philia as legitimate forms of love for creatures to express. They should also accept the biblical witness that God expresses these forms. Rather than one-dimensional, God’s love is full-orbed.
God Initiates Fellowship with Creatures
Rather than accepting Nygren’s theology of agape, Christians should endorse the language of prevenient grace, whereby God lovingly initiates relationship moment by moment and creatures freely respond. Divine love initiates fellowship in each moment of a creature‘s life. God enables creatures to respond freely.
God’s loving sovereignty should not be defined in such a way as to eliminate creaturely free response. Prevenient grace offers the way to affirm God’s loving initiative for right relationship and free creaturely response to God.
God is the Source of the Love Creatures Express
Nygren worries that creatures will be regarded as the source of love. This worry is legitimate, because biblical writers often regard God as love’s source. Designating creatures as their own sources of love makes God unnecessary for the all-important command to love God and others as oneself. If creatures are the sole source of their own love, they would be entirely independent and autonomous in their decisions to love. Nygren rightly rejects the view love originates in creation.
Unfortunately, however, Nygren’s worry leads him to reject any sense of independence in creaturely love. Although the biblical witness indicates that creatures express love toward God and others, Nygren believes humans do not love God.
Numerous problems arise from Nygren’s denial that creatures express love. Even he admits his view runs contrary to the plain meaning of Jesus’ command, “You shall love the Lord your God” (Mt. 22:37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27). To make the Bible consistent with his views, Nygren would need to rewrite much of what the Bible says about creaturely love. The parables of Jesus would make little or no sense. Numerous Pauline statements, such as “anyone who loves (agape) God is known by him” (1 Cor. 8:3), would become meaningless. The Old Testament would be need drastic alteration.
We should acknowledge God as the source and inspiration of the love creatures express. Creatures rely upon God to empower and inspire them to love. Creatures depend utterly upon God. But the response to love creatures make should legitimately be regarded as creaturely love. Creaturely love requires God’s active love as its source, but it remains creaturely love nonetheless. Creatures depend upon God. But they exert a measure of independence when they choose how they will freely respond to God’s call in their lives.
Contrary to Nygren’s argument, the actions and responses of creatures do shape God’s love, at least in terms of the form divine love takes. The value and responses of creatures God created and deemed good provide a reason to think God’s love at least partially motivated.
In an important sense, however, Nygren correctly claims God’s love is unmotivated. Christians sometimes use the word “unconditional” to describe this sense. Nygren gets at this when he talks about God’s nature as love. “To the question, Why does God love?” he says, “there is only one right answer: Because it is His nature to love.” God’s love is unmotivated or unconditional in the sense that God’s nature is love. God will express love toward others no matter the condition of creatures, because love is an aspect of God’s essence.
Philosophers often use the word “necessary” to describe the idea an attribute is essential to an object. Unfortunately, Nygren confusingly conflates the idea of love as a necessary aspect of God’s nature and agape as a particular form of love.
Sometimes Nygren talks about God’s unmotivated love in the sense of necessity: “it is [God’s] nature to love.” The fact that God loves refers to love as essential to God’s nature. Other times, Nygren speaks of God’s love as unmotivated and refers to the condition of those whom God loves. God loves sinners. When he claims creaturely responses and conditions in no way motive God’s love, Nygren twists or ignores the biblical account.
We should distinguish, therefore, between various forms of love and the mode of love. Distinguishing between the mode of God love as necessary and agape as one form of divine love brings clarity to the discussion. If God loves others necessarily, we can talk about the particular form God’s love takes as dependent, at least in part, upon creaturely actions and responses.