Anders Nygren identifies his purpose in writing this work as to investigate the Christian idea of love and to examine the changes this idea has undergone throughout the history of Christianity. He describes his approach as “motif research.” This means that he looks at the essential ideas that characterize Christianity and Hellenism, the cultural and spiritual orientation of Greco-Roman antiquity. The essential ideas about love can be distinguished by the Greek words agape and eros.
Through study of the Gospels, Nygren finds that the characteristic feature of agape is that it is God’s love for humans. Agape comes down from God to humanity as a sacrificial giving. It is a matter of grace, in which salvation comes from God. Agape is unselfish; God gives freely and abundantly without seeking anything. When human beings love according to agape, they are patterning themselves on God. Agape, further, is spontaneous and unmotivated, and it does not consider whether those who are loved deserve to be loved. Finally, agape creates value in the object of love: Those who are loved become worthy because they are loved.
Nygren finds a different and unrelated kind of love in non-Christian, Greco-Roman antiquity. He traces this kind of love to Plato and to Plato’s heirs and followers. Plato distinguishes between two kinds of love, described as varieties of eros. The first is “vulgar” eros, love for things of the world and of the body. The second is “heavenly” eros, love for heavenly things. Nygren spends little time on vulgar eros, because its difference from Christian love seems immediately evident to him. In his view, heavenly eros is also quite different from agape. Eros, whether vulgar or heavenly, is a matter of desire and longing.
While agape involves a downward movement from God...
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