Thursday, May 6, 2010

Does John use ἡ ἀγάπη (the love) as Personification for Christ Jesus?

See significant update below (05/11/2010).

During the last few weeks of the first-year koiné Greek course I have been teaching this semester we have been reading and translating 1 John. Earlier this week we read through 1 John 4:11-16. As we read, I offer a few basic exegetical observations for first-year Greek students. In particular, I focus attention upon the highlighted portion in verse 16. As many times as I have read through 1 John in the Greek text, the text remains fresh, so that this week I saw something for the first time in the following passage.

1 John 4:11-16 (Greek Text)
11 Ἀγαπητοί, εἰ οὕτως ὁ θεὸς ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς, καὶ ἡμεῖς ὀφείλομεν ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν. 12 θεὸν οὐδεὶς πώποτε τεθέαται. ἐὰν ἀγαπῶμεν ἀλλήλους, ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν μένει καὶ ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν τετελειωμένη ἐστίν. 13 Ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ μένομεν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος αὐτοῦ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν. 14 καὶ ἡμεῖς τεθεάμεθα καὶ μαρτυροῦμεν ὅτι ὁ πατὴρ ἀπέσταλκεν τὸν υἱὸν σωτῆρα τοῦ κόσμου. 15 Ὃς ἐὰν ὁμολογήσῃ ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν τῷ θεῷ. 16 καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐγνώκαμεν καὶ πεπιστεύκαμεν τὴν ἀγάπην ἣν ἔχει ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν.

Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ μένων ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ ἐν τῷ θεῷ μένει καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν αὐτῷ μένει.
1 John 4:11-16 (English Translation)
11 Beloved, if God loved us in this manner, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides among us and his love is made complete among us. 13 By this we know that we reside in him and he among us because he has given to us from his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and are bearing testimony that the Father sent the Son, savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses, "The Son of God is Jesus," God resides in him and he in God. 16 And we have come to know and have come to believe this love which God has among us.
God is love, and the one who resides in this love resides in God and God resides in him.
As we were reading the passage something leaped off the page to grab my attention relative to an essay that I discontinued researching and writing that I intended to present during a professional conference in November 2008. I discontinued my work on the essay when I was injured and could not sit without considerable discomfort. I have been intending to return to the essay on "the love of God" (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ) in 1 John and complete it. Getting injured stymied completion of the essay. After abandoning the project I lost interest in completing it. However, this week, as we were reading the above passage in class I may have stumbled upon an important element that re-energizes my interest to complete the essay.

Verse 16 is the portion that caught my attention. What struck me as unusual is the expression καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐγνώκαμεν καὶ πεπιστεύκαμεν τὴν ἀγάπην (and we have come to know and we have come to believe the love. . . ). It is not strange to find love (τὴν ἀγάπην) as the direct object of the verb "I know" (γινώσκω). In fact, 1 John 3:16 places the love (τὴν ἀγάπην) as the direct object of the verb "I know" (γινώσκω) by stating, ἐν τούτω̣ ἐγνώκαμεν τὴν ἀγάπην, ὅτι ἐκεῖνος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἔθηκεν (by this we have come to know this love that this one laid down his life on behalf of us).

However, after consulting a Greek concordance and doing an electronic search with Bible software, I discovered what I suspected. It would be not only unusual but unexpected to find  love (τὴν ἀγάπην) as the object of the verb "I believe" (πιστεύω). In fact, this occurrence in 1 John 4:16 is the only one in the Greek Old Testament and New Testament. By writing we have come to believe love John seems to give objectivity to love. It seems that John objectifies ἡ ἀγάπη (the love). If this is so, then by objectifying ἡ ἀγάπη (the love), John represents the abstract concept of love as an object that we both come to know and to believe. Yet, to suggest that he represents love as an object is altogether too inadequate, because John's unexpected objectifying turn of phrase seems to require us to understand ἡ ἀγάπη (the love) to be invested with a figurative function. This figurative function seems to be personification of the love of God (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ) by substituting ἡ ἀγάπη (the love) for Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Ἰησοῦς ὁ Χριστὸς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ; Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God), who is the personification of God's love made visible among us through his incarnation and sacrificial death, in particular. If this is so, perhaps I am onto the turn of phrase that opens up John's use of the phrase ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ (the love of God) which he seems to employ with deliberate equivocation. This concurs with my exegetical instincts when I was working on my essay that the incarnation of Christ is the key that enables John's seeming deliberate equivocation. Thus, it appears that John may use ἡ ἀγάπη (the love) as a substitute for Jesus Christ in whose sacrificial death divine love is personified. If reading the passage this way is correct, then John is making the point that Christ's incarnation brings the abiding presence of God's love among us.

