Are Eros and Agape fundamentally different kinds of love?

Term Paper, 2018

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7




Part I: Nygren’s Mutilation of Christian Love

Part II: Eros and Agape in Classical Texts
a. Richard of St. Victor
b. Catherine of Siena
c. Discussion: Eros and Agape in Richard and Catharine compared

Part III: Eros and Agape in Modern Theology



Are Eros and Agape fundamentally different kinds of love? Throughout the history of Christianity, theologians have struggled with the relation between these two forms of love. This relation has been interpreted very differently with regard to questions such as: Is there a conceptual primacy of one over the other or should they be regarded as equally standing next to each other? How is the prevalence of the two forces to be balanced? And most importantly - given the indisputable differences between the two, how can they be mediated in the encounter between the Divine and the human?

On one side of the extreme, a fundamental separation between them is postulated, with Agape attributed to God only and Eros relegated to the human sphere. Such a separation was popularized by the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren. He strongly rejects the Neo-Platonic influence on Christianity which puts at its centre the human striving towards the Divine through Eros in hopes of designing a purified, superior Christian doctrine.

This essay will first outline Nygren’s position and argue that he fails to convince because he grounds his theory on impoverished concepts of both Divine and human nature. By insisting on a fundamental distinctness between the two, he does not do justice to the complex yet always personal and intimate relationship between the two.

I will then in Part II draw on texts by Richard of St. Victor and Catherine of Siena who stand within the Neoplatonic and Mystic traditions of Christianity to show that it is the balanced incorporation of the idea of Eros (as opposed to its full rejection) which enables an understanding of a reciprocal loving relationship by making room for human activity in building it.

Part III will present this understanding as reasonable within the context modern theology by establishing a connection to the conceptual re-interpretation of the doctrine of creation and incarnation. This context enables a fundamental realignment of the relation between Eros and Agape.

Part I: Nygren’s Mutilation of Christian Love

The arguably most popular treatise on the opposing nature of Eros and Agape was put forward by Nygren. He is, however, criticised for his reading of Plato as a strawman and a biased interpretation of Scripture. Central aspects of his differentiation include[1]:

Eros arises out of need and want.

Eros can only be self-love, for man loves God on the basis of the conviction that He satisfies his needs. Thus, the aim of Eros is to gain possession of an object which he regards as valuable and feels he needs since God is the highest good and loving him promises ultimate happiness.

Eros is egocentric and acquisitive.

Eros can never be a self-renunciating form as Agape for when man loves a fellow human being with Eros, the latter is not regarded as a “neighbour”, but as a worldly being participating in the Idea of the Beautiful and which can therefore be used as means of ascent to it.

Eros is man’s way to God while Agape is God’s way to man, exclusively.

Eros can only be directed upwards, from the human man to the Divine and can thus never be combined with something contrary to it. Plotinus is mistaken in applying Eros to God. Firstly because God has no want. Secondly, Eros would turn Divine love to be entirely taken up with Himself and enjoying His own perfection. In Plotinus’ concept of the Divine, God cannot in any way be “subject to the conditions under which the lower exist.” The self-sacrificing love of God for man can thus never be Eros.

The sovereignty of Divine love excludes an equality between Divine and human love.

Agape is the only form of creative love.

Eros is fundamentally different from Agape which does not look for value in its object. God’s Agape is not directed towards that which is in itself worthy of love but imparts value on it by turning it into an object of Divine love.

Agape is the sole initiator of the union with God.

Eros as always motivated by the acquisition of good for oneself cannot be the right form of love towards God and the neighbour. Since there is no room for unmotivated love coming out of man himself, he must be completely emptied and filled with Divine Agape. Loving God with all one’s heart, soul and mind means absolute submission.

Nygren’s attempt to establish agapeic love as the only proper love of Christianity seems to be based on an overly simplistic interpretation of the Greek tradition of Eros as well as his desire to purify Christianity by detaching it from history. The construction of his concept in complete opposition to another theory leaves it very one-sided and is bound to lose a part of the complexity and richness of one that is born out of creative inclusion as well as critical engagement with its historical context. The upside of Nygren’s theory is the illumination of the way in which Christianity has supplemented the theory of Eros in Greek to a well-rounded concept of love. It is, however, exactly the aspect of complementation that makes Christian love so rich in its completion, as opposed to an exclusive superseding.

Nygren’s analysis falls short therefore as a result of failing to see Eros and Agape as complementing parts of one unitary whole. By asserting the impossibility of equality (or any likeness between Divine and natural human love), the human world is alienated from the Divine. He posits the full sovereignty of Divine love, not with reference to perfection, but to the fact that his idea of Divine love - that is, pure Agape - is fundamentally different to human love while also being the sole appropriate form of loving, which is problematic in two aspects. Firstly, it necessarily leads to the insistence of a full submission of the human being in order to start loving in a Christian way. There is thus no room for genuine human freedom in taking part in love; the creature is turned to a mere vessel for the Divine activity. Secondly, Nygren is sorely mistaken in excluding Eros from the Divine.

