Re: Synonyms (???) in John

From: Randy Leedy (
Date: Mon Feb 17 1997 - 09:00:00 EST

With his usual thoroughness and thoughtfulness Carl has replied to
the arguments I offered supporting a distinction between AGAPAW and
PHILEW in John 21. And he makes a case that sounds convincing.

Since this topic has been pretty thoroughly worked more than once, I
won't enter into details. But I do have a response at a couple of

>>>(1) I have to say first of all that, while I once felt quite
confident that this distinction between AGAPAW and FILEW in NT usage
was both real and important, I now doubt it seriously. Others have
already shown that the usage of the two verbs in the NT does not
constate this distinction but rather shows them overlapping in sense
so far as to make them virtual synonyms.

I agree that there is overlap, but I don't find it as thorough as
Carl does. For example, the imperative mood of "to love" uniformly
uses AGAPAW. Surely this must be significant. And AGAPAW/AGAPH is
ascribed to God far more frequently than PHILEW/PHILIA. I would like
to see a more even distribution of these words among similar contexts
before I could confidently treat them as interchangeable everywhere.

>>>I honestly believe that Gary Shogren is right on the mark in
asserting that one has to assume this distinction from the outset in
order to find the alternation of the verbs in sequence significant, a
petitio principii. If one doesn't make that assumption, but observes
the actual usage of the words in other passages in the NT, then the
assumption seems to have no support.

We had a thread some time ago on the use of the scientific method in
grammar studies, and I don't see how it is possible not to begin with
one assumption or another. It seems to me that one must form an
hypothesis, then, as objectively as possible (there's the rub), test
it for validity. Let me offer an instance where I was open-minded
enough to reject my initial assumption, just to show that I'm not
just a stubborn blockhead. In comparing Romans 6:1 and 6:15, one
notices that Paul asks similar questions: "Should we continue in
sin?" (v.1) and "Should we sin?" (v. 15). Noting the aorist
subjunctive in v. 15, contrasted with the present in v. 1, I formed
the initial hypothesis that Paul in v. 15 is asking a different
question. In testing the hypothesis, I initially found support in the
wording of v. 1; not just "Should we go on sinning?" (present
subjunctive of hAMARTANW), but "Should we be continuing in sin?",
where the very verb itself ("continue") reinforces the ongoing action
implied by the present tense. Surely the contrast between this and
the simple aorist subjunctive of hAMARTANW in v. 15 must be
significant. So the theory is that Paul in vv. 2-14 is answering the
question whether a believer should continue in habitual sin, while in
v. 15 he raises a different question: whether the believer may
tolerate even an occasional sin.

But the argument in the verses following v. 15 doesn't support the
"occasional sin" interpretation of v. 15; for one thing, the present
tense is used in the verbs for yielding. So the theory is seriously
weakened. A re-inspection of the differences between vv. 1 and 15
brings to light a difference that suits the context much better: the
different excuses offered for a believer's sinning ("that grace may
abound" vs. "because we are under grace rather than law"). I won't go
into the contextual support for this view; this message is already
getting way too long. The changed wording of the question in v. 15 is
best explained, then, not as being a different question, but rather
as a restatement of the original question in the simplest possible

The point of this digression from John 21 is to maintain that it is
not a methodological flaw to begin a study with an assumption, so
long as one is willing to abandon his assumption in the face of
evidence against it. Treat the tenses in Romans 6 like the verbs in
John 21. Is there evidence that the aorist differs from the present?
(Yes.) Is there evidence that the aorist does not differ from the
present? (Yes.) Does the aorist differ from the present in Romans 6:1
and 6:15? (I don't know. Let's assume it does, see what that would
mean, and see if the context supports that meaning. Then let's assume
it doesn't, see what that would mean, and see of the context supports
that view better.)

My initial assumption in interpreting John 21, based on prior
understanding of the key verbs, is that AGAPAW signifies a
self-sacrificing commitment to another's welfare while PHILEW
signifies personal attachement (IMPORTANT NOTE: this is not precisely
the same thing as the divine/human distinction that is sometimes
offered). I find more contextual evidence favoring the assumption
than I find opposing it. But the weighing of the evidence (and there
is, indeed, evidence on both sides) is a subjective matter, and I can
understand how others come out with a different conclusion than I do.

Finally, I don't fully follow Carl's reasoning on the significance of

>>> <snip> Moreover, if one really wants to say that the difference
of the verb is the important thing, then TO TRITON can't really refer
to actual events reported in the narrative as a whole. Peter is
grieved BECAUSE he has been asked for the third time "Do you love
me," not because this is the third time that the verb of the question
is FILEIS. And the question may be asked regarding the reference of
TO TRITON in the first clause of the verse: is it to LEGEI AUTWi: "He
speaks to him for the third time" --or is it to the WHOLE sentence:
"He says for the third time to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love
me." Which is it: addressing him for the third time? or putting this
particular question for the third time? My own inclination is to say
that THE QUESTION is put to Peter for the third time, and that IT IS
THE SAME QUESTION EACH TIME, even though the verb is different.

I see a third possiblity that Carl's arguments don't seem to address,
unless I'm misunderstanding something: Peter is grieved BECAUSE
(emphasis Carl's) Jesus' third question, in contrast to the first
two, challenges even Peter's personal attachment to Him.

If anyone who doesn't have access to the archives wants to see more
detailed contextual support for my view of John 21, I could re-post
my original message from last summer. It might be best for anyone who
wants that information to let me know off-list; I can decide, based
on the number of requests, whether to respond to them individually or
to go ahead and take up space on the list with it.

In Love to God and Neighbor,
Randy Leedy
Bob Jones University
Greenville, SC

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