The culturally accepted uses of the word "Love" seem to be a trite shadow of its biblical meaning. Common use of "Love" is now interchangeable with "Like," "Enjoy," or "Emotionally attachment" of something. That is very different from what the virtue the Bible describes it to be:

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13 ends by stating that Love is greater than Faith or Hope.

Surely faith and hope are greater than a momentary enjoyment such as a tasty dinner item that we often describe as something we "love."

Therefore I ask, what is to be done about this discrepancy?

Should the word "love" be replaced with another word or words?

The closest thing I could think of was "brotherly affection."

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    Brotherly Affection would imply philo whereas the passage is agapo Godly affection. Feb 2, 2012 at 17:20
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    I recently found an interesting article on the topic. It points out: "In every language, the meaning of synonyms overlap so that for one thing, typically more than one word can be used. At the same time, words have flavours, hardly ever are they exact synonyms." The one exception is when words are used in very technical contexts such as philosophy and science. Feb 16, 2012 at 7:53
  • @Jon Ericson, any idea where this article could be found these days? I realize the post is a couple years old....the link seems to be defunct. I don't read German so forgive me if this is obvious.
    – Susan
    May 30, 2014 at 14:00
  • @Susan: There's still a copy in the Wayback Machine. May 30, 2014 at 16:49
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    By this reasoning, 'Jesus' and 'God' could go because they're common curse words. If a word needs replacing because it's completely outdated (eg, some of the KJV words), ok - but I don't think the fact that 'love' can have such trite applications means that it's ready to be tossed out. A case can be made that the NT injected meaning into ἀγάπη that hadn't been there prior; "love" is still so commonly used that the task is merely one of re-focussing it (contra the aforementioned KJV terms that have completely fallen out of use). Nov 12, 2015 at 10:58

4 Answers 4


Sacred ἀγάπη

The idea that the Greek word "agape" (ἀγάπη) means "Godly love" is a very common misconception. Before I elaborate, one of my favorite sayings in hermeneutics is:

Words don't have meaning, people have meaning.

In fact ἀγάπη had a semantic range that included "Godly love," but the semantic range was much broader than this. The actual "meaning" of the word depended on what the author/speaker meant by their use of the word.


[Jesus said:] If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. -Luke 6:32

Now look at the verse in Greek:

καὶ εἰ ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας ὑμᾶς, ποία ὑμῖν χάρις ἐστίν; καὶ γὰρ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας αὐτοὺς ἀγαπῶσιν. -Westcott / Hort (1881)

Here Jesus uses "agape" four times referring to the kind of love that a sinner has for others. Of course, Jesus is not claiming that a sinner has "perfect, sacrificial, pure, Godly love"... just that they are amiable toward those who are amiable toward them.

English love

The semantic range of the English word "love" also includes Godly love, among other things.


Our use of the English word "love" in 1 Cor. 13 is really no different than Paul's use of the Greek word "agape" in that passage. Both have a semantic range. Both can be used to refer to "Godly love." Both can be used to refer to other things. Regardless of whether you read "agape" or "love" or "perfect, sacrificial, pure, Godly love in the spirit of Christ our Lord" the reader will need to be careful to remain faithful to authorial intent and understand it in the way it was being used, by the context in which it appears.

  • Doesn't the saying go with the plural? It may even be better this way but it's different, isn't it? (I may be wrong)
    – hannes
    Jun 26, 2013 at 5:04
  • @hannes The purpose of the saying is to draw attention to the true locus of meaning: the author -- not the text (and certainly not the reader.)
    – Jas 3.1
    Jun 26, 2013 at 6:05

The King James Version uses "charity" throughout the "Love Passage":

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (KJV)
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Of course, that's no better in modern English. The trouble is, as C. S. Lewis points out, there are four Greek words that can reasonably be translated "love". In the Bible the two most common are phileo <5368> and agape <26>. In this passage, agape is used throughout. At least when Paul uses agape, I think we should consider it a technical term that is defined in 1st Corinthians 13. Perhaps the most accurate translation is to just transliterate agape.

A Greek word that captures the idea of "I love waffles" is thelo <2309>, which the KJV occationally translates as love:

Mark 12:38-40 (KJV)
38 And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces,
39 And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts:
40 Which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.

