Anders Nygren’s conduit theory of love

APPENDIX [to dissertation]:

For all of Anders Nygren’s influence on Christian ethical reflection in the twentieth century, only a few theologians and ethicists have been prepared to go the distance with Nygren and present agape and eros as eternal opponents. This is not only true of those whose affiliation with Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, or whose general affinity for the thought of Augustine, might have predisposed them to vindicate some kind of caritas synthesis. It is also true of prominent Protestant, even Lutheran, thinkers who in general were ready to employ Nygren’s basic distinction between agape and eros.

Reinhold Niebuhr offers but one example. While he commended Nygren for his “profound analysis” of the contrast between New Testament love and all love doctrines in classical thought, he suggested nonetheless that Nygren “makes the contrast too absolute.”[1] His brother H. Richard Niebuhr, writing in Christ and Culture, accepted the basic eros/agape paradigm, yet implicitly criticized both Nygren and his elder brother.[2] “Because he [Christ] loves the Father with the perfection of human eros,” wrote the younger Niebuhr, “therefore he loves men with the perfection of divine agape, since God is agape.”[3] Karl Barth, in his discussion of “The Problem of Christian Love” in the Church Dogmatics[4], first agreed with Nygren that there is a “difference and antithesis between Christian and every other form of love.”[5] But then, in a characteristically Barthian move, he gave back some of what he had taken away by making his “final word” on eros a conciliatory one.[6] More recently, and among fellow Lutherans, Gene Outka and Eberhard Jüngel have distanced themselves from Nygren’s position.[7]

The most important of all agapeists, Paul Ramsey, did stay close to Nygren with a consistent argument in his Basic Christian Ethics that Christian love is “love for self inverted.”[8] Yet even Ramsey conceded that Christian ethics must provide “some definition of legitimate concern for the self,” even if it does so “only as a secondary and derivative part” of its enterprise.[9] After all, “as a part of vocational service grounded in Christian love for neighbor, an individual has great responsibility for the development and use of all his natural capacities, or else he takes responsibility for rashly throwing them away.”[10]

Ramsey may actually have provided a clue as to why thinkers indebted to Nygren’s analysis find they cannot fully accept his claims. As ideals — or in Nygren’s preferred anti-Platonic usage, as motifs — agape and eros may each enjoy their distinct conceptual purity. Particularly in a deontological system of ethics, agape may even function for Christians as a kind of categorical imperative.[11] Like Kant’s categorical imperative, it obtains and stands prior to any actual application in the “sensible world” and the philosopher derives it without consideration for the causal demands of that world. Yet if we analyze Ramsey’s statement we notice that as soon as we insert agape into the world of time (“development”) and causative force (“natural capacity”), a world that requires prudence even of idealists (lest they act “rashly”), agape finds it may actually have an interest in eros. To motivate actual human beings to acts of self-denying love, in other words, agape may need to move them toward self-denial from a foundation in right self-love.

In any case, for most of these thinkers the implication that agape and eros have no organic relation to one another in actual human life seems at best counterintuitive. Even a deontologist such as Ramsey must eventually face the question of how to sustain a vocation of “service grounded in Christian love for neighbor” over time, even if this is for him a “secondary and derivative” question. Whether the question is quite so secondary and derivative need not detain us here. The hypothesis we have tested is that self-denial is only coherent, only possible, within a larger account of that good for which one finds it meaningful to deny self. If that is the case, and the duties of agape themselves are only coherent within a larger teleology, then the question of priority and derivation is moot. Ramsey’s admission that this is a legitimate question is enough for the larger argument. How to sustain an ethic of self-denying love over time is precisely “the problem of self-denial” as it has come to our attention.

