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(Gr. = “love”; technically “love feast” in Jude 12). The communal religious meal or “love feast” of the early church, closely associated with the Lord's Supper. The fullest account occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Normally held in the afternoon, rich and poor met together for the occasion. Ignatius and the Didache join Agape and Eucharist together, but during the second century they were separated, as Pliny apparently implies (Epp. 10:96). Tertullian linked the Agape with monetary contributions for poor relief (Apology 39) and speaks of the Eucharist as celebrated before daylight (De Corona Militis 3). Clement of Alexandria still associated the two, held in the evening, publicly at church and privately at home (Paedagogus 2). To Augustine it was just a charity supper, and it fell into disuse. The Trullan Council (692) excommunicated those holding love feasts in churches. It has persisted in sections of the Orthodox Church, in the Mar Thoma Church in India, in the Unitas Fratrum and the Moravians (whence John Wesley introduced it to Methodism), and among small groups like the “Peculiar People.”

AGAPE ä gä’ pā, ἀγάπη, G27, is one NT word for love. It appears in the Johannine definition (1 John 4:8), “God is love.” It is that love demanded of man by the law of God and for man’s neighbor, whom man must love “as himself.” Agapé is, therefore, the fulfillment of the law as it relates to both God and fellow man (Matt 22:40); and of the trio “faith, hope and love,” agapé is the greatest (1 Cor 13:13). Agapé is also the power that overcomes evil.

To this Biblical data must be added: the NT has a second word for love (ιλέω). While the NT does not use, and the OT has no direct counterpart for ερος, both Testaments do recognize erotic love. In view of all this Biblical data, it is neither surprising that the Bible has much to say about love nor that the mystery of love spills over the limits of the best definitions of love.

The Heb., as does the Eng. language, has only one word for love (אָהַב, H170), and this word, as does love in Eng. usage, has a rich variety of meanings. While the NT with its two words for love, makes finer distinctions of meaning, even in the NT the distinctions are blurred in actual usage so that the meanings of each overlap. It is in the imprecise usage that the true meanings of love, particularly of agapé and eros, appear in Biblical thought. Any rigid categorization or definition of agapé and eros, in which the one excludes the other, distorts the Biblical meaning of each as well as their peculiar relationship.

Anders Nygren’s brilliant book, Agapé and Eros, is a case that illustrates this point. Nygren defines eros as it appears in Gr. thought: eros is desire in search of satisfaction. Eros seeks its object in order to satisfy its own hunger. Eros seeks its object for the worth and value it has for its own self-fulfillment. Unlike agapé, eros seeks its own.

In sharp contrast to this, Nygren sees the peculiar and distinctive character of agapé in the NT teaching that God is agapé and reveals His agapé in His self-giving redemptive love for sinners. Agapé loves the unlovely and the unworthy; it is, therefore, neither elicited nor motivated by the loveliness or worth of its object. Agapé seeks not its own (1 Cor 13:5), but the good of its object, however unlovely. While eros is motivated by what its object can do for it, agapé is motivated by what it can do for its object. Eros seeks its object for the delight it proffers; agapé loves though it sees nothing of delight in its object.

This sharp distinction between agapé and eros does not comport with all the Biblical data. In Biblical teaching God the Father has “agapic” love for His eternal Son; men are summoned to have agapé for God and for each other—a summons that Nygren tries to temper by the claim that the NT demands faith rather than love. His insistence that agapé excludes a motivating delight in its object creates a difficulty for him in terms of the demand that one love one’s neighbor “as oneself,” and leads him to estimate the insistence of the Johannine epistles that one ought to love the “brethren” but not “the world” as a departure from the authentic NT meaning of agapé. In Biblical usage agapé, both regarding God and man, extends to the righteous as well as the sinners, to the lovely as well as the unlovely and to those who love only those who love them (Luke 6:32). It is an expression both for man’s love for God, and the Father’s love for the Son, and thus describes that delight which the one finds in the other because of what the other is.

