Nygren’s Agape and Eros: A Transvaluation of Love

In 1930 and 1936  Anders Nyrgen released the two volumes of Agape and Eros beginning a proliferation of  thoughts and material related to love, “one of the most central and yet most neglected in the theological field.”( Anders Nygren,  Agape and Eros, 1990).  Agape and Eros engages in the critique of the Christian idea of “Love”. In the terms of Nietzsche, Nygren led a “transvaluation of all ancient values” (p 28) pertaining to love, a revaluing which still lasts today. From the start of the two volume set, Nygren gives the idea of Christian Love the title agape. Agape is then examined in contrast to the “Platonic concept of eros.” (p 30) There is however a problem which makes this evaluation tedious:

  1. In Eros and Agape we have two concepts which originally have nothing whatsoever to do with one another;
  2. In the course of history agape and eros have nonetheless become so thoroughly bound up and interwoven with one another that it is hardly possible for us to speak of either without our thoughts being drawn to the other. (p 30)

Nygren employs the scientific method of research which attempts not to judge values but to research agape as a motif and eros as a motif. Nygren takes a more precise step and identifies the “Agape Motif” as the fundamental to Christianity. Without the agape motif which Christianity would cease to be what it is. This is similar to how CS Lewis refers to the miraculous, without which Lewis declares Christianity would cease to be what it is.  I have attempted to summarize Nygren’s agape motif, eros motif, and definitions to the body of this text and to keep critique of motif, comments, conclusions, and shading will, to an almost exclusive extent, be located in notes.  This way the main body will clearly reflect the content of Nygren’s Agape and Eros.

it is the Christian conception of fellowship with God that gives the idea of Agape its meaning, mythoughts, thoughts of God, thoughtsofgod, David Reese, Anders Nygren, Nygren, Agape and Eros, Agape, Eros

The Agape Motif

The first question to be sorted is where to start.  Nygren does not except the commandment to “love the Lord thy God….love thy neighbor…” because this is an exclusive love based on the idea of neighbor.  The starting point which is accepted is fellowship with God.  For “it is the Christian conception of fellowship with God that gives the idea of Agape its meaning.” (p 67) Using the analogy of new wine * Nygren determine that Jesus and the Christianity He brought overturned the very substance of Judaism’s legal piety.  To understand this fellowship, love must be seen not as justitia distributive but as “freely giving and forgiving.” (p 70) This is seen in the old testament method, as mercy (love) * is dispensed to those who are righteous and fear God (cf Ps.103:17), while in the New Testament Agape “reveals its sovereignty most clearly of all in the fact that it directs itself to sinners”(p 74), not the righteous *.  The content of Agape begins in spontaneity, under no sign of necessity.  Second, agape does not depend upon the worth of the recipient, * for “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good” (Matt. 5:45).  Third, God’s Love is creative.  Not only does it not consider the worth of the recipient but it is the reason and creator of worth on all those to whom it falls.  Finally we return to the starting point, fellowship.  “Hitherto the question of fellowship with God had always been understood as a question of the way by which man could come to God….there is from man’s side no way at all that leads to God…. Agape is God’s way to man.” (p 80f)

Nygren sees this idea of love confirmed by the Parables.  In the parable of the prodigal son, Christ shows us both that God excepts the sinner and that it is “only if God Himself comes to meet us and reveals Himself to us can we possibly come to Him.” (p 84) In the parable of the laborers, the land owner demonstrates unmotivated, spontaneous Agape when he pays those who enter the work late the full day’s wages *.  In the parable of the lost sheep, the Lord shows that He will leave the ninety-nine sheep (that are righteous) to return the one sinful, wandering sheep back to the fold *.  In the parable of the unmerciful stewart as well as the Lord’s prayer the Christian ethic to forgive flowers out of the fellowship with God, and therefore, “freely have ye received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8).

Bound up within the idea “freely give” is seen the commandment to love, the Christian ethic.  “The Agape that is required here has its prototype in the Agape manifested by God, and therefore it must be spontaneous and unmotivated, uncalculating, unlimited, and unconditional.” (p 91) Agape love is not acquisitive, friendship *, or concupiscentiæ.   It does not view God as a means of satisfaction.  The fact is Nygren continues to say we are not capable of unmotivated love.  To love God we must be possessed by God.   This type of love seeks nothing, not even God.

