Saturday, June 22, 2019

Identifying The "Perfect" In 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 As It Relates To The Charismatic Movement


This passage has been used by charismatic Christians to demonstrate that the miraculous gifts of prophecy and tongues will remain in the church until the Second Coming of Christ. Non-charismatics have used this verse to argue that tongues and prophecy ceased upon the completion of the canon of Scripture or the maturing of the early church. These interpretations turn on the meaning of "the perfect" (to teleion).

What both charismatics and non-charismatics can agree upon is that the gifts mentioned in this verse will be "done away with" (in the case of prophecy and knowledge) and will "cease" (in the case of tongues). They would also agree that the reason these gifts will not continue forever is that they are inadequate - imperfect in relation to the "perfect" that is coming. Finally, they would agree that the gifts were operative in Paul's time and that the time of their cessation was a future event for him. The difference in interpretation lies in whether the gifts mentioned have ceased prior to our time, or whether they are still operative for us, as they were for Paul, and their cessation lies yet in the future.

A careful reading of the text demonstrates that Paul may be drawing a distinction between tongues on the one hand and prophecy and knowledge on the other. The latter two gifts will be "done away" with (katargeo). Tongues are said to "cease" (pauo). The "perfect" will actively "do away" with the "partial." Katargeo is in the passive voice, indicating that the coming of the "perfect" is the cause of the "partial" passing away. Tongues, however, will cease of themselves. Pauo is in the Greek middle voice, which is defined as "an action taken by the subject upon him, her, or itself" (Friberg). Thus, tongues will "cease" of themselves - not as a direct result of "the perfect" coming. If this is the case, Paul is not speaking definitively about when tongues will cease - only that when "the perfect" comes, tongues will no longer be operative in the church. "The perfect" will do away with prophecy and knowledge; but tongues will have ceased at some point prior to that event.

Thus, even if we take "the perfect" to be the Second Coming, this verse does not teach that tongues will be active in the church at Christ's return.

As mentioned, "the perfect" is often taken by non-charismatics as being the completion of the canon This interpretation is possible, based on one of the meanings of teleion ("perfect, perfection, completion"). However, this interpretation seems foreign to the immediate context. As the Expositor's Bible Commentary notes:

It is difficult to prove the cessation of these gifts at the end of the first century A.D. by taking teleion to refer to a completion of the canon at that time, since that idea is completely extraneous to the context. While teleion can and does refer to something completed at some time in the future, the time of that future completion is not suggested in v. 10 as being close (EBC).

Other non-charismatics take teleion to be the maturity of the church, which more or less coincides with the completion of the canon. This interpretation is contextually more plausible (1 Corinthians 12 - 14 centers on church conduct), and thematically appealing:

There is much to commend this view, including the natural accord it enjoys with the illustration of growth and maturity which Paul used in the following verses (BKC).

However, I find this view somewhat strained lexically. While teleion can mean "a state of maturity" when speaking of a person, there are no other NT examples of it carrying this meaning when used of a collective group or abstract noun (which must be inferred as "church" in this interpretation). An additional problem with this interpretation is the fact that Paul says in verse 12 that "at that time" (i.e., when "the perfect" comes), he will "know fully." It does not seem reasonable to understand Paul to be saying that he expected to live to see the maturity of the church and then to "know fully." Rather, it seems more likely that Paul here is referring to a time of spiritual completion - either when he dies and goes to be with Christ, or at the resurrection following Christ's Second Coming.

Indeed, many evangelical commentators understand "the perfect" to mean either the Second Coming or the perfection of the human soul that occurs when the Christian is united with Christ in death:

On the other hand, in a number of contexts the related words telos ("end," "termination;" "last part") and teleo ("bring to an end") are used in relation to the second coming of Christ. This is true in both non-Pauline writing (cf. James 5:11; Rev 20:5, 7; 21:6; 22:13) and 1 Corinthians 1:8; 15:24. Since in the contexts of the Second Coming these related words are used and since Paul himself used telos in talking about the Second Coming elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, it seems more normal to understand teleion in v. 10 to mean that "perfection" is to come about at the Second Coming, or, if before, when the Christian dies and is taken to be with the Lord (2Cor 5:1-10) (EBC).

"But it seems that the perfect thing Paul has in mind must be the eternal state - "face to face" in verse 12 can best be explained as being with God in the new heavens and new earth. It is only in glory that we will know as we are known (John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, p. 389).

