Love and romance.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 February 2016

I’m posting this article on St. Valentine’s Day, a feast day named for several ancient Christian martyrs named Valentine: Bishop Valentinus of Terni, Presbyter Valentinus of Rome, Valentinus of Raetia, Valentinus of Genoa, Valentinus the hermit, and Valentinus of North Africa. All their stories and myths got frapped together… and nobody cares about ’em anyway, ’cause Valentine’s Day is a commercial holiday. It’s meant to get people to buy stuff, or make various other expensive materialistic declarations of love, for the person they’re currently boning.

By “love” I mean one of the eight definitions of love. On Valentine’s Day, among Christians who know charity is the sort of love God is, the sort of love the scriptures point to… there might be some expressions of that: They love their partners with godly love. They want the best for their loved ones, even if that means sacrificing themselves. They expect nothing in return; it’s not a love which expects, even demands, reciprocity. They really do love like God does. Or strive to.

But Valentine’s Day isn’t at all about that sort of love. It’s about the romantic sort. It’s what the ancient Greeks meant by ἔρος/éros, the desire one has for the objects of their affection or infatuation, the desire lovers have for one another. (Éros is where we get our English word erotic.)

C.S. Lewis spent a quarter of his 1960 book The Four Loves on éros, and when Christians speak on love, a lot of times we likewise spend a chunk of time discussing éros. Although what we tend to do, incorrectly, is bash it.

  1. First we define it as romantic love, erotic love, or lust.
  2. Then we point out éros isn’t in the bible. (’Cause it’s not. Neither in the New Testament, nor the Septuagint.) It’s just a different Greek word for a concept we translate as “love”—which is all Lewis was writing about anyway. He was a classics scholar, after all; not a bible scholar.
  3. Then spend the rest of our sermon railing against éros for not being godly love, the ἀγάπη/agápi Paul defined in 1 Corinthians 13.

Expect all that to be part of nearly every Valentine’s Day sermon. Oh wait; let me throw in an extra bonus point:

  1. Some preachers will insist éros and romance aren’t any sort of “love.” Therefore we should only use the word “love” to mean agápi, to mean having patience and kindness and self-control and gentleness and all that other stuff Paul wrote. Romance isn’t love. Lust certainly isn’t love. So when people incorrectly use the word “love” to describe such things, correct ’em. “That’s romance. That’s lust. Not love. Real love is agápi.”

Sound about right?

But if you actually read The Four Loves you’ll notice Lewis didn’t define éros as romance or lust. (He coined another word, Venus, for that.) What he meant by it was the feeling of “being in love”—which can obviously be the romantic sort, but can just as well be platonic.

“Bromances,” fr’instance—two people who have no romantic feelings towards one another, but are really good friends who really love one another, like David and Jonathan in the bible. 1Sa 18.1-4 Or older folks who have fatherly or motherly feelings towards their younger friends, who look right back up to them as if they’re second parents. Or mentor/pupil relationships like we see between Jesus and his students. All these things are perfectly healthy forms of love—and éros describes ’em too.

No éros in the bible?

Well if éros describes ’em—if it’s such an okay word—why didn’t the writers of the bible use it? My guess is it’s ’cause the Greeks personified the word, and turned it into their god Eros, the god of love. Or as the Romans called him, Cupid.

No he wasn’t a baby angel with a bow and arrow. That idea comes from the myth of Apollo and Daphne, in which Eros was still a boy (or at least Apollo tried to insult him by calling him one). Eros shot Apollo full of raging lust, and the only way Daphne could get him off her was by having her father turn her into a tree. Anyway, it’s easy to get the idea that Eros was all about smiting people with insatiable horniness, and we don’t wanna mix that idea up with what éros actually means.

So the writers of the bible, and the translators of the Septuagint, largely stuck to agápi. In fact… ready to have your mind blown? (Of course you are; you’re reading this, of all blogs.)

Romantic love, and for that matter lust, are of course in the bible. The Law and Jesus’s commands mitigated it; the histories refer to instances of it; the prophets and apostles addressed the subject. It’s found a buncha different places.

And in the Old Testament, when people were clearly talking about lust—fr’instance Delilah talking about Samson, Jg 16.15 or what the rapists Shechem Ge 34.1-4 and Amnon 2Sa 13.1-19 felt for their victims—guess which Greek word the Septuagint used for how they felt? Of all the inappropriate terms to use, it’s agapáo/“to love [charitably].”

Yep, the very word which Paul defined as acting patient and kind and not demanding its own way. 1Co 13.4-5 What the what?

Y’see, exactly like our English word love, the ancient Greek word agápi had a whole lot of definitions. Paul tried to narrowly define it, but Greek-speakers before Paul would use it all sorts of ways. Even to describe the way rapists felt about their victims. Ancient Hebrew did it too; the word אָהַב/aháv, usually translated “love,” is likewise used for all sorts of things—from loving God Dt 6.5 and your neighbor Lv 19.18 …to Shechem and Amnon again. Yuck.

So the argument, “There’s no éros in the bible, so we should reject it as just another form of fake love” isn’t gonna fly. The word might be absent, but the concept is certainly there.

Romantic love.

Romance is a human emotion. Humans, including Christians, are gonna feel it. In many Christian relationships, it’s entirely appropriate to feel it. Wives and husbands should desire one another. It strengthens their marriages and wards off adultery. Arguably this desire for one’s spouse can be a bit of a curse:

Genesis 3.16 NIV
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

(Good thing Jesus came to break these curses, right? Well, unless you’re a bit of a sexist and insist he really didn’t.)

The problem is when these desires go a-wandering towards the wrong people. You can’t go chasing after anyone and everyone you desire. Our culture doesn’t do polygamy: If they belong to someone else, that’s cheating on your or their significant other or spouse; that’s adultery. And though many people in our culture insist, “There’s no harm in looking,” Jesus bluntly stated otherwise:

Matthew 5.27-28 NIV
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ Ex 20.14, Dt 5.17 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Which he followed up by talking about plucking out eyes and lopping off limbs in order to keep from sinning. Mt 5.29-30 Christians prefer to think of those statements as metaphors, and miss Jesus’s point: He really doesn’t want his people to commit adultery. Better to be maimed than ruin all those other people’s lives.

Is this type of love a fruit of the Spirit? Not even close. More like a fruit of the loins. It’s part of the mating instinct. It’s entirely carnal. But there’s nothing wrong with carnality—so long that it stays fully under the control of one’s spirit. Like all our instincts, we have to take control of them, and rule them instead of the other way round. Think with the brain, not the gonads. Use your head.

Yeah, humans are gonna be attracted to one another. Desire one another. Long for one another. That’s fine. Practice all the romance you want. But point it in the right direction: Point it towards a committed relationship with someone you can have. Someone who can belong only to you, and you can belong only to them. “Forsaking all others,” as the marriage vows put it. Romantic love is not the sort of love we throw around indiscriminately. Be careful with it. Don’t break hearts with it—others, or your own.

Various Christians recommend Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon in some bibles, Canticles in others) as a good example of romantic love in action. It can be. We need to remember its historical context: It was written by Solomon, Sg 1.1 a man who had 700 wives and 300 girlfriends. 1Ki 11.3 In a polygamous culture like Solomon’s, it’s not adultery to acquire yet another girlfriend, even though you have a full harem back home. In our culture, it totally is. Some parts of Song of Songs simply won’t apply to modern or Christian culture. Once again: Use your head.

And that whole “three months’ salary” guideline about diamonds? That’s a marketing scam. Don’t fall for that; don’t waste your money on artificially overpriced shiny rocks. (No, that advice isn’t based on the bible. It’s just common sense.)