Agape Theology

July 14th, 2011 / 24 Comments

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.

Some Conclusions

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.

   Love is an Essential Attribute of God’s Nature

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.

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Tom, good article as usual. You say, “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.” I think this true, especially that the NT uses “agape” in some very diverse ways. But I am curious how the biblical witness can suggest right uses of eros when the word never appears in the texts. Is it that there is a right kind of eros or is it that there are many kinds of agape?

David Felter

Dear Tom:

Thanks again for another thought provoking post from your blog. At the outset, I need to remind you and your readers that I am keenly aware of my limitations when responding to the gifts of brilliance and erudition with which God has endowed you. Having said this sincerely, I would like to respond to a couple of statements in your blog.

First, you state: “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.” I find this support of the doctrine of prevenient grace most reassuring. While I may be wrong, I am sensing an emerging strand of universalism that somehow combines a mutant strain of the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace with a sentimentalism that seems to open the doors of eternal life even to non-Christian religious traditions. Thank you for this strong support of a proper interpretation of prevenient grace.

Second, you write: “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.” Again, I admit my limitations in challenging your astute intellect, but I must respectfully disagree with this statement. Working from Romans 5:8, I believe God’s love transcends “the actions and responses of creatures.” Perhaps I have misunderstood you, but it seems to me as I read the Scriptures that God is not only love, He is also holy. God, in my opinion, could not possibly possess contradictory motives with regard to either those with whom He exists in Trinitarian fellowship, or to His creation. It would follow, then, that God’s love remains eternally consistent, unchanging, etc. Now, I recognize that my perspectives in this regard are contrary to Open Theism, however, I find great comfort in realizing that the love of God for me (and all others) is not conditioned upon or shaped by my response.

Finally, you write, “God loves sinners. When he (Nygren) claims creaturely responses and conditions in no way motive (motivate?) God’s love, Nygren twists or ignores the biblical account.” I believe the statement above can be considered with the statement here. How is the love of God for sinners ever changed by even the most profligate sinner’s response, even if that response is rejection? The most reliable definition, foundation, expression, or benchmark for speaking of God’s love to sinners is the Cross, and even there Jesus asked for mercy for the mocking, scoffers assembled around his cross.

Thanks again Tom, for the wonderful service you provide the Body of Christ with your thought-provoking posts. God bless, and keep it up!



In my studies, I have found an over-romanticism attributed to “agape” in the Christian realm, given that while forms of it are used by non-biblical ancient writers in the context of affectionate (not necessarily intimate) love, it is rarely (if ever) used in the passionate sense that Coelho asserts, and is often used in a completely non-relational manner, as in “I love cars.” It seems that the very use of “agape” by the biblical authors may be as a phonetic device.

Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks to all for your good responses.

To Dave – Thanks for your note. I think we may actually agree on that which you think we disagree.

Like you, I affirm that God’s nature as love is unchanging. We can rest assured that God will ALWAYS love us, no matter what we do. In this sense, I affirm divine immutability.

But I also think the way God loves us is determined by the context. The way God loved Jonah, for instance, is different that the way God loves Mary. Because God is a living God in relationship with changing creatures, the forms that God’s love takes also change.

In sum, I think the fact THAT God loves us is eternal, unchanging, or immutable. But HOW God loves us changes depending on the people and the circumstances. As the Psalmist put it, God’s mercies are new every morning. Does that make sense?

I also think we might agree on the issues of the cross. While God’s love is revealed to ALL in the cross, my point is that the way God expresses love to us depends on who we are. God’s love expressed to a 21st century internet porn addict will differ some from God’s love expressed to a 1st century tax collector. Both are loved. But the forms of these loves differ, because God tailor-makes them for their recipients.

At least that’s how I’m seeing things…



Good day to you, doc.

Throughout your essay, you use the term “creature”, or some variant thereof.

