Rediscovering Agape Love: Why the Reformation Is Not Over
By Michael Peabody, July 23, 2014
This article is based on the author’s panel presentation at the Pepperdine University School of Law Conference on Love and Law, February 2014. Original presentation title: The Impossibility of Imposed Love: Separation of Church and State and the Formation of a Truly Loving Society.”
Agape love is the central premise of Protestant Christian theology. According to The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, “Luther’s rediscovery of the primacy of agape was the linchpin of the Reformation and the rediscovery of genuine Christian ethics.” (See G. Meilaender and W. Werpehowski, The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, 2007, p. 456.)
Many confuse the concept of agape love with the concept of caritas, or charity, but these are two separate ideas. The concept of agape love is the love of God reaching down to save humanity through grace, while caritas is about humans reaching upward toward God through works.
In Greek philosophy, the gods were distanced from humanity because the gods must remain absolutely perfect and if they even had knowledge of humans and their imperfections it could corrupt them. So the Greeks believed that the primary god (the a priori divine origin of the soul), in order to remain perfect, had set the universe in motion and completely forgot about Earth so that god would have no knowledge of evil. Knowledge of evil would corrupt the perfection of god.
Yet the Greeks reasoned that there was a natural affinity that the soul had for the divine home from where it came, and Plato (428–347 BC) called this longing “heavenly eros.” Humanity could only ascend upward to god, but god was stationary and unknowable.
Since the soul had its origin in god, humans were basically good by nature. They could fulfill their natural affinity for god by doing good works and advance to more of a god-like state upon reincarnation. The loving desire for god that made people want to escape the earth and ascend directly to god was called heavenly eros.
Ascending through reincarnation could be accomplished through good works, sacrifices, and religious devotion. At the highest level of heavenly eros, Plato philosophized that all motivation would be free of the hindrances of the material world and the soul could be perfected through intellectual contemplation.
The Greeks believed that the highest form of heavenly eros on earth would be if one was willing to sacrifice life itself for his or her friends, and they illustrated this love through the fable of the good king Admetus and his wife Alcestis. In the story, Admetus was told that he would die and that he could only survive if a virtuous man or woman would take his place. So he went to his elderly parents who felt sorry for him but they refused to die because they loved their own lives more than they loved him. His brothers and sisters similarly declined. Even a sick person at the brink of death refused. Finally Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, agreed to die for him. She cried out to the god Apollo that the people needed such a good king. So she sacrificed herself for Admetus, and in pity the gods gave her a new life. (See Thomas Bulfinch, Age of Fable: Vols. I and II: Stories of Gods and Heroes, 1913).
For the Greeks, this idea of dying for one’s friends was the ultimate expression of love.
In sharp contrast to the Greek belief in dualistic perfection, where the best humanity can achieve is a shadow of divine perfection, the Christian God not only has knowledge of sin, but God Himself becomes “sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV. Instead of exacting revenge for the painful crucifixion, in the midst of the execution, Jesus called for divine forgiveness, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The Christian belief that the a priori God would have full knowledge of humanity was completely foreign to Greek thought and must have seemed delusional. Paul wrote that the Christian doctrine of God descending to become an actual human was foolishness to the Greeks and was offensive to the Jewish people (see 1 Corinthians 1:21–23).
Where Greek philosophy taught that one could ascend toward god through good works and religious devotion, Christ made Himself the direct pathway to salvation, saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 (NIV). God is not unknowable, but is desperately seeking to commune with human beings. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20 (NIV).
The love that Jesus called His followers to was vastly deeper than the divine love described by the Greeks. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus calls His followers to “Love your enemies.” This was not simply a pithy aphorism but a commandment. In a larger context, Jesus differentiates this command from the teachings of the time. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:44–46 NIV)
The concept that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” 1 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV), was the foundation of the New Testament notion of agape love. The early church would periodically have agape meals to commemorate the Eucharist, or Self-sacrificing descent of God to humanity and subsequent divine invitation to participate with Him in the resurrection and ascension. Christians believed that it was not the nails, but the agape love of God that held Jesus on the cross and that once resurrected, believers would be reunited with Christ eternally as the human longing to be with God, or heavenly eros, was surpassed by the love of Christ for humanity.
Three centuries after the Ascension, Augustine of Hippo, who was well versed in persistent Greek philosophy and Christianity, developed a hybrid of Christian and Greek thought. Augustine believed the Greek concept that in order for the soul to be purified, the person must do good works and ascend toward God.
Good works would be done, not only because they were good in the agape sense, but because humans would benefit by obtaining an eternal reward. Augustine took the Platonic concept of heavenly eros and merged it with the Christian concept of agape love and called it “caritas,” or charity. (Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren wrote extensively on this development in his book Eros and Agape (published in 1930 and 1936).
