There’s been a lot of talk recently about fake news. In case you’ve missed out on this phenomenon, fake news refers to misinformation that is deliberately spread on social media or even actual media cites often for political or financial gain. (The term can also refer to news media outlets making news stories out of nonstories.) One would never expect this sort of thing to happen in church since the church is to be the bastion of truth, in particular, the truth of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.
But have you ever heard someone say agapē means “unconditional or divine love”? Or have you heard someone say, “word x literally means …”? (I have been guilty of saying a word literally means something more times than I can count.) While I wouldn’t want to call these examples exactly fake news (I don’t think those who state such things are trying to deliberately misinform others.), they are still examples of misinformation regarding Scripture.
I’m privileged to teach a class on interpreting Scripture at a local Christian college. One of the things I wanted my students to learn was how to do a simple word study (lexical analysis). In preparation, I read over portions of D. A Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies and Moisés Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meanings. In reading their works, I was reminded of a pretty common mistake regarding John 21:15–19.
What follows is common word study fallacy regarding John 21:15–19, Jesus’ restoration of Peter following Jesus’ resurrection. A pastor notes the two different verbs used for “love” in Jesus and Peter’s dialogue, agapaō and phileō. The first, agapaō is said to refer to “unconditional or divine love,” while the second phileō refers to “brotherly or affectionate love.” The conclusion drawn from this understanding is that agapaō is the greater of the two. The pastor goes on to state that while Jesus asked Peter if he had this greater love for Jesus (agapaō), the best Peter could do was phileō, the lesser of the two loves. In the end, Jesus descends to Peter’s level, content that Peter has brotherly affection for him.
The pastor in this scenario fell prey to the root fallacy. The root fallacy “presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word.” Pastors and teachers of Scripture are apt to do something like this. They desire to get as much out of God’s Word as they possibly can, in an effort to effectively disciple those placed in their care. However, wrong is still wrong, even when it is done with the best of intentions.
So, what is exactly wrong with this type of reasoning? First of all, words don’t work this way. Take out a dictionary and flip to any entry. What you’ll find are several meanings of a word. For example, I want to know what the word “hand” means. What does “hand” literally mean? Is there one inherent meaning of the word “hand”? When I look “hand” up in a dictionary I find the following:
- the part of the human body from the wrist to the fingertips, or the corresponding part in a tetrapod vertebrate. It is used for grasping, touching, communicating by gestures etc.
- a pointer on a dial, hour hand
- a style of penmanship, a round hand
- (card games) the cards held by a player
- a round in a game of cards, a last hand of bridge
- a pledge of fidelity, he gave me his hand on it
- a promise to marry, he asked him for his daughter’s hand
- applause by an audience, give him a big hand (The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language)
I could keep going, as does the dictionary entry, but I think you get the picture. Which is the literal meaning? Which is the one inherent meaning? There isn’t a literal meaning or one inherent meaning. As you can see, a dictionary gives not one definition, but multiple meanings of a word based on the context in which a word is used. This is something all of us know intuitively, but when it comes to studying Scripture, we seem to forget all about it.
So back to John 21:15–19. Doesn’t the author (John) use two different words for love? He does use two different words, but as the root fallacy makes clear, words in and of themselves do not contain some inherent meaning. Words only have meaning in context. This context includes the immediate context, the sentences and paragraph(s) in which a word is found, as well as the broader context, the book or letter in which the word is found, as well as the rest of Scripture. Consulting the context usually helps to clear up any misunderstanding about how a word is being used, unless it is an hapax legomenon, a word that is recorded only once.
Let’s stop and look at the immediate context first. Is there anything in the context that would lead us to believe that John intended for his audience to see a greater and lesser love attached to agapaō and phileō? I don’t think so. First, J. H. Bernard has wisely noticed that Peter’s response to Jesus’ question is “Yes Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15, 16, 17). He concluded, “This is fatal to the idea that Peter will not claim that he loves Jesus with the higher form of love called agapē, but that he ventures only to say that he has philia for his Master. For why should he say ‘Yes,’ if he means ‘No’?” Peter’s concern is that his love for Jesus is in question, not the quality of that love.
Second, one must look at the other variation of terms that are used in John 21:15–19. John includes three additional pairs of variation, aside from agapaō and phileō: ginōskō and oida (“know”); boskō and poimainō (“feed” and “take care of”); and arnia and probata (“lambs” and “sheep”). Carson’s assessment is worth noting: “These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should.”
Third, it is also helpful to consider the broader context, how does John use the terms agapaō and phileō (and their cognates) elsewhere in the Gospel? Agapaō occurs in 3:19 and 12:43 with respect to the love of evil human beings. Based on this alone it would be difficult to attribute divine love in every instance to the verb agapaō. Additionally, both John 3:35 and 5:20 state, “the Father loves the son.” These passages are identical in the original language, except for one word. The verb used for love in 3:35 is agapaō, while the one used in 5:20 is phileō. Does this mean the Father’s love for Jesus has diminished in some way? Certainly not. The two terms are functioning as synonyms. John uses synonyms throughout the Gospel for stylistic variation, including the pair agapaō and phileō. Is the Bible God’s inspired Word? Absolutely, but this does not negate the fact that Scripture is also a work of literature, written by different individuals whose style was allowed to come through, even in the process of inspiration. Anyone who takes the time to read the four Gospel accounts realizes that each author had their own writing style. Part of John’s style of writing includes the use of synonyms for stylistic variety.
Fourth, if we were to expand our search for the meaning of agapaō we could look to the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. In 2 Samuel 13:4, 15, the LXX uses the verb agapaō to refer to the love Amnon has for his half-sister, Tamar. In case you don’t realize it, Amnon rapes Tamar. I wouldn’t say Amnon expressed unconditional love for Tamar.
Based on both the immediate and broader contexts it is difficult to justify the interpretation expressed by the pastor in my earlier example.
Why does any of this matter? It should matter to anyone who has been entrusted with teaching God’s Word, whether that person is a pastor, Sunday school teacher, college/seminary professor, or Christian parent discipling their own children. Really, any Christian should care because all of us are called to make disciples (Matthew 28:19–20). Part of how we make more disciples of Jesus is by faithfully and accurately teaching what Jesus has taught. And what we’re commanded to teach, to pass on to others is the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). And it is this faith that we are to “contend for,” because there are those who will teach false doctrines (Jude 4) or unwittingly, teach inaccurate interpretations of Scripture. We are to faithfully pass on the principles and precepts that are in God’s holy Word. We cannot afford to assume that an interpretation of Scripture is correct just because we heard a pastor say it one time, or found it in a book. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to rightly divide the word of truth (John 14:26; 16:13–14; 2 Timothy 2:15). We need to be taught a method that will help us to faithfully handle Scripture. Thankfully, there are some great resources available today to do just that. We need a community of scholars and Bible teachers to aid us in our interpretation of Scripture. This is what biblical commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and similar resources are for. Let us take care to understand God’s Word rightly, so that we may faithfully communicate his eternal truth to others.
 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 28.
 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), 703–704.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, NICNT, Revised (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 770.
 D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 677.
 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 1236.
 Three resources I’ve found particularly helpful in instructing students new to biblical interpretation are J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word: Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008); idem., Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012); and Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).