This in turn stems from a false understanding of the nature of Eros. In his insistence on identifying Eros with acquisitive self-love (while there are passages in the Platonic dialogues that possibly justify this reading, Nygren seems to have overlooked those that do not), he misses the side of Eros that contributes to the creative nature of Agape. His main mistake lies in not grasping that which constitutes the self-realizing core of Eros: the desire for union with the beloved. Union, however, does not in itself imply an exclusion of everyone besides oneself in equally sharing in this union. Similarly, there can be - particularly with regard to the fullness of God’s goodness as well as its overflowing givenness - no notion of acquisition. God’s love can only be accepted, without depriving anyone else of receiving the same love.

Against this backdrop, Nygren is understandably quick in dismissing any notion of Divine Eros. But by reducing God’s love for his creation to pure Agape, he is left with an unsatisfactory relation between the Divine and his creation on two levels: It makes God’s love in self-sacrifice seem completely arbitrary (his deployment of the notion of the “necessity” of His love is nothing but an empty word) and it gives no room to a reflection of the Divine in man that makes the connection between them a real “relationship” - that is, a mutuality to which two sides contribute their own part.

Part II: Eros and Agape in Classical Texts

Nygren has levelled explicit criticism at the confusion of Eros and Agape in early Christian doctrine influenced by Neoplatonism. I will look at two classical theological texts on the topic of love within the Neoplatonic and Mystic traditions while considering how their use of Eros can, on the opposite, contribute to an understanding of love that overcomes the flaws of Nygren’s concept.

a. Richard of St. Victor

I will argue - by interpreting Richard’s idea of thirsting for God as Eros - that Richard describes a movement of Eros that leads to humility and submission. It is the duty of the human being to go on a contemplative journey by thirsting for God in order to arrive at end of love, self-renunciation, which is fulfilled in the concrete life involving other human beings.[2]

The human soul can desire in fleshly love and spiritual love. Fleshly love is to be rejected on the basis of his self-serving nature which does not serve a transcendent good but seeks his own perfection through love for the other: he does not love the other for the sake of the other, but to enjoy their goodness, which throws him back to the himself. In fleshly love, the soul is only concerned with the good that is done to itself.

There are four degrees of love that lead to the consummation of spiritual love in the soul. All of them are characterized by the violence with which the desiring soul is wounded.

First degree: the soul thirsts for God

God inflames desire inside the individual soul by visiting and intoxicating the mind. He pours His sweetness into the soul, but does not reveal his appearance to illumine the intellect. The soul desires to experience that which causes the eternal sweetness he finds in itself. In order to achieve this, it has to abandon all external things and retreat into itself.

Second degree: the soul thirsts toward God

The soul desires to be lifted above itself through the grace of contemplation. It is by this burning desire that it ascends above itself and is drawn up to God. The grace of Divine contemplation allows the soul to look upon the Divine mysteries which God reveals through His Spirit.

Third degree: the soul thirsts into God

Full of joy over the Divine vision, the soul desires to pass entirely into the Divine for its desire can at this stage only be satisfied by God. In order to achieve this, it forgets not only all external things but also itself. The mind is alienated from itself and casts itself off thoroughly to be conformed to the beauty it sees. Glorified into God, it enters into the hidden divine mysteries and hears the words of divine wisdom.

Penetrated by the fire of Divine love, the mind no longer does anything of its own will but adapts itself with spontaneous desire to God’s decisions and forms every wish in accordance to them. It voluntarily humbles itself to every act of obedience and bends itself freely to every humiliation. The soul is shown the humility of Christ and is prompted to mould itself after the model of Christ, who, although he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a slave. Confronted with the selfless Divine love, the soul begins to empty itself and take on the form of a slave.

Fourth Degree: the soul thirsts according to God

The soul relinquishes everything concerning its own will in spiritual things. There is no desire left to become more perfect by loving God, so that the soul can turn away from his fixation on the self and humble himself to obedience. By opening itself to humiliation in the succession of Christ and imitation of the divine, man becomes a new creature and rejoices in every injury and turns to his glory whatever punishment is inflicted upon him. For the sake of God, the soul descends beneath itself and is willing to suffer anything The soul’s love has become insatiable; this expresses itself, however, in the desire to endures all things, instead of seeking after what belongs to it.

The soul has begun its erotic journey by entering God for its own sake and goes out for the sake of its neighbour out of compassion. The highest degree of consummated love is the humility of Christ. The soul desires to be dissolved and to be with Christ, but necessity leads him to remain in the flesh for our sake. For the sake of his neighbours the soul rejects wisdom and omnipotence.