Yet here:

“Although the biblical witness indicates that creatures express love toward God and others, Nygren believes humans do not love God.”

you switch to “humans,” and that is your only use of the word rather than “creatures.”  You are a very careful writer, so I don’t think is by chance or error. Why the difference? What entities does/do “creatures” encompass other than or in addition to “humans?”

Thomas Jay Oord


You have a keen idea to notice this distinction! I wanted to indicate what I think the biblical witness says, namely that more than just humans can love God. But I don’t recall any instance in the Nygren text in which he includes creatures other than human. So I wanted to be faithful to his writings by saying he only talked about human love.

Hope that helps explain things,


Paul DeBaufer

I am glad you decided to address the issue of Agape here in your blog. I have tried to explain to some, who have been influenced by Nygren’s thoughts (taken as authoritative as the Gospel itself, in many cases) and consider agape as the only form of Christian love, your ideas from The Nature of Love. I am reluctant to lend the book, now I can send them here for the better explanation. Thank you.

John W. Dally

My journey into theology was at a time when agape was a central part of Christian talk.  Eros and Philia were defined as “passion” driven relationships. Agape was said not to be driven by passion.  Agape was described by a passionless act of righteousness.  If you see a person stranded on the road and you helped them it was based on agape.  Philia was a non-sexual friendship relationship between two people. Eros was physical and driven by passion.  It was said that a marriage must be based on agape because there will be times when philia and eros will fail.  If one at least continues to perform acts of righteousness it can sustain the relationship.  This “sounded” good.

After a while I began to see weakness in this model.  If there is no physical attraction why get married?  If there is no friendship the relationship is doomed.  How boring and dead a relationship based on conscious acts of righteousness!  I came to see that all three must be part of a marriage. 

To expand upon this any relationship must contain all three forms of love. A relationship would naturally include physical contact, a handshake, an embrace, a Holy kiss.  Thus eros is involved.  To have a relationship you must at least like the person. Thus philio is involved.  Our lives are driven by doing right, even when it hurts (tough love).  Thus agape is involved. 

I can see this with any relationship.  How could we love a dog if we do not like it or enjoy physical contact with it?  How could we love nature without feeling stirred in our souls or enjoying the physical experience?  When it comes to God, how can we expect to love God if we do not like God? The psalms testify to the physical impact we get from our communion with God.  What about a “heart strangely warmed?”  How can we live out our relationship without acts of righteousness toward others?

I have come to conclude that love encompasses all three types of love, agape, philia, and eros.

Being created in God’s image, would this not indicate that God’s love is made up of all three types of love?  Do all of God’s creatures posses this intricate love to some degree? Someting to think about.

Noah Chance

The concept that God is love, he expresses love, and is an essential part of His nature. Is hard to grasp especially in a world filled with trials and hardships. We as human beings see love expressed daily and I believe is a part of our essential nature as well. We desire to love others, with the stipulation that we require love ourselves. An almost designed independent and dependent condition that puts that need in us. As for the choice we have of free will, we put that love and receive it in unhealthy and unnatural areas of this life. At the end we wonder why would we suffer, and its the result of not directing that love towards God and others.

Taylor Bickel

I’d never considered the idea of God’s love being “unmotivated.” We see motivated creaturely love all the time, and so to consider God’s love not being motivated is difficult to grasp or to accept as “real” love. However, since this argument stems from the idea of love as a part of who God is, then it is difficult to make an argument for such a love to be motivated. However, this still feels disingenuous to some extent. If He has to love us, then isn’t that problematic to some extent? Where’s the freedom?

Grady Turner

In conversations I have had about the topic of love, I was always struck by how our effort is put into defining love and not asking the question why is there love? I don’t mean to take away from the discussion of what love is, I just want to know why is there love?  Maybe I’m asking the “why” instead of the “what” because of the scientist in me. However, consider I John 4:8 where it says “…God is love.” To me this is a satisfactory answer, loves exists because of God. From this starting point, I believe we can better understand what agape love is.