The schemata is then expanded from love toward God to love toward one’s neighbor. Love towards of one’s neighbor and love towards one’s enemy both require God’s creative love.  Furthermore, Nygren sees self love as perverted and rejects the notion that just because the scriptures say, “love you neighbor as yourself”, we are to love ourselves.  If fact he sees the connection here as the creative love of God’s changing our perverted self love into Love for our neighbor. *

Nygren next addresses the view that “Jesus’s message of the Kingdom of God and Paul’s theology of the Cross are … contrasted with one another as two different gospels.” (p 106) Nygren decides that the only way to determine whether  this view holds any weight is to test Paul’s material with the fundamental motif of the Christian religion, the love motif.  From the writings of Paul, Nygren finds that Paul portrays the “absolutely unmotivated character of God’s love.  For what could show more clearly how unmotivated, how contrary to all human calculations, God’s love and calling are than the calling of a persecutor * to be an apostle?” (p 110) Secondly, both the Law and “righteousness” invariably leads away from God *.  Thirdly,  “in his greatest sin God’s calling and election come to him.  That is Agape: that is God’s way to man.” (p 112) “Enough has been said to prove already that the continuity between the Gospels and Paul in the matter of fundamental motif is not broken.” (p 113)

With the connection between Paul and Christianity firmly in place, Nygren looks to Paul for a technical content of Agape.  First,  the death of Jesus on the Cross is the revelation of Agape.  God is the God  and teacher of Agape.  Second, Love and the Cross * are not two, but one, inseparable.   Third, the death of Christ was spontaneous.  Fourth, Christ died for the ungodly.

The Cross and death of Christ therefore, take a central position in the fundamental motif, as they are the sacrifice.  Sacrifice is seen in the light of obedience *, which is giving of oneself not the one’s possessions.  To the command of obedience found in I Sam. 15:22 justice and judgement are added from Prov. 21:3.  Nygren then pulls in righteousness, mercy and love to obedience and justice.  From these ethical pointers Paul finishes by placing a broken spirit as the only fitting sacrifice that is acceptable.

Earlier the idea of “Love towards God” (p 123) came across in such a way,  that for man to love God seemed to be difficult if not impossible.  Love is the fulfillment of the law, which in itself is beyond the task of the individual.  Augustine places the love of God high on his list and is perplexed that Paul speaks of our Love for our neighbor, but does not concern himself with the writing about love toward God. This becomes even more profound when we see that “the love God has shown us though the death of His Son on the Cross is for Paul so absolute, so utterly spontaneous and unmotivated, that Agape as the name of this Divide love and can no longer fittingly be used for human love *, which can never be in the same sense spontaneous and creative.” (p 128) A Christian, when there is an infusion of the Spirit, can Agape a neighbor, but only by πίστις, which Nygren terms receptive, which replaces ἀγάπη as man’s attitude toward God.  “Agape can go as far in requiring a man to sacrifice his own spiritual advantage for the advantage of his neighbor that he even declares himself willing to be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his kinsman according to the flesh, if thereby they might be saved (Rom. IX.3).” (p 132) Now for the first time Nygren faces the Αγάπη motif head on against the Ερως motif.  This takes place in his address to the Corinthian church, in the “Hymn to Αγάπη”.  Agape is stationed against the gifts *, with gnosis emphasized.  Gnosis is then directly related to eros.   The Corinthians are seen to have a formula that looks like this – faith, truth (gnosis), eros, * and hope.  Paul replaces this with faith, hope and agape, and Agape is shown to be in battle against Judaism’s legal-piety and Hellenism’s gnosis and wisdom.

The final formula in the Agape motif is that God is Agape.  Agape and fellowship are inseparable, based on Agape.  “When Christ died for us who are weak, ungodly, sinful, and enemies, this is the supreme revelation of Agape; but it can just as truly be said to be the supreme revelation of God.” (p 146f) John is said to bring the Agape Motif to its highest light; God is Love.  But at the same time, because John is influenced by Oriental-Hellenism *, he is said to weaken the motif because he is not specific enough with the term.   John is said to be dualistic in three respects.  First, since God’s Agape is directed at Christ it losses spontaneity.  Second, our brotherly Agape is towards other Christians and therefore, has a touch of motivation attached.  Finally, John uses Agape toward both God and the world.  While “he [Paul] has no need to specify the object to which it is directed.  He [John] knows nothing of any distinction between true and false Agape.” (p 156)

The Eros Motif

While it is impossible to determine whether the eros-piety motif is a forerunner, and prepares the way for Agape or stands as a rival *, Nygren decides to treat it as the latter, because even when it is the former it is harmful, causing confusion.  Nygren uses Plato to define eros because of his clarity and because they are  Plato’s ideas that filter through Neo-Platonism into Christianity.  Plato’s view via Symposium tells of man as being divine (reason) and evil (body and senses).  The divine soul is in need of breaking free from the defilement of the body and the senses.  Eros is the means by which a soul can return to heaven and encounter salvation.

