The Difference Between Imperfect and Perfect Hope

Contrasting Aquinas and Luther

In this short essay, I ultimately seek to lay out a brief explanation of the mechanics of hope as a theological virtue, which must include its synergy with charity. First, I will emphasize that the Thomistic or Scholastic theology of hope is tenable and helpful, against Martin Luther who prefers to disregard the Thomistic-Scholastic formulation. After awarding Aquinas’ theology of hope some serious purchase, I will then move to discuss the various metaphysical nuances of hope.

Hope is one singular theological virtue, but different “stages,” so to speak, of hope are distinguishable. These “stages” of hope are more or less perfect, according to the disposition of the “hoper.” As my title indicates, charity is not only helpful, but essential if we are to speak about hope (or any of the virtues, for that matter); charity determines the perfection or imperfection of hope, or to use the Pauline language, the maturity or immaturity of hope, or to use the Thomistic language, whether the hope is unformed or properly shaped.

Martin Luther’s Theology of Hope

Luther rejects the systematic theology of scholasticism, and instead demands a return to Scripture alone. This approach, though, lacks a proper theological framework with which to interpret Scripture at all. We will first consider Luther’s suggestion as to how to view the theological virtues, then at the end of this section how Martin Luther, and John Calvin following his lead, awkwardly handle Paul’s enumeration of the theological virtues in 1 Corinthians.

For Luther, the scholastic catalogue of virtues is of the “most hateful and tedious catalogue of distinctions . . . utterly useless, indeed altogether harmful.”1 So in general, Luther dislikes the language of “virtue” because he thinks it implies that we have some agency in our salvation, that we can earn our salvation on our own. Luther prefers language of grace instead. This removes the emphasis on human action and recalls our dependence on God.2 His notion of grace, though, is purely extrinsic. Since our wills are bound to the world, grace cannot change us from within to make us acceptable sons of God; it is simply a created effect that outwardly embodies or signifies God’s mercy to us, or on us.

So generally, in Luther’s theology, we are not transformed from within; specifically regarding hope, it does not have a real place in our relationship with God. It is overshadowed by faith (as are many things in his sola fidei theology). David Batho, who historically traces the developments and decline of the theological virtues in the tradition, wonders about this: hope is “plainly in some degree of tension with faith [for Luther] . . . since faith demands of the agent that she cleave to trusting in her own salvation. If faith grants us trust in our eventual salvation, wherefore hope?”3

Fr. Romanus Cessario offers a simple definition of theological hope in the Catholic tradition as cleaving to God’s mercy and power for salvation, despite our feebleness.4 So Luther’s definition of faith and Cessario’s definition of hope are nearly identical. As Batho says, wherefore hope in Luther?

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13, Luther awkwardly tries to solve this tension by explaining that when Paul offers hope, what Paul really means is hope for others that they may come to be justified by their faith. In other words, for Luther, hope in the New Testament is not hope in God; hope does not terminate in God; hope does not have God as its object. Hope is simply well-wishing our neighbors that they will be justified by their faith.

Not only does faith overshadow any real hopeful relationship with God, but it also overshadows love. Love is merely an expression of faith, for both Luther and Calvin. In line with Luther, Calvin describes this in greater detail in his own commentary on the same passage:

Faith will be found to be in many respects superior [to love]. Nay, even love itself, according to the testimony of the same Apostle, is an effect of faith. Now the effect is, undoubtedly, inferior to its cause [that is, faith is greater than love].5

It does not take long to see the manifold implications of a sola fidei theology on the theological virtues. For Luther and Calvin, charity itself is eclipsed, even though Paul himself in 1 Corinthians says it is the greatest. In a thesis developed by Paul Hacker and endorsed by Reinhard Hutter and Cardinal Ratzinger, Hacker argues that Luther’s religion is ultimately anthropocentric, that is, self-centered. For the sake of time and at the risk of oversimplification, according to Hacker, Luther’s acts of love are ultimately merely reflexive expressions of faith. The believer has faith, expresses this faith by works, which upon self-reflection affirms the believer’s faith. For Luther, faith informs love.

This is in stark contrast to Aquinas, who holds charity to be the true animating principle of every virtue in the Christian life, the mother and root of all virtues, the vinculum (bond or relationship) between us and God that at all times moves us from within if we are sensitive to the indwelling Spirit. This intrinsic relationship with God is unpalatable for Luther, on account of our agency, but lays the groundwork for Aquinas’ theology of divinization whereby we become sharers in divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

The Theological Virtues

The way Aquinas orders the theological virtues not only rings as speculatively true, but it is also eminently practical. Aquinas’ systematization, above all, gives us to understand that we are sharers in divine life (2 Peter 1:4). We are actively shaped by the indwelling God, which is over and against Luther’s speculative extrinsic justification and practical white-knuckled faith-alone approach to human life.