Biblical thought does not endorse an agapé which excludes eros, but one which allows for an erotic love that sees value, and takes delight, in its object. Eros in Biblical thought is an expression for mutuality; the lover finds delight in this love. While the Heb. has no word for “sex,” the OT gives erotic love a positive and noble role. Eros celebrates life in general, and bodily life in particular. Sexual differentiation, and the erotic love of husband and wife, are an expression of the image of God in which man was created (Gen 1:27). The marital bond is an expression of both agapé and eros. In it there is both self-giving and self-fulfillment. The sexual relationship is an image of God’s covenant relationship to His people; Jehovah is the husband and Israel His wife; similarly Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride—and His Body. Consequently, Hosea in his peculiar marriage, uses erotic love as a representation of God’s experience with Israel. The Song of Solomon is plainly a celebration of erotic love; even the attempts to spiritualize the Song as a celebration of Christ’s love for the Church must acknowledge that the celebration is expressed in terms of eros. In Biblical thought eros is open to profound corruption, but it is also open to redemption and is recognized as an essential part of man’s being. Eros is never surrendered to the selfishly-centered connotation of eros in Gr. thought, where it is ultimately sacrificed for an unbodied spirituality.

The clue to the validity of eros, and of its relationship with agapé, is found in the freedom of God to express and share Himself as agapé in creation, election, covenant-making, and redemption. Eros is an expression of the freedom of God to desire to create a world and to take delight in that which He has created. God is free to impart existence and worth to an object and then to love it and take delight in it because of its worth. This divine giving to an object, and the divine love for and delight in this worth of the object, is an expression of divine eros. For God, too, eros is an expression of mutuality and self-giving, of the celebration of and delight in, bodily life and created reality, and this comes to expression in the Biblical doctrines of covenant-making, election, and redemption. Agapé alone does not explain the Biblical view of any of these divine actions. It is agapé plus eros which comes to expression in that freedom of the divine good-pleasure to create and redeem, and to find and take delight in what is created and redeemed.

Nygren’s mutually exclusive definition of eros and agapé, eros as selfish self-seeking love and agapé as God’s love for only the unlovely, excludes that love, delight and good pleasure which God has in creation as such, that neighbor love that demands a love for the neighbor as for one’s self, and that divine love expressed in God’s election in which God loves the sinner and delights in the Christian as a good and righteous man. God’s agapé embraces sinners but does not exclude that eros in which God loves the righteous (Ps 73:1), hates all the workers of iniquity (5:5), and takes delight in what is righteous and good and lovely for the very reason that they are such. Without eros, agapé renders creation and its redemption absolutely necessary, or projects them as realities bereft of real worth. It is only when agapé and eros are understood in their peculiar relatedness, that creation, election, redemption become meaningful and not arbitrary, and both agapé and eros become an essential part of man’s total life and being. See Love.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. The Name and the Thing:

2. Origin of the Agape:

So far as the Jerusalem community was concerned, the common meal appears to have sprung out of the koinonia or communion that characterized the first days of the Christian church (compare Ac 1:14; 2:1 etc.). The religious meals familiar to Jews--the Passover being the great type--would make it natural In Jerusalem to give expression by means of table fellowship to the sense of brotherhood, and the community of goods practiced by the infant church (Ac 2:44; 4:32) would readily take the particular form of a common table at which the wants of the poor were supplied out of the abundance of the rich (Ac 6:1 ff). The presence of the Agape in the Greek church of Corinth was no doubt due to the initiative of Paul, who would hand on the observances associated with the Lord’s Supper just as he had received them from the earlier disciples; but participation in a social meal would commend itself very easily to men familiar with the common meals that formed a regular part of the procedure at meetings of those religious clubs and associations which were so numerous at that time throughout the Greek-Roman world.

