Monday, November 8, 2010

A Cessationist Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, Part 1

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Cor 13:8-12

It is no secret that the traditional Reformed exegesis of this passage is solidly Cessationist. The whole weight of the Continuist position hangs on, what I hope to demonstrate, is an exegetical error. Much of the discussion turns upon the proper understanding of the phrase “that which is perfect” in verse 8.

Scripture not only tells us that the supernatural gifts would cease, but it also tells us when they would cease. Continuists always make "that which is perfect" refers to the eternal state. Cessationists take it to mean the completion of the New Testament. I wish to demonstrate that this is the only way this passage can be understood, then draw some inferences from it.

Why must "that which is perfect" refer to the completion of the New Testament canon?

1. Perfect simply means mature. When that which is mature comes, that which is in part will be done away with. Paul's illustration demonstrates that "perfect" means mature.

2. 14:20 In understanding be "men" - the same Greek word, in the same basic context.

3. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 claim that God's Word makes us "perfect" or mature.

Based on these (2 & 3) passages, it is clear when Paul speaks of the perfect or of the mature, he has the present time in mind, not heaven. He does not have the glorified man in heaven in view. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul tells us that the man of God becomes mature or perfect not by miraculous gifts, but by the Word of God. This places the supernatural gifts within the realm of the immature. Furthermore he is referring to tongues, prophecies and knowledge as immature revelation. By that I do not mean defective. It is still Divine revelation, it is just not complete. Not only will the gifts cease or fade away, but even as they were, they were in part. Paul is telling the Corinthians that what they had then by way of those gifts was incomplete or immature compared to that which was to come - that which is perfect. The need for spiritual gifts places those in that situation at a disadvantage. Charismatics don't see this. A continued need for revelatory gifts means that what we possess now by way of revelation is not perfect and is at best in part. Now if you can say that about the Bible, then I repudiate your claim to be a Christian. Nor is there any self-consistent way to maintain the sufficiency and completeness of the Scriptures and leave a back door open to the continuation of the supernatural revelatory gifts. 

It is often objected by proponents of Continuism, even the adherents of a soft version of it, that the gifts were confirmational, that is, they confirmed the message of the Apostles; so that if we had a situation today in which the message of the Apostles had never been heard, God might still use these gifts in the same confirmational manner. The flaw with this logic is that the gifts as they operated in Scripture were MORE than simply confirmation of the Apostles message. They were themselves revelatory. If the gift is genuine after the manner of operation in Scripture, it would have to be BOTH confirmational AND revelatory. If it can't be one, it can't be the other.

The whole context of chapter 13 is the larger context of 12-14 which deals with supernatural gifts. I Corinthians 13 is not a rabbit trail off the subject Paul has in view. He is striving very hard to show that Faith, Hope, and Love (the greatest of which is love) are Gospel virtues which the Church will possess through her entire earthly pilgrimage. The partial immature, incomplete state of revelation prior to the arrival of "that which is perfect" will change. The tongues, prophecies and knowledge will pass away, or cease, but faith, hope and love will continue.

This is another reason why the "perfect" cannot possibly be referring to the glorified state. Faith and Hope will not survive this age. In Glory, hope and faith will be superseded by sight and experience. Having attained the promised kingdom, we will no longer need to live in hope of its arrival. Granted we will love each other in the eternal state, but that is beside the point.

But back to the passage, it is important to note that Paul juxtaposes the current immature state of the Church, possessing a revelation via spiritual gifts, and that only in part, with the perfect, full, sufficient revelation that had yet to be completed at the time of his epistle. This is important to grasp because Pentecostals and Charismatics place great stock in their own spiritual maturity based on their supposed practice of these gifts. They take tongues and prophecy to be great indicators of spiritual maturity. Yet the Holy Spirit tells us the exact opposite. Moreover if the Charismatics and Pentecostals are correct, the Church will never have a complete body of revelation throughout her entire existence on earth. This involves them in a massive contradiction. If knowledge, as one of the gifts, will vanish away, how can they turn around then and say that we know only in part now, but when we get to heaven we will experience an exponential increase in knowledge. Not only is this a direct contradiction of Scripture, it stultifies their own position. There is no other way to understand this, because Paul says quite bluntly that the immature was going to give way to the mature. In doing so, he relegates spiritual gifts to the realm of the immature.