That agape and eros should have no organic relation to one another in actual human life seems at best counterintuitive, and shifting our focus from the problem of self-love to the problem of self-denial helps us clarify why. First, Nygren’s agape/eros schema supplies few if any specific ethical criteria, whatever its heuristic value. In fairness, this derives in part from the way Nygren understood his tasks; both his method of motif research and his notion of critical ethics distinguish themselves sharply from normative ethics. Both must refrain from all casuistry in order to discern the fundamental principles behind, and tests of validity for, any specific morality.[12] Yet this does not entirely account for the lack of criteria. Imagine a conscientious Christian reading Agape and Eros and asking “Okay, now what? What should I do?” The answer will be entirely formal: “I should love others as Christ loved me, taking no thought for my own needs.” If there is a criterion here, it is that one should allow the other’s need to determine one’s action and take no thought of criteria.

How can the matter be otherwise? Secondly, after all, Nygren has virtually equated Christian love itself with self-denial. Perhaps he did not or could not state this in so many words. Yet the polarity of agape with eros forces this conclusion. Wherever Nygren discerned the eros motif, he ferreted it out by pointing to tell-tale evidence of acquisitive love, self-interest, and self-love. Of course, Nygren could yet reply that these questions miss the mark because agape is really not a human love at all, but preeminently God’s own love. Third, then, we can hardly even begin to ask the question of what sustains right Christian self-denial. Nygren’s answer must be: God alone. And Nygren may have needed no other answer. His real and abiding concern was soteriological not ethical; in continuity with Luther, Nygren sought above all to preserve the sovereignty of God’s saving, loving, initiative from every suggestion that human love itself could either merit salvation or give rise to saving faith (fides caritate formata).[13]

We must face forthrightly the prospect that Nygren’s argument is impervious to any objections or counter-intuitions that we may derive from actual human life. After all, Nygren was quite prepared to admit that agape has nothing to do with human love at all. Midway through Agape and Eros, when Nygren tabulated the differences between the two motifs, he wrote that “Eros is primarily man’s love; God is the object of Eros. Even when it is attributed to God, eros is patterned on human love.” On the other side, “Agape is primarily God’s love; `God is Agape.’ Even when it is attributed to man, Agape is patterned on Divine love.”[14] Elsewhere,[15] and especially toward the end of his book,[16] the logic of Nygren’s position eliminated even the human agency that might seem to take part in this patterning. “In relation to God and his neighbour, the Christian can be likened to a tube, which by faith is open upwards, and by love downwards…. He has nothing of his own to give. He is merely the tube, the channel, through which God’s love flows.”[17]

This is Nygren’s conduit theory of Christian love. It confirms the suspicion that agape belongs properly only to a realm of eternity that plays much the same role in Nygren’s thought as Kant’s “intelligible world” did in his. As one scholar who was otherwise ready to appropriate Nygren’s method warned, “There is reason to fear that motif research may, in the end, escalate the human being out of history, and away from the scene of his actual struggle to a world of clear and untroubled concepts.”[18] Yet as John Burnaby anticipated already in 1938, “Nygren is not to be disturbed by criticism of his analysis on psychological or ethical grounds.”[19] Nygren never was.

After all, if Nygren was right and agape is always, at its source, divine love and not human love at all, then it is God’s business to insert love into human affairs. The answer to the question of what sustains either agape or the self-denial which is its most telling feature, would be that nothing does sustain it except God’s continuing creative agape itself. Divine agape itself creates spontaneously and without motive — Nygren would remind us yet again — for it does not presuppose any good in its object.[20] The most that we can say about the human role is that it is sola fide, through faith alone. But even human faith of itself[21] is empty, a space that is “open upward,” making the human being into a “tube” that is vacuous unless God channels love “downward” through the conduit.

Because we know of agape thanks to the downward “descent” of agape that God has already made into human affairs, however, the matter cannot be quite so simple and static, even for Nygren, as his conduit theory implies. An Augustinian must agree that ultimately the source of all love is God. Yet the weak point in Nygren’s thought appears once we press Nygren about what love does once it begins to flow from its source and through its human conduit. This is the point where Burnaby has suggested he leaves us “hanging in the air.”[22] Though agape is creative, Nygren rarely elaborated on just what Christ’s loving descent has actually effected in human life and history. And it is not hard to see why. If agape always creates ex nihilo without presupposing any value in its object, it must always be starting over. So although Nygren may not then be vulnerable concerning the ultimate source of agape, at least on his own terms, he is vulnerable, even on his own terms, as to its effects.

