Ancient Greeks defined love as 6 different types. Eros, Philia, Ludus, Agape, Pragma, Philautia.

Agape love is Unconditional Love.

Can God only give Agape Love, the unconditional love for everyone?

Or was it the belief of the Christians that only Monotheistic God can give Agape love?

3 Answers 3


Nygren believed and argued that agape, in the sense it bears in the New Testament, is a distinctively Christian notion, without counterpart in Ancient Greek or at any rate in Ancient Greek philosophy. He is probably right in this but it is a separate question whether agape in its New Testament sense is completely discontinuous with, or unprefigured by, all senses of love in the Old Testament.

Agape as a Christian notion

Agape is, in Nygren's view, a Christian creation. It is God's love for man, nothing else. Man responds to God's love in gratitude and faith, but his response is not, strictly speaking, agape. Man's love for his neighbor is agape only in so far as and to the extent that it reflects God's agape which has been received. There is just one meaning of agape: God's love for man.

Nygren finds four characteristics of this divine agape. (i) It is spontaneous and "uncaused"; that is, there is no qual- ity or worth in the object of God's love which could possibly have evoked agape. Nor is there anything about the condition of man or the world (its bondage to sin, for example) which brings forth divine agape; "it is not called out by anything outside itself" (p. 52).4 (2) Agape is indifferent to human merit. God does not love the sinner because he is a sinner, nor does he love the righteous because he is righteous. He loves the righteous apart from his righteousness and the sinner "in spite of" his sin. "Human goodness or worthiness is left clean out of the reckoning" (p. 54). (3) Agape is creative. That is, it creates value in its object. The recipient of God's agape is a new creature in virtue of the gift. The idea of the infinite worth of persons "is not a basic Christian idea at all" (p. 55). God's love as spontaneous and uncaused is not dependent on the merit of its human object but rather confers value, which value consists in the very fact that God loves this or that person. (4) Agape opens the way of fellowship with God. Apart from agape, fellowship with God is unattainable. If man is to attain such fellowship with God, God himself must take the initiative. He does so in agape, which is "God's own way to man" (p. 56).

Nygren then turns to the Gospels, to Paul, and to the Johannine writings to illustrate and support this description of agape in the New Testament. He starts with the declaration of Jesus, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:6), a bold affront to the prevalent Jewish teaching that God loves, above all, the righteous man. ... Nygren thus contrasts the New Testament situation with the teaching of one school of Palestinian Judaism, not with the central Israelite prophetic teaching. (Walter Harrelson, 'The Idea of Agape in the New Testament', The Journal of Religion, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1951), pp. 169-182 : 169-70.)

It is hard to equate agape with, or to approximate it to, the Greek notions you list at the start. In this sense it is novel. But if it has no counterpart in Greek philosophy, is it novel in respect of the Old Testament ? Is it purely Christian in this sense ?

Agape and the Old Testament

The most obvious and perhaps the most important shortcoming of Nygren's study is its failure to take adequate account of the Old Testament view of love. This objection would not hold if he had been able to present the New Testament idea in its fulness without any further reference than those he has made to the Old Testament - for his subject is, after all, the Christian idea of love. But the present writer holds that Nygren fails to do justice to the New Testament view of agape precisely because he deals inadequately with agape in the Old Testament. This failure shows itself chiefly at three points: (i) in his analysis of the love commandment; (2) in his failure to relate love and justice; and (3) in his overemphasis upon the spontaneous and "uncaused" character of agape and his consequent neglect of the sovereign purpose of God for his people. (Walter Harrelson, 'The Idea of Agape in the New Testament', The Journal of Religion, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1951), pp. 169-182 : 172-3.)

In the article a great deal of detail and illustration follows but I think Nygren does have one vital point, at least, on his side.

Agape universalised in the New Testament

Harrelson may properly observe that :

The article by Quell and Stauffer in the Theologisches Worterbuch gives de- tailed attention to the Old Testament roots of the New Testament terms for "love." There are many references to the love of God for Israel. One of the most powerful is found in Hos. : i, 8: "When Israel was a child, then I loved him and called my son out of Egypt;... how can I give thee up... my compassions are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of my anger. I am God and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee." Here we see the yearning, searching love of God for his people Israel, which leads him to show compassion even to such a rebellious and adulterous people as Israel has become.

Jeremiah 2:2 gives an eloquent wit- ness to the love of God for Israel! "Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee." Again the love of God shows his covenant devotion to Israel, his chosen people, and the enduring charac- ter of his love. Also in Jeremiah (31:3) we hear of Israel's love for Yahweh: "I remember for thee the devotion of thy youth, the love of thy espousals, how thou wentest after me in the wilderness in a land not sown. Israel was holiness unto Yahweh, the first-fruits of his in- crease." Again the same love appears, here Israel's response to Yahweh's cove- nant love. In the same chapter Yahweh's love for sinful Israel is affirmed: "Is Israel my dear son? Is he a beloved child? As often as I speak against him I earnest- ly remember him still.... I will surely have mercy upon him" (3I:20). (Harrelson, 173.)

