The Meaning of ‘Faith, Hope, Charity, but the Greatest of These is Charity’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ This well-known quotation contains the three theological virtues, but also raises some interesting questions about what is meant by ‘charity’ here. So let’s take a closer look at this statement.

Chapter 13 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, in the New Testament, is a bit like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of which someone famously quipped ‘there are too many quotations in it’. For this single chapter contains a number of phrases which have become household words, as it were. But before we get to that, what has ‘faith, hope charity, but the greatest of these is charity’ got to do with Corinthians?

The two Epistles to the Corinthians form part of a suite of books from the New Testament known as the Pauline epistles: those letters written by St Paul to various early churches, including those he had helped to found. In this case, St Paul is addressing the early church at Corinth, in southern Greece, which St Paul is thought to have founded in around AD 51, during his second missionary voyage. He is thought to have written 1 Corinthians some time between AD 55 and 57, while he was staying at Ephesus.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians begins with the famous words, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.’ (All quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible.) Immediately, ‘charity’ is mentioned – a word which will also appear (in the King James Version) in the final verse of Chapter 13.

Indeed, the whole of this chapter is regarded by many Bible commentators as being important in conceptualising the idea of agape or divine love (love of God as distinct from erotic or romantic love). But agape is not a well-known word in English: it’s from the ancient Greek agapē which loosely means ‘brotherly love’ or ‘charity’ or ‘love for one’s fellow human beings’. In Christianity, it often refers to the love of God for man, and the love of man for God’.

The Latin equivalent of this word is caritas, which gives us the word ‘care’ as well as ‘charity’. When the English translators were seeking an approximate English equivalent for agape, they chose ‘charity’.

The problem with this word, when we are seeking to understand St Paul’s use of ‘faith, hope, charity’, is that ‘charity’ is a word that has narrowed its meaning over the centuries, so it now tends to refer to caring for someone less well-off than ourselves, giving alms, or donating to good cause. The broader, spiritual and liturgical meaning of ‘charity’ which St Paul intends in this passage is thus lost. It’s one of the problems with translation, where the exact equivalent of a word in one language doesn’t exist in another: only a rough approximation.

So, we’re stuck with ‘charity’, because a more ‘foreign’ and unusual word like ‘agape’ would doubtless ruin the poetry and flow of St Paul’s words, as rendered into English here. We just need to remember that when the word ‘charity’ appears, it refers to this ‘love of man for God, and God for man’.

The succeeding verses of Chapter 13 continue the focus on ‘charity’:

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Having listed the virtues of agape or charity, St Paul then points out that, unlike all other things, this form of love never dies:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

He concludes the thirteenth chapter of the epistle with yet another now ubiquitous quotation:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.


And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

So in summary, when St Paul champions ‘faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity’, he is using ‘charity’ in a somewhat broader sense than we tend to associate with the word ‘charity’ today. It is a kind of love, a divine love, and a two-way love between man and God, and God and man.

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