The point is crucial because what agape effects in human history may well become nonultimate, mediating sources for sustaining agape in history. When God’s agape creates conduits, we might say, they extend not just down but through time. Human acts of self-sacrificial love for others are possible because God the ultimate source of agape creates communities of mutual Christian love. This love is no less Christian because each of its members, in their neediness, love with an eros for the common good, even while they learn over time (not spontaneously) the virtues that predispose them to love even at great cost to themselves.

Leaving aside the divine agape that God expressed in the creation of the universe, then, the preeminent coming of agape in Jesus Christ itself has not left human beings unchanged. Nygren’s conduit theory is coherent only insofar as it brackets the question of how the tube got formed and how it holds its shape (to state things no more crassly than the metaphor itself). Faith may attribute all this too to God’s continued agapeic intervention, and Augustine would ask us, “What do you have that you did not receive … as a gift?”[23] But it is hardly a confession of faith if we deny that agape has the power to create lasting effects.

Nygren never allowed agape to leave any traces — never allowed it to transform but only to create out of nothing — never allowed it to leave some human material with which to pick up its creative work later. Here is where his position becomes untenable. It is most telling that both critics and allies of Nygren have converged in raising much this same objection or in seeking to correct it. In Nygren’s American Festschrift, Viktor Warnach, a Roman Catholic who engaged Nygren’s thought at mid-century, and Ernst Kinder, a Luther scholar who considered Nygren’s reading of the reformer virtually flawless, both recorded similar misgivings on just this point. Agape, wrote Warnach, may be primarily God’s love, and eros human, yet “agape also truly becomes `our love’ (1 Thess. 1:3; Phil. 1:9) and thereby demands our personal participation (2 Cor. 8:7).”[24] Kinder in turn found precedent for the transformation of the human ego in Luther’s imagery of salvation as a joyful exchange between bridal lovers: “We need … to see how our empirical, psychological ego is more and more drawn by the transcendental ego of faith into itself, and pervaded and transformed by it.”[25]

As Oliver O’Donovan has summarized the heart of the matter, “We cannot simply say that agape has no presuppositions, for God presupposes that which he himself has already given in agape.”[26]

Why was this so difficult for Nygren to recognize? He persistently refused to consider agape’s traces or effects in creation because to do so would have left the door open to an immanent soteriology — an account of God’s saving work that affirms ways that creatures somehow participate in the work of their own salvation.[27] Such an account was problematic enough on Nygren’s Lutheran terms, but the more so because from the earliest days of his career he was convinced that theology could only be credible if it was scientific, only scientific if it was empirical, and only empirical if it renounced all metaphysical claims.[28] “Motif research” was in fact Nygren’s alternative. It attempted to analyze any religion, viewed as a historical phenomenon, in order to ascertain and expose its most fundamental presuppositions.

Nygren himself associated his “logical analysis of presuppositions” with Kant’s “transcendental analytical method,”[29] for both sought to strip language and meaning down to the propositions that are “a priori” — logically necessary to all else one might say.[30] In analyzing particular religions, Nygren insisted on retaining a strictly historicist stance, making no metaphysical claims for the presuppositions he discovered in the phenomenon, but only historical ones. A given religion coheres around a given set of presuppositions, and that complex in turn becomes its fundamental and characteristic motif, its grundmotiv. Philosophy might determine the logical necessity of certain presuppositions for religious experience generally, but to argue for the truthfulness of a given tradition’s presuppositions was to pass over onto the sandy soil of metaphysics. The rejection of all metaphysics, he insisted, allowed religion to be religious, and faith to be faith. It also left morality to be morality — something as distinct from religion and philosophy as each of them were from one another.[31]