It is noteworthy that the expression that caught my eye occurs within John's climaxing presentation of the love of God (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ; 4:7-21). Keep in mind that my essay aimed at seeking to determine whether the genitive (τοῦ θεοῦ) in John's expression the love of God (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ) should be understood as expressing (1) subjectively, God's love for believers; or (2) objectively, beleivers' love for God; or whether the expression (3) signals that love has its origin in God and is manifest through believers to one another; or that the expression is (4) a purposefully equivocating expression that plausibly bears all three previous senses depending upon its use in context.

Now, I trust you will recognize why 1 John 4:16 caught my eye in relation to my suspended essay on ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ (the love of God). One finds John's repeated and varied expressions concerning the love of God in the following passages.
1 John 2:5 ἐν τούτω̣ ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ τετελείωται (in this the love of God is perfected
1 John 2:15 οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν αὐτῷ (the love of the Father is not in him)
1 John 3:17 πῶς ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ μένει ἐν αὐτῷ; (how dwells the love of God in him?)
1 John 4:9 ἐν τούτω̣ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν (by this the love of God is made visible among us)
1 John 4:12 καὶ ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν τετελειωμένη ἐστίν (and his love is made perfect among us)
1 John 5:3 αὕτη γάρ ἐστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ (for this is the love of God)
In 1 John 4:9 "the love of God" (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ) seems unambiguously God's love: “Herein God’s love was disclosed among us, that God sent his unique Son into the world in order that we might live through him” (ἐν τούτῳ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν κ.τ.λ.). Here, the the verb "is disclosed" or "is made visible" (ἐφανερώθη) renders it difficult not to take the expression as "God's love" rather than "love for God." Again, John emphasizes that God is the source of love when he writes, “Herein is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son, propitiation concerning our sins” (4:10). John offers another emphatic punch when he grounds his admonition: “Beloved, if God loved us in this manner, we also ought to love one another” (4:11). Then, as though to make the point that the incarnation of God’s love made visible by his sending the Son continues to reside among us even though Christ in the flesh is no longer present, John writes, “No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God resides among us and his love is made complete among us” (ἡ ἀγάπη αὐτοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν τετελειωμένη ἐστίν, 4:12). So, in this way not only does John underscore the priority of God’s love, that all Christian love derives from God, but also that God's love, by virtue of the Son's incarnation and self-sacrifice, persistently resides among us (ἐν ἡμῖν). John emphasizes the priority of God's love again in 4:19, “We love because he first love us.”


Update (05/11/2010): Because when I posted the above note I had not consulted commentaries on 1 John 4:16 until today, I failed to point out a rather crucial interpretive decision that makes a rather large difference in whether one reads the verse as I have proposed or how most translations take the verse. Because of how they take en hēmin (ἐν ἡμῖν), as for us rather than among us or in us, it is understandable why commentators do not take note of what I have addressed above.