Of course, “in order . . . that we may hope, it is necessary for the object of hope to be proposed to us as possible,”6 hence faith. We assent to the articles of faith, we hope to attain what we profess, and this certain knowledge of salvation gives rise to the very possibility of hope. Hope similarly leads to charity. Joseph Wawyrykow summarizes well the various articles from the Secunda Secundae that place the theological virtues in order: “One loves only on the basis of knowing what is to be loved and having a confidence that what is to be loved can be attained. Remove faith and hope, and there is no charity.”7

So we can see the reasonable and practical order in which these virtues appear: faith leads to hope, which leads to charity.

However, this is complicated by the fact that there can really be no true virtue without charity, since only charity obtains our true end. Explaining the synergy between charity and hope, then, will make up the remainder of the article, which again and above all, emphasizes how our sharing in divine life intrinsically informs and re-invigorates everything that we do, including our already supernatural acts of faith and hope, over and against Luther’s extrinsic justification.

True Hope

It is helpful to have put the theological virtues in their proper sequence, because hope looks different at each stage of spiritual perfection or maturity, according to the presence or lack of charity. So in this final section of the paper, we will walk through those three “hopes” listed in the title of my article — natural desire, inchoate hope, and true hope — and charity’s role in shaping hope.

The intellect naturally has a certain curiosity to know causes. We wish to know what causes this, what causes that, and ultimately, all the way down the chain, what caused the whole lot. There is a natural desire to see God, yet this desire terminates in only an analogical knowledge of him merely as the cause of all created effects.8 So this cannot really be called hope, properly speaking. Yes, we naturally wish to know God in a way proportionate to our nature, but our natural intellects only wish to see the first cause, not the object of supernatural beatitude. This natural desire is not a desire for ultimate fulfillment, happiness, and human flourishing; this is a desire for understanding. As such, Fr. Cessario rightly says that “no human analogues exist for the theological virtues.”9

Now, there is of course a natural human drive for satisfaction and happiness. This is to emphasize that there is already a natural capacity in man for happiness, a capacity that is open to elevation, or supernaturalization. Properly theological hope desires God himself, by the initiation of the indwelling spirit, since the difficulty of obtaining that end of God himself is so overwhelming and utterly disproportionate to our nature. This is a totally new object introduced into the Christian’s horizon of possibility — fellowship with God himself.

At the same time, though, the theological virtues enumerated by the scholastics are not some alien categories introduced into theology. Despite their newness, the acts of the theological virtues remain to be supernatural modifications of our natural acts. In the case of hope, the desire to be satisfied and happy with temporal things is elevated and our supernaturalized act of hope terminates in resting in the vision of God himself, that is, it terminates in a personal encounter with the transcendent God, a personal encounter that is unknowable apart from revelation and the “justifying power of the Holy Spirit.”10

Now, even though the theological act of hope reaches for God as he is in Himself, to be with God face-to-face, this act is still not necessarily mature, living hope. The pagans love the gods with a self-regarding love that wills what is pleasing to the gods only insofar as it suits their own needs. A Christian can hope for God in this way too by willing what is pleasing to God only for the self-regarding reward of eternal beatitude, or the self-regarding fear of hell. Basil and Aquinas would call these slavish or servile fear, fear of punishment or fear of losing payment for service. These are ultimately self-regarding forms of hope.

The explanation for this lies in Aquinas’ division of two different types of love: “that which is loved with the love of friendship is loved simply and for itself; whereas that which is loved with the love of concupiscence, is loved, not simply and for itself, but for the sake of something else.”11 Inchoate hope, or unshaped hope, proceeds from that concupiscent love, whereby we love God for the sake of our own happiness, not for God in himself. For Aquinas, “not every kind of hope proceeds from charity, but only the movement of living hope.”12 In both cases, the material object of hope remains the same — God. However, inchoate hope wishes to see God, but without being rightly informed by charity. It does not hope for God qua God but merely for eternal happiness. Charity alone informs hope to wish for God as a friend, lovable for His own sake.

So inchoate hope, precisely as not formed, is not form-ally the hope for friendship with God for His own sake. The hope is formally only for one’s own happiness. Charity properly informs hope, so that the object of hope is both materially God, and the desire is formally the desire for friendship with God, not merchant-service with God as some self-regarding cost-benefit analysis. Hope receives its true flourishing, its full form and trajectory for God as a friend only in charity.

Jörgen Vijgen describes this best at the practical level by laying out the role of the passion of love when Aquinas treats charity in the Prima Secundae. “The passion of love,” he says, “has a circular nature so that its movement ends where it began.”13 First, a lovable object must come into view and, in Thomistic terms, attract the appetite and give the appetite complacency within itself. This is a “moment of passivity,” as Vijgen puts it, where “the subject undergoes the influence of the beloved object in a union of affection.”14 In more vivid Balthasarian terms, the object seizes us, and so transforms us.

The point is that charity has a certain circularity:15 Love Himself comes to meet us and forms a bond with us, such that our return to Him, or our repeated encounters with Him, are all served by this fundamental relationship, or vinculum, that he has established with us. In someone who lives totally according to sanctifying and actual grace, the bond of charity shapes all of their actions, giving merit to everything that they do, including their hope; they will hope to be indestructibly united to God for eternity as to someone they love.

