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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2


In this chapter, the Apostle points out what the “more excellent way,” referred to in verse 31, of preceding chapter, is. It is charity, the excellence of which he establishes.

First. On the ground of its absolute, indispensable necessity for salvation: since without it, the most distinguished gifts whether of tongues, of prophecy, or miracles, as well as the most heroic acts of virtue will ultimately prove of no avail (1, 2, 3).

Secondly.—On the ground of its utility; since it prompts us to practice all the other virtues. This he shows by pointing out the acts of virtue, both positive and negative, which charity dictates, and which are its leading features and characteristics (4–7).

Thirdly.—On the ground of its perpetuity and continuance, even in the life to come, when the other theological virtues shall cease, and the several gratuitous gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, shall be destroyed (8–13).


1. If I possess the gifts of tongues in so extraordinary a degree, as to speak not only all human languages, but also languages as exquisite, as we could suppose the angels themselves to employ, were they to speak and have not charity, I am become like the sounding brass or the tinkling cymbal, which wears away, while emitting a pleasing sound.

2. Suppose me to have even a more perfect gift still, viz., the gift of prophecy, and to be versed in all wisdom, so as to know all the mysteries of faith, and in all knowledge, so as to propound these truths in an intelligible manner, and to have all faith, including that by which I could remove mountains, and to be devoid of charity, I am of no value before God.

3. Nay, suppose me to perform the most heroic acts of virtue, such as giving up all my substance to feed the poor, and delivering my body to the flames in testimony for the faith, and that I had not charity, it would be of no avail to me.

4. The characteristic marks of this charity are the different acts of virtue which it dictates. First, charity is “patient”: it dictates to us to fly all feelings of revenge, and to bear the defects and faults of our neighbour, be they ever so disagreeable. It is “kind”: that is, free from all moroseness, and disposes us to serve and act an obliging part towards all. It “envies not”: it does not grieve to see another more exalted either in spiritual or temporal matters, or in possession of greater gifts. It “dealeth not perversely”: it guards its possessor against acting indiscreetly, and in a preposterous or disorderly manner; it prompts him to do all things at a proper time and place, and with a due regard to circumstances. It “is not puffed up” on account of any superior gift or advantage whatever.

5. It is not “ambitious” of high honours: and hence, will not stoop to the mean disgraceful artifices resorted to by such as inordinately aspire after honours. “Seeketh not her own”: does not seek her own selfish advantage, or private emolument, to the injury of public edification, and of the general good. “Is not provoked to anger”: is not prone to revenge or to passionate excitement, on account of insults or injuries received. “Thinketh no evil”: gives our neighbour’s actions the best construction they can admit.

6. It takes no complacency in the iniquities and wrongs practised upon our neighbour, nor does it take pleasure in the misfortunes that may chance to befall him; it rather feels delight in justice being done to all, and in their prosperity and good fortune.

7. It bears all our neighbour’s defects, and props him up in his infirmities. It believes all things of our neighbour’s virtues, that can be prudently credited. It hopeth all things, that can be prudently expected from him. It endureth all adverse treatment, persecution calumny—even death itself.

8. Charity is never to cease, either in this life or in the life to come, whether prophecies be made void (for they will be of no use, when all things will be clearly seen); or tongues shall cease (when in our heavenly country, there will be no one requiring instruction); or science based on faith shall be destroyed by the brilliant light of glory.

9. And that both knowledge and prophecy shall be destroyed is clear from their being merely suited to the imperfect condition of the present life, in which we can only require imperfect knowledge, and can only imperfectly explain the things for which the gift of prophecy is given.

10. But when the perfect state shall have arrived, then, the things suited to a state of imperfection shall be made void.

11. What I have been saying regarding the cessation of the gift of knowledge, that is to say, the faculty of explaining the truths of faith by human reasoning and of the gift of prophecy, that is to say, the faculty of explaining revealed truth in a prophetic way, may be elucidated by the example of the two different states of childhood and manhood. As the language, the judgments, the thoughts of a child, are wholly unsuited to the state of full-grown manhood, so would the imperfection necessarily inherent in the gifts of knowledge, prophecy, &c., be unsuited to the perfect state of Christian manhood in the life to come.

