St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, describes the gradations of these virtues and concludes by emphasizing that love is the greatest of them all: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). The blessed apostle gave several examples clarifying that faith without charity is nonsalvific, but he did not explicitly talk about the connection among the three virtues. That will be our project here, in order to help us to appreciate that Christian faith and spirituality is based on the mystery of the Incarnation and connects us with one another.
Christian faith is incarnate faith. There is no faith in the abstract; rather, every person is called to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation and to live it out daily. It takes two to have faith: God and a human being. It takes two to have Christian faith: Jesus Christ and the Christian. Jesus is our hope, our salvation.
An incarnate faith is grounded in the mystery of the Incarnation — that in the fullness of time God became man in order to save us (Gal. 4:4). Jesus revealed to us the divinity of God, making it possible for us to enter into a profound relationship with Him. Jesus’ incarnate nature builds us up not only as individuals but also as a community — the Mystici Corporis, “the Mystical Body of Christ” — making it authentically and distinctly Christian.
Christian faith does not work in isolation. Christian faith means identification with and incorporation into Jesus Christ. In addition to the choice of accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we become Christians when we are incorporated into Christ and His Body, the Church, through baptism, which is rightly called the first sacrament of initiation. In this sacrament we are brought into Trinitarian belonging as Christ commanded His apostles to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Through this incorporation, what is personal becomes ecclesial.
Christian faith is personal because it is the individual who makes a personal commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “The act of faith is an eminently personal act that takes place in the most intimate depths of our being and signals a change in direction, a personal conversion. It is my life that is marked by a turning point and receives a new orientation.” Continuing, the pope states, “My belief is not the result of my own personal reflection, nor the product of my own thoughts. Rather, it is the fruit of a relationship, of a dialogue that involves listening, receiving and a response.” The personal aspect of the Christian faith relates to its subjective dimension.
But the Faith is also ecclesial. To paraphrase Pope Benedict again: Every Sunday, we individually recite the Creed as the summary of “our Faith,” not just my Faith. It is therefore the Faith of the community of believers. All through the early Church, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, those who accepted Jesus in their lives also became members of the waythrough baptism. They were faithful to the teaching of the apostles and fellow-shipped together, united in the breaking of bread and also in the life of prayer (Acts 2:41–42).
Consider the progression of the lives of the early Christians as illustrated above: There is the personal acceptance of the Word, the Trinitarian baptism, then apostolicity, communion (Eucharist), and prayer. In other words, the believers lived a sacramental life, which by its very nature is ecclesial. Thus, Christian faith is not my exclusive project or altogether built on a private conversation with Jesus. The claim to be able to “accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” without belonging to the Church under the belief that “no one needs the Church to be saved as a Christian” is theological nonsense and unbiblical. To the contrary, “faith is given to me by God through the community of believers, which is the Church. It numbers me among the multitude of believers in a communion which is not merely sociological but, rather, which is rooted in the eternal love of God, who in himself is the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — who is Trinitarian Love. Our faith is truly personal only if it is also communal. It can be my faith only if it lives and moves in the ‘we’ of the Church, only if it is our faith, the common faith of the one Church.”
The ecclesial nature of faith is beautifully described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “ ‘Believing’ is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. ‘No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother’ (St. Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519)” (no. 181).
Christian faith is therefore essentially communal. It neither ignores nor excludes the ecclesiae — the Church — whose head is Christ. Individualistic faith isolates itself and thus loses the core ingredient of its Christian identity. This is why true faith is essentially communal. Christian faith connects us with God and with each other. It is Christ centered and at the same time charity oriented. It inspires us to love and to relate with others as children of God. Christian faith in action is charity.
Similarly, Christian faith is teleological; it will not find its consummation until it reaches its object, God’s Truth, and its ultimate goal, eternal life. This teleological aspect of the Christian faith — that is, the idea that faith is ordered to some end or goal — makes it intricately connected with hope. Just as the work of faith is charity, its expectation is in hope.
