In Christian theology charity, or love (agapē), means an unlimited loving-kindness toward all others.
The term should not be confused with the more restricted modern use of the word charity to mean benevolent giving.
Caritas: altruistic love
In Christian theology charity, or love (agapē), is the greatest of the three theological virtues:
- Deus caritas est - "God is love".
Love, in this sense of an unlimited loving-kindness towards all others, is held to be the ultimate perfection of the human spirit, because it is said to both glorify and reflect the nature of God. In its most extreme form such love can be self-sacrificial. Confusion can arise from the multiple meanings of the English word "love." The love that is caritas is distinguished by its origin, being Divinely infused into the soul, and by its residing in the will rather than emotions, regardless of what emotions it stirs up. This love is necessary for salvation, and with it no one can be lost.
Charity is comprised two parts, love of God and love of man, which includes both love of one's neighbor and one's self.
Paul describes it in the Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 13 (KJV)):
- Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
- Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
- Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
- When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
- And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Note that the King James Version uses both the words charity and love to translate the idea of caritas / ἀγάπη: sometimes it uses one, sometimes the other, for the same concept. Most other English translations, both before and since, do not; instead throughout they use the same more direct English word love, so that the unity of the teaching should not be in doubt. Love can have other meanings in English, but as used in the Bible it almost always refers to the virtue of caritas.
- John Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (Oxford 1985) 168.