The Perfect and 1 Corinthians 13:8-12
As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a debate over cessationism/continualism (have tongues and other miraculous spiritual gifts ceased, or do they continue) by a couple of well-known Reformed Bloggers - Dan Phillips over at Pyromaniacs and Adrian Warnack. Dan has just completed his response to Adrian, but Adrian is on vacation right now. I assume his responses will be forthcoming.
What I've been thinking about the last couple of days is Dan's exegesis of 1 Cornthians 13:8-12 in his third response to Adrian. Dan and I had a brief exchange regarding this in the comment section of this post, but I want to capture more fully my thoughts here. Let me post the text before we go any farther.
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 (ESV)
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
The Central Question Defined:
One of the points Dan makes is that v.8-10 make everyone a cessationist, it is a question of timing. When, not if, will these gifts cease? Answer: according to Paul, "when the perfect comes." The question, therefore, is what does Paul mean by "the perfect"?
Dan defends one of the more common positions held by cessationists, that "the perfect" refers to the completed canon. I will not attempt to reproduce that argument here, you can go to the post (I linked it above) if you want to read his defense (I recommend doing so).
In interacting with Dan, I noted that John Macarthur and John Piper both link "the perfect" to the eternal state. Actually, Piper links it to the Second Coming, which may or may not be the eternal state, depending on which eschatological view is most correct. Piper seems to be a post-tribulational pre-millennialist (at least, that is the view he defends), therefore he, like Macarthur, would see the Second Coming as distinct from the eternal state.
My own position was (note the past tense) that "the perfect" referred to the mature church. Therefore, we cover four ("the perfect" is the completion of the Canon; the mature church; the Second Coming; the eternal state) of the five possibilities Macarthur mentions in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (the remaining view identifies "the perfect" with the rapture). I would recommend Macarthur's commentary to you to research the questions this passage raises whatever your view. If you disagree, you should at least be able to interact with what he writes.
Now, let's walk through the passage and see what it says.
Setting the Stage:
In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is discussing spiritual gifts, evidently in response to some in-fighting in Corinth over the gifts. Paul's main point in that chapter is to show that gifts are for the benefit of others, not to make us proud.
At the end of that chapter Paul says he will show them a more excellent way, and proceeds in 1 Corinthians 13 to discuss love as the enduring fruit of faith. Having stated that it is an absolute necessity for true Christian living (v.1-3), he shows how a person filled with love behaves (v.4-7).
A Side Question:
In v.8 Paul begins contrasting love to some spiritual gifts. The key premise is that love will never end, but the gifts will end. In v.9 he points out that prophecy and knowledge are in part, leading to v.10 saying that the perfect will do away with the partial.
One question I think needs to be addressed here before the central question. That is, "What is the purpose of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge?" As I read Dan, he sees them as being the means by which God inspired the writing of Scripture. I see the gifts more broadly than that. In Acts 21:10-11 Agabus is mentioned as one who prophesies Paul's arrest in Jerusalem. While that prophecy is recorded in Scripture, that prophecy itself is not Scripture. Likewise, in Acts 21:9 we are told that four of Phillip's daughters prophesied, but we are not even told what they prophesied.
Paul's point in v. 8-10 is that the knowledge of that time and, as I will hopefully show, even today is partial. However, when the perfect comes, that which is partial shall be done away. The same Greek verb that is used to say that knowledge and prophecy will "pass away" in v.8 is used to say that the partial will "pass away" in v.10. Also, as a note, a different Greek verb is used in describing the "ceasing" of tongues in v.8. Whether this is a substantive change on the part of Paul, or a style change on the part of Paul I will discuss briefly later.
The Central Question Addressed:
Back to our central question, what is "the perfect"? Dan argues that it is the Canon. One potential problem verse for this view is Revelation 11:3, which reads, "And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” (ESV) When compared with 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, I see five options.
- Prophesy here is different than the prophesies mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which have ceased. This seems like a stretch to me, but I suppose some could argue the point.
- "Pass away" could be referring only to the church age, and allow for the return of the gifts as the next age dawns. This is an even bigger stretch than the first option.
- One could reject a futurist understanding of Revelation, and adopt a view that say Revelation 11:3 occurred before the Canon was complete. This is a little more plausible, but while I can see the a-millennial reading of Revelation, a Preterist approach does not seem consistent with the rest of Scripture.
- "The perfect" is the eternal state/Second Coming (if you hold a view other than pre-millennialism), and the gifts (at a minimum prophecy and knowledge) will be with us until the eternal state.
- "The perfect" is the Second Coming/millennium if you are a post-tribulational pre-millennialist, and the gifts (at a minimum prophecy and knowledge) will be with us until the millennium.
Both further support their views using v.12, which states, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (ESV) Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:3 that those who love God are known by God. When will I have anything close to approximating God's knowledge of me (knowning as I am fully known)? 1 John 3:2 says, "Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." (ESV) This sounds a lot like "face to face" links "the perfect" to the Second Coming, regardless of whether you see it being the same as the inaguration of the eternal state or not.
As Piper notes: Both of these phrases ("seeing face to face" and "understanding as we have been understood") are stretched beyond the breaking point if we say that they refer to the closing of the New Testament canon or the close of the apostolic age. Rather, they refer to our experience at the second coming of Jesus.
So What about My (Old?) View:
What do we do then with v.11, Paul's discourse on growing up? I have used v.11 previously to support my view that Paul was saying that the established church would no longer need the miraculous gifts. The church would be the sign to the world of the power of the Gospel. But, having studied this, I have a problem. How do I reconcile this with v.12, which is, I now think, clearly about the resurrection (I'm post-trib increasingly seeing how a-millennialism fits the Scriptures better than my pre-millennialism; a discussion for another time, perhaps)? I'm not sure. I'm also not sure about how I reconcile Revelation 11:3, either as a pre- or a-millennialist, with 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.
So, I'm still searching (any insights would be helpful) but seeing "the perfect" as the Second Coming makes more sense now. It fits in contrasting the eternal nature of love to the abolishment of the spiritual gifts which would continue to, but not into, the eternal state.
What about Tongues?:
As I noted earlier, Paul in the text says that prophecy and knowledge "pass away" but that tongues "cease." Macarthur makes a great deal out of this distinction, seeing tongues as for the apostolic age only. Piper takes a different view and, apparently, sees no great distinction between tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. Also, I'm fairly certain Macarthur's view of what the gifts of prophecy and knowledge are differs from Piper. So saying that "the perfect" is associate with a major future event (either the eternal state or the Second Coming) does not end the discussion. However, this is a good place for me to stop.
I pray that through studing these matters and interacting with God's word and other believers, we begin to achieve the unity of the Faith.