The point is that Love first acts upon us, we are passively influenced by our affective union with him, and this effect of love — union — drives man to return to the beloved over and over again. “In this way, love [itself] precedes desire.”16 The vinculum of love calls to the creature constantly, igniting and re-igniting the fire of desire for our closest friend. The bond of charity, as the mother and root of all virtues, is the efficient cause of true hope. True hope is not possible without charity. We cannot really hope to be united to God as a friend before he gives us to experience some degree of union with Him; we cannot really hope to be with God for His own sake before he establishes that vinculum of love with us. We cannot share in divine life apart from divine initiative. If it is not clear already, this love that unites us to Him is nothing less than the Gift of Love Himself, the Holy Spirit poured out into our hearts.

Inchoate hope is not properly a virtue, nor is it really sharing in divine life. Once the bond of love between God and the soul is established, though, hope can be rightly shaped by charity, meriting an increase in grace, which is nothing less than an increase in sharing in divine life. Therefore, only true hope — hope that desires God as a friend — shares in divine life, precisely because to share in divine life is to share in that self-forgetful love of the Trinity by the Holy Spirit’s own activity in us, not merely to desire our own self-regarding happiness.


So hope, for Aquinas, has a certain dynamism, a synergistic relationship with charity.17 Hope has its proper role in leading us to the beatific vision: we come to love that which we believe we can obtain, eternal beatitude. Hope precedes charity absolutely; it is impossible to love God if we do not think we can ever be with him.18 Yet charity then reinvigorates hope, or more metaphysically appropriate, reinforms it.

So even though hope leads us to charity, before being properly shaped by charity, hope remains immature, reaching out for something self-regarding and so not really yet a virtue.19 Hope flows forth in a new way after the soul receives that divinely initiated affective union. The hope is refined, and the trajectory of the soul is to desire to be with God qua God, that is, God as personal and self-communicative — God as friend. So charity intrinsically motivates and changes us, shaping the very way we desire God.

We can see how different this active, dynamic description of our deification is from Luther’s understanding of salvation. For Aquinas, the Gift of Love dwells in us and makes us sharers in divine life already now, shaping all of our actions to be Godlike, that is, oriented toward a love of God. Luther prefers to have it that faith shapes everything else we do. In Luther’s turnaround of the traditional doctrine, faith is instead supposed to inform love, but according to Hacker, “faith has not informed but stifled love.”20 Luther’s works cease to be loving; they are merely self-motivated, rather than Spirit-motivated, assertions of faith to prove our faith to ourselves.

As Christ asks us from the Gospel of Luke “what credit is it”21 if we love others for our own sake? True sharing in divine life, the true love of the Holy Spirit living in us, is meritorious precisely because of its posture of self-forgetfulness. Only in charity do we come to hope to be with Christ our friend, rather than merely Christ as a source of happiness.22

  1. Martin Luther, Latin Writings, 39.
  2. David Batho, “Faith, Hope, and Love as Virtues in the Theological Tradition,” in The Ethics of Powerlessness (Essex: The University of Essex, 201), 48.
  3. Batho, 40.
  4. Romanus Cessario, Moral Virtues and Theological Ethics (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2009), 70.
  5. John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13.
  6. Thomas Aquinas, ST II–II q. 17, a. 7.
  7. Joseph Wawrykow, “The Theological Virtues,” in The Oxford Handbook to Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 300.
  8. Thomas Aquinas, ST I–II, q. 62, a. 1.
  9. Cessario, Virtues, 4.
  10. Cessario, Virtues, 4.
  11. ST I–II, q. 26, a. 2.
  12. ST II–II, q. 17, a. 8, ad 2.
  13. Jörgen Vijgen, “Aquinas on the Theological Vice of Sloth (Acedia) and Christ’s Redemptive Incarnation,” in Faith, Hope, and Love: Thomas Aquinas on Living by the Theological Virtues (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 2015), 270.
  14. Vijgen, 270, drawing on ST I-II q. 28, a. 1.
  15. Vijgen, 270–274.
  16. Vijgen, 270.
  17. Daria Spezzano, The Glory of God’s Grace (Ave Maria: Sapientia Press, 2015), 232–237.
  18. Thomas Aquinas, ST I–II, q. 65, a. 5.
  19. Thomas Aquinas, ST I–II, q. 65, a. 4.
  20. Paul Hacker, Faith in Luther (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2017), 90.
  21. Luke 6:32–36.
  22. A common question that might emerge is why Jesus often offers rewards for good deeds, if reaching for rewards is imperfect. The answer is this: Christ leads us slowly to perfection. He must “rope us in,” so to speak, by first offering us things we understand. Once we are more incorporated into the divine life by sanctifying grace, once we are more mature, we understand that the friendship of Christ so far exceeds any notion of reward that we really only treasure his friendship. We cease to care about any notion of heavenly treasure besides the treasure of Christ.
Tyler Pellegrin About Tyler Pellegrin

Tyler Pellegrin is currently an instructor of Theology and doctoral student of Systematic Theology at Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida, where he lives happily with his family. His research interests include Christology, infused virtue and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the history and interpretation of Vatican II.