Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246

Eros and Agape is a treatise in the fields of philosophy and religion. It was written in 1930 by the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren, who held a professorship at the University of Lund and also became bishop of Lund in 1948. In his (nearly 800-page) tome, Nygren defines and contrasts two types of love. The book is divided into two volumes. The first is a presentation and definition of these terms, and the second is a historical discussion on the reception of these words in antiquity and through the Protestant Reformation.uum

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The title comprises the two ancient Greek words that are commonly translated into English as "love." Eros is the the sensual and self-interested kind of love (often based on the acquisition of the object of one's love). This form of love was a major concept for Plato and so featured in the Neoplatonic philosophy that endured through the Hellenistic era and beyond (a philosophy on which many early Christians drew).

The other kind of love, apape, is a selfless love, unmotivated by desire for something material or transcendent. God provides this love to humans and so imparts to humans a capacity for it. Agape is the love demonstrated in Jesus's teachings in the gospels.

Nygren explains that there was originally little association between the two words, but Christian rhetoric erroneously brought them together, and it was not until the Reformation under Martin Luther that agape was re-distinguished as the only love appropriate in discussions of Christianity.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355

First published: Den kristna kärlekstanken genom tiderna: Eros och Agape I, 1930; Den kristna kärlekstanken genom tiderna: Eros och Agape II, 1936 (English translation, 1953)

Edition used: Agape and Eros, translated by Philip S. Watson. New York: Harper & Row, 1969

Genre: Nonfiction

Subgenres: Biblical studies; church history; theology

Core issues: Agape; Catholics and Catholicism; Gnosticism; God; Gospels; grace; love; Protestants and Protestantism; religion


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 to humanity, heavenly eros is an upward movement and an attempt to ascend from humanity toward God. Although salvation depends on grace from the perspective of agape, from the perspective of eros, people achieve their own salvation through their own efforts. According, even heavenly eros is egocentric. It involves the self-assertion by individuals of what is best and highest in themselves. Because eros springs from desire, it is a matter of lacking; it depends on want and need, rather than on the abundance of agape. For this reason, eros is an expression of the will to get and to possess, rather than to give. This Hellenistic conception of love is at core a human love. Even when it is directed toward God, it is the human being’s love of God. Eros loves its object because the object is worthy of that love. Accordingly, eros does not create value but recognizes it.

Following nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Nygren acknowledges eros as the center of the value system of antiquity. Accordingly, agape introduced what Nietzsche had referred to as a transvaluation of all values. However, Christianity did not completely overthrow the value system of antiquity but coexisted with it, so that agape and eros were combined and confused. The second part of Nygren’s book deals with the history of this confusion.

To the motifs of agape and eros, Nygren adds a third motif, that of nomos, or the Judaic conception of the law. The earliest church fathers tended to blend agape with Hellenistic and legalistic conceptions of faith and love in varying ways and to varying degrees. The Hellenistic motif of eros made its greatest inroads to Christianity with the Alexandrian school, particularly in the work of the philosopher Origen, who was heavily influenced by Neoplatonic ideas of the return of the multiplicity of created beings to the One. Even Saint Augustine, one of the central figures in Christianity, mixed agape and eros in his concept of caritas, or Christian love.

The Neoplatonic motif of eros, of love as the upward movement toward God, flowed into the mainstream of the medieval Christian tradition through the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. Heavily influenced by the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus and by Plotinus’s follower Proclus, this anonymous writer identified himself as Saint Paul’s disciple Dionysius the Areopagite, but actually probably lived and wrote about 500 c.e. Pseudo-Dionysius became the source of much of the mystical tradition in medieval Christianity, which Nygren associates with Hellenistic eros. Pseudo-Dionyisus also passed on the Neoplatonic image of the heavenly hierarchy between God and the human, by which people ascend to God.

The Neoplatonic idea of ascent to God was one of the dominant strands of medieval Christianity even in the poetry of Dante. The Augustinian caritas, blending ideas drawn from agape and eros, was another strand, one that was developed through medieval theology. Nygren interprets the teachings of Martin Luther, based on the idea that salvation comes from God’s grace and love alone, as a turning back to Christian agape.

Christian Themes

The most fundamental theme of Nygren’s work treats one of the central questions of the Christian tradition: How much of this tradition is uniquely Christian and how much of it is a product of the classical culture in which Christianity developed and out of which the intellectual heritage of Western civilization emerged? A related question is whether the values of Christianity are essentially the same as those held by pagans such as Plato and Aristotle or whether Christianity introduced a radically new set of values. Nygren answers that from the very earliest years Christianity has absorbed non-Christian ideas. Moreover, as the values associated with the Christian and non-Christian are utterly different, the values and views of Greco-Roman antiquity have introduced alien elements into Christianity.

In addition, Nygren identifies the concept of love as a fundamental motif, the distinguishing idea of Christianity. He recognizes that it is not always clear just what love means, though, and that dissimilar kinds of forces are identified by the use of the single English word. His contribution is to carefully consider the nature of Christian love and to distinguish it from other views of love.

The attempt to identify the uniquely Christian idea of love and to trace the intellectual history of this idea involves Nygren in a central confessional dispute. One of the Protestant objections to Catholicism was that the Catholic intellectual tradition had absorbed non-Christian influences and had therefore moved away from true Christianity. The Catholic hierarchy, similarly, was seen as a human effort to create a link to God through the Church structure, in place of the immediate descent of God’s love and grace to each individual. While Nygren does not explicitly criticize Catholicism, the ultimate characterization of Luther’s teachings as the return to agape makes Nygren a sophisticated advocate for the Protestant side of the Catholic-Protestant debate.

Sources for Further Study

  • Hall, Thor. Anders Nygren. Reprint. Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991. The best available examination of Nygren’s thought, written by the foremost expert on Nygren.
  • Johnson, William A. On Religion: A Study of the Theological Method in Schleiermacher and Nygren. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1964. Consists of two parts. The first looks at the conception of religion by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. The second looks at Anders Nygren’s conception of religion and then discusses the relation of Nygren’s ideas to Schleiermacher’s.
  • Kegley, Charles W., ed. The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970. A collection of essays on the work of Anders Nygren. The first chapter is an intellectual autobiography; the last is Nygren’s reply to his interpreters and critics. The seventeen other chapters cover Nygren’s philosophy of religion, his method of motif research, the meanings of love in his work, his theology, his ethics, and cultural and ecumenical concerns in his work.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access