The revealing contradiction in Nygren’s project is that far from banishing metaphysics from theology or ethics, Christian agape relies on metaphysics entirely. The totality of that reliance relieves Nygren from the need to explain how agape flows through the human beings that are its conduits and (on) into history. In other words, Nygren’s metaphysic defaces itself. The conduit metaphor is so apt because the metaphysic it reflects is entirely formal and empty of content, except as God supplies. Yet an empty metaphysic is a metaphysic nonetheless.[32]

O’Donovan has countered the suggestion of some critics that Nygren had no place for a doctrine of creation. “It could perhaps be argued that the reverse is the case: He has no room for anything other than the doctrine of Creation, since every movement from the divine center has to be presuppositionless, ex nihilo, creative, bringing into existence something quite unprecedented.”[33] The argument extends farther. Far from having no room in his theology for metaphysics, Nygren’s understanding of Christian agape leaves no room for anything but metaphysics.


1. Reinhold Niebuhr, Human Destiny, vol. 2 of The Nature and Destiny of Man, The Scribner Lyceum Editions Library (1943; New York, Scribner’s, 1964) 84 (footnote 16).

2. H. Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbooks/Cloister Library, 1956) 15-28.

3. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture 28.

4. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2 68 (1955, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958).

5. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2 740.

6. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2 748-749. Nothing could reconcile agape and eros or relax the antithesis between them, wrote Barth, yet agape itself affirms and loves “erotic man.” In fact the very attempt by human beings to overcome eros involved, Barth noted, the renewed self-assertion of eros; agape need not overcome eros because agape makes eros superfluous (pp. 750-751). Commenting directly on Nygren, Barth questioned whether the opposition between agape and eros, or agape and the caritas-synthesis, can ever be overcome in history, as Nygren claimed had happened with Luther’s reconstruction of agape-love (p. 738). Barth also readmitted a eudaemonistic element to Christian love when he insisted that if Christians give of themselves grudgingly and without any happiness or joy, “God certainly does not like an uncheerful giver” (pp. 788-789; cf. 2 Cor. 9:7).

7. In Agape: An Ethical Analysis, Outka was prepared both to critique Nygren (pp. 50-54) and to make a place for self-love or at least self-regard (pp. 285-291). In God as the Mystery of the World (trans. Darrell L. Guder, [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983]), Jüngel allowed for a certain “entirely proper distinction” between “the eros-structure of love” and the “agape structure of love” but argued that the I-Thou relationship of actual lovers breaks down that distinction because it “utterly” transforms “`having'” itself (p. 319), or in Nygren’s terminology the core acquisitive character of eros. Jüngel goes on to describe agape as “a power which integrates eros” (p. 338).

8. Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics 100; sic. Also note Ramsey’s defense of Nygren on p. 115, footnote 14.

9. Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics 159.

10. Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics 159.

11. William Riordan O’Connor has argued that we should understand “the nature of the conflict between Nygren’s agape and Augustine’s charitas” as a “clash between a pure deontology and a teleological eudaemonism.” See “The “Uti / Frui” Distinction in Augustine’s Ethics,” Augustinian Studies 14 (1983) 49.

12. Thor Hall, “Nygren’s Ethics,” The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren, ed. Charles W. Kegley, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970) 273. Hall goes on (274) to explain that for Nygren, “critical ethics is concerned with the validity of ethical experience and with the transcendental deduction of the formal category (or categories) underlying this experience as presupposition(s) for validity.” Yet Nygren has been more concerned to distinguish critical ethics from normative ethics than to actually carry out either: “If one should ask, however, how critical ethics goes about its task, Nygren’s answers might be seen to grow disappointingly thin. There is no need to look for the transcendental deduction of the ethical categories anywhere in Nygren’s writings. It is simply not there.”

13. On the solidly soteriological interests behind Luther’s — and by implication, Nygren’s — struggle for “true agape” and against every Augustinian, medieval, Roman Catholic, or scholastic concept of caritas and “fides caritate formata” see Kinder, “Agape in Luther” 204-205.

14. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros: The Christian Idea of Love, revised, retranslated by Philip S. Watson and published in one volume (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953); reprint edition (Chicago: U of Chicago P., 1982) 210.

15. Nygren, Agape and Eros 129.

16. Nygren, Agape and Eros 733-737.

17. Nygren, Agape and Eros 735. Nygren was here summarizing Luther’s position as he understood it, but with obvious approval, for he had identified Luther as the one who destroyed the medieval caritas synthesis rooted in Augustine, and restored agape to its place as true Christian love (p. 721).

18. Heikkinen, “Motif Research and the New Testament,” 138.

19. Burnaby, Amor Dei 17. Cf. Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics 115, footnote 15: “Not much is accomplished by pointing out that some elements in human experience are not taken into account by [Nygren’s] view. Christian ethics should doubtless include all things human, but not necessarily on the ground floor [sic] of its understanding of morality.” One response to Ramsey with regard to Nygren, however, will emerge as we ask whether Nygren’s project really is about morality or ethics at all.

20. Nygren, Agape and Eros 75-77.

21. I.e, faith as a strictly human phenomenon, described apart from its object, Jesus Christ, who according to faith’s own confession must also be precisely what has effected it.

22. Burnaby, Amor Dei 19.

23. 1 Corinthians 4:7.

24. Warnach, “Agape in the New Testament” 148-149.

25. Ernst Kinder, “Agape in Luther,” trans. Lance Garrard, The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren, ed. Charles W. Kegley, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970) 216. Just prior to this statement, Kinder wrote: “The subject in our relation with God is not solely, as in mere faith, the transcendental ego. This, which is undoubtedly the primary and fundamental factor, apprehends, draws in, and interweaves our psychological ego as well. It would, indeed, be a serious misunderstanding to think, whenever Luther speaks of faith, immediately of our empirical psychical ego. Faith is rooted beyond all empirical experience in a new, transcendental ego, evoked from us by God’s call to salvation. But it would be just as perverse to ignore the empirical ego completely in thinking of this transcendental subject in the matter of faith, and to think of the former as entirely unaffected by the latter.”

26. O’Donovan, The Problem of Self-love 159.

27. Cf. O’Donovan, The Problem of Self-love 157.

28. Nygren’s doctoral dissertation was on the religious a priori, but “…My whole analysis [in Religiöst a priori] was designed to show that to speak of anything a priori could be meaningful only if one excluded every thought of something ontological.” Nygren, “Reply to Interpreters and Critics” 350. On the antimetaphysical approach of his thought generally, see Nygren “Intellectual Autobiography,” 12-16; and Hall, Anders Nygren 35, 44, 53-54, 113, 210.

29. Anders Nygren, “Intellectual Autobiography” 16; Hall, Anders Nygren 44, 67; Ragnar Bring, “Anders Nygren’s Philosophy of Religion,” trans. Bernhard Erling, The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren, ed. Charles W. Kegley, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970) 36, 62.

30. Hall explains: “What are presuppositions, then? Nygren defines them as `logically necessary fundamental presuppositions.’ They are the presuppositions that are actually at work in all meaningful experience and language, and which we cannot avoid accepting and depending on if we are to maintain the judgments or statements which we make about the world or about our awareness of it. They are of such a fundamental nature that without them experience itself would not exist. They are basic to all thinking and speaking, determinative of the meaning we experience in experience. They are categorical in the sense of logical necessity, for they are implicit in every assertion we make, already affirmed in the utterance of any proposition.” Hall, Anders Nygren 67.

31. “The mixing together of morality, religion, and knowledge leads, according to Nygren to metaphysics.” Bring, “Anders Nygren’s Philosophy of Religion” 35. Also see Hall, Anders Nygren 78-79.

32. “Significantly,” wrote Hall, “Nygren, confesses that he finds it impossible to avoid describing the Christian life as characterized by some form of Christ-mysticism” along the lines of Gal. 2:20, where according to Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Hall, Anders Nygren 163.

33. O’Donovan, The Problem of Self-love 158.