Patrick Patterson

I found this particular topic very interesting, especially the discussion of creaturely love.  I find it hard to fully understand how Nygren can say that we don’t love God, because I have always understood and believed that God is LOVE.  What is the point of loving if we can’t love the sole person who created us and the world we live in?

I can honestly say, I have never really put much thought into the subject of love as far as the different types (agape, eros, and philia).  After reading this blog, I understand the different aspects of love and that because God is relational his creatures can express his love in many different ways.  After reading this, I conclude that God shows his love in complex ways and to limit this belief to think that agape is the only authentic love is false.

Amanda Peutz

I agree with Nyren’s claim—which you say he is correct—of how God’s love is unmotivated (unconditional—in other words).  As he also stated, “It is in His nature to love.”  I can’t imagine knowing and loving a God that loved us with motives in mind.  How would we then be able to love without having motives prior to loving others?  I believe that we are able to love because God unconditionally loves us.  He provides us with the ability to love those around us—even our enemies.  Overall, I’m glad that our God is one with love as a major aspect to His essence because without Him loving us, he wouldn’t be able to teach us how to love all of His creation.

Leslie Warwick

Agape love is to love divinely, to love with the power and inspiration of God! This is my understanding of agape. That it is the purest form of love, the love that comes from God through us to His people and creation. But what I don’t get is how can Nygen say we can’t love God. Did he mean we can’t love God in the way God loves us? Or that we don’t have the capability to obtain and to sustain such Agape? I would like to not believe this because like it was said later on that Gods holy spirit flows through us when we become sensitive to its presence. Like the “Hillsong United” song that say “break my heart for what breaks yours.” We become capable of such love when we become fully human with our sympathy and empathy when we intentional think with our Jesus goggles on.

Jennifer Yearsley

•  I would definitely agree that “Christian’s love” is far more than just the “agape” form of love. Yes God’s love is unconditional, self-sacrificing, and unbound to all. Although, there are many ways that Jesus/God displayed their amazing love for others. Jesus shows philia love with his disciples and the people he met daily, and in the ways he cared for those around him. Also, God provided Adam with a woman because no other creature on earth could fulfill the type of love, emotion, companionship, or bond that as humans we long for, and eros was intended by God in that way. We are called to love and live as Jesus did and it is by lived experience, prevalent grace, scripture, and tradition that we know and understand what this looks like. These pictures of love that I have formed from Jesus and God’s is more than just agape love.

Alexandra Jarratt

I agree that Agape love is not the only form of love that God requires of Christians. If that were true, there would be no evangelism to show God’s love to our brothers and sisters, no helping those in need, no marriage, and therefore no children to bring up in a way that is pleasing to God. Philia and Eros definitely have their place in Christianity, given the right circumstances. I also liked how it expresses that God’s love is what inspires all the other forms of love in us. Since love is an essential part of his character, and he made us in his image, it makes sense that he would create us with a capacity for love, both to reciprocate back on him and to lavish on others.

Molly Breland

I found your thoughts on the need for adopting the idea of prevenient grace most interesting. I’ve discovered that some of your views are similar to mine, but I have difficulty describing them as I have so little background in the subject. This is something I’ve believed in since learning about God being “omni-” everything. I would agree that He presents us with choices, but allows us the free-will to choose our paths. With this though, he is all-knowing, and knows the outcome of each. I believe this is just another way for us to show our love for Him (and others), by showing that we care about the well-being of ourselves, and others (if effects others) if we choose one of the best paths for us in that moment.

Sydnee Oord

It is interesting to me that Nygren had such an influence on Christian ideals of love when his claims often did not match up with Scripture. I find it strange to argue that love is one-sided, that it only comes from God and not from His creation. Is Nygren too nervous to give the power of love to God’s creation? I would say that to have any type of relationship with anyone, including God, the feelings must be mutual. I would expect that God would want His creation to have love for Him, the Creator, as well. I can understand Nygren’s argument that God is the source of love, but I also think that we have the power to decide whether or not to use that love for God and for others.