The Strong's definition is:

1) to will, have in mind, intend
1a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose
1b) to desire, to wish
1c) to love
1c1) to like to do a thing, be fond of doing
1d) to take delight in, have pleasure

The point is, we have a single word in English that covers a wide variety of positive attitudes toward something and that word is "love". Short of convinceing the entire English speaking world that we are diluting the meaning of the word when we talk about loving passing pleasures and so on, we'll need to come up with some way to translate the Greek words more emphatically. Here is my suggestion:

  • thelo—"like" or "desire"
  • phileo—"brotherly love"
  • agape—"ulitmate love" or "sacraficial love"

The last comes from Jesus' even shorter definition of agape:

John 15:13 (ESV)
13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

  • I'm on the hook to speak to the high school group at my church next week and I picked Love as my topic (what with Valentine's Day and all.) When I get to agape, I may explain that it is eXtreme Love. Feb 11, 2012 at 0:50
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    I like the part on thelo. I also agree with your conclusion; that changing the perceptions of our culture is hopeless. Maybe I should send a link to this question to Zondervan and some other Bible translating/publishing companies. PS. I meant to give you the bounty but it automatically gave it to the other answer. (not that you need it or anything.)
    – Dale
    Feb 17, 2012 at 23:58
  • @JoeHobbit: Yeah. I'm going to be trying to give away some of my > 4,000 reputation in the form of bounties so that we can get more high-reputation users on the site. Thanks for the kind words. Feb 18, 2012 at 0:14

Love in the New Testament:

φιλέω, Strong's 5368, phileó: this family of words means to show warm affection in intimate friendship, or brotherly love

φιλόστοργος, Strong's 5387, philostorgos: (technically in the phileó family) that special affection shared betwee members of God's family (only used in Romans 12:10)

ἀγάπη, Strong's 26, agape: the agape family is not used much in greek literature, but is used a whole lot in the New Testament, love which centers in moral preference (the verb form agapaó means "to prefer"), or “a sober kind of love — love in the sense of placing a high value upon some person or thing, or of receiving them with favour”1

It's true that having just one word in English has overloaded it, but 1 Corinthians 13 is really the definition of this word, so I think it's quite appropriate to use the word since it teaches the reader how to contextually understand the word. It brings the reader to rethinking his presuppositions.

Charity obviously isn't the precise definition, even for the time in which the KJV was translated, but as Charles Simeon points out2:

it is not possible for any one, who reads the chapter with attention, to imagine, that it relates exclusively to alms-giving: the most ignorant reader must see, that the principle, which is here called “charity,” is far more extensive, and can by no means have so limited a sense...all the properties which in this chapter are ascribed to love, shew it to have man, and man alone, for its object. And those who interpret the word as including love to God also, make the import of the whole chapter obscure and unintelligible. We therefore approve of the term “charity,” as giving to the passage its true, and definite, and more appropriate meaning.

1Warnach, SacVb 518
2Simeon, C. (1832-63). Horae Homileticae Vol. 16: 1 and 2 Corinthians (323). London.

  • Rethinking presuppositions does little to reverse the flow of culture. Only in a few select passages is love contextually defined. What about when love is not contextually defined?
    – Dale
    Feb 6, 2012 at 22:19
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    The Bible is always to be taken as a whole, so you always have the larger context. One of the components of exegesis is to analyze the nearer context to see if the word is being used differently. Sometimes that takes some study. Feb 6, 2012 at 23:39
  • Actually, rethinking things is what does change culture on the physical scale, with the Grace of God and Power of the Holy Spirit changing it on the spiritual scale. In other words, the grace of God enables men to think differently, and it that rethinking is what God uses to change men's hearts. Culture is religion externalized. Feb 6, 2012 at 23:41

The term ἀγαπάω was relatively unused in literature contemporary to New Testament authors. To avoid confusion, they probably appropriated the word for in-group communication of in-group ideals/commands. Contemporary authors would have used φιλέω in not just the "brotherly love" sense in which Christians currently understand it, but also somewhat interchangeably with the emerging Christian use of ἀγαπάω. So, not only do we need to be careful of how we understand "love" in the NT, but we also need to be aware of the context and the author's intent. (NIDNTT)


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