Paul in Love. Several well-known Protestant theologians claim that Paul is the intellectual equal of the Greek philosophers. “Paul ranks with Plato and Aristotle as a thinker,” says N. T. Wright.* I don’t think so, but it hardly matters. Paul has his own great idea. Paul loves love. Nothing is more important than love.
The ancient Greeks had a lot to say about love, but almost always they were talking about eros (ἐρεῶ), passionate erotic love. If not, they were talking about philia (φιλία) based on a strong ongoing relationship. What Paul calls agape (ἀγάπη) is more and less than eros. Agape may be as intense as eros, but it is not as personal. It is hard to be erotically in love with more than one or two people. (Like the Greeks, I’m talking about love, not just sexual attraction.) Agape has room for more. Latin generally translates agape as caritas. When Paul speaks of charity (a translation from Latin), he is talking about agape.
What is agape? Sometimes people use the term to suggest a self-sacrificing love, the type of love Jesus had for humanity, and humans sometimes have for each other. But Paul’s meaning is broader than this. Agape is love that is concerned above all with the welfare of another. Faithfulness and commitment, as well as sacrifice, characterize agape. Eros, as the Greeks well knew, is fundamentally selfish (Plato, Symposium, 198c-213e); philia is more personal.
Love threatens Rome
When Paul talks about love, he begins with agape but doesn’t end there. Not only does love bind a community; it threatens the Roman empire. But why should it? Consider Paul’s famous evocation of love.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)
Paul goes on here, and in doing so he transforms the law of the Jews into one sentence.** Love your neighbor. Paul never mentions the Great Commandment, which includes loving God as well as your neighbor (Mark 12: 28-34; Matthew 22:35-40; Luke 10: 25-28;). Writing decades before the gospels were composed, Paul devoted himself to love among humans. But make no mistake, Paul always thought of himself as a Jew. Not that he had much choice. There were no Christians at the time Paul wrote, two to three decades after the death of Christ. Paul was the original Jew for Jesus, and Christ the Messiah.
Love versus the Roman Empire
For Paul, love was not just a personal relationship. Love was also a social critique. “For Paul, love had (for want of a better word) a social meaning as well. The social form of love for Paul was distributive justice and nonviolence, bread and peace.” (B&C, p 204)
As he spoke about love to the different communities he visited, it became clear that love was a critique of empire, as well as communities like Corinth, which did not share their wealth with Christian communities in need. Love threatens empire and social order. Herbert Marcuse would understand (Eros and Civilization).
Jesus and Paul were not executed for saying “love one another.” They were executed because love meant more than compassion; it meant standing against the “domination systems that ruled their world.” (B&C, p 205) Love and justice go together. Justice without love can be careless and pitiless. Love without justice is irresponsible, lovers caring little for the larger social world . Herbert Marcuse (Five Lectures, p 82) thought it romantic that the park benches in Hanoi had room only for two. It’s easy to get carried away by eros; North Vietnam was not an erotic regime. Probably they’re not any, though some regimes are more hostile to love than others.
Does Paul waffle on love?
While these generalization about love are true, they present an incomplete picture of Paul’s view. Paul accepted the current social order. Slaves should continue to be good slaves, men and women should follow their leaders. Love was a spiritual and intellectual achievement, for it means that there are values beyond this world.
That may seem simple but it’s not. People who have become cynical, that is people who can imagine no social order but this one, are easily ruled. It is potentially revolutionary to recognize that the values of society are not the highest values. Transcendent values look beyond this world to a truer, higher, and better one. To know this is the first step toward a better world, and love its most powerful expression in this world now. However, to act on this knowledge, Paul evidently believed, was too dangerous at that time. He also evidently believed that it was unnecessary. The Parousia (the Second Coming) was near at hand, and might even happen during his lifetime (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 1 Corinthians 15:51–52; Romans 13:11–12).
Paul and Plato
Like Paul, Plato believed in a soul (the Greek term is psyche [Ψυχή]) that was independent of the body, higher than the body, and destined to live on after the death of the body. Some scholars have seen Plato’s form of the Good as an abstract way of talking about God (Republic 508e-509c). What’s missing in Plato, and the ancient Greeks in general, is any sense of agape. There is hardly any suggestion, by any of the ancient Greek philosophers, that love is a social relationship. While Paul did not think as deeply as Plato, he helped bring Christ’s teachings about social love into the world, rendering it a revolutionary force. Paul’s expansion of love is as important as Plato’s depth.
The Western tradition, when it was still healthy, was the conjunction of Greece and Jerusalem. Now both seem an endangered species. Small spaces for love and friendship remain in the most repressive regimes. Loss of love of neighbor will be the irreplaceable loss.
* https://derekvreeland.com/2014/09/n-t-wright-faithfulness-paul-part-3-pauls-worldview/ ;Vreeland, p 28.
** The Great Commandment is actually first found in Leviticus 19:18.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul. HarperCollins, 2009 [B&C].
Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization. Beacon Press, 1966.
Herbert Marcuse, Five Lectures. Beacon Press, 1970.
Derek Vreeland, Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader’s Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Doctrina Press, 2015.
N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography. Harper, 2018.