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Amazing Literary Grace: St. Paul's Hymn to Love




Amazing Literary Grace:

The Structure of Paul’s Hymn to Love

Hyatt Carter


Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, known as Paul’s Hymn to Love, is rightly revered for the sublimity of its thought and the depth of its feeling. Although it is one of the most well-known passages of scripture that has been read and recited countless times, what may be not so well-known is the intricacy and consummate artistry of its structure.


The outline, shown below, illustrates the very exacting craftsmanship that Paul brought to the composition of this short but sublime passage.


Moreover, chapter 13 does not stand alone, but is structurally related to chapters 12 and 14—the three chapters form an artistic unit, a triptych, to draw an analogy with religious or iconic art. They exemplify an A-B-A' chiasmic pattern, with A and A' discussing the idea of spiritual gifts in different but complementary ways; and, by “bracketing” B, they point to B as the conceptual center with its expression of the central theme of love.


As John Breck sums it up:


 A = 12: 1-30 (varieties of spiritual gifts)


 B = 12: 13-14.1b (love as the highest spiritual gift)


 A' = 14: 1c-40 (spiritual gifts: tongues and prophesy)


Theologian Nils Wilhelm Lund comments: “There is no more artful passage in the epistles of Paul than the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians and this chapter is one of the finest specimens of chiasmus in the New Testament.”


The Literary Structure of Paul’s Hymn to Love


 X But desire earnestly the greater gifts,

   And moreover a most excellent way show I unto vou.


    A If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,

     A' But have not love,

      I am become a sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.


      And if I have prophecy

          ┌All the mysteries,

    B And know and

          └All the knowledge;

  Y   And if I have all the faith, so as to remove mountains,


     B' But have not love,
       I am nothing.


    C And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor,

     And if I give my body to be burned,


     C' But have not love,

      It profiteth me nothing.



    A  Suffereth long;

       Kind is

     Love. (Love does)


      Not envy,

      Not vaunt itself,

      Not become puffed up,

   Z   Not behave itself unseemly,

     B Not seek its own,

      Not become provoked,

      Not take account of evil,

      Not rejoice in unrighteousness,          

       but does rejoice with truth. (Love)


     All things beareth,

    A' All things believeth,

      All things hopeth,

     All things endureth.


    A Love never faileth; but


      Whether there be prophecy, it shall be done away,

     B Whether there be tongues, they shall cease,

      Whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away.


       For we know in part,

      C And we prophecy in part;

       But when that which is perfect is come,

        That which is in part shall be done away.


        When I was a child,

         I spake as a child,

  Y'     D I had a mind as a child,

         I thought as a child.

        When I am become a man,

         I have put away childish things.


       For now we see in a mirror, darkly,

      C' But then face to face;

       Now I know in part,

       But then shall I know fully

        even as also I am fully known.



     B' But now abideth  Hope,  these three;



    A' But the greatest of these is love.


   Follow after love,

 X' But desire earnestly the spiritual gifts.



General Outline:


 X Exhortation, 12:31.

  Y Comparison of love with the gifts: love gives them value, vss. 1-3.

   Z The characteristics of love: love stands the test of life, vss. 4-7.

  Y' Comparison of love with the gifts: love abides while the gifts cease, vss. 8-13.

 X' Exhortation, 14:1a.



The above outlines, specific and general, are from:


Nils Wilhelm Lund

Chiasmus in the New Testament:

A Study in the Form and Function of Chiastic Structures

pp. 175-76






Chiasmus: An Introduction
Iconic Reading
Whitehead's Use of Chiasmus in PR
25 Chiasmi by Eihei Dogen
The Gospel of John: A Miracle of Composition
Amazing Literary Grace: St. Paul's Hymn to Love
Beauty of Structure in the Four Gospels
Dogen's Use of Chiasmus in Shobogenzo
Chiasmic Beauty from the Mists of Chinese Antiquity
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