About the teleological aspect of faith, St. Paul explains that he strives to reach the goal of the Beatific Vision:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12–14)
Faith possesses in a limited form that which is hoped for; it looks up to the final consummation in the life to come. It is like the kingdom of God, which is both now and not yet. The ultimate goal of faith — the Beatific Vision, eternal life — is not to be reached unless faith is sustained to the end. Faith alone, although it originates from God, is not sufficient in itself to reach this goal. But its foundational value is not to be ignored, for without faith, no one can please God (Heb. 11:6), and the righteous is “justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28). How then is it that faith, in itself, is not sufficient to reach the goal of the Beatific Vision?
The answer is found in Scripture, which exposes the communal and teleological dimensions of the Christian faith.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. . . . When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:1–3, 11–13)
Trying to separate faith from the other two theological virtues is like choosing between the lyrics and the music of the Christian journey. James went right to the point: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). And St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that “faith may be without charity, but not as a perfect virtue” expresses the same idea.
When Mother Teresa of Calcutta culminated her faith journey in India, her exceptional acts of love and works of faith on behalf of the people became proofs of her faith. When Charles Lwanga and his companions in Uganda graciously accepted death for their faith by extending a hand of welcome and prayer of forgiveness for their executioners, they were not only confessing their faith, but showing its connection with hope and love.
Think of the Christian missionaries from Poland, Portugal, Ireland, England, Spain, and America, who traveled to different parts of Africa during the most volatile and vulnerable days of evangelization. They were not deterred by mosquito-borne diseases and other dangers. They could not have been motivated by faith alone in exclusion of hope and love. They believed in God; they hoped in the future glory; and therefore they loved unto death.
What is hope? Our Catholic definition from the Catechism is comprehensive:
Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. (no. 1817)
Pope Benedict XVI’s exegesis of Hebrews 11:1 — the classical biblical definition of faith — is relevant here. Hebrews tells us: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It shows, in unmistakable terms, the nexus between faith and hope. The key insight, as the pope reveals, is in the Greek word hypostasis, which is rendered in Latin as substantia and here as “assurance.” But this isn’t the best translation; “substance” is a better English word. The Holy Father stressed this when he wrote:
The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo” — and thus according to the “substance” — there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence.
Correspondingly, Christian faith, like Christian hope, is not faith in progress, whose goal is the triumph of reason over religion. Faith in progress is a purely mechanical and materialistic notion of faith that evolved in response to the rise of Marxism and communism. In our age it is intertwined with economic liberalism and the prosperity gospel.
Christian faith is interwoven with hope and love. Hope sustains it, and charity makes it incarnate. Charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822).
St. Thomas Aquinas showed how the three theological virtues are related in the order of precedence and the order of perfection. In the order of precedence, faith comes first, followed by hope and then charity. In Thomas’s view, a man loves a thing because he apprehends it as his good. When we believe a person to be good, we develop hope in that person and then proceed to love him or her. But in the order of perfection, charity precedes faith and hope, for it is through charity that they reach their fullness as virtues. Hence, charity is the “mother and the root of all the virtues.”
Aquinas’s view is grounded in Scripture. St. Paul taught that of all the theological virtues the greatest is love (1 Cor. 13:13). Love, here called charity and understood in this context as Christian love, never fails, because the goal of our faith and what we hope for is the presence of God — and God is Love (1 John 4:8). Thus, although faith and hope can exist without charity, they are not perfect and Christian without charity.
On the other hand, charity is impossible without faith and hope because you have to have faith in God and hope in Him in order to commit your total self in love to Him. As St. Thomas stated:
Wherefore just as friendship with a person would be impossible, if one disbelieved in, or despaired of, the possibility of their fellowship or familiar colloquy; so too, friendship with God, which is charity, is impossible without faith, so as to believe in this fellowship and colloquy with God, and to hope to attain to this fellowship.
Faith dovetails with hope and matures in charity. The life of faith is truly redemptive if there is hope for a future glory and a true friendship with God, which is charity. The work of Christian faith is charity, and the eternal expectation connected with it is hope. The journey of faith means growing in all three of these essential virtues.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Our Journey to God: An African Priest Explores the Power of Faith from Abraham to You, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
image: Faith, Hope and Charity by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)