In the myth of eros there is a memory that corresponds to the divine.  And when the soul sees something or someone of beauty, beauty acts as if it where a light and reminds the soul of the bright trail left by Zeus and the gods.  Eros * awakens the soul which is able to begin its ascent up the ladder.  Nygren refers to this as the ordo salutis.

Eros is acquisitive *.  Eros ascends to the gods, and is the practical way out of the prison house of the flesh.  “The entire structure of Platonic Eros is egocentric, for all desire and appetite are egocentric.  In Plato’s discourse about a wife sacrificing her life for her husband, the sacrifice is seen as desire for the immortality that would come through fame.

In Plato eros causes the soul to strive up toward the beautiful, while in Aristotle there is beauty in the whole creation.  Love is, therefore, the mover and not desire.  Aristotle is said to influence through his distinction between “amor concpiscentiæ and  amor amicitiæ the love of desire and the love of friendship.” (p 186)

Compared to Aristotle, Plotius philosophical leading seems to be highly religious.  Plotinus also influenced the formation of a sharp distinction between matter and God, and is then concerned with communication.  In this system the divine soul emanates from “τα ειv” like beams of light.   These lights pass through the realms of existence, proceeding away from “τα ειv.”  The light passed through the lower realms and is reflected, as it were, off a mirror.  Eros then moves the soul toward absolute beauty.  But the highest height, the perfect union with God, we cannot attain by dialectic or any discursive thinking, but only by ecstasy, in which the beholder becomes one with that which it beholds.” (p 193)

The idea of Eros in Plotinus compared with plato’s Eros and Christian Agape.(p 194) The question at hand is not ascent but descent.   For Plato the movement is from the lower to the higher.  For Plotinus the movement starts from the highest but is closer to the descending of Aristotle’s than the condescending of Agape, because Plotinus is considering cosmology not soteriology.  Furthermore, the descent for Plotinus is involuntary and “τα ειv” never moves or changes.  Plato sets God apart from Eros; Plotinus Says, “God is Eros.” (p 198)

The transvaluation is now set up.  In Greco-Hellenism the gods do not love man.  In Christianity, not only is God Agape but Agape is His very nature.  Again, in the Greco-Roman world the gods do not take part in a fellowship with man, Christianity places fellowship in the middle of the Agape motif.  Finally, Christianity is theocentric while Greek thought is egocentric.  The comparison on page 210 will give us a good final synthesis of Nygren’s conclusion.

Eros is acquisitive desire and longing. Agape is sacrificial giving.
Eros is an upward movement. Agape comes down.
Eros is man’s way to God. Agape is God’s way to man.
Eros is man’s effort: it assumes that man’s
salvation is his own work.
Agape is God’s grace: salvation is the work of Divine love.
Eros is an egocentric love, a form of self-assertion of the noblest, sublimest kind. Agape is unselfish love, it “seeketh not its own”, it   itself away.
Eros seeks to gain its life, a life divine, immortalized. Agape lives the life of God, therefore dares to “lose it.”
Eros is primarily man’s love; God is the object of eros. Agape is primarily God’s  love; God is Agape.”
Even when it is attributed to God, Eros is patterned on human love. Even when it is attributed to man, Agape is patterned on Divine love
Eros is determined by the quality, the beauty and worth, of its object; it is not spontaneous but “evoked”, “motivated”. Agape is sovereign in its relation to its object, and is directed to both “the evil and the Good”; it is spontaneous, “overflowing”,  “unmotivated”.
Eros recognizes value in its object-and loves it. Agape loves-and creates value in its object.


(back)     Nygren demonstrates an urge to get rid of the old completely.  Throwing out the old altogether does not seen to fit with Jesus own action and interpretation.  For example the wineskins do appear to be completely new ideas, but it must be noted it is still wine.  The content has not change, there is permanence, though there is an alteration.


(back)     Another area of Nygren’s work which must come under close examination is his Biblical exegesis.  Here is an example.  Though it must be agreed that the connection between love and mercy exist, one must question their combination (above) when the object of the work as a whole is to divide the ideas contain in agape and eros from the idea of love.  Is this adding one other idea that while connected with love should be left separate for further clarity?