Yet the New Testament universalises agape in a way that is not so far as I am away continuous with or prefigured by the Old Testament. Harrelson concedes :

Agape in the New Testament is also Covenant love which includes the neighbor because the Covenant includes him. But the New Covenant announces that the bounds of Israel have been extended to include "those who are lost." The neighbor is now the sinner, the poor, the lame, the halt, the blind. He is anyone who stands in need of the love of the New Covenant. Jesus thus reminds his followers that God alone knows the bounds of the Covenant; he alone can say who is within and who without. Man is to show agape to everyone he meets on the assumption that he is also a son of the New Covenant. His neighbor has the same standing as he himself does; both are the recipients of God's agape, and both are to show agape. The command to love one's neighbor as one's self is a command to acknowledge one's own election and to be guided by the "free" coer- cion which divine election demands.

The love of neighbor which Jesus prescribes is love which has a place for "structure"; that is, for the organized life of the community. It is love which can and must be related to justice. This is the next point at which the Old Testa- ment idea of agape may be invoked to clarify that of the New Testament. Nygren deals only with the question of love and judgment. The more urgent question, however, is how God's agape affects the organized structures of community life, what it does to the laws of the land, how and to what extent it can become the rule of life in a community which is not identical with the Covenant community.

Agape and monotheism

Harrelson is useful on this point :

Agape is God's gift, but every gift of God carries with it fateful as well as happy consequences. Man is a responsible creature - his responsibility growing in direct proportion with his prerogatives. Hence the gift of God is not to be received lightly or carelessly spurned. Second, this gift is God's and is not to be transformed into a blueprint for society, a "guide for confident living." It constantly illumines and condemns men's efforts to make it the rule of life. It is the "law" which goes beyond all positive law, the "law" which gives the lie to all natural law, the "law" which makes one wary of asserting that he knows the divine law. Third, it agape which is informed by the purpose of God, related to the "end" of human history. It is not blind or capricious; its sponaneity is controlled by its Source, its creativity directed toward its Author's goal. (Harrelson, 181-2.)

I should say that the natural reading of 'Agape is God's gift' is that it is exclusively God's gift and has no other source.


Walter Harrelson, 'The Idea of Agape in the New Testament', The Journal of Religion, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1951), pp. 169-182.

Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, 3 vols, Part I: A Study of the Christian Idea of Love, Part II (in 2 vols): The History of the Christian Idea of Love. Published by Soc for Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1939. (Other editions available.)

  • This answer has a pretty bad defect. The word "agape" is older. If it's purely a Christian notion then where did the word come from?
    – Joshua
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 16:58
  • Thank you for an interesting comment. I did not claim that the word, agape, originated with the New Testament. I merely ventured the speculation ('probably') that it came to bear a sense in the New Testament that was novel and extended beyond the 'brotherly love' which, I assume, agape originally signified. My point was conceptual, not philological. Does that make my position clearer ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 17:21

“Can God only give Agape Love, the unconditional love for everyone?”

God is identified with this love in the Catholic teaching. When we love from the human heart, there is one part of agape in that love. It doesn't have the fullness. It may be useful, in this respect, to consider the standard Catholic teaching about the miracle of water into wine, what they say is wine is always made of water, but it usually goes into the roots of the grape vines, and ripens into grapes, and goes through all the other processes; Christ is said to intensify and quicken the processes. Perhaps, then, one can say of agape, it is the heart’s (the ordinary human) love as miracle.

  1. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16).


“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Corinthians

Agape is explicated by Paul under the name charity. Generally, eros in the Socratic sense is the love of wisdom (i.e., in the Catholic context, of God, one can understand this by considering that explicit separation of the conception of wisdom and that of science is of very recent origin, hardly more than a hundred years). In the Christian sense the beauty (kalon) of Christ stops one, it claims one, and it sends one fourth as its apostle. The issue raised is that the natural order makes no “beautiful soul” who is claimed ab initio, but God claims a person. It’s supernatural in that to be moved to hold with the truth, for instance, one can find a proposition intelligible, one can even empathize with a proposition, feeling viscerally what the ones who propound it feel, and still reject that proposition. But the rungs of the ladder of human mind and heart don’t come together without something deeper causing us to make the leap, as Kierkegaard put it. There is a transformation of the Socratic Platonic teaching of eros, into the Catholic teaching. (The talk of something like "epistemic drive" dimly echoes these conceptions).


The concept of unconditional love probably comes from the Vedic Atma-Prema which is the unconditional love of self. It is not the ego-self but the eternal self that connects all of us. When Jesus spoke of "how can you say you love my father but not your neighbor" or "when you see me, you have seen my father" etc he is referring to the unity of all. Atma-Prema, the love of this self leads when fully understood to unconditional love as you can't love parts and not love other parts of something that is one and has only illusions of separation.

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