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Sunday, September 8, 2013
Charity or Love?
Question No. 3 of Wilson Casey’s “Test Your Faith” quiz in the Extra section of the Aug. 18 issue of The Roanoke Times asked which virtue was cited as the greatest in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Faith,” “Love,” “Charity” or “Tithes”? The correct answer was listed as “Charity.” The reference is, of course, to I Corinthians 13:13. While the King James Version uses the word “charity,” most modern translations use the word “love.” Hence, there were actually two correct answers to the question.
While this might seem to be a trivial matter, I believe that the distinction between these two words is often misunderstood. I recognize that many Christians who are rather fundamental in their beliefs reject the modern biblical translations in favor of the King James Version. I Corinthians 13:13 is one of the reasons sometimes cited for this preference. As I probe the reasoning for this, the meaning of the word “charity” becomes critical.
My “The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language” (1990 edition) gives several definitions for charity. They are, in the order listed: A spiritual love for others; the virtue by which we love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves, for the love of God; tolerance in judging other people; generosity to the needy; alms given to the poor; an organization dispensing relief to the poor.
Those who express a preference for the King James Version seem to accept a definition of charity that is more aligned with the latter three of these definitions. I believe that the Apostle Paul had the first two in mind when he wrote to the church in Corinth.
We must always remember as we read our Bibles, whichever version we prefer, that we are reading a translation from the original language in which it was written. In the case of Paul’s epistles, they were written in classical Greek. That language has four different words that are all translated as “love” in the English language:
Storge generally connotes the sort of affectionate love that a parent has for his or her child; philia is generally interpreted as the filial love between close friends; eros describes passionate and/or romantic love; and agape is reserved to describe a spiritual, unselfish love.
The word love appears nine times in the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, and in each case, in the original Greek language, agape is the word that Paul used.
While this may seem to be simply a matter of semantics, it seems to me that something greater is involved. If we prefer the King James Version’s “charity,” and if we understand the more common modern-day interpretation of that word as the giving of aid to the poor and needy, we risk losing Paul’s original intent. However well-intentioned such giving might be, it carries with it a sense of coming from a superior/inferior relationship. That is, we give out of our benevolence to those who are beneath us, and in doing so, we risk losing the sense of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Giving alms to the poor is, of course, a good thing, but the spirit in which it is done is paramount.
The quaint early 17th century English verbiage of the King James Version is beloved by many, but we must guard against allowing it to obscure the true meaning behind the original writings. The commonly understood meaning of words changes with time, and something that was perhaps clear to any informed reader in the 1600s might need to be clarified for modern readers. The word charity is simply one such example.
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