The January 8th discussion centered on the Gospel Reading, 1 John 4:11-18, which begins, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another,” and goes on to say, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” That sounds like Mystical Union!” It seems to be a pretty heavy theological burden to be borne by a word we use to explain how we feel about popcorn, chocolate, fishing, baseball, and various other unimportant and non-productive indulgences.
Depending on the Bible translation used, that simple word, “love,” may be listed, with faith and hope, as one of the three theological virtues which
- “adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature,
- relate directly to God,
- dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity, and
- have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object.”
But, according to the Catechism, source of the four descriptors above, the three theological virtues are not faith, hope, and love but rather faith, hope, and charity! (See Catechism)
Those three theological virtues are found in the Bible in three primary texts, all words of St. Paul, inspired by The Holy Spirit. They are:
- 1 Thessalonians 1:2-4 We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers loved by God, how you were chosen.
- 1 Corinthians 13:13 So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
- Colossians 1:3-5 We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the holy ones because of the hope reserved for you in heaven.
For now, ignore faith and hope and focus on the deep scriptural meaning of the greatest of the three, love. Agape is the Greek word translated love in these three passages. Here is what Strong’s Concordance says about the meaning of agape. Read more HERE.
That definition seems a bit weak given the importance of the word in the New Testament. So, how have Bible translators dealt with that Greek word agape? Bible Gateway, which is linked at this website, will generate a list of all English translations of a verse. Here is that list for 1 Corinthians 13:13. Of 59 English translations listed, agape is translated as love in 52 and as charity, consistent with wording of the three theological virtues, in the other seven.
So, why is charity the chosen translation for four King James Versions including the BRG Bible, plus the Jubilee Bible, the Wycliff Bible, and the Douay-Rheims Bible? I think the answer to that question is that those are all old translations, hundreds of years old, and were most certainly influenced by use of the Latin word caritas to translate agape in St. Jerome’s 4th century Latin Vulgate, the Latin Bible of the Catholic Church. The Douay-Rheims is not just influenced by but is an English translation of the Vulgate rather than of the original languages. The English translation of caritas is, of course, charity. So, now we know why the Catholic theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity rather than faith, hope, and love, and we can ask what that translation from agape to caritas reveals about the 1st century meaning of agape.
At this link is a good discussion of the reason for translating as caritas. It references a quote from the Latin writings of St. Augustine: I mean by charity (caritas) that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and one’s neighbor in subordination to God;” That makes a pretty good case for the Greek to Latin switch but, in 21st century American English, charity means as little as sending a check for $20 or so to Oliver Gospel or The Salvation Army around Christmas or slipping a couple of bucks to a homeless person on the streets of Columbia, nothing like the deep meaning St. Augustine expressed. At this link is a definition and several example sentences which illustrate the full meaning of caritas.
Since our theology and salvation history begin in the ancient Hebrew Old Testament, and since the Vulgate and Septuagint were translations from Hebrew, we should pay attention to what the Old Testament teaches about the love of God. Here is a beautiful OT proclamation about God and his Love. It shows up a dozen or so times with minor wording variations:
The single Hebrew word translated steadfast love in this verse is chesed which has a suggested meaning of lovingkindness or devotion. It can be translated as gracious, merciful, kind, good, or to bend or bow oneself, but is translated in the King James Version 26 times as lovingkindness, a strong word that covers motive and action, love followed by corporal or spiritual acts of mercy. I’m going to extrapolate and suggest that since the time and culture of the early Christian Jews was the same as that of the early non-Christian Jews, agape had a similar meaning, making the translation to caritas reasonable and logical.
Does all this mean that anyone who doesn’t use an English bible that translates agape as charity in 1 Corinthians 13 misses the boat on understanding the theological meaning of love? No, there is plenty of evidence of that meaning in the fact that “God so loved (agape) the world that he gave his only Son…” That is a perfect example of love-driven action. John could have written, “God so loved the world that he hoped everybody would do OK,” but that would have been a false statement. (See James 2:14-17)
There is one potential problem with using an English Bible that translates agape as charity. If it is read from the KJV at a wedding, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity,” the guests might think they are at a fund-raiser instead of a wedding and start asking how their donation checks should be made out. At least that would mean they were taking the word seriously, if incorrectly.
Extra Credit: Why is love(charity) the greatest of faith, hope, and love(charity)?
And one final thought: Some have reversed the order of “God is love” to read “Love is god.” Not so!