Despite being one of mankind’s favorite inspirations for song and drink (or perhaps because of it), we should dare to meaningfully ask from time to time: what is love? For a great many of us it brings to mind valentines, racing hearts, sweaty palms, or a blissful flush of dopamine coursing through the brain. That would certainly all be true; but, could we also agree that this isn’t the typical (and let’s acknowledge richer) use of the word in our Christian faith?
Exhibit A: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
In this short summa of the gospel we reaffirm that the entire provocation of Christ’s mission on earth (and therefore the foundation upon which all of Christianity rests) is, in a word, love. Quite worthy of our full devotion; yet, it might surprise you to know that the fuller sense of the word has become diluted over time – in a way, lost in translation. In fact, at the outset of our inquiry we must concede that the actual word “love” is derived from Old English and less than 1,000 years old. We will have to flip further back.
As written in the original Hebrew, the word conveying the sentiment of love is אהבה (spoken as “a-ha-va”). The stem of the word (הב) is the verb “to give”. The preceding א (note that Hebrew is read right to left) modifies the base verb to “give”; and the following ה is appended in order to arrive at “I give”. You see, at its core, love is a connection to another that is made, nurtured, and fortified through giving (literally).
The ancient Greeks expressed three distinct forms of love: éros (passionate love, with sensual desire and longing), philía (dispassionate, virtuous love including loyalty to friends or love of an activity), and agape (purposeful and self-sacrificing love). As scripture came to be further codified into Greek the Hebrew “ahava” translated directly to “agape”. In doing so, what had been for the Greeks the least used form of love in ancient texts was extolled extensively by early Christians as the essence of its biblical form. In fact, very early customs of Christian worship included a communal meal (a fuller recreation of the Lord’s Supper) known as the “agape feast”. Thereby agape, for a time, even became a term for the Eucharist itself.
In the 4th century, the Church’s officially promulgated canon of scripture began to take form in the Latin Vulgate. The sentiment of “love” would usually be rendered as the Latin “caritas” (altruistic love, and notably the root of today’s English word “charity”), but could also occasionally take the form of “diligere” (to esteem highly) – in either case, specifically avoiding the Latin “amor” (affection) so as to avoid any potential confusion with sensual love (i.e.: the Greek eros).
The earliest translations of Latin scripture into English tended to render “caritas” as “charity” and “dilectio” as “love” – as did the first complete translation of the Catholic bible into English (the Douay-Rheims Bible in 1582). However, this convention fell away in later translations. For example (1 John 4:16):
Douay-Rheims: “And we have known and have believed the charity which God hath to us. God is charity: and he that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him.”
Current (ESV): “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
What happened? The fact is that English bible versions (particularly Protestant interpretations) began to increasingly render the words “agape”, “dilectio”, and “caritas” uniformly as “love” over time (and near completely by the end of the 19th century). Unfortunately, this trend of English translations favoring the use of “love” over “charity” preceded what would become a growing divergence in their common usage in the 20th century.
The understanding of charity today has come to include goodwill toward the needy (both personal and institutional), leniency, and can even connote a sense of pity. Believe it or not, charity has also come under attack by certain quarters of modern society. Beginning in the 19th century, charity (along with religion in general) became viewed by some as an obstacle in fomenting the conditions necessary to achieve the various socialist/communist utopias to which we should all aspire. Christian charity, to these thinkers, is therefore an enemy.
On the other hand, the once crisp distinctions between the different forms of love known among the ancients have also been eroded. Particularly, the primacy of charity within “agape” and “caritas” has been relegated to fending for itself under the wide, general banner of “love” – compounded by what seems to be a modern fascination for the extensive use of hyperbole and delegating meaning to the eyes of the beholder whenever possible (not just as in agape versus eros, but eccentric permutations including “I love you, but I’m not in love with you”, “making love” and “I just love those shoes”, and on and on).
Arguably, if you want to understand the meaning of true love today you will be better served by referencing Church teaching over any dictionary. And know that when you hear the Church convey that “love is charity” or “charity is love” is not some rhetorical device – it is a truism (two sides of the same coin).