3. Relation to the Eucharist:

In the opinion of the great majority of scholars the Agape was a meal at which not only bread and wine but all kinds of viands were used, a meal which had the double purpose of satisfying hunger and thirst and giving expression to the sense of Christian brotherhood. At the end of this feast, bread and wine were taken according to the Lord’s command, and after thanksgiving to God were eaten and drunk in remembrance of Christ and as a special means of communion with the Lord Himself and through Him with one another. The Agape was thus related to the Eucharist as Christ’s last Passover to the Christian rite which He grafted upon it. It preceded and led up to the Eucharist, and was quite distinct from it. In opposition to this view it has been strongly urged by some modern critical scholars that in the apostolic age the Lord’s Supper was not distinguished from the Agape, but that the Agape itself from beginning to end was the Lord’s Supper which was held in memory of Jesus. It seems fatal to such an idea, however, that while Paul makes it quite evident that bread and wine were the only elements of the memorial rite instituted by Jesus (1Co 11:23-29), the abuses which had come to prevail at the social gatherings of the Corinthian church would have been impossible in the case of a meal consisting only of bread and wine (compare 1Co 11:21,33 f) Moreover, unless the Eucharist in the apostolic age had been discriminated from the common meal, it would be difficult to explain how at a later period the two could be found diverging from each other so completely.

4. Separation from the Eucharist:

In the Didache (circa 100 AD) there is no sign as yet of any separation. The direction that the second Eucharistic prayer should be offered "after being filled" (x.1) appears to imply that a regular meal had immediately preceded the observance of the sacrament. In the Ignatian Epistles (circa 110 AD) the Lord’s Supper and the Agape are still found in combination (Ad Smyrn viii.2). It has sometimes been assumed that Pliny’s letter to Trajan (circa 112 AD) proves that the separation had already taken place, for he speaks of two meetings of the Christians in Bithynia, one before the dawn at which they bound themselves by a "sacramentum" or oath to do no kind of crime, and another at a later hour when they partook of food of an ordinary and harmless character (Ep x.96). But as the word "sacramentum" cannot be taken here as necessarily or even probably referring to the Lord’s Supper, the evidence of this passage is of little weight. When we come to Justin Martyr (circa 150 AD) we find that in his account of church worship he does not mention the Agape at all, but speaks of the Eucharist as following a service which consisted of the reading of Scripture, prayers and exhortation (Apol, lxvii); so that by his time the separation must have taken place. Tertullian (circa 200 AD) testifies to the continued existence of the Agape (Apol, 39), but shows clearly that in the church of the West the Eucharist was no longer associated with it (De Corona, 3). In the East the connection appears to have been longer maintained (see Bigg, Christian Platonists of Alexandria, 102 ff), but by and by the severance became universal; and though the Agape continued for long to maintain itself as a social function of the church, it gradually passed out of existence or was preserved only as a feast of charity for the poor.

5. Reasons for the Separation:

Various influences appear to have cooperated in this direction. Trajan’s enforcement of the old law against clubs may have had something to do with it (compare Pliny as above), but a stronger influence probably came from the rise of a popular suspicion that the evening meals of the church were scenes of licentious revelry and even of crime. The actual abuses which already meet us in the apostolic age (1Co 11:20 ff; Jude 1:12), and which would tend to multiply as the church grew in numbers and came into closer contact with the heathen world, might suggest the advisability of separating the two observances. But the strongest influence of all would come from the growth of the ceremonial and sacerdotal spirit by which Christ’s simple institution was slowly turned into a mysterious priestly sacrifice. To Christ Himself it had seemed natural and fitting to institute the Supper at the close of a social meal. But when this memorial Supper had been transformed into a repetition of the sacrifice of Calvary by the action of the ministering priest, the ascetic idea became natural that the Eucharist ought to be received fasting, and that it would be sacrilegious to link it on to the observances of an ordinary social meal.

LITERATURE: Zahn, art "Agapen" in Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie; Keating, Agape and Eucharist; Schaff, The Oldest Church Manual, chapter xviii; Lambert, Sacraments in the New Testament, Lect viii; Weizsacker, The Apostolic Age, etc., I. 52 ff.