For Martin Luther King, the concept of agape stood at the center of both his spiritual belief in a knowable God and his assertion that love and nonviolence were essential to remedying America’s race problems. He defined agape as “purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart” (Papers 6:325)
In his December 1957 sermon, The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations, delivered before the General Assembly of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America (NCC), King referred to three different types of love: eros, romantic love; philia, the reciprocal affection between friends; and agape, the highest form of love. King explored agape in many of his sermons in order to help illuminate the concept of Christian love.
In papers written during his graduate studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, King credited theologians Anders Nygren and Paul Tillich with helping to inform his definition of agape. In his paper “Contemporary Continental Theology,” King quoted Nygren’s 1932 book Agape and Eros in characterizing agape as a “spontaneous and uncaused” kind of love that is “indifferent to human merit” (Papers 2:127). He drew on Tillich in his dissertation, claiming, “The basic and only adequate symbol for God’s love is agape” (Papers 2:441). In his dissertation, King argued that only a person can express love and used this rationale as justification for personalism, the belief in a personal God, one to whom people could relate. Harry Emerson Fosdick also influenced King’s thinking on agape. In his discussion on love, King used language very similar to Fosdick’s 1946 sermon “On Being Fit to Live With.”
In many of his sermons King spoke of agape as a way to explain the use of nonviolence in race relations. “At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love,” said King before the NCC. “When we rise to love on the agape level,” he continued, “we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does” (Papers 6:324; 325).
King, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” 15 April 1955, in Papers 2:339–544.
King, “A View of the Cross Possessing Biblical and Spiritual Justification,” 29 November 1949–15 February 1950, in Papers 1:263–267.
King, The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations, Address Delivered at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches, 4 December 1957, in Papers 6:322–328.
King, “Contemporary Continental Theology,” 13 September 1951–15 January 1952, in Papers 2:113–139.
Nygren, Agape and Eros, 1932.