Hillary Ashmead

I think that as humans, since we are made in God’s image, our intentions are to love but a lot of the time we fall short since that too is human nature. I think we can not truly experience “agape”, if God is the source of love then thats the strongest form. We can not be God, so how can we achieve that caliber of love? But we do experience different forms of love which I believe God values just as much. Like I said earlier we are intended for good and love, to be Christian is to love others, yourself, God and God’s creation. How can we do that without the different forms of love. I think if we were supposed to only have one way to love it would become a lot more “robotic” and not done freely by our own will, as it should be.

calvin fox

At first glance Nygren’s thesis seems reasonable. That agape love in the only authentic Christian love, and all other loves are not. I think that agape is a good idea of God’s love but I would not limit God’s love to just agape. Love seems to be our best word for God’s nature. I think even our ideas of love fall short of describing Gods nature, but it is all that we have.

Joey Norris

Very important things distinguished and crucial ideas discussed. Some say God is in his essence ‘love’ is to say that God’s existence is somewhat contingent on his being the fullest instantiation of ‘love’ (I hope that sounds consistent). Furthermore, if God necessarily loves His creation, with agape or unconditional or unlimited love, then God could and would choose to love his creation (assuming God has free will). It may seem necessary that loving, in the agape sense, is in His essential nature, but I don’t understand how that connects to His “necessary” outpouring of love. If I fully instantiate ‘whiteness’, say my skin, and I was born with it. But, would I necessarily have to always instantiate ‘whiteness’. I could dye my skin or take it off or do want Michael Jackson did to his skin. I think this anthropomorhpic analogy holds. Perhaps God’s instantiation is more analogous to my being ‘human’ like Aquinas argued. So long as I am living I will instantiate ‘human-ness’ and I cannot help it. My existence is contingent as opposed to God’s necessary existence (I am assuming God exists in that way). Moreover, we as human beings respond to God’s love and choose to cooperate with it along with His divine Will. We are able to partake as well as receive His love, but only to a limited and perfect capacity (perfection as functioning well).

Holly Sheffield

The idea that humans cannot love God seems completely ludicrous to me. As it was stated, love is essential to God’s nature. We were created out of love, and as such, love is also an essential part of our being. I cannot imagine that God would create beings who could not love him back, especially since it is God who provides inspiration to Christians how to love others and the world more deeply and purely.

Greg Hata

The only reasons that humans are able to love is because God loved us first by sending His son to die for us. God himself is perfect love, and being a being who has fallen from perfection we are no longer able to love like God loves us. We are only able to love because he has shown us how to love. And since he has shown us how to love, and combining it with free will, we can express what we think God shows us. I also think that since God is love and that we really do not know any physical characteristics of God, he allowed Jesus to give us examples of what God is and what love is.


It is very difficult for an author to foresee criticisms that may arise against his work decades after its publication, and to preemptively and conclusively address them therein. If Nygren were alive, he certainly would have had much to say in response to the comments and conclusions above. I certainly don’t think he can be dismissed in the way that some have tried to do. The love of God is something wholly other to the love of the creature, although there are certainly commonalities between the two. Jesus spoke of a “new” commandment to love one another, yet the commandment was as old as the decalogue. The key, of course, has to do with the qualitative “as I have loved you”, Herein is the newness – a love that is not evoked or stirred up, a love that is not dependent on the prospect of a reward, a love that is not aimed at satisfying some need in the lover, but a love that is free and gratis, as Barth used to say in his endorsement of Nygren, because it is birthed out of the very contentment that exists in God. Of course Agape does not suspend Eros or Phileo, but it rules over them, and herein is the key. Nygren serves as a mere introduction to the New Testament contrast between the love of God and the covetousness of humanity. If anything, his thoughts call for further development, not dismissal.

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