What does the good book have to say about everyone's favorite subject at this time of the year -- love?
Describing a biblical view of love turns out to be no simple matter. First off, the Bible was written in both Hebrew and Greek, and each of these languages has multiple words that we translate as "love." (On this count, Hebrew wins out with about a dozen words expressing a range of emotions from sexual desire to intimate friendship, and from covenantal fidelity to acts of mercy and kindness.)
There are also understandings of love floating around among different authors. So what the author of the Song of Solomon says about love isn't the same as what the author(s) of Genesis say, which isn't the same as what John says, which isn't the same as Paul ... and so on. All of which means that not only is there no single view of love in the Bible but any larger scheme you propose by which to organize these various treatises on love will inevitably fall short.
Nevertheless it may still be a useful, if far from perfect, endeavor. To get at it, I'll borrow the classic formula that distinguishes between three Greek words: eros, romantic, passionate love, from which we get our word "erotic"; phileo, the love of great friends and siblings, from which we get "Philadelphia," the "city of brotherly love"; and agape, parental, self-sacrificing love that seeks only the welfare of the other. All three kinds of love are represented in the Bible, which means that all three are considered to be created and blessed by God.
Eros is the emotion we probably think of first when thinking of love, especially the love of Valentine's Day and pop music. While the word itself is not present in the Greek New Testament, it depicts the passionate desire that unites lover and beloved praised in the Song of Solomon. Its presence in the Bible testifies not only that humans are moved by beauty and desire, but also that passion, romance, and sexual intimacy are an essential element of God's good creation and the human experience.
Phileo, in contrast, is a more stable and constant emotion. Constancy not withstanding, however, phileo it is also a powerful emotion that captures the love of great friends. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, whom he loved (phileo) (John 11:35), while Jonathan and David share a bond so strong that it induces Jonathan to forsake allegiance to his father in support of his beloved friend. Phileo is ultimately not about passion as much as it is about commitment, the love that binds one to another in enduring friendship.
Agape dominates the New Testament but is more rare in contemporary literature of the Greek-speaking world of the first century. Scholars agree that it best captures what we might call "Christian love." Agape depicts the self-sacrificing love of a parent for a child and describes both God's love for the world as shown in Christ and the love Christians should show each other and all people. As to the former, think of Tim Tebow's - and, indeed, the world's - favorite Bible verse: "For God so loved - agape - the world that he gave his only Son..." (John 3:16). As to the latter, think of Paul's great hymn to love: "Love - agape - is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends" (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).
As nice and neat as these distinctions are, however, as soon as you make them you begin to watch them unravel. For many have wondered if Jonathan's friendship with David was not tinged with a hint of eros even as it also embodies the self-sacrificing love of agape. And, truth be told, agape and phileo are often used interchangeably in the New Testament. Jesus, as it turns out, loves Lazarus in terms of both phileo (John 11:35) and agape (11:5). And while Paul at points depicts marriage as a remedy for the consuming, burning passions of sexual desire we associate with eros (1 Cor. 7:9), he - or at least his disciples - also expect husbands and wives to exhibit agape for each other by being subject to each other as Christ loved and sacrificed himself for the Church (Ephesians 5). What, then, are we to make of "love" in the Bible?
But maybe this somewhat blurry picture of love suits the complicated nature of the subject at hand. I mean, even Valentine's Day itself has a peculiar and complex history. Originally named for a saint (or saints, depending on the tradition) that were martyred for their commitment to their faith, over the centuries Valentine's Day came to epitomize the romantic ardor of lovers represented by the Roman god of desire, Cupid (the Romanized version of the Greek god Eros). And today one might be forgiven for thinking that V-Day is mainly about love for chocolate and lingerie.
Perhaps, then, the Bible's convoluted treatment is fitting. After all, isn't this mixture of emotions and motivations pretty representative of our experience? We love our partners and our children and our pets and friend and, if we're lucky, our jobs and hobbies and much more, but not all in the same way. And even our love for a single person varies and changes, not just over the years, but over the span of moments, as passion can turn to tenderness, which can turn to a desire to protect and serve, and then turn back to desire, all between the beats of a simultaneously fickle and courageous heart. In light of this, maybe the best we can say is that love in the Bible, like love in our everyday lives, is important, complicated, and at times a bit squishy. That is, it is too powerful and mysterious to be fully defined or grasped by any of us.
So perhaps for now it's enough to recognize that all the different kinds of love we have explored are part and parcel of our life in this world, that God created and blessed them for our nurture, and that behind and beyond all of our expressions of love is God's love for each of us. That's not everything we could say, of course, but I think that if we get that much straight we've probably gotten the heart of what the Bible has to say about love.