Posted: 08 Apr 2011 12:00 AM PDT
FAITH, HOPE, AND LOVE are often called the Pauline triad. They crop up again and again in Paul's correspondence, in various combinations and structures of thought. Doubtless the best-known passage is 1 Corinthians 13:13: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." It may be that the reason love is the greatest of these three cardinal Christian virtues is that love is the only one that God exercises. Elsewhere the Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8); it never says that God is faith or that God is hope.
In the epistle before us, the Pauline triad first crops up in chapter 1: "We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:3). Sometimes only two elements of the triad are present: e.g., "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing" (2 Thess. 1:3). Sometimes the three are linked in particular ways: "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you" (Col. 1:3–6). Although love may be "the greatest" of the three, in this passage hope is the foundation or even the motivation of faith and love—though that arrangement is far from invariable (e.g., Eph. 1:15, 18).
If the Pauline triad occurs at the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, so it recurs at the end: "But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet" (1 Thess. 5:8, italics added). These variations suggest that faith, hope, and love were not, for Paul nor for the early Christians, a cluster of tired words always deployed in some boring formula. Rather, they were the quintessential Christian virtues that they thought about and pursued, so that their reflections and experience prompted them to describe these virtues in many different ways. Here we find the metaphor of the armor of God, but not with the associations found in Ephesians 6:10–17—once again demonstrating that these were fresh and living forms of speech, not clichés emptied of all power except comforting repetition.
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