But in heaven, faith will be swallowed up in actual sight, and hope in enjoyment. There is no room to believe and hope, when we see and enjoy. But there, love will be made perfect. There we shall perfectly love God. And there we shall perfectly love one another. Blessed state! how much surpassing the best below! (Henry).

On the whole, it is probably best to take to teleion to mean the Second Coming (though the maturity of the church is possible as well). The gift of tongues will cease at some point prior to Christ's return, while this sublime event will do away with knowledge and prophecy. These two gifts need not be taken to be miraculous manifestations, but rather the gift of knowledge that allows the believers to grasp and retain the meaning of God's revelation and the gift of prophecy that allows teachers and pastors to powerfully and truthfully proclaim God's Word. Indeed, the view that knowledge and prophecy would lead to new revelations would contradict the counsel of Scripture in countless other places. Spiritual gifts - whether spectacular or mundane - are always focused on God's revelation, now complete in the pages of our Bibles.

Grammatical Analysis:

  • mid[dle voice] stop (oneself), cease (BAGD)
  • to cease, leave off (Thayer)
  • They shall cease (pausontai). Future middle indicative of pauĂ´, to make
  • cease. They shall make themselves cease or automatically cease of themselves (RWP).
  • having attained the end or purpose, complete, perfect; subst[tantive] to teleion what is perfect Ro 12:2; perh[aps] 1 Cor 13:10 (BAGD)
  • brought to its end, finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness; perfect ... to teleion, substantively, that which is perfect... the perfect state of all things, to be ushered in by the return of Christ from heaven 1 Cor xiii. 10 (Thayer).
Other Views Considered (Charismatics):

Objection: In order to understand this statement we need to examine its context. Paul said that prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled, knowledge will pass away, and perfection will come (verses 8-10). Paul was speaking of a time yet future both to his original readers and to us. When the kingdom of our Lord is ushered in, perfection will come and there will be no further need of Spirit-given knowledge, prophecy, and tongues. They will disappear because they will be longer needed. But these operations of the Spirit are still needed today.

There is no indication in Scripture that tongues would cease at the end of the first century. Tongues are to be a part of the life of the church in every generation until Christ returns to set up His perfect kingdom. Paul's perception was that spiritual gifts would be operational until that day (1 Corinthians 1:7, 8) (from The Assemblies of God website).

Response: It must be admitted that this view is possible; however, it requires that we understand Paul's distinction between tongues "ceasing" of their own accord (middle voice) and prophecy/knowledge to be "done away" with directly by the coming of "the perfect" (passive voice) to be mere stylist variations and not related to the overall meaning of the text. Given Paul's careful use of language throughout this epistle, as well as in his other letters, a stylistic nuance seems unlikely.

If, as seems probable, Paul is teaching that tongues will cease of their own accord before the Second Coming, this interpretation must be rejected - at least with regard to tongues.

While there is no direct statement in the Bible that tongues will cease following the Apostolic age, there is substantial evidence that tongues did, in fact, cease. We may note that tongues are only mentioned in the earliest NT books. Paul wrote at least 12 epistles after 1 Corinthians and never mentioned tongues again. Peter, James, Jude, and John do not mention tongues. There is no evidence from the sub-Apostolic fathers that tongues existed in the church after the first century (see Cleon Rogers, "The Gift of Tongues in the Post-Apostolic Church," Bibliotheca Sacra, 122, p. 134). An interesting sect known as the Montanists seem to have practiced something like speaking in tongues in the second century, but this group was considered heretical by other Christians because of its insistence that its leaders were receiving direct revelation from the Holy Spirit which added to - and even supplanted - the recorded teachings of Christ and the Apostles.

The Montanist movement was defeated almost incidentally as a result of measures the church took against Gnosticism and Marcionism, especially by the definition of the canon of Scripture, which closed the door to Montanus' new revelations (Heresies, p. 68).

While isolated groups on the fringes of mainstream Christianity have, from time to time, practiced something akin to speaking in tongues, this spiritual gift has not been normative for Christians since the Apostolic age - at least, not prior to the modern Pentecostal movement in late 1800's. Thus, the burden of proof rests on those who would argue that tongues have not ceased, a burden that would seem heavy indeed, based on the historical record.

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Robert Hommel. For an Answer Ministries ( All rights reserved.

No comments: