The following belongs to a series on the continuation or cessation of the miraculous phenomena of tongues-speaking. Read the previous post here.
1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is the only text in scripture that explicitly mentions that tongues will cease (v.8). Consequently, these six verses often find themselves at the center of the debate between cessationism and continuationism.
The Three Main Views on the Identity of “the Perfect”
The crux of one’s interpretation of this text is how one understands “the perfect” in v.10. Conceding minor differences, there are three main interpretations on the identity of “the perfect.” First, some view “the perfect” as referring to the completed canon.1 If this interpretation is correct, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 would explicitly affirm the cessation of tongues with the completion of the NT. A second view, which is the most widely accepted among scholars today,2 is that “the perfect” refers to an eschatological reality.3 Thirdly, a minority view is that “the perfect” refers to the mature church.4 Some link the word “prefect” used here (teleios) to its use in Ephesians 4:13 and claim that “the perfect” refers to the completely mature Church at the end of the age. Others see this maturation of the Church as occurring at the end of the apostolic era (most likely in accordance with the close of the canon). Consequently, this third view tends to blur into either the first or second view,5 leaving basically two options.
A close assessment of all the factors indicates that the second view (as opposed to the first) is most likely the correct interpretation. For instance, first, the context of the book of 1 Corinthians argues that “the perfect” refers to an eschatological reality since throughout much of the epistle Paul is dealing with problems in the church that seem to have emerged from the Corinthians having an overrealized eschatological understanding of their present state (i.e., 1 Cor 4:10).6 Secondly, the notion that the closed canon would be apparent to the Corinthian readers in this verse is extremely suspicious.7 And thirdly, Paul’s illustration in verse 12 does not harmonize well with the canon view while the eschatological interpretation corresponds with it extremely well. For instance, Paul’s claim that he would “know fully, even as I have been fully known,” would seem to be a rather extensive exaggeration if Paul had the canon in mind as “the perfect.”8
The Context of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
In 12:1 Paul begins to address a new topic of concern within the Corinthian church—spiritual manifestations, grace-gifts, or more commonly, “spiritual gifts.” In chapter 12 he discusses the variety of grace-gifts apportioned by the Spirit to various members of the church (vv.4-11, 27-31)9 and the unity of the church which the Corinthians need to live out (vv.12-27). Paul’s mention that spiritual manifestations are given for the purpose of edifying the congregation as a whole (v.7), his illustration showing that all members have a vital function (vv.14-20), and his emphasis on the unity and interdependence of the church (vv.21-26) all seem to indicate various problems within the Corinthian church.10 Logically, Paul’s next step would be to show them “an even better way” (1 Cor 12:13, HCSB). Chapter 13 lays out this “more excellent way”—using one’s spiritual gifts in love. Therefore, Paul’s main point in 13:8-13 is the superiority of love to the mentioned spiritual gifts (13:8, 13).
The Proper Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
Having given a grand description of the outworking of love in verses 4-7, Paul transitions into a new facet of his argument by stating that love never ends or ceases (v.8). However, in stark contrast, knowledge, tongues, and prophecy will all cease (v.8). In their current state, knowledge and prophecy are partial in nature (v.9). But when “the perfect” (the eschatological reality) arrives, the partial nature of prophecy and knowledge will cease (v.10).11 In other words, when Paul states in verse 8 that knowledge and prophecy will cease, he is referring to the cessation of these gifts in their current state; they will be superseded by a perfect form.
However, amidst all of this discussion, Paul uses very precise language to keep tongues distinct.12 First, Paul uses two different yet essentially synonymous verbs to denote the cessation of tongues versus the cessation of knowledge and prophecy. Whereas Paul says knowledge and prophecy will pass away (using the verb katargeo), tongues will cease (pauo).13 Secondly, while the partial nature of knowledge and prophecy will be ceased (passive tense), Paul uses the middle voice in reference to the cessation of tongues. And thirdly, although Paul refers to knowledge and prophecy as being “in part,” he distinctly leaves tongues out of such discussion. This means 1) that while the cessation of the partial nature of knowledge and prophecy is caused by “the perfect,” the cessation of tongues is not necessarily related to the arrival of “the perfect” (which is further argued for by the distinct use of the middle voice mention above14), and 2) that the cessation of tongues mentioned in verse 8 very well may refer to the cessation of the gift itself (as opposed to a partial quality as with knowledge and prophecy).