According to 1 John 4:16, the direct object of knowing and believing is love (τὴν ἀγάπην), not just any love, of course, but "the love which God has en hēmin [ἐν ἡμῖν]." At issue is whether en hēmin (ἐν ἡμῖν) means "among us," "in us," or "for us," as read in the ESV, NRSV, and NIV. 
Greek text: καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐγνώκαμεν καὶ πεπιστεύκαμεν τὴν ἀγάπην ἣν ἔχει ὁ θεὸς ἐν ἡμῖν.
English translation: and we have come to know and have come to believe the love which God has among us.
ESV: So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.
NRSV: So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
NIV: And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
Exegetes acknowledge that the expression under question is curious because, if John intended the sense "for us" one would have expected him to write eis hēmas (εἰς ἡμᾶς). If the sense is "for us," this is the construction we would expect to find just as we do in 2 Corinthians 2:4 where Paul uses the phrase eis humas (for you; εἰς ὑμᾶς). See also Colossians 1:4 and Philemon 5. Each occurs following the verb love.

While love or a pronoun referring to love is often the object of the verb echō (to have; ἔχω), rarely does one find the expression "to have love" followed by the preposition en (ἐν). Two exceptions exist in the New Testament. Both are in John's Gospel: (1) John 5:42 (because you do not have the love of God in/among yourselves; ὅτι τὴν ἀγάπην τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔχετε ἐν ἑαυτοῖς [en heautois]); and (2) John 13:35 (you are my disciples, if you have love for/among one another; ἐμοὶ μαθηταί ἐστε, ἐὰν ἀγάπην ἔχητε ἐν ἀλλήλοις [en allēlois]). Whether these two exceptions provide any support for the ESV, NRSV, or NIV of 1 John 4:16 is the question. In fact, it is questionable whether these two exceptions even use the preposition en (ἐν) followed by the datives (ἑαθτοῖς and ἀλλήλοις) with the sense of "for" as if the expressions were written eis heatous (εἰς ἑαυτοῦς) and eis allēlous (εἰς ἀλλήλους) respectively.

John uses the Greek preposition en (ἐν) no fewer than 80 times in 1 John. Among these, one finds that 1 John uses the prepositional phrase en hēmin (ἐν ἡμῖν) eight times. Nowhere else in 1 John does one find en hēmin (ἐν ἡμῖν) or en followed by any other noun or pronoun with the sense of "for us" as translators tend to take the phrase. So, why would one take the phrase in 4:16 as the above translations do?

To support their interpretive decision, translators and exegetes tend to appeal to John 13:35. It is dubious whether this passage provides any support for taking the prepositional phrase, en hēmin (ἐν ἡμῖν), in the sense "for us." This is so because there is no need to take the prepositional phrase en allēlois (ἐν ἀλλήλοις) in John 13:35 in the sense "for one another," except to accommodate English idiom which prefers "for one another" instead of "among one another." But to impose the preferred English idiom back onto the Greek idiom, of course, would be an anachronistic fallacy. Nothing in the Greek idiom requires that we allow the typical English translation of John 13:35--"you are my disciples, if you have love for one another"--to insist that the Greek en allēlois (ἐν ἀλλήλοις) bears exactly the same sense as eis allēlous (εἰς ἀλλήλους).

Upon reviewing several commentaries on 1 John that I have in my library, I discovered that even though a couple observe that it is unusual that John would follow "to believe" (pisteuō; πιστεύω) with the plain accusative case "the love" (tēn agapēn; τὴν ἀγαπήν), none show curiosity to inquire further, especially given John's double verb (we have come to know and we have come to believe) followed by the simple accusative case (tēn agapēn; τὴν ἀγαπήν), and the prepositional phrase en hēmin (ἐν ἡμῖν). All three elements, bound together as they are, should incite curiosity, at least. My curiosity surely is piqued. Hence, my proposal above as I have translated 1 John 4:16--"And we have come to know and have come to believe this love which God has among us."


  1. Is love a personification of the Lord Jesus in 1 John 4:16? That would make it a powerful trinitarian text. As well as fill powerful objective content that expels modern conceptions of love.

  2. What Greek font are you using? There are several characters not displaying correctly for me.

  3. Greg,

    I am using Unicode Greek with Times New Roman font. Unicode Greek is supposed to be universally readable. I have encountered some problems, however, with some browsers.


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