Caritas is Latin for loving-kindness, or charity. According to Nygren, caritas is needs-based and desire-based, egocentric and acquisitive love. It is self-interested in that it is intended to acquire and possess. In contrast, Nygren describes agape as spontaneous, unconditional, centered on God (theocentric), self-giving, and self-sacrificial. Agape will lead one to surrender love to another and love them purely for themselves. (See Alan Vincellete, ‘Introduction’, in Pierre Rousselot, The Problem of Love in the Middle Ages: A Historical Contribution (Marquette University Press, 1998, p. 111.)
Augustine believed that humans could work their way back to God, and that God’s mercy would be in the form of the will to do good in order to accomplish this task. However, the Bible consistently says that all are sinners, and even Paul, who focused his early career on persecuting Christians before his conversion, would be saved. “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).
In order to answer the question of how sinners could be saved, the Catholic Church developed the concept of purgatory, which is a temporary form of hell for those who die in friendship with God but are still not perfected. The purpose of purgatory is analogous to Plato’s idea of reincarnation.
Augustine’s influence on the church was so great that salvation was soon connected with an economy of works for those who did not want to face eternal torment and wanted to minimize their experience in purgatory. People travelled to see relics, bought indulgences, and participated in the Crusades, among many other works. In fact, since salvation could be imposed externally, Augustine went so far as to see value in torture as bringing about salvation.
“It is indeed better (as no one ever could deny) that men should be led to worship God by teaching, than that they should be driven to it by fear of punishment or pain; but it does not follow that because the former course produces the better men, therefore those who do not yield to it should be neglected. For many have found advantage (as we have proved, and are daily proving by actual experiment), in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that they might afterwards be influenced by teaching, or might follow out in act what they had already learned in word.” (See Augustine, “The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists.”)
Ultimately, the Church, because of a caritas-based love for the eternal soul, reasoned that it was better to force somebody to change their mind on faith by force than let them go to hell, so torture mechanisms were designed to keep people alive for as long as possible to provide more opportunity for their salvation.
Because of the many torture mechanisms invented by the Church to bring heretics to confession and repentance while prolonging life, the invention of the guillotine in 1792 during the French Revolution was actually considered to be a quick and merciful type of execution.
In 1511, Martin Luther was climbing the Scala Sancta (or Holy Stairs) on his knees. He had tried many things to earn the forgiveness of God and continually felt that he fell far short and would be sent to hell or lengthy torment in purgatory. According to Reformation lore, as he climbed, he was struck by the words of Hebrews 10:30 that “the just shall live by faith.”
Luther then began to preach that justification was entirely the work of God, and that righteousness is entirely outside of human effort. It was the righteousness of Christ which is imputed to humans, rather than infused, through faith. Luther reasoned that the only love that humans could really generate was egocentric, or acquisitive love, which is at its best, charity. The love revealed in Christ, agape, was the love that gives.
Luther dispensed with the need for intermediaries between God and humans – humans did not need a Pope or an Emperor to declare them saved. Humans were saved through faith alone. In his Definition of Faith, Luther wrote, “That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law. Faith is that which brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ.”
Nygren wrote, “The very same thing which made [Luther] a reformer in the matter of justification, made him also the reformer of the Christian idea of love.” (Nygren, 683).
Luther reversed Augustine’s concepts of love. “In Augustine, the issue between Eros and Agape is decided in favour of synthesis; in Luther, in favor of reformation. Augustine unites two motifs in the Caritas-synthesis; Luther shatters that synthesis.” (Nygren, 692. See also Werner G. Jeanrod, A Theology of Love (210, p. 117–118).
Government, even Christian-based government, cannot truly express agape love. Governments are expected to act in their own best interest in all matters, including both domestic and foreign policy. Even the best ideas are generally done in self-interest. There are examples of self-less, agape activity by governments but they are few and far between.
Christian theocracies are no different. John Calvin, himself a reformer, had a repressive government in Geneva, where he had tried to create a sin-free environment and was unsuccessful. As J.B. Galiffe wrote, “never before did immorality take hold and spread as it did in the period of Calvin’s government.”
Calvin’s Geneva had arisen in the shadow of the Inquisition, and even Protestants adopted the same torture methods. For instance, Protestants in England persecuted their own religious dissidents, who were hung, drawn and quartered, and tied to posts in the ocean and left to drown as the tide came in. Even Luther’s beliefs about justification did not prevent his diatribes against the Jews and his support of a brutal suppression of the peasants who revolted against the princes who had protected him.
Yet, where early Protestantism failed to fully grasp the concept of agape love and the fact that one cannot be compelled by force to believe, agape love began to take hold of Protestant thought and found its first full expression in the New World.
