Paul, the Apostle of Love

One of the many tragedies that stemmed from the Protestant Reformation is the great misunderstanding of the Apostle Paul upon whom Martin Luther based much of his misbegotten theology.

Paul is especially associated with the Reformation’s emphasis on salvation through faith alone by grace alone—expressed often as sola fide and sola gratia. Perhaps one verse above all else became a sort of Scriptural motto for the Reformation: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not of works, that no man may glory.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, Douay-Rheims).

Of course, Catholics accept Ephesians 2:8 as Scripture. Unlike the Old, we agree with the Reformers on what books belong in the New Testament, although Luther’s failed attempt to exclude or demote some books almost changed that too.

But the Reformation only got half of Paul. Paul—whose feast day is at the end of this month—was indeed a great teacher on the role of faith and grace in the life of a Christian. But he was also the apostle of love. For Paul, life in Christ and His Church begins by grace through faith. But this is a journey that progresses through and finds its fulfillment in love.

Indeed, the significance he attributes to love far outweighs that of faith. But don’t believe me. Let’s hear Paul’s own words on this matter:

“And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

And again at the end of the same chapter:

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

The above two verses bookend Paul’s great hymn to love, which pretty comprises the entirety of 1 Corinthians 13. In the previous chapter he has unfolded his great teaching that the Church is the body of Christ (see especially 1 Corinthians 12:27). In the chapter Paul discusses the diversity of gifts that all members have within the unity of the body. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” Paul asks (v. 17).

At the end of this exposition on gifts, Paul encourages Christians to seek spiritual gifts. But then he urges them to go beyond this. “But I shall show you a still more excellent way,” he writes at the end of 1 Corinthians 12. ‘Still more excellent’ is the translator’s best attempt to get at the meaning of huperbolé, the noun form of a verb which literally means something like to throw over or beyond. As an idiom it came to have the sense of transcending, surpassing, excelling.

Rather than simply pursue certain spiritual gifts, Paul is exhorting his audience to go beyond and seek love. He used the same word in the context of love in Ephesians 3:19, where he urges them “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

This is another Pauline theme: that love goes beyond knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” (1 Cor. 8:1). This comes in the context of a discussion about eating meat sacrificed to idols. The ‘knowledge’ is that there is no god but God. He is worried that some Corinthians, strengthened in this knowledge, will scandalize and end up leading astray those who are weaker in their faith by eating meat sacrificed to idols (see verses 7 to 11).

Rather than individual believers being puffed up in their knowledge, Paul is calling on them to build up the community of believers—the Church, the body of Christ—through love, which he calls the ‘bond of perfection’ in Colossians 3:14.

In fact, Colossians 3 has some resemblance to 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. Verse 14 comes at the end of a list of recommended virtues that include kindness, humility, and patience. “And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection,” Paul says.

“Live in love,” Paul writes again in Ephesians 5:2.

It is in this broader context—this abiding emphasis of love, this sense of the Church as the Body of Christ built up by love—that Paul situates his teaching on marriage: a man should love his wife unfailingly, just as Christ never gives up on loving the Church, so the apostle writes at the end of the chapter (verses 21 to 33).

Of course, when we say love, we do not mean eros, the love that grasps, desires, seeks possession and pleasure for its own sake. Rather, the operative Greek work is agape, the self-giving love that empties itself, gives itself for the sake of another. In Latin, the comparable word that was often employed was caritas which in English became ‘charity.’

One might wonder, where does this all leave faith? Is faith something we eventually forget about? Not at all! For Paul, as the Church continues to teach, faith and love work hand in hand. In fact, that’s exactly what Paul says in Galatians 5:6:

“For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

He again repeats this close connection between faith and love in Ephesians 3:17-19 (cited in part above), where he prays that,

Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Much, much more could be said on the relationship between faith and love. Here it will hopefully suffice to point out that on a very basic level the relationship between faith and love is on a basic level somewhat obvious: it makes no sense, after all, to speak about the love of Christ and call on people to know that love and share it, if they first do not have faith in Christ. This is the great teaching for which we have to thank Paul.

Paul was indeed the apostle of faith. But he was the apostle of love all the more.

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Pete

    Good article. In its simplest terms, God made us out of love for us. He then saved us out of love for us (John 3:16). And if you believe that what should you do? Jesus made it very clear and gave us 2 commandments; love the Father and love your brother (Matthew 22:37:40). I believe love is an active verb, involving good works that I like to call God works. These works do not save us but they are how we live our faith, and keep it alive (James 2:17). I also believe all good things come from God, even our love of God, to some extent. Yes we have free will, but we also have the gifts of the Holy Spirit, through our baptism and the sacraments. It is the Holy Spirit alive in us that continually “nudges” us towards God and to do God works. The Holy Spirit also helps us see that all the good in our lives come from God and we should give thanks and praise to Him. So God through grace and the sacraments empowers us to live the life of Christ, a life of love.

  • Well said and many of us in non-denominational churches fully agree. Faith is the starting point, and as we grow that faith produces great works by the power of the Holy Spirit and that sweet fruit of Spirit as Paul himself writes: Galatians 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

  • Stephen Beale

    Brett, I am glad to hear there is a general agreement between us on the overarching importance of love. Sincerely, Stephen

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