Agape vs. Phileo in John 21

I am preaching John 21 this Sunday and have gone around and around with this… here are my thoughts on the distinction between agape and phileo. This discussion has been around for quite a while, but has been renewed by changes in the recent updates to the 2011 NIV translation. Here is the passage in John 21 from the 1984 version of the NIV (emphasis added):

"15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep."

Notice Jesus' use of the phrase "truly love" as distinguished from Peter's answer of simply "love". The 1984 NIV translates this way in order to show the distinction between the word agape (which Jesus uses twice) and phileo (which Peter uses all three times, and Jesus uses the third time). However, in the 2011 NIV this distinction has been removed, and both words are translated the same, simply as "love" (as opposed to "truly love" for the case of agape in the 1984 NIV).

Why was this change made?

Current scholarship believes that a meaningful distinction between these two words for love does not exist here in John 21. Many point to John’s tendency to use synonyms as a stylistic tool and say that because John likes to use synonyms, we should deduce no other meaning than that. They also point to the fact that these two words are used interchangeably in some places in scripture, where Godly love is described as phileo and wordly love is described as agape. So therefore it is not safe to attach any strict definitions to the words. They can mean the same thing, simply love, and John is only making use of them both here in order to avoid repetition.

But there are a couple problems with this reasoning.

First, it doesn’t actually seem to be true that John uses these words interchangeably to avoid repetition. There are six passages in the John’s writings where agape is used multiple times: Jn 14:15-31 (15 times in 15 verses – no phileo); Jn 15:9-17 (9 times in 8 verses – no phileo); Jn 17:23-26 (5 times in 4 verses – no phileo); 1 Jn 3:1-23 (9 times in 23 verses – no phileo); 1 Jn 4:7-21 (27 times in 15 verses – no phileo). There are only 2 passages where both words are used, John 11:3-36 (where phileo is used twice – once by Martha and once by the pharisees; and agape is used once by the narrator) and John 21:15-17.

So the stylistic argument doesn’t seem to pass muster. John seems more than willing to repeat agape many times over without resorting to phileo for style. Additionally, we likely assume that Jesus and Peter were speaking in aramaic, and so we do not have a definite knowledge of what words were actually used. We only know what greek words John chose to describe the conversation. And since style does not seem to be a plausible motivation for his choice here, we are left to wonder why he chose different words.

Secondly, although I accept that the two words may be fairly synonymous, and that there has been much meaning attached to them that is unwarranted, the fact remains that they are different words. So let us agree with the scholars that the words are mainly synonymous, yet slightly different, and that we should not attach strict definitions to them in order to distinguish them. In so agreeing, we can STILL deduce a deeper meaning from the dialogue than what appears in the 2011 NIV translation.

For example, if I were to ask you a question such as “do you love me”, and you were to answer, “yes, I do care greatly for you”, I would be left to wonder if you had really answered my question or not. If you were to answer, “yes, I have deep feelings for you”, or “yes, I am very much fond of you”, or if you were to insert ANY other synonym for love other than the specific word I had used, I could have cause to be suspicious of your answer. Why would you answer me by using a different word? Even if that word was for the most part synonymous? It would be an uncertain answer, a vague answer, an evasive answer.

Attorneys and politicians often answer questions in this way to avoid admitting something or to appear to be in agreement with a statement without actually committing to full agreement, saying what they want to say rather than giving a clear and direct affirmation. And it seems to me that answering a question in this evasive manner would almost certainly result in what we find in John 21, a repeating of the question.

So I believe that there is an implication in Peter’s answer that he does not want to fully agree with Jesus’ question “do you love me”. He wants to say yes, but he can’t fully do it. He does love Jesus, but he feels the guilt of his denial. Maybe he isn’t exactly sure what Jesus means by “love”. And though he knows that he does love Jesus, to be safe, he uses a slightly different word to describe it. Maybe he is afraid of Jesus’ rebuttal? “If you love me, why did you deny me?” So he uses a different word to try to avoid that. Whatever the possible motivation, Peter's answer seems evasive.

So I think we are right to point out a distinction between the words in John 21. At the same time, we are right to move away from the popular definitions of agape and phileo that are inaccurate and can be very misleading. But fully dismissing any possibility of there ever being a meaningful distinction between the two seems obtuse. Especially in John 21, where a slight distinction is very explanatory for the repetition of the question, as opposed to the somewhat reaching (yet very popular) explanation that Jesus asks three times due to Peter’s three denials. I would argue that it is safer to teach that Jesus repeated the question due to Peter’s evasiveness, because that at least is found clearly implied in the text. A direct connection to the three denials is not nearly as clear. But the 2011 NIV takes the distinction away from the average reader, removing the more obvious reasoning for the repetition, and leaving them to draw more speculative conclusions. Hardly an improvement, even if undertaken for good reason.