Having said all this, in this text Paul is not specifically addressing when tongues is to cease. His primary point is the supremacy of love and its need in the exercising of spiritual gifts. Consequently, Paul’s words allow for both cessationism and continuationism. Further, the interpretation of this text is extremely difficult. Very intelligent and well-intentioned interpreters disagree on this text. Consequently, one does well not to base a doctrine of cessationism or continuationism solely on this text.
1. Myron J. Houghton, “A Reexamination of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13,” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (July-September 1996): 344-56; R. Bruce Compton, “1 Corinthians 13:8-13 and the Cessation of the Miraculous Gifts,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal DBSJ 9 (2004); Merrill F. Unger, New Testament Teaching on Tongues (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1971), 92-101; idem, The Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 140-42; John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit: A Comprehensive Study of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, 3rd ed. (Findlay: Dunham, 1958), 178-79; Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem, 2nd ed. (Memphis: Footstool, 1989), 51-60.
2. Wayne A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 195-99; idem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1049-61, 1069-82; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 38, 66-76; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 641-52; John F. MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 165-66; idem, 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 364-66; idem, Charismatic Chaos, 230-31; Thomas R. Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit: Affirming the Fullness of God’s Provision for Spiritual Living (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 243-46; Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “A Cessationist View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. Wayne Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 55-56; Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 134, 140-141; R. Fowler White, “Richard Gaffin and Wayne Grudem on 1 Cor 13:10: A Comparison of Cessationist and Noncessationist Argumentation,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 32.5 (June 1992): 173-81; Stanly D. Toussaint, “First Corinthians Thirteen and the Tongues Question,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120:480 (Oct 1963): 311-16; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan and Galaxie Software, 1999; 2002), 295; Robert L. Saucy, “An Open But Cautious View” in Four Views, 123.
3. Differences of opinion exist as to whether this is glorification, the eternal state, the rapture, the second coming of Christ (which seems to be the most popular opinion), or something else. Compton summarizes the general idea of this position well when he states that this view claims Paul is referring to “perfect knowledge at the return of Christ” (“1 Corinthians 13:8-13,” 97-144).
4. Donald G. McDougall, “Cessationism in 1 Cor 13:8-12,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 14 (Fall 2003): 207-213; Robert L. Thomas, “1 Cor 13:11 Revisited: An Exegetical Update,” Master’s Seminary Journal TMSJ 04:2 (Fall 1993); idem, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, 78-83; Joseph Dillow, Speaking in Tongues: Seven Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 119-33.
5. See Gromacki, Modern Tongues, 122-129 in which Gromacki seems to argue that “the perfect” refers to the canon and/or the mature church.
6. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 12-13; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 16.
7. First, the concept of the canon is entirely absent from Paul’s discussion up until this point in the letter. Secondly, for Paul to speak in anticipation of the knowledge brought by the completed canon seems odd since he wrote much of the NT and understood mysteries. Thirdly, Paul may have believed the Lord would return within his lifetime (1 Thes 4:15) (Wallace, Beyond the Basics, 295). Fourthly, if Paul is referring to the canon, this would mean that his prediction in verse 11 proved false, seeing that he died before the completed canon.
“One cannot object that the reference is not to the coming of Christ because the adj. is neuter, since the neuter adj. is sometimes used for persons for reasons of rhetoric, aphoristic principle, suspense, etc. . . .” Wallace, Beyond the Basics, 295.
8. Furthermore, when Paul states “face to face” in v.12 he may very well be referring to the future reality of seeing Christ face to face (1 John 3:2). The phrase “face to face” (πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον) is often used in the LXX in reference to being face to face with God (Gen 32:20; Ex 33:11; Deut 5:4; 34:10; Ezek 20:35) (MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 230-231; Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” 55; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 196-97; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 71). However, Compton argues that if the mirror illustration is to be taken metaphorically, “face to face” ought to be understood metaphorically as well (“1 Corinthians 13:8-13,” 134-39).
