More on Faith, Hope, and Charity

In my previous post I looked at the structure of a sentence written by the Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker and quoted by Herbert Read in his book, English Prose Style. In this post I will look at the context of the sentence, both internal and external. I begin by repeating the passage for ease of comparison:

“Concerning faith, the principal object whereof is that eternal verity which hath discovered the treasures of hidden wisdom in Christ; concerning hope, the highest object whereof is that everlasting goodness which in Christ doth quicken the dead; concerning charity, the final object whereof is that incomprehensible beauty which shineth in the countenance of Christ the Son of the living God; concerning these virtues, the first of which beginning here with a weak apprehension of things not seen, endeth with the inclusive vision of God in the world to come; the second beginning here with a trembling expectation of things far removed and as yet but only heard of, endeth with real and actual fruition of that which no tongue can express; the third beginning here with a weak inclination of heart towards him unto whom we are not able to approach, endeth with endless union, the mystery whereof is higher than the reach of the thoughts of men; concerning that faith, hope, and charity, without which there can be no salvation, was there ever any mention made saving only in that law which God himself hath from heaven revealed?”

Internal context

This sentence from Hooker, when I first read it, felt like a sort of reverse dinumeratio. Dinumeratio is a figure in which some terms are briefly mentioned in a list and then discussed more extensively in order. The figure is sometimes described as “elaborated reprise”. I have found examples in various writers, from the ancient Greek novelist Achilles Tatius to Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Brontë and Vladimir Nabokov—but for some reason dinumeratio isn’t much discussed in the handbooks of rhetoric; I had to hunt around to find the name for it.

This sentence seems to follow the same principle as dinumeratio, but in reverse—that is, it begins with elaborations, two elaborations in fact, of the three key terms, in the first and second tricola, and it ends with summation in which the terms are listed. This structure is indicated in the three different triplets beginning with the word “concerning”: “Concerning faith . . . concerning hope . . . concerning charity”; “concerning these virtues, the first of which beginning . . . the second beginning . . . the third beginning”; and finally, “concerning that faith, hope, and charity. . . .”

The structure was clear enough, but I felt that something was missing—the list at the beginning. So I found the original passage online and I discovered that this sentence is prefaced by a short introduction in which the three key terms are listed: “Not that God doth require nothing unto happiness at the hands of men saving only a naked belief (for hope and charity we may not exclude) but that without belief all other things are as nothing, and it be the ground of these other divine virtues”. Thus the passage in context begins with a list of the three divine virtues (faith, hope, and charity), continues with two elaborations of the list (“concerning faith . .  . concerning hope . . . concerning charity; the first of which . . . the second . . . the third”) and then a summary repetition of the three (“concerning that faith, hope, and charity”). The sentence as Read quotes it doesn’t show the whole structure. In context, it is clearly a dinumeratio with a repeated summary at the end.

External Context

The three divine virtues, according to Hooker, are faith, hope, and charity. This triad of virtues was familiar to me; it comes from one the most famous and most beautiful passages in the New Testament, Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. The whole chapter is too long to quote here, so I will give just the beginning and the ending, in the King James’ version:

“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. 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 move mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. . . . When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

If you look in a modern English translation of the Bible (such as the American Standard Version or the Revised Standard Version) you will find that the three key terms are faith, hope, and love rather than faith, hope, and charity. Someone who is familiar with just a modern translation might not recognize Hooker’s reference to 1 Corinthians 13. The King James’ version is far from perfect, and the modern translations try to do better. So perhaps the King James’ version and Hooker just got the translation wrong.

Hooker didn’t derive the translation “charity” from the King James’ version; he died in 1600, and the King James’ version appeared 1611. The Geneva Bible, (published, at least the New Testament, in 1557) uses “love” rather than “charity”. Tyndale’s New Testament, (1526) also uses “love” rather than “charity”. John Wycliffe’s English Bible (the middle of the fourteenth century) uses “charity” rather than “love”; it’s unlikely that Hooker used Wycliffe—it wasn’t widely used by his time. So Wycliffe, Hooker, and the King James’ all agree on “charity”, while the Geneva Bible, Tyndale, and modern translations use “love”.

Hooker was a good scholar, so perhaps he read this passage in the Greek New Testament. The word in question, the word which Hooker translates “charity” and which modern translators translate “love”, is “agape”; so the three divine virtues in Greek are “pistis”, “elpis”, and “agape”. There’s no problem with the first two: “pistis” means “faith” and “elpis” means “hope”; but what does “agape” mean?

The word “agape” is curious. According to Thayer’s dictionary of New Testament Greek, the noun “agape” is not found in classical Greek at all. The verb “agapao”, meaning “to love”, does occur, but not the noun “agape”. The usual Classical Greek nouns for “love” are “eros”, “philia”, and “storge”; the meanings of these are flexible, but “eros” tends to mean physical love and desire; “philia” often refers to the love of family and friends—the big Greek dictionary defines it as “affectionate regard”; “storge” can refer to the love of parents for children, but it isn’t used much in classical Greek.

The word “agape” first appears a few times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which dates from the third and second century BCE, as a translation of the Hebrew word for “love”. It appears in the Song of Solomon, for instance, Chapter 2, verses 4, 5, and 7; according to Thayer, this passage is “good evidence respecting the idea which the Alexandrian translators had of love in the Song”; I think he means that they wanted to avoid the erotic connotations of existing Greek words for love, especially “eros”, so they invented the noun “agape”; since this was derived from the verb “agapaô”, which was not uncommon, it would have been easily understood even when it was new.

Now that this word “agape” existed, it was adopted by some of the writers of the New Testament to name a kind of love that wasn’t named by any classical Greek word—Christian love: the love of God for humanity, or the love we should have for God, or the love that Christians should have for each other. For this kind of love the writers of the New Testament regularly used “agape”. According to Thayer’s dictionary, the Greek word “eros” does not occur in the Greek New Testament, nor does “storge”, and “philia” occurs just once. The new word “agape”, however, does occur: once in Matthew and once in Luke, and it is used particularly in the letters of Saint Paul (some of which were written by others and ascribed to him).

The Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, was translated from the Greek by Saint Jerome (and others) in the late fourth century CE. The usual Latin word for “love” is “amor”, and this word, like the Greek word “eros”, has connotations which seemed wrong for the new Christian concept of love. Jerome is not entirely consistent, but often he translated the Greek “agape” with Latin “caritas”, or as he spelled it, “charitas”, which means “affection, love, esteem”. The feeling of “caritas” is the feeling you have for something that is dear to you. Latin “caritas” or “charitas” is the etymological root of the English word “charity”. Where the Vulgate used “caritas”, Wycliffe and Hooker and the King James’ version used English “charity”. There is no Latin verb cognate with “caritas”, however, so Jerome sometimes used the verb diligere.

Translation is never easy or perfect; there is never a word-to-word match from one language to another. Biblical translation is particularly difficult, partly because of the delicacy of the theological issues that can be involved and partly because of the weight of earlier translations. Probably “love” is better than “charity” as a translation for “agape”; that translation then may weaken the effect of Hooker’s allusion, but that’s a price many will be willing to pay.

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