Alan Rouse was kind enough to critique the first post in this series in considerable detail, and I’ve been too tied up with GraceConversation and some other things to give Alan’s comment the response it deserves. So … finally … I get to it.
[I love receiving such thoughtful comments, especially when they disagree with me. Why allow comments except to be pushed by the readers into deeper study?]
Alan writes by quoting me and then inserting comments throughout the text. Therefore, the doubly indented text is from my original article.
What on earth does [the expiration of gifts when the New Testament is complete] have to do with uniting the church at Corinth or how to exercise spiritual gifts in the assembly?
That’s an easy question to answer, directly from the context. Some of the Corinthians were pursuing tongues and prophecy as though they were the greatest gifts. Everything from 1 Cor 12:31 through chapter 14 is making the point that other gifts are more important than tongues and prophecy. Part of Paul’s argument was that those gifts were becoming obsolete and would pass away. He sums up in 1 Cor 14:12:
“1Co 14:12 So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”
It’s indisputable that Paul was saying that tongues and prophecy would cease. From verse 8:
“But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
Because those gifts would pass away, they were inferior to gifts that would not pass away.
The theory that Alan argues for is held by many very capable scholars. I mean no disrespect. But I don’t see it.
Paul had an immediate, urgent pastoral problem: the Corinithians were dividing over spiritual gifts. Paul’s urgent need was to persuade them to love each other. Pointing out that gifts will be replaced a century or more later by a book doesn’t seem to me to help get Paul to that goal. On the other hand, demonstrating that the gifts are somehow a mark of immaturity would certainly be calculated to humble those who take pride in them.
“I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” seems — like face to face — to refer to interpersonal knowledge. I mean, do we really mean that I should know the New Testament as well as God knows me (perfectly!)?
I can know the full message God delivered through the inspired writers — in contrast to what the first century church had, with the bits and pieces of revelation coming from time to time, from prophets in their midst. And as I know the full message, the message knows me:
“Heb 4:12-13 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Let’s start with the quoted Hebrews passage. It’s speaking specifically of Psalm 95. The writer of Hebrews relies on a series of Old Testament passages to build his case for the superiority of Christianity to the old covenant. He is speaking of the Old Testament. Of course, what he says is equally true of the New Testament, but the author of Hebrews believed this passage to be true long before the New Testament was completed.
Today, we’ve had the New Testament for nearly 2,000 years, and yet many within our midst deeply misunderstand its promises, some so severely that they commit the Galatian heresy and perhaps even fall from grace and lead others over the same cliff. Personally, I’d be thrilled if we had a modern-day apostle or prophet who could straighten us out! We need it.
In fact, the scriptures speak plainly of the necessity of God’s involvement in Christians through the Spirit, and this is until the end of time —
(Acts 2:39) “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Under any theory, we have to accept the necessity of divine intervention in our lives until Jesus returns through the Spirit. Therefore, the New Testament is not sufficient. It only becomes sufficient when empowered by the Spirit’s work within us.
The question, therefore, isn’t: doe God continue to move supernaturally among his people? — he does; but how? And, more to the point, does he continue to give spiritual gifts to his children?
You then ask:
How could the church at Corinth have considered “that which is perfect” or “perfection” to refer to the New Testament? Surely Paul meant to be understood by the church in Corinth?
There is nothing unusual about passages that are obscure to the readers of the day, but which become clear later. The Corinthians would have clearly understood from this text that tongues and prophecies would pass away, but they would not have understood precisely when. Knowing precisely when was not essential to the central message — namely, that they were pursuing the wrong gifts.
Ah … I certainly agree that the point is to argue for love as vastly more important than the spiritual gifts they were arguing over. However, if Paul’s point is that certain of the gifts served the same role that the New Testament one day would serve, that would seem to elevate those gifts rather than diminish them. I mean, imagine if God visited you tonight and said, “I give you the gift of prophecy and your words will have the same authority as the New Testament.” It would take a remarkable man not to feel a bit puffed up by that!
And I agree that Jesus and the Old Testament prophets spoke at times in ways that could not be understood until later, but why would Paul try to deal with an immediate, urgent problem in Corinth in this way? How does he demonstrate that the love is the greatest gift of all by his argument?
How does saying love is the greatest of the three refer to how long love will last?
The entire argument, culminating in verse 13, is that gifts that last longer are greater than gifts that end sooner. Naturally, in the context of that argument, the greatest gift is the one that lasts longest.
It’s not an obvious proposition.
