What are the three types of love and their definitions?

Q. What are the three types of love and their definitions?

Erōs is romantic love that includes sexual attraction.

Philia is friendship love. It is based on a sense of commonality between people, the sense that there is something in each person that “meets” or “matches” the other person.

Agapē is spiritual love. It is God’s love living in a person and pouring out to other people. It is unconditional and freely giving, not based on anything that is in the other person or that is desired from the other person. As Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her stories, it is “love that appears to exist just to be itself.”

The verbs corresponding to each of these nouns already existed in Greek, and the last two were practically interchangeable. For example, Jesus said of the Pharisees that they “love the most important seats.” Luke translates the word “love” in that statement with the verb agapáō, while Matthew translates it with the verb philéō. However, only the first two nouns are attested in Greek literature before the New Testament. The early Christian community apparently coined the term agapē from the verb agapáō to describe a new kind of love, God’s unconditional love, that had not been seen before and so did not have a word to describe it. That usage is reflected in the New Testament.

All three kinds of love are part of God’s plan for a healthy and blessed human life, as long as they (and we need to be especially careful about the first one) are pursued within the framework that God has established for them. But the one we should make the greatest effort to cultivate is agapē. It will also make relationships based on the other two kinds of love that much better.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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