In Colossians 1:4-5, Paul says that whenever he prays for the church in Colossae, he thanks God because of their faith in Christ, their love for the saints, and the hope laid up for them in heaven.
Faith, hope, and love.
That triad sounds familiar because Paul uses it to conclude the famous “love chapter,” I Corinthians 13: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Where did Paul get “these three?” He uses the triad about seven times, in various ways (I Thess. 1:3, I Thess. 5:8, Col. 1:4-5, Eph. 4:2-5, Gal. 5:5-6, I Cor 13:13, Rom. 5:1-5). If the words “faith, hope, and love” didn’t constitute a definite sequenced formula for Paul, they at least seemed to him like words that should show up together in some order.
There’s some reason to believe that this triad of words belonged together before Paul got ahold of them. If that’s true, then they would be older than Paul’s first letters, and you could consider the triad “faith, hope, and love” to be a common saying in churches that were already established by the time Paul wrote letters to them. If a letter like I Thessalonians is from around the year 50, then some of the first Christian churches ever were familiar with this group of words in a “pre-Pauline” period of church life… the year 45? 40? 35? How early? We’re bumping into the events narrated in the early chapters of Acts here.
Let’s admit that I’ve already used the word “if” three times, and am about to use it even more. But here’s the evidence for a pre-Pauline origin of “faith, hope, and love” as a traditional triadic formula from earliest Christianity.
A. M. Hunter argued this case, claiming that Paul’s triad was “not his own creation, but something common and apostolic, perhaps a sort of compendium of the Christian life current in the early apostolic church” (see his Paul and his Predecessors (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961, pages 33-35).
1. Paul uses it as an applause line in I Corinthians: After a ravishingly beautiful speech on love, he sums things up with a comprehensive phrase, “Now these three abide,” before singling out the greatest of them. It’s possible that he made up the triad just by asking himself, “what are the three virtues or graces that abide?” and came up with these three. But another possibility is that he was tapping into a familiar triad. “You know, the well-known three.” (Hunter p. 34)
2. When he says the words in I Thessalonians 5:8, he seems to have Isaiah 59:17 in the back of his mind: “The LORD put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head.” When he says that Christians should be sober, “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation,” it’s easy to imagine him having Isaiah in one hand a traditional faith-hope-love triad in the other hand, and weaving them together by doubling up on the breastplate and making “salvation” into “the hope of salvation.”
3. Other New Testament authors use it also (Heb. 6:10-12, I Pet. 1:3-8, I Pet 1:21-22, Heb. 10:22-24). Maybe they were all influenced by Paul, or maybe Paul, I Peter, and Hebrews are all citing some other source. Like, um, a praise song they all knew.
4. Here’s the iffiest of the iffy connections. Macarius the Egyptian, a fourth-century Christian spiritual writer, reports a saying of Jesus which was not written down in Scripture but circulated orally through the centuries: “Take care of faith and hope through which is begotten the love of God and man which gives eternal life.” Is it possible that Jesus said such a thing and that the saying was passed down the centuries and recorded in the year 300? Yes, it’s possible. Jesus said many things, not all of them recorded on the spot (agrapha they’re called). Acts 20:35 is the best example, and I’m glad that Luke wrote down the fact that Paul mentioned that Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than receive.” I’m greedy for red print and would like to have every saying of Jesus I can get my hands on. But the Macarius one, “Take care of faith and hope through which is begotten the love of God and man…” strikes me as unlikely, and shows up late.
Hunter is a wise man, so after making his case he admits, “I do not press it.” But he thinks the evidence “strongly suggests that this triadic formula is not only a bit of very early Christianity, but may very possibly be derived from a logion of Jesus.” (35)
It would be sweet if the origin of “these three which abide” were actually a teaching from the mouth of Jesus Christ, well known among the early churches, and used by Paul because he knew it would be recognizable to all.
All speculation aside, “faith, hope, and love” certainly do constitute a remarkable triad, and even if they’re not dominical (from the Lord) they’re definitely apostolic (from Paul and Peter). If they didn’t function in the earliest (pre-Pauline) church as “a sort of compendium of the Christian life,” they functioned that way later, as for instance in Augustine’s great little Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, or in Aquinas’ treatise on the virtues in the Summa Theologia, or numerous other overviews of the Christian life.
If we don’t have definite access to the prehistory of faith, hope, and love, we at least have access to its later effects. Christians see a great deal in this set of words, and Paul is saying a mouthful when he thanks God for the Colossian church’s faith in Christ, love for the saints, and hope in heaven.