C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves, dealing with the four classical loves, usually spoken of by their Greek names, Eros, Storge, Philia, and Agape. Those of us who have grown up in evangelical churches have probably heard of at least two.
Although only two of these actual words (Philia and Agape) show up in the Bible, all four kinds of love are there. In this post, I want to define each of these terms, point to examples of them in Scripture, and exhort the reader to practice them in a godly way.
Eros love in the Bible
Starting with Eros, we must note that the term doesn’t show up in Scripture. And yet, ἔρως (romantic, sexual love) is a good gift of God to human beings, as the Bible makes plain. One of the most pleasing stories of a marriage in Scripture doesn’t ever mention love. This is the story of Boaz and Ruth. We may think we see romantic love in certain places, such as in Ruth’s choice to pursue Boaz rather than younger men, or in Boaz’s kind offer to let her glean in his field. But the text is silent on their emotions toward each other except in the approval they express of each other’s character.
We know that Jacob loved Rachel, and we can hope that she loved him in return. But their union was hard-won, and though blessing came of it, a lot of sorrow came as well. Romantic love is not the focus here either. We are told in Judges 16:4 that Samson fell in love with Delilah. Amnon, apparently “loved” (ESV) or “fell in love with” (NIV) his half-sister Tamar (1 Samuel 13). But his lustful obsession, dishonorable conduct, and hatred for her subsequent to violating her all indicate that it was not really love, but base lust. Beyond the occasional nod to love like this in the narratives, the Old Testament is short on Eros.
However, there are two marvelous examples of human romantic love in the Old Testament. The first is found in the Song of Solomon. This poem, called the greatest song (Song of Songs) is a love dialogue between a man and woman, praising and wooing each other and recounting the highlights of their love. A chorus of other women sings as well, most notably to ask the woman what is so special about her beloved that they should help her seek him. Although this poem has a long history in Judaism and Christianity of being allegorized to speak of God and his people, more recent scholarship has seen that the work is first and foremost an erotic (Eros-driven, romantic) one. If any allegorical meaning is there, it is secondary.
The second example is perhaps more glorious even than the Song of Solomon; this is the story of Hosea and Gomer. Hosea is a prophet told by God to marry a loose woman, who eventually embraces full prostitution. Every time she cheats on and rejects him, Hosea, led by God, keeps her and provides for her and her children fathered by other men, even though she does not know it. This is all for the sake of showing God’s relation to Israel—that of a faithful loving husband continually spit on by his faithless bride. And this leads us to the greatest love story of the Old Testament: God’s love for Israel, His chosen people, His child, His future bride.
In the New Testament, this story is filled out and colored in, and we see God the husband come down in human form and die for His wayward bride. She, the Church, is now free from the shackles of her former captor and enemy, Satan. Though she is still subject to his attacks and harassments, she is no longer under his ravaging control or destined to stay with him. Her husband and king, the Lord Jesus, will one day return as a conqueror and finally defeat Satan and bring his bride to a perfect palace, a garden city. There she will at last say, “The king has brought me into his chambers” (Song of Solomon 1:4).
Storge love in the Bible
It’s evident that more than just Eros is present in God’s love for His church. Storge (Affection as Lewis calls it) is there too. Στοργή is familial affection, the kind that comes from kinship or close contact. It can be felt for a pet as much as for a family member or regular acquaintance. (We can feel it for friends too, but friendship is its own thing which I will address below.) God feels this for us insofar as He is our Parent and we His adopted children.
God said to Israel, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the son of her womb? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15). The Psalmist says in Psalm 27:10, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.” In Exodus 4:22 God says, “Israel is my firstborn son”. Jesus looks on Jerusalem and speaks the words of God to his people in Matthew 23:37: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling!” This kind of love is one that we are supposed to imitate toward God and toward certain other people, but we should not expect to feel it for everyone. The love we should feel for everyone is Agape.
Agape love in the Bible
We can see in some of the above verses not just familial affection, but examples of what we would call God’s perfect Agape love. Some overlap is certainly there between Agape and Storge, but we need to clarify what Agape is, because it has been greatly misunderstood. Ἀγάπη is not unconditional love. God’s love, like all his dealings with humans, has conditions. The Israelites were told, “If you listen to these ordinances and keep them carefully, the LORD your God will keep His covenant with loving devotion, as He swore to your fathers.” (Deuteronomy 7:12. See also Deuteronomy 28:1, Leviticus 26:3, Exodus 23:25.) As for us, to be saved and counted in Christ, we must confess with our mouths that He is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9).
