A Book Review from Books at a Glance
by Thomas Haviland-Pabst
Oda Wischmeyer is Professor Emerita of Ancient Judaism and New Testament at University of Erlangen. In the English preface to this monograph, the author states that it is her purpose to “shed new light on the theological and anthropological inspiration of the concept of agape” (xiv) while entering in into “dialogue with Christian and non-Christian positions” (xiv) on love.
The book consists of an introduction, six chapters and a conclusion. With the introduction, as one might imagine, the author sets the stage for the book. She states that it is her intention to “present anew the New Testament concept of love in such a way that it can gain a hearing in the current discussion about love” (2, emphasis original). She argues that while “the phenomenology of love” (4) in the ancient Near East and ancient Greece is broad, with early Christian writers, it takes on a particular focus. It becomes a concept which describes “the common form of life of the Christ-confessing members of the” church of God (4).
The first chapter discusses the love commandments (love God and love neighbor) in the NT and in early Christian tradition (esp. Justin Martyr and the Didache). The second chapter gives attention to the historical contexts of love, specifically the use of agape in the Septuagint and eros in Plutarch. The third chapter traces the use of agape in the Pauline Epistles, the Gospel of John, 1 John, and, by way of support, 1 Clement. Here, she argues that, while Paul’s treatment of agape is congruent with the OT understanding of the two love commandments, he moves beyond it by disclosing and developing “distinct, new terminological horizons for” (78) agape.
The fourth chapter, building on chapters 1-3, explores the concept of love in the NT. Two insights emerge from this chapter:  “the new life form of love for the members of the [Christian] community … [therefore] love is determined not simply ethically but in a theological-christological way” (164) and  “love as a relational concept has to do with persons and their history … [thus] what constitutes the special character of the New Testament conception [of love] is its theological-narrative character” (165).
Chapter 5 compares the NT concept of love, as seen in ch. 4, with contemporaneous  ‘destructive counter-conceptions’ (e.g., self-love, hatred, and fear);  parallel concepts (e.g., mercy and virtues); and  ‘alternative ethical-religious life concepts’ (e.g., discipleship, holiness, and justice). From this comparison and contrast, she discerns four aspects of the concept of love:  “fundamental basis”;  “communitarian ethos”;  “emotion”; and  “bridge into the eschaton” (222, emphasis original). Furthermore, she writes that “these four aspects, in the framework of the narrative of the love of God, form the distinct concept of love in the New Testament” (222).
Chapter 6 discusses the modern and post-modern conceptions of love, discussing a range of thinkers such as sociologists, philosophers, feminist theorists and “the encyclical of Benedict XVI” (261). With the conclusion (‘Looking Forward’), the author offers some suggestions regarding how the early Christian concept of love relates to modern conceptions.
To begin with, this is a thoroughly argued and well-organized exploration of the concept of love in the NT and how it relates to contemporary concepts of love. Before noting additional insights of this work, a few deficiencies ought to be mentioned. First, Wischmeyer writes from a moderately critical perspective and, as such, at times she sees discontinuity between authors of the NT that pits them against each other. One instance of this is when she sees the love that exists among Christians as limiting the love that we ought to have for our neighbor. Thankfully, though, this critical approach does not detract from the work overall.
Second, in her exegesis of the story of the (presumably) adulteress woman in Lk 7, the author argues that she receives forgiveness because she loves Jesus so greatly (“This [love] is the foundation for the forgiveness,” 146), which does not adequately consider Jesus’s statement in 7:50, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (ESV). Third, in the author’s exegesis of Ephesians 5:21-33, she argues that love (agape) is connected to marriage yet denies that the NT connects the concept of love explicitly with sexuality, stating that Eph 5 has in view “not … corporeal love but the spiritual interaction with each other” (169, emphasis original). One wonders, in light of Eph 5:31-32, if “spiritual interaction” can be so easily abstracted from sexuality expression in marriage.
Nevertheless, there are a variety of strengths that attend this work. First, she does not shy away from affirming the a priori NT exclusion of “homoeroticism and homosexuality” from “‘natural’ sexual behavior” (173). Second, contrary to much theological scholarship, she argues that Jesus’s death was sacrificial in nature.
Most significantly, her trenchant exploration of the concept of love in the NT, situated in its broader historical context, brings to the fore the rich nature of love for the NT authors. While it is ethical, interpersonal, emotional, and the ground of the Christian community, it is also deeply Christological, theological, and eschatological. Regarding the latter, the concept of love, Wischmeyer powerfully argues, takes place in God’s story and God’s involvement in our stories. Thus, she shows in her engagement with current understandings of love, with the exception of the Catholic encyclical, that they sorely miss the mark by divorcing love from its very real theological reality as expressed in the NT and, as such, she makes the pertinent suggestion that while this NT concept may, in many ways, stand in contrast to love as currently understood, it may also serve to inspire the (post)modern person to the “transcendent origin and eschatological reach of love” and thus provide “the human love stories with the emotional significance that the post-Christian conceptions cannot present and make plausible” (270). To conclude, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the NT concept of love and how it pertains to our current cultural climate.
Buy the books
LOVE AS AGAPE: THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CONCEPT AND MODERN DISCOURSE, by Oda Wischmeyer