“Adults” is the very same word translated “perfection” in chapter 13, in very much the same discussion.
And the same point is being made: namely, they were acting immaturely in regard to the gifts, and they needed to grow up.
1 Corinthians 14:20, in the same discussion, uses teleios to refer to adulthood or maturity in contrast to childhood. Everywhere else in 1 Corinthians, the word means “maturity.” That is therefore the default meaning in chapter 13 until proven otherwise.
A compelling argument can be made from the Greek for “complete” and “partial” in verses 9-10.
I agree that “complete” fits the immediate context, but that hardly means that it can’t also mean “maturity,” as elsewhere in the context. To a First Century Greek speaker, “complete” and “mature” are the same word and much the same thought. Nor would “complete” have obviously meant “the completed New Testament” to Paul’s readers.
For more on why the “complete” refers to NT scripture, see my previous article.
The following is taken from Alan’s linked article.
Paul was saying that, when the (finished, complete) thing comes, the (partial, parts) would end. The revelations received through the spiritual gifts were only partial. Each revelation was only a small part of God’s message. The early church did not have access to the completed message. They only had the separate revelations whenever a prophet received a piece of the message. But God’s plan was for the complete message to be provided to the church. When the complete message had been delivered, then the gifts of prophecies, tongues, and knowledge would pass away.
“1Co 13:11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”
The gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge were provided during the early childhood of the church, to meet a temporary need until the scriptures were completed. Once the church possessed the completed scriptures, the partial revelations were no longer necessary, and were put away.
Here is where you lose me. Would Paul actually argue that revelation given by a prophet from God is childish — prophet who’s been especially gifted to fill in the instructional gap resulting from a then-incomplete New Testament? He could certainly argue that it’s partial. But childish?
A truer contrast would be between prophesying with love/maturity and without. One is childish. One is complete. Or a better contrast would be having a gift that’s a mark of immaturity vs. no longer needing the gift due to maturity.
“Thought like a child, … reasoned like a child … childish ways” sounds like a criticism of their behavior and hearts, in contrast to love, rather than a criticism of God-given knowledge or prophecy given to compensate for an incomplete New Testament.
“1 Co 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
We have a hard time imagining what it was like to be a Christian during an era when the New Testament was not available. Compared to what we can see today, they saw only dimly. We should have a greater appreciation for the privilege we enjoy of reading the scriptures for ourselves.
“Face to face” is a reference to knowing a person, not a book of instruction. This is speaking of the Christian’s (or church’s) relationship with God or Jesus, referring back to Moses’ being in God’s very presence, described as speaking with God “face to face.”
“1Co 13:13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Paul indicated that there would be a time when faith, hope, and love would remain, but tongues, prophecies, and knowledge would have passed away. When could that be? When Christ returns, we will no longer be hoping for something not yet received; we will have receive it! And we will no longer be living by faith, but by sight, since we will actually see God for ourselves. So faith and hope will remain until Jesus returns. Love will endure forever.
Therefore, the time Paul referred to, when we would have faith, hope, and love — but not gifts of tongues, prophecies, and knowledge — began with the cessation of the gifts, after the New Testament scriptures were delivered and established. And that era continues until the return of Jesus.
So faith, hope, and love are greater than the other gifts, because they did not pass away after the New Testament scriptures were established. And because love will endure after all the other gifts have passed away, it is the greatest of the gifts.
Paul doesn’t actually say that love will last longer than faith and hope. He just says it is the greatest of the three. Earlier he says that love never “fails,” but not in the sense of lasting forever. His point is that love doesn’t let people down —
(1 Cor 13:7-8a) It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
(Compare Rom 9:6, using the same word.) Besides, I just can’t see Paul arguing that love is greatest because it will endure the longest. Love is the greatest gift because it most makes us like God. Or because it most edifies the church (see chapter 14).
Now, in fairness to Alan and others, as I said at the beginning, plenty of very capable scholars have reached this same conclusion as he. And I’m not entirely comfortable with my own conclusion. But if I’m wrong (as is entirely possible), I much prefer the interpretion that “that which is perfect” is a reference to the end of time. The church was aware that there’d be a judgment and a resurrection. Paul could have expected them to reach that understanding. I can’t see him expecting his readers to find “New Testament” in “that which is perfect.”
Moreover, as I’ll explain in a future post, I don’t see the prophetic gift described in 1 Cor to be comparable to the apostolic gift or the gift of inspired writing of scriptures. I think it was something lesser. But that’s for another day.