The transition between the last two degrees is noticeably fluent. The nature of the soul’s love, however, is radically transformed through Divine love: In lower degrees God is loved in order to perfect one’s existence whereas in higher degrees, the love for God turns towards other human beings by seeking the fulfilment of the other. Crucial for this transformation of desire is the understanding the soul acquires of the nature of Divine love. Because it realizes that God’s love is selfless and compassionate towards every human being, it willingly abandons its selfish, erotic desires in order to be able to participate in the Divine love which is only to be realized in agapeic love towards other human beings.

Richard understands love of God as consummated through concrete Agape. As selfish exclusiveness, unio cannot be the highest degree of love; the end of Christian love does not lie in the individual pursuit of perfection but self-sacrifice for the other. This final descent of the soul back into the embodied world is portrayed as a humiliation and self­renouncement and ultimately holds the soul back from becoming one with God.

While Richard shows against Nygren the necessity of Eros as it takes the soul towards God and can be transformed by Divine love, he insists on a linear progression and the replacement of one kind of love for the other. Eros is, therefore, still clearly deemed inferior and ultimately distinct from the nature of God which is pure Agape. Because of this gap between the two, Richard comes to the problematic conclusion of a tension between human Agape and union with God.

b. Catherine of Siena

Catherine challenges this position by attributing Eros to the God’s nature as well. In doing so, she does not only close the gap between human and Divine but enables an understanding of love as the common goal of God and the human being within the context of their relationship.[3]

God uses the soul’s desire to draw her to himself in union and make it become like him. Human desire is born out of the knowledge of God’s perfect goodness in contrast to one’s own sinfulness. It desires the salvation of souls and grace for oneself and others and by means of these to overcome the gap between sinfulness and goodness to realize God’s truth in man. In opposition to human works and suffering, the soul’s desire can be infinite. Because of this property, union between man and God can be achieved through desire insofar as desire is the grieving over sinfulness which the human soul and God share.

When, through prayer and contemplation from man’s side and the seizing of this desire by the Spirit from God’s side, the soul and God come into an intimate union, the soul’s desire opens the eye of understanding and enables to soul to gaze into Divine love, i.e. Charity. The stronger human desire is, the more knowledge of God is gained. Through self­knowledge, given by grace, the soul finds the truth of God’s goodness in herself.

Since, through the Fall, man was spoiled and made unfit for eternal life, God brought grace so man could receive the good He created him for. He is bound to this end by the same love with which He created man in his image to share in the Trinity: He created with Eros and out of Eros He decided to reconcile man with Him by humbling Himself to undo corruption and death through infinite suffering (in the union of divinity and humanity). It is God’s Eros that held Christ nailed to the Cross and Christ offered obedience to God; thus, out of love, God made man new by the sacrifice of Christ, who poured out his own blood with Agape. God gave man understanding that he may share in the wisdom of Christ whose blood gives man the knowledge of truth which sheds the cloud of selfish love.

Through desire, therefore, the soul is able to overcome selfish love that resulted from the Fall and deprives it of charity and is the source of evil. Selfish love springs from sensuality and this kind of selfish will must be drowned and subjected to God’s will. By self­knowledge, the soul is enabled to cut off selfish love.

In man’s new creation, grace is poured into the soul that can help to weaken the inclination to sin; the soul, however, chooses freely to grow from grace through desire as much as it wants to. The soul retains its freedom to choose good or evil despite of receiving grace: Although Christ made of Himself a bridge of reconciliation, man has to choose to make his way along the bridge. God created men without his help, but since he gave man free will to love the truth will draw him into union only with his help, because God wants man to set his will in full freedom to give himself to charity.

Charity is attained by the viewing and knowledge of God as God is charity. Charity returns good for evil and thus turns hatred into benevolence in others. It is thus the desire for


[1] The following refers to: Anders Nygren, Philip S. Watson (1969): Agape and Eros, New York: Harper & Row, pp. 75-80, 175-180, 211-219.

[2] The following refers to: Richard of St Victor: On the Four Degrees of Violent Love, in: Hugh Feiss, Hugh, Achard, Hugh, Adam, Richard & Godefroy (2011): On love. A selection of works of Hugh, Adam, Achard, Richard, and Godfrey of St. Victor, Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 275 - 296.

[3] The following refers to: Catherine of Siena, Suzanne Noffke (1980): Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue, New York: Paulist Press, pp. 25 - 63.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Are Eros and Agape fundamentally different kinds of love?
University of Cambridge  (Faculty of Divinity)
Paper: Doctrine of God - Love and Desire
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Theologie, Dogmatik, Anglikanismus, Gott, Liebe, Eros, Agape, Anders Nygren
Quote paper
Céline Sun (Author), 2018, Are Eros and Agape fundamentally different kinds of love?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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