(back)     Nygren uses Psalm 103 to support the idea of God’s mercy (love) in the OT was predicated on righteousness (derived here by Nygren from fear).  Nygren then determines that in the NT this love is toward the sinner.  The problem lies in consistency.  For example Jesus says, in Matthew 5:7 μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ ἐλεηθήσονται, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”


(back)     Nygren  hails from a Lutheran school of thought, were grace through faith is a key element.  Those in the reformed tradition consider the doctrine of election to be a key element.  Under the reformed umbrella is the belief that God’s first electing acts was in electing the man Jesus.  If this is true, and there is ample reason to at least give it credence, then worth may not be as removed, as a ideal or romantic mind, may wish to do.


(back)     This parable displays the generosity of the landowner to those who came late.  Though, it must be noted, the giving of God is still toward to those who have worked.  This parable would have fit Nygren’s purpose more if the landowner sent his servant out to provide the wage also to those who would be found outside after the work had been completed.


(back)     This parable is thrust before the reader as if the shepherd had no concern for the sheep that where not lost, when in fact the parable seems to show the desire of the shepherd to place the wondering sheep back in the same fellowship as the those who are not lost.


(back)     Friendship could easily be argued from verses where Jesus refers to His followers as friends.  And it is considerably more persuasive in the light of John 15:13, where Christ declares that there is no greater ἀγάπην, love, a friend can have than to lay down his life, foretelling of the cross which Nygren sees as impossible to separate from love.


(back)     It can not be argued from scripture that the focus of our attention is not to be redirected toward God and then our neighbor.  At the same time there does not seem to be ample reason to do away with self-love.  Self seeking, appetite is spoken against in several places but there is no evidence to support this sweeping injunction against self love.  And if the writer as well as the Spirit wish to make such a statement why not say “instead of yourself” or “as you used to love yourself”.


(back)     To the contrary if we accept the premise that God is uniquely for the sinner then I can see no better motivation than to demonstrate that that love is directed toward sinners than to call one of the foremost persecutors of the church, to move Paul into the public eye, no longer as a persecutor, but as a holy apostle.


(back)     There is absolutely no scripture to back this illusion up.  At best we can say that poor interpretation of the reason for and content of the law leads people away from God.  It is however more correct to say that people are the enemies of God already and that simply trying to obey the law and seeking righteousness move one no closer to God.


(back)     There is no doubt that the cross speaks loud and clear about love, but it speaks just as clearly about the justice and righteousness of a holy God.  Caution needs to be taken before one jumps to the conclusion the God can be put in a box, no matter what the size, bearing either the title love or the cross.


(back)     It is useful to keep in mind that under reformed theology some have placed the obedience of Christ under the broader topic of atonement.  This obedience has both a passive as well as an active side.  The passive side is the side that encompasses the persecution and death of our Lord.  The active side is the side where Christ is seen to fulfill, keep, the law.  As much as one may wish to forget the holy life to which we are called, we must remember that we are to follow Jesus in all things.


(back)     To the contrary , the are a couple of places where Paul speaks of our loving God, Romans 8:28, τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν Θεὸν (to those loving God), and 1 Corinthians 8:3, τις ἀγαπᾷ τὸν Θεόν (anyone loves God).


(back)     Nygren forces a oppositional relationship between love and the gift.  This is an artificial relationship.  Paul considers the gifts to be valuable and desirable.  While it is true that love is to be sought above all else the gifts are also encouraged, this includes the gift of γνῶσις (knowlege)..


(back)     This Corinthian formula is beyond any statement found  in scripture.  By this attack on “truth” Nygren should be seen as resting on less than solid ground, especially when we consider that Jesus predicated Himself with the title truth.


(back)     Nygren brings the clarity and even the validity of John, “the one whom Jesus loved”, into question with the disparaging idea that  John’s inspired writing is influenced by Oriental-Hellenism and dualistic in nature.  This is a serious attack on the content of scripture which is outside the use of this author.  Almost to the extent that we saw in Luther when he questioned whether or not James should exist within the canon.


(back)     This does not even consider the idea that the Eros Motif, as separated by Nygren, could hold some truth concerning the love God contains or has designated for the church.


(back)     Plato’s eros does not only ascend but also descends. “He is by nature neither immortal nor mortal.  But now he springs to life when he gets his way; now he dies – all in the very same day.  Because he is his father’s son, however, he keeps coming back to life…”(Plato, Symposium, 203f).


(back)     “This desire is not something to be obtained – the beloved – but for giving something from itself.” R.A. Markus, “The Dialectic of Eros in Plato’s Symposium”, in Plato: A Collection of Critical essays, ed. Gregory Vlastos (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1971),139.