Agape, Eros, Caritas: Love motifs at war

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it. …sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive…

—Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation


Agapē motif: Christ as mirror of the paternal heart

Agapē /ah-GAH-pay/ is the Greek word the New Testament uses for the sacrificial love that motivated the Triune God to reconcile selfish humanity to himself and to pardon all who repent and believe this good news. The Agapē motif is Anders Nygren’s term for what Martin Luther recognized in the Apostles’ Creed as the distinctive core of Christianity:

Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words, wherein consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men. For although the whole world with all diligence has endeavored to ascertain what God is, what He has in mind and does, yet has she never been able to attain to [the knowledge and understanding of] any of these things. But here we have everything in richest measure; for here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love. For He has created us for this very object, that He might redeem and sanctify us; and in addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us even His Son and the Holy Ghost, by whom to bring us to Himself. For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost. These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and separate us Christians from all other people upon earth.

As the Apology of the Augsburg Confession puts it, “Recognition of original sin is a necessity, nor can we know the magnitude of the grace of Christ unless we acknowledge our faults… Properly speaking, the Gospel is the command to believe that we have a gracious God because of Christ” (Article II, ¶33 and Article IV, ¶345, T. G. Tappert). In the classic Agape and Eros, Anders Nygren documents how this central motif of apostolic Christianity was clearly proclaimed by Irenaeus but later obscured by Plato’s Eros motif in the dark ages until the Agapē motif was recovered by the Lutheran Reformation.

The Eros motif: Humanity yearning upwards out of self-love

Platonic Eros, as opposed to vulgar Eros, is the yearning people have for the impersonal Highest Good. It came into conflict with the heavenly Father’s pity for the world below in its expression in Gnosticism and in Origin. The two types of love differ in their basis, direction, and nature.

The Caritas motif: Desiring God out of baptized self-love

Agape and Eros chronicles the course of the love war through the centuries. Roots of such present-day errors as bridal mysticism and Reformed theology lie in the Caritas motif. The Caritas motif is Augustine’s synthesis between the Eros motif and the Agapē motif. According to Caritas, the Christian is not to repent of self-love but rather is to redirect his self-love to what can really satisfy it: the heavenly Bridegroom and his Father. In Caritas’s pure Augustinian form, that is accomplished in a life of meritorious self-denial and humility via grace infused by the Holy Spirit.

On the graphic

As true God (who is Agapē) and true man, Christ “ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God, that he may eternally rule and have dominion over all creatures, that through the Holy Spirit he may sanctify, purify, strengthen, and comfort all who believe in him, that he may bestow on them life and every grace and blessing, and that he may protect and defend them against the devil and against sin” (Augsburg Confession, Article III, T. G. Tappert). The above “Christ enthroned” photo, taken by Lawrence Lew, O.P., is displayed according to its Creative Commons license.

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