John Peckham, summary of Chapter 3, “Agape Verses Eros?: The Biblical Semantics of Divine Love,” from The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Before setting out to delineate the love of God by means of its consistent and wide-ranging attributes as supported in the Canon, Peckham decides first to address the issues surrounding the polysemy and multivalency of the word “love” as it appears in the Scriptures. In so doing, Peckham confronts an exegetical fallacy that unfortunately pervades both popular and, in some cases, academic scholarship concerning theologically charged verbiage in general and “love” in particular. This fallacy is known by Grant Osborne as the lexical fallacy and/or the illegitimate totality transfer and identified by D. A. Carson in his discussion on problems surrounding synonyms and componential analysis. In both of these presentations and in that of Peckham’s, it is concluded that the entire semantic range of any word should not be read into every occurrence of the aforementioned term nor should a particular meaning/nuance in one context be thrust on all other contexts containing the same locution.

Proving this to be true of the word “love” in its many forms (agape, eros, phileo, etc.) is fruitful for Peckham’s broader argument for two reasons. First, if Peckham cannot demonstrate that there is at least some semantic overlap between different canonical terms for love, then he might be required to treat each individual term to its own robust study. Second, proving that there is at least some lexical and semantic parallelism between different terms for love from the beginning will allow Peckham to move more freely within the Canon toward an understanding of divine love without becoming too preoccupied with unnecessary and overly particular lexical exercises which, as mentioned above, have the potential of yielding fallacious conclusions.

The Theological Inflation of Agape over Eros

Perhaps the most popular distinction drawn in this discussion is between agape and eros in which those like Anders Nygren argue that agape pertains to a unilateral beneficence limited to the realm of God’s own volition while eros describes an emotional, acquisitive, and desirous love witnessed within the human race. However as Peckham reveals, agape is used in the Scriptures both positively and negatively to convey a host of meanings ranging from the holy love of God (connotations more in keeping with popular ideas about agape) to fleeting lusts (which is more in keeping with common considerations of eros). Therefore, what Peckham is able to demonstrate seems to undermine the conclusions of Nygren and others of his ilk.

That said, Peckham does concede that with divine agency, the agapao word group only refers to perfect, virtuous love, but not in a lexically limited way. Instead God’s agape love in many contexts involves conditions, evaluations, emotion, and reciprocity. Therefore, to delimit agape to the perfect and yet cold volition of God is to rob it of its nuance, biblically rooted connotations, and the subsequent implications thereof.

The Theological Inflation of Agape over Phileo

A similar phenomenon is witnessed in considerations of agape alongside phileo. Those wearing lexical blinders often conclude that while agape speaks of Christian love witnessed between God and man, phileo connotes a friendly and therefore inferior kind of love that is given and reciprocated between two equals in a relationship. Many in favor of this distinction point to the conversation recorded in John 21 between Jesus and Peter for support.

However, as Peckham points out, the meanings associated with these two terms in the New Testament overlap in nearly every respect as both describe the Father’s love for the Son, God’s love for his disciples, Jesus’ love for sinners, mankind’s love for Christ, human love for other humans, and love of one’s own life. Additionally, similar conditions are often involved in contexts containing both agape and phileo, as are emotions and reciprocity.

For the reasons described above, Peckham concurs with Carson in concluding that there is no biblically supported rule that ultimately or completely isolates agape love to the realm of God and limits his affection to volitional and emotionless beneficence. The best proof of this is witnessed in the obvious semantic overlap between agape, eros, and phileo.

The Wider Semantics of Love in the Scripture

The same can be said of words used for “love” in the Old Testament. For instance אָהֵב (the forerunner of agape) with divine agency always connotes perfect love. With this in mind, Eugene Merrill (as Nygren has done with agape) delimits אָהֵב to a unilaterally willed and unconditional kind of love—the kind demonstrated most succinctly in arbitrary election. However, Peckham argues that while love might serve as a basis for election, the two are not pure synonyms. In fact, according to Old Testament usage, אָהֵב is evaluative rather than the result of arbitrary choice. Elsewhere, God expects אָהֵב from human beings (albeit not symmetrically) for having bestowed אָהֵב on them.  Not only that, but Peckham shows that אָהֵב is decidedly emotional in certain contexts as well.

חסד ( “steadfast love and mercy”) is also understood by many to be relatively singular in meaning—denoting the relational love of God that allows for his loyalty and mercy. However, even this term is multifaceted. Occurring primarily in contexts dealing with God’s covenant with His people, חסד includes a voluntary (volitional) act toward another that is unmerited and yet not altogether unconditional (as it may be forfeited and withdrawn). חסד also naturally assumes responsiveness from those to whom it is bestowed (reciprocity).

Finally, רחמ (and New Testament counterparts pertaining to compassionate love) is also teaming with potential meanings and nuances. Though primarily רחמ is used in referring to intense emotional love, its reception is often described in the Old Testament as contingent on the maintenance of an ongoing divine-human relationship (foreconditional).


Peckham has thus been able to demonstrate that biblical words for love are not nearly as distinct as they are often presumed to be and that they share many of the same attributes (volition, evaluation, emotion, forecondition, and reciprocation)—especially in contexts dealing with God’s love for the world. This study is well positioned to develop its understanding of divine love on a canonical level without having to delimit itself to or preoccupy itself with overly reductionist lexical studies.


Image: By Joan de Joanes -, Public Domain