God Is Love -- By: D. A. Carson

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 156:622 (Apr 1999)
Article: God Is Love
Author: D. A. Carson


God Is Love *

D. A. Carson

Twice John writes in his first letter, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The biblical writers treat the love of God as a wonderful thing, wholly admirable and praiseworthy, even surprising when the objects of His love are rebellious human beings. But what does the predication, “God is love,” actually mean?

An older generation than ours might have attempted to answer the question primarily through word studies. Especially prominent was the attempt to invest the ἀγαπάω word-group with theological weight.1

How Not to Proceed

Many have tried to assign the love of God, and derivatively Christian love, to one particular word-group. The classic treatment is that of Anders Nygren.2 The noun ἔρως (not found in the New Testament) refers to sexual erotic love; the φιλέω word-group refers to emotional love, the love of friendship and feeling. By contrast, the ἀγαπάω word-group refers to willed love, an act of willed self-sacrifice for the good of another. It has no essential emotional component, however generous it may be. Moreover, it was argued, the reason the ἀγαπάω word-group became extremely popular in the Septuagint and subsequently in the New Testament, is that writers in the biblical tradition realized they needed some word other than those currently available to convey the glorious substance of the love of the God of Judeo-Christian revelation, so they deployed this extremely rare word-group and filled it

* This is article two in a four-part series, “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 3-6, 1998.

D. A. Carson is Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

with the content just described, until it triumphed in frequency as well as in substance.

Whether this is a fair description of divine love will be discussed later. What is now clear to almost everyone who works in the field of linguistics and semantics is that for several reasons such an understanding of love cannot be tied in any univocal way to the ἀγαπάω word-group.

First, careful diachronic work has been done on Greek words for lo...

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