When Paul refers here in verse 8 to tongues, prophecies and knowledge, he is referring back to chapter 12, verses 6-11. In fact the point he is making in chapter 13 has to do with all that he has already said in chapter 12. The point is this: Those gifts did exist in the Apostolic church; they were practiced by the Apostles. So when he comes to chapter 13, he says, naming three prominent gifts, that something better than these gifts was coming. And when it came, the temporary and immature would no longer be needed. If people could get this into their heads, the whole Charismatic movement would dry up overnight. What Paul is contrasting here is lesser and greater revelation.

All of the above explanation plays heavily on how we are to understand verse 12. At first glance, verse 12 might seem to countenance the Pentecostal interpretation to "that which is perfect" is a reference to Heaven or the glorified state of believers. It is important to remember that the gifts which Paul lists in verse 8, as a sample of all those he mentions in chapter 12, being miracles, belong to the realm of revelation. This revelation is said to be "in part." Therefore, his partial revelation will be done away with once the "perfect" revelation comes. If what is being replaced belongs to the realm of Divine revelation, the logical inference is that what replaces it which is perfect or mature is also in the realm of Divine revelation. This basic premise must be grasped to understand verse 12.

Paul was telling the Corinthians that what they then had by way of Divine revelation was immature and temporary, and would be superseded by "that which is perfect." I want to reiterate that by calling Divine revelation "immature," I do not mean to say that it was defective. I merely mean to say that it was not complete. It is a contrast between lesser and greater revelation. We must remember that we are dealing with a period in history when the New Testament was not complete. Paul is telling them that what they had was a lesser 'version,' if you will, of the complete revelation that was coming. Paul doesn't specify when it would occur, but he is exceptionally clear in saying that once the Church possessed the perfect revelation, there would be a cessation of the immature revelation.

To make "that which is perfect" refer to the state of Glory is to say that the Church, while on earth, will never possess perfect revelation. This contradicts statements found throughout the New Testament. For example, in John 16:13, Jesus promises the Apostles total and perfect recall of all that He taught them so that they could write the New Testament. And notice that Christ says, "all truth." Christ is stating quite plainly that at the close of the New Testament canon, the Church possesses "all truth." Nothing can be added to "all." So if Paul means that the "perfect" is heaven, then, in direct contradiction to Christ, he is saying that the Church will have to put up with partial revelation throughout her entire history. Furthermore, it is during the Church's earthly pilgrimage that she needs the mature or perfect revelation. How could it be any consolation to the Corinthians for Paul to say that they will have to wait to get to heaven before they will possess the full revelation God means for His people to have while on earth?


  1. To argue from 1 Corinthians 13 that the supernatural sign gifts continue until the return of Christ is one huge argument from silence. My own view of the passage is that Paul is neither affirming nor denying either the continuation of the sign gifts. I don't agree that Paul is referring to the NT canon either, since that is also an argument from silence. The context seems to indicate that Paul is talking about the "perfect" in reference to "love". Since no one loves perfectly in this life due to the sinful nature, the context seems to be a rebuke to the charismaniacs of Paul's day. Chapter 14 is a correction to the misuse of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian church, a strong indicator of his rebuke to those who had spiritual pride.

    And it would appear that Paul thought that even in his own day that they glossolalists should speak in tongues in the closet if they must.

    Anyway, the cessationist argument is strongest in Calvin's preface to the Institutes, imo:)

    1. Charlie, thanks for weighing in. Obviously we view this issue much the same. And I am with you that Calvin’s Cessationist argument in the preface to the Institutes is terrific. My largest concern with the notion that the gifts, especially Tongues were being misused is that, by definition, this seems to be a contradiction. If Tongues was what it appears to be in Acts 2, namely God sovereignly controlling the speech of the Apostles so that they were proclaiming God’s glory in languages they had not learned, then by definition this cannot be misused. It isn’t being “used” in the first place. God’s Spirit was using the Apostles to proclaim His word, not the Apostles using the Spirit to proclaim God’s word. By definition the gift of Tongues is the Holy Spirit speaking directly through a man. How can that be perverted? How can a carnal, selfish, self-promoting individual or deluded soul induce the Holy Spirit to speak through him and pervert something that only God can do?

  2. Amen. Paul is absolutely rejecting glossolalia and irrationalism. His emphasis is on the logical and rational revelation of God in the Scriptures.

  3. Hey Andy, thank you for sharing. I really appreciated your article. You made your points very clear. I am doing an in depth study of continualism and cessationalism. Your article is the most enlightening one I have read yet. I went back and read the passage that you are discussing and can understand your exegesis; however, when I got to 14:1-2, I succumbed to confusion again. If Paul says that these gifts are of spiritual immaturity then why does he advise for us to desire them earnestly?


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