12. Now, we see God, and the truths of revelation, through the mirror of faith, obscurely, however, and indistinctly; but in heaven we shall see him clearly and distinctly “face to face.” Now I know but a few things, and in an imperfect way; but then I shall know God in his Divine essence, with a knowledge similar to that which he has of me, clear and distinct, but, of course, unequal.

13. But, now, in this life there remain three virtues—faith, hope, and charity, which are necessary for perfect justice; but the most excellent of these is charity.


1. “The tongues of men,” that is, all idioms spoken by the different nations of the earth, “and of angels,” and hyperbole, intended to express all the languages, the most exquisite that are, or can be spoken either on earth or in heaven—“as sounding brass, or a tinkling,” &c., which wears away while emitting a pleasant sound; hence, such a gift, no matter how highly prized by others, would be of no use to its possessor. It is the circumstance of the inutility of the gift of tongues to its possessor, without charity, that the apostle considers in speaking of the “sounding brass.” This is more clearly expressed, verse 3, “it profiteth me nothing.”

But a question here suggests itself, viz.: what is the “charity to which the Apostle refers? Is it the virtue of charity, “which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Ghost, who is given us” (Rom. 5), the virtue peculiar to the sons of God, that always accompanies sanctifying grace, and is held by some Divines to be the same with it? Or, does he merely refer to actual charity, without which he would appear to hold that no other acts of virtue are conducive to salvation? The difficulty against the first interpretation is, that we cannot suppose, should a catechumen, who has not sanctifying grace, perform certain good acts (v.g.), of faith, hope, or charity, that such acts will profit him nothing; since it is by such acts, under the influence of actual divine grace, he is to dispose himself for the remission of his sins and for obtaining sanctifying grace. The same applies to a Christian in mortal sin, while preparing himself for the sacrament of Penance. The difficulty against the second interpretation is, that it would appear to follow from it, that no act elicited from any other than a motive of charity is of any avail to salvation. What, then, will become of acts of faith, hope, fear of God, &c.? Those who hold the second interpretation, viz.: that the Apostle speaks of actual charity, understand by “charity” in this passage, not acts of love, but any good intention—any pious affection of the soul towards God. They say, it merely excludes any bad or sinister motive in the performance of an action. Hence, according to them, the passage means: “If I perform any act, or exercise any gift, with any other than a good intention—with any other than a good motive—it profits me nothing.” And these also include—“If I retain odium or hatred for my neighbour, in the exercise of such gifts, it profits,” &c.; for, the scope of the Apostle, according to them, requires such to be added. The first interpretation, according to which the Apostle treats of the virtue of charity, seems preferable; for, he compares it with the virtues of faith and hope; and it is only the virtue that could properly be called “charity.” Of course, acts of the virtue are included under it, to the exclusion of every other contrary act, particularly the harbouring of enmity or ill-will for our neighbour. The difficulty against this interpretation, derived from the case of the catechumen, &c., is thus solved by A’Lapide. The Apostle considers the acts referred to in the three first verses, as not ultimately followed by habitual charity; in that case, these acts are of no avail before God; for, being mere dispositions, they would be worth nothing, unless eventually followed by the form to which they lead, viz., charity.

2. “And if I should have prophecy.” A gift which, in the following chapter, the Apostle proves to be superior to the gift of tongues. “And should know all mysteries;” this is the same with the gift which, in the preceding chapter, he terms “the word of wisdom.” “And all knowledge,” the same as “the word of knowledge,” (chap. 12 verse 8). “And all faith.” The faith of miracles, which includes Christian faith. Hence faith can be found without charity; for, the other gifts of tongues and prophecy can be found in a man devoid of charity; and the acts of virtue referred to in verse, 3, can be performed by a man who is not in the state of sanctifying grace. The Apostle, therefore, evidently supposes, that this perfect faith can also be found in such a person; although in the ordinary course of Providence it is only to his friends that God accords so exalted a gift.

3. “It profiteth me nothing.” This, of course, is to be understood of charity in the sense already mentioned, of not being eventually followed by habitual charity. Suppose that these acts of virtue are not followed by sanctifying grace; suppose that martyrdom, for instance, which, if undergone in the true Church, produces grace, ex opere operato, was prevented from having this effect, either because the sufferer was a heretic or a schismatic, or had not the proper dispositions (v.g.) should he retain hatred or enmity for his neighbour (for, on such a person, the sacraments, which produce grace, ex opere operato, would not confer sanctifying grace), such acts are of no avail before God. Hence, the excellence of charity on the ground of its absolute, indispensable necessity for salvation.

4. The Apostle now proceeds to enumerate the marks of charity, or rather the acts which it dictates to the person in whom it reigns. He is referring in the following, not to the actus eliciti, peculiar to the virtue, but to the actus imperati, as they are called, of charity. The elicited acts of charity are mere acts of love of God and of our neighbour. As queen of virtues, it condemns all acts opposed to this two-fold love. First, it is “patient,” i.e., it dictates not to seek revenge for injuries received. The Greek word for “patient,” is, μακροθυμει, long suffering, or enduring. It denotes that mildness of disposition, which secures us against anger or vengeance. “Is kind;” opposed to all moroseness (see Paraphrase). “Dealeth not perversely,” οὐ περπερευεται—derived from the old Latin Perperus, or rather from the Eolic word, περπερος—it is not preposterous or indignant. If it can effect no good, it will avoid doing positive harm. “Is not puffed up,” it employs all gifts for the good of others, and it loves God too much to prostitute the grace of his gifts to fame and self-aggrandisement.

5. “Is not ambitious.” The Greek word, ασχη ονεῖ, means, doth not act a shameful part, that is, as in Paraphrase, will not stoop to mean, disgraceful artifices to secure honores, which is the same as “ambitious” according to the Vulgate.

7. “Beareth all things,” may also mean, it foregoes many rights and privileges sooner than endanger fraternal union; or, as in Paraphrase it supports our neighbour in his infirmities, props him up, like a pillar—this is the meaning of the corresponding Greek word, στεγει, according to some—according to others, it means, to palliate and silently conceal our neighbour’s defects. “Believeth all things.” This and the following are to be understood in a negative sense, as excluding all feelings of mistrust and diffidence in our neighbour’s virtue, when this can prudently be done.

8. In this verse, the Apostle points out the superior excellence of charity on the ground of its perennial, eternal duration. “Never falleth away”; by some Commentators these words are understood to mean, that charity will remain in the Church at all times, while the other gifts are not to extend beyond its infant state. However, the interpretation in the Paraphrase, which refers the words to the life to come, is preferable; since the reason which is assigned by the Apostle, for the abolition of the other gifts, viz., their imperfection, or rather their unsuitableness for any other than an imperfect state, shows that he makes the superior excellence of charity consist in its remaining in the life to come, and its being suited, unlike the other gifts, to so perfect a state.

11. QUERITUR.—Is not the charity also of this life imperfect? Why not, then, cease in the life to come, as well as prophecy, knowledge, &c.

RESP.—These latter gifts are imperfect, and to remove their imperfection, so as to render them suited to the life to come, they must altogether change their species; for the obscurity of the knowledge conveyed by these several gifts is founded on the obscurity of faith, of which they are, in this life, the means and instruments. When, therefore, the obscurity of faith shall be exchanged, in the next life, for the clearness of vision, these other gifts shall be no longer useful, and shall, consequently, cease with the end to which, as so many means, they subserved; whereas, charity, although intensified, and from being imperfect rendered perfect in the next, shall still be specifically the same, with the charity of the present life.

12. “We see now through a glass in a dark manner.” By the “glass,” εσοπτρον, some understand the thick, but transparent substance, which alone was used, in many instances, by the ancients, for the admission of light (v.g.), horn, pellucid stone, &c.; through these, they saw but indistinctly and imperfectly. Others (as in Paraphrase), understood it of a mirror, and the clearness of vision in the mirror is removed by the Apostle in the words, “in a dark manner,” which refers to an indirect vision, opposed to the direct way of looking “face to face.” Our mirror, through which we see the truths of faith is Divine revelation. We do not see the truths of faith either in God or in themselves, but in God’s revelation. In heaven we shall see God, intuitively, as he is “face to face.” The grace of the present life would not enable us to see God in this way. The supernatural assistance, which is termed, lumen gloriæ, is necessary to see God, intuitively, as he is, in the life to come. This has been defined in the General Council of Vienne, held A.D. 1311, under Clement V., against the Beguards and Beguines, who maintained, among other points of doctrine, as impious as they were extravagant—“quælibet intellectualis natura in seipsa est beata nec anima indiget LUMINE GLORIÆ ad Deum vivendum.”

13. Faith shall be exchanged in the life to come for vision, and hope for fruition, while charity shall remain for ever.

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