N. T. Wright on the distinguishing Christian word, agape.

First Corinthians 13 is one of the best-known passages in all of Paul…:

Love is great-hearted; love is kind,
knows no jealousy, makes no fuss,
not puffed up, no shameless ways,
doesn’t force its rightful claim;
doesn’t rage, or bear a grudge,
doesn’t cheer at others’ harm,
rejoices, rather, in the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things;
love hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails….

…the love of which Paul speaks is tough. In fact, it’s the toughest thing there is.

The love of which Paul speaks is clearly a virtue.

It is not a “rule” of the sort that is so out of fashion nowadaysimposed in an arbitrary fashion and to be obeyed out of a sense of duty. (We shall discuss the more serious question of proper rules and their relation to virtue later on.)

It is not a “principle,” a generated rule which a person either obeys or disobeys…

Nor, especially, is it the result of people “doing what comes naturally.”

….love is a virtue. It is a language to be learned, a musical instrument to be practiced, a mountain to be climbed via some steep and tricky cliff paths but with the most amazing view from the top. It is one of the things that will last; one of the traits of character which provides a genuine anticipation of that complete humaness we are promised at the end. And it is one of the things, therefore, which can be anticipated in the present on the basis of the future goal, the telos, which is already given in Jesus Christ. It is part of the future which can be drawn down into the present.

….The early Christians…did with the word agape  pretty much what they did with the ancient notion of virtue. They picked it up, soaked it in the message and achievement of Jesus, and gave it a new life, a new sort of life.

….Paul, like the other early Christians, settled on the word agape to do a job which nobody had realized needed doing until then. Nobody until then had really glimpsed, in quite the way those early Christians did, the challenge to embody a virtue so profound, so life-changing, so community-defining, so revolutionary—both in its nature and its effects, and in the moral character needed to aspire to it—that people in Paul’s own day thought he was mad. Indeed, people ever since, even within the church, have balked at the challenge and settled for second best. Agape sets the bar as high as it can go. The first thing to do before we can discuss it is to acknowledge that we have all failed quite drastically to clear that height. Then, with that on the table, we can set ourselves the task of thinking through, in the first place, what Paul is saying about the “perfect” and “the partial.” This is the key to understanding how he supposes virtue works, and what it consists of.

N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185.