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“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.”
That is, though I had ability to teach and to preach with power beyond that of any man or angel, with words of perfect charm, with truth and excellence informing my message–though I could do this, “but have not love [charity],” and only seek my own honor and profit and not my neighbor’s, “I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.” In other words, “I might, perhaps, thereby teach others something, might fill their ears with sound, but before God I would be nothing.” As a clock or a bell has not power to hear its own sound, and does not derive benefit from its stroke, so the preacher who lacks love cannot himself understand anything he says, nor does he thereby improve his standing before God. He has much knowledge, indeed, but because he fails to place it in the service of love, it is the quality of his knowledge that is at fault. I Cor 8, 1-12. Far better he were dumb or devoid of eloquence, if he but teach in love and meekness, than to speak as an angel while seeking but his own interests.
“And if I have the gift of prophecy.”
According to chapter 14, to prophesy is to be able, by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, correctly to understand and explain the prophets and the Scriptures. This is a most excellent gift. To “know mysteries” it to be able to apprehend the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, or its allegorical references, as Paul does where (Gal 4, 24-31) he makes Sarah and Hagar representative of the two covenants, and Isaac and Ishmael of the two peoples–the Jews and the Christians. Christ does the same (Jn 3, 14) when he makes the brazen serpent of Moses typical of himself on the cross; again, when Isaac, David, Solomon and other characters of sacred history appear as figures of Christ. Paul calls it “mystery”–this hidden, secret meaning beneath the primary sense of the narrative. But “knowledge” is the understanding of practical matters, such as Christian liberty, or the realization that the conscience is not bound. Paul would say, then: “Though one may understand the Scriptures, both in their obvious and their hidden sense; though he may know all about Christian liberty and a proper conversation; yet if he have not love, if he does not with that knowledge serve his neighbor, it is all of no avail whatever; in God’s sight he is nothing.”
Note bow forcibly yet kindly Paul restrains the disgraceful vice of vainglory. He disregards even those exalted gifts, those gifts of exceeding refinement, charm and excellence, which naturally produce pride and haughtiness though they command the admiration and esteem of men. Who would not suppose the Holy Spirit to dwell visibly where such wisdom, such discernment of the Scriptures, is present? Paul’s two epistles to the Corinthians are almost wholly directed against this particular vice, for it creates much mischief where it has sway. In Titus 1, 7, he names first among the virtues of a bishop that he be “non superbus,” not haughty. In other words that he does not exalt himself because of his office, his honor and his understanding, and despise others in comparison. But strangely Paul says,
“If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
We hold, and unquestionably it is true, that it is faith which justifies and cleanses. Rom 1, 17; 10, 10; Acts 15, 9. But if it justifies and purifies, love must be present. The Spirit cannot but impart love together with faith. In fact, where true faith is, the Holy Spirit dwells; and where the Holy Spirit is, there must be love and every excellence. How is it, then, Paul speaks as if faith without love were possible? We reply, this one text cannot be understood as subverting and militating against all those texts which ascribe justification to faith alone. Even the sophists have not attributed justification to love, nor is this possible, for love is an effect, or fruit, of the Spirit, who is received through faith.
Three answers may be given to the question. First, Paul has not reference here to the Christian faith, which is inevitably accompanied by love, but to a general faith in God and his power. Such faith is a gift; as, for instance, the gift of tongues, the gift of knowledge, of prophecy, and the like. There is reason to believe Judas performed miracles in spite of the absence of Christian faith, according to John 6, 70: “One of you is a devil.” This general faith, powerless to justify or to cleanse, permits the old man with his vices to remain, just as do the gifts of intellect, health, eloquence, riches.
A second answer is: Though Paul alludes to the true Christian faith, he has those in mind who have indeed attained to faith and performed miracles with it, but fall from grace through pride, thus losing their faith. Many begin but do not continue. They are like the seed in stony ground. They soon fall from faith. The temptations of vainglory are mightier than those of adversity. One who has the true faith and is at the same time able to perform miracles is likely to seek and to accept honor with such eagerness as to fall from both love and faith.
A third answer is: Paul in his effort to present the necessity of love, supposes an impossible condition. For instance, I might express myself in this way: “Though you were a god, if you lacked patience you would be nothing.” That is, patience is so essential to divinity that divinity itself could not exist without it, a proposition necessarily true. So Paul’s meaning is, not that faith could exist without love, but on the contrary, so much is love an essential of faith that even mountain-moving faith would be nothing without love, could we separate the two even in theory.
The third answer pleases me by far the best, though I do not reject the others, particularly the first. For Paul’s very first premise is impossible–“if I speak with the tongues of angels.” To speak with an angelic tongue is impossible for a human being, and he clearly emphasizes this impossibility by making a distinction between the tongues of men and those of angels. There is no angelic tongue; while angels may speak to us in a human tongue men can never speak in those of angels.
As we are to understand the first clause–‘If I speak with the tongues of angels”–as meaning, Were it as possible as it is impossible for me to speak with the tongues of angels; so are we to understand the second clause “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains”–to mean, Were it as possible as it is impossible to have such faith. Equally impossible is the proposition of understanding all mysteries, and we must take it to mean, Were it possible for one to understand all mysteries, which, however, it is not. John, in the last chapter of his Gospel, asserts that the world could not contain all the books which might be written concern ing the things of the kingdom. For no man can ever fathom the depths of these mysteries. Paul’s manner of expressing himself is but a very common one, such as: “Even if I were a Christian, if I believed not in Christ I would be nothing”; or, “Were you even a prince, if you neither ruled men nor possessed property you would be nothing.”