The United States is one of the few nations which have succeeded in preserving religious freedom, and it is based on the fact that there are two foundations upon which the government is based – Protestantism and the rule of law.
Under Protestantism, there is a “priesthood of all believers,” and each can relate to God on his or her terms. The state or the church does not need to mediate that relationship, and is not put in a position of compelling worship.
Under the rule of law, there is no “divine right of kings.” Instead, there is a document, the U.S. Constitution, which provides that there is no state church to set the tone for the law, or hierarchies based on familial heritage.
Daniel Elazar describes the benefits of these dimensions of liberty and equality. “1) self-government, that is to say, meaningful participation of individual citizens in the establishment of the polity in which they live and in its subsequent governance; 2) pluralism, that is to say, the right of every individual to develop for him or herself a way of life and a set of beliefs and opinions appropriate to it, consistent with agreed upon common norms, and to live accordingly, with minimum interference on the part of others, including and especially, on the part of government.” (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs1)
The development away from theocracy and toward democracy was influenced significantly by Roger Williams, whose beliefs in liberty of conscience led to the formation of Rhode Island, which was one of the first places in the world where government promoted the freedom to choose to believe or not to believe without official interference.
Williams forcefully spoke out against forced worship, which he said “stinks in the nostrils of God.” He also said that the Emperor Constantine had been a worse enemy to true Christianity than Nero, because Constantine’s support corrupted Christianity and led to the death of the Christian Church. Williams described the attempt to compel belief as rape of the soul and spoke of the “oceans of blood” shed as a result of trying to “command conformity.”
Williams contrasted salvation by force with the working of the Holy Spirit. “True it is, the Sword may make (as once the Lord complained, Isaiah 10) a whole Nation of Hypocrites: But to recover a Soule from Satan by repentance, and to bring them from Antichristian doctrine or worship, to the doctrine of worship Christian, in the least true internal or external submission, that only works the All-powerful God, by the sword of the Spirit in the hand of Spiritual officers.” – The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for the Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference Between Truth and Peace, p. 80
Later, Thomas Jefferson, like Williams, used the metaphor of a wall separating church and state, and this concept was enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In recent months, many have been pointing to what may be an emerging reconciliation between Catholicism and Protestants, and saying that the Reformation is over – the Catholic Church now agrees with Luther on justification. But there are still significant differences that remain, although the arguments seem much tamer now, with civil discourse rather than violence. But the ultimate dispute of the mechanics of salvation, and a fundamental understanding that Christ descended to humanity so that we might ascend with Him rather than the need to reach heaven through building platforms of good works, remains unresolved.
As R. C. Sproul pointed out in a recent essay on the subject, “In the final analysis, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed at Trent and continues to affirm now that the basis by which God will declare a person just or unjust is found in one’s ‘inherent righteousness.’ If righteousness does not inhere in the person, that person at worst goes to hell and at best (if any impurities remain in his life) goes to purgatory for a time that may extend to millions of years. In bold contrast to that, the biblical and Protestant view of justification is that the sole grounds of our justification is the righteousness of Christ, which righteousness is imputed to the believer, so that the moment a person has authentic faith in Christ, all that is necessary for salvation becomes theirs by virtue of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
“The fundamental issue is this: is the basis by which I am justified a righteousness that is my own? Or is it a righteousness that is, as Luther said, “an alien righteousness,” a righteousness that is extra nos, apart from us — the righteousness of another, namely, the righteousness of Christ? From the sixteenth century to the present, Rome has always taught that justification is based upon faith, on Christ, and on grace. The difference, however, is that Rome continues to deny that justification is based on Christ alone, received by faith alone, and given by grace alone. The difference between these two positions is the difference between salvation and its opposite. There is no greater issue facing a person who is alienated from a righteous God.” 2
As Sproul writes, the models of salvation proposed by Protestantism and Catholicism remain fundamentally incompatible. For some, Protestantism may seem to promote “cheap grace” and Catholicism offers a form of substantive retribution for evil acts performed on earth. But that concept is a hybrid of Greek thought and Christian thought which downplays the Self-less agape love of Christ. This is not to negate the value of good works, as all people should seek to do good for others, and good works serve as evidence of salvation because they stem from Christ, the Source of good works. The best in human righteousness is as ‘filthy rags’ and we cannot do anything without Christ, but ‘with Him all things are possible,’ including good works.
As all are sinners who deserve eternal death but for the mercy offered at the cross, Protestants believe that there is very little to differentiate the good from the bad on earth. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus tells a story about a farm where all the workers were paid the same wages regardless of how long they had worked that day. One of the workers complained, and the owner of the vineyard told him, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:13–16 (NIV).
And that’s okay.
Michael Peabody is an attorney and publishes Religious Liberty TV by Email and at www.religiousliberty.tv on the Web. This article was published by Adventist Today with the author's permission.