9. Speaking in tongues and the interpretation of those tongues are listed as two of these spiritual manifestations (v.10).
10. Some members may have thought themselves as better than others due to the grace-gift(s) they had received while others may have been left feeling rather inferior and unimportant. Underlying these problems was pride—using one’s spiritual gift(s) for self-edification rather than the edification of other members.
11. Several interpreters disagree with this interpretation and see the arrival of “the perfect” as affecting the cessation of these gifts (including tongues, despite the fact that tongues is left out of Paul’s discussion after verse 8).
Paul does not call knowledge and prophecy the partial that will cease. He calls their quality partial. “Know” and “prophecy” are verbs and therefore “in part” describes how these verbs are exercised. In other words, Paul is not referring to the cessation of prophecy and knowledge but the cessation of their partial nature. Gaffin argues something very similar to this interpretation (“A Cessationist View,” 55). Similarly, Saucy, “Open But Cautious,” 123-24. Consequently, since Paul is not addressing the cessation of the gifts with the arrival of “the perfect” but their partial nature, understanding “the perfect” as referring to an eschatological reality does not necessitate that one hold to the continuation of prophecy and knowledge (if Paul is referring to the gift of knowledge here, cf. 12:8) until the arrival of “the perfect.”
Unlike the majority view, this author’s interpretation takes into account the fact that scripture still anticipates prophets in the future kingdom (i.e., Luke 13:28). If “the perfect” ceases prophecy, this prediction cannot be fulfilled (with a possible exception if “the perfect” refers to the eternal state [see MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 364-66]).
This author’s interpretation is further supported by Paul’s illustrations in verses 11-12. In verse 11 Paul does not state that when he became a man he forfeited all speech, thought, and reason. No, on the contrary, the implication is that when Paul reached maturation so did his speech, thought, and reasoning. Likewise, in verse 12, quite the opposite of saying that knowledge (no qualification) will cease, Paul speaks of “the perfect” ushering in complete knowledge. This holds true even if “knowledge” in verses 8 and 9 denotes a generic concept of knowledge as opposed to the spiritual gift of knowledge (12:8).
It should be noted that instead of rendering τὸ ἐκ μέρους (v.10) as “the partial” (see ESV, NASB, and HCSB) or “the imperfect” (RSV), τὸ ἐκ μέρους can be translated, “that which is in part” (see YLT, KJV, and ASV). However, such a translation does not exclude this author’s interpretation.
12. Some, however, only see Paul’s language as stylistic, such as Carson who claims making an argument such as Wallace’s in footnote 27 is an exegetically fallacy (Exegetical Fallacies [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984], 77-79). See also idem, Showing the Spirit, 67; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 196.
13. Notice how Paul always uses the verb katargeo in relation to knowledge and prophecy both in verses 8 and 10. By reserving pauo solely for tongues in verse 8, by leaving tongues unmentioned in his “partial” discussion in verse 9, and then by using katargeo in verse 10 to refer to the partial passing away, Paul keeps tongues distinct from his discussion concerning the passing away of the partial.
14. As Wallace notes, “The implication [of the middle voice] may be that tongues were to have ‘died out’ of their own before the perfect comes.” However, if pauo is not middle voice but deponent (as some suggest it is when it is in the future tense), then this conclusion is not true. But Wallace rejects this notion since pauo “is surrounded by passives in 1 Cor 13:8, not actives.” A deponent (active tense) amidst passive tense verbs is unlikely. “The deponent view is based on some faulty assumptions as to the labeling of παύσονται as deponent, the parallel in Luke 8:24, and even the meaning of deponency. Paul seems to be making a point that is more than stylistic in his shift in verbs.” Therefore, Wallace concludes that pauo in this verse 8 is probably an intrinsic middle—meaning “it ceases from its own activity” (Beyond the Basics, 422-23). Others who argue similarly: Robert L. Thomas, “Tongues . . . Will Cease,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society JETS 17:2 (Spring 1974): 81-89; Toussaint, “The Tongues Question,” 311-16; Gromacki, Modern Tongues, 128-29; MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 230-31.