We are also told to bear fruit and examine ourselves to see if we are in Christ (2 Corinthians 13:5); so, our assurance is conditional upon our works, although our salvation is not. But there is a righteousness of sanctification “without which no on will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Paul himself says he disciplines his body so that he will “not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). These verses all reveal the conditional nature of our relationship to God. Now, the Bible is also clear that nothing will separate God’s chosen ones from Him, no matter what (Romans 8:38). I am not in any way denying that. But we must understand the whole word of God, and see how the conditional verses relate to verses about our secure position in God’s love.
So if Agape is not unconditional love, what kind of love is it? To answer that, we need to look at a Hebrew word for love: Hesed, as it’s transliterated into English. This is God’s steadfast, covenantal care for his people. Dr. Del Tackett has defined it well as a “steadfast, sacrificial zeal for the true good of another.” This, I think, is also an apt definition of Agape. It is the deepest, purest kind of love, unconcerned for self. The main difference between Hesed and Agape is that Hesed seems to be one-way, God-to-human, whereas Agape can go both ways between man and God, and person to person. And it’s such a powerful love that it’s easily, though mistakenly, described as unconditional.
I suspect that this is due to Paul’s use of the word in 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” However, we understand this, it can’t affect the many verses describing how we are saved, which is through belief and repentance. And at the same time, we must affirm that God loves His Son and those of us who are in His Son—His bride—unendingly, incorruptibly, unchangingly, and forever. There is a tension here, to be sure.
We find Agape throughout Scripture. Of course, it’s all over the Love Chapter. It’s clearly seen in the sacrificial love of parents for children, such as Jochebed’s for Moses or Jairus’ for his daughter. It’s evident in the care shown by the Macedonian churches for their hurting brothers elsewhere. They gave generously even in the midst of their own afflictions (2 Corinthians 8:2). But most of all, we see Agape love in Christ on the cross, giving Himself up for His enemies. Nothing more selflessly loving can be imagined. When Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” he used the word agape. (John 15:13)
Philia love in the Bible
What of the last Greek word for love? Φιλία is the love of friendship, often called brotherly love. Its opposite is called phobia. Something hydrophilic is something which mixes with or is attracted to water, while something hydrophobic is something which repels or doesn’t mix with water. So with humans: we just mix with and are attracted to certain people, and become fast friends with them. This is not an affection that comes from kinship or long contact. This is the kind of love that is voluntarily acted upon; you don’t choose your family, but you do choose your friends.
Lewis argues that in most cases, a shared interest or viewpoint or activity fosters the growth of friendship. Lovers, in Eros, stand face to face, wrapped up in each other, while friends stand side by side, wrapped up in the same third thing—God’s word, politics, art, a sport. Of course, friends also have interest in each other, but, at least among men, this is usually secondary to the shared thing.
In Romans 12:10, Paul urges us to be devoted to one another (literally, be ‘family-lovers’ of one another, using storge) in brotherly Philia. James (in 4:4) says that whoever would be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God. The first example of powerful friend love that came to my mind for this section was that of David and Johnathan. 1 Samuel 18:1 says that their souls were “knit together”. In that John 15:13 verse, Jesus says greater agape has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Agape shows up in Philia too. This is a high honor that Jesus pays to friendship; in it we are capable of the greatest kind of love, shown in self-sacrifice. This is exactly what Jesus did. He said to His disciples (and to all who believe in Him, even today) “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Jesus lived out His own words of two verses earlier when He died on the cross for us, for His friends.
Of course, all the loves bleed into each other and overlap in some ways. Some can be present simultaneously in certain relationships. I would argue that Agape is needed in some measure in every relationship of love. Eros, Storge, and Philia, to be true loves, need Agape. In a strict definitional sense, we can isolate what makes each of the four distinct and get at its essence. But in practice, I think at least two of the four either will be present at all times, or should be.
In whatever you do in your life, as you go through each day, you will be living on, observing, or receiving at least one of these four loves. They are inescapable parts of life and blessings from God. More importantly, they are reflections of His divine nature. God Himself, after all, is love (1 John 4:8). Let us be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1) and love all those around us, following His great example.