Excursus on the Meaning of "That Which Is Perfect" (1 Corinthians 13:10)


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One's conclusion about the cessation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially tongues and prophecy, comes down to the meaning of "that which is perfect" in 1 Corinthians 13:10.

There are three main interpretations. "That which is perfect" is fulfilled when:

  1. Canon is complete, or
  2. The Church is mature, or
  3. Christ has come.

Let's consider each view.

1. Canon View. This is a relatively new interpretation, first espoused by William Edwy Vine (1873-1943), known for his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. This view contends that "that which is complete" refers to the New Testament canon or collection of Scriptures that had been written by the end of the apostolic age, though it wasn't until the Council of Nicea (320 AD) that the books in our New Testament canon were affirmed throughout the church.

Those who hold this view are very concerned that contemporary prophecy would somehow take precedence over the New Testament canon (as happened, for example, with the LDS Book of Mormon and Doctrines and Covenants). They see prophecy in the Pentecostal and Charismatic branches of the church as dangerous, and contemporary speaking in tongues as false. Therefore, it is important for them to prove that prophecy and other speaking gifts have ceased.

This view assumes that, with the New Testament in hand, the believer now has the ability to know, not in part, but fully. However, the Apostle Paul, who authored two-thirds of what would become our New Testament, certainly didn't seem to claim full knowledge. He says here, "Now I know only in part..." (13:12). And Paul hints that there is much more beyond what he has written in his letters, when he "was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat" (2 Corinthians 12:4).

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Professor Emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary, supports the cessation of the gifts at the end of the apostolic period, but has abandoned 1 Corinthians 13:10 as his proof text. Instead builds his doctrine of cessation from deductions based on Ephesians 2:20, "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets."

One of the chief problems with the concept of the canon being "that which is complete," is that Paul -- and even more, his readers -- would have had no understanding whatsoever of the concept of the New Testament canon. Thus the identity of "that which is perfect" as the canon wouldn't have occurred to his readers. From an exegetical standpoint, I believe the "canon view" is indefensible.

2. Maturity View. The "maturity" interpretation also is a relatively new, first explained by Roy L. Laurin in his 1950 commentary, 1 Corinthians: Where Life Matures. This view takes teleios as "a state of maturity" (as it is sometimes used in the New Testament) rather than its core meaning of "perfection, completeness." This view sees a strong parallel between 1 Corinthians 13:10 and Ephesians 4:13: "until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." However, the parallels between these passages have sometimes been overstated. Moreover, Paul's contrast between a child's understanding and a mature understanding require a sharper contrast than a gradually maturing church. Some exponents of this view hybridize the maturity view with the eschatological view, others with the canon view.509

3. Christ's Coming or Eschatological View. Taking "that which is complete" as occurring in the period when Christ returns has been by far the majority view of this passage throughout church history, and there are good reasons why this is the case, in addition to the obvious weaknesses of the canon and maturity views.

  1. Teleios is best understood as "perfection" (rather than "maturity") in light of Matthew 5:48, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." This could have been easily understood by the Corinthian readers.
  2. The neuter form of teleios allows for understanding it as the state of perfection.
  3. An eschatological view of the cessation of spiritual gifts conforms with Paul's more general statement in 1:7 --"You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed."
  4. "Face to face" is an Old Testament formula for a theophany which will occur following Christ's return, so that point seems to be the period of, or after Christ's return.
  5. Being fully known will only be true after Messiah comes. Isaiah foresaw this time of Messiah's reign and the gathering of the nations (what we refer to as "the rapture") when, "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:9)

1 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

Though there are various explanations of "that which is perfect" in verse 10, it seems clear that the gifts ceasing around the period of Christ's coming is the best explanation of this verse.

Endnote

509. In characterizing the first two views, I have drawn from research by Rodney J. Decker, "A History of Interpretation of 'That Which Is Perfect' (1 Cor 13:10) with Special Attention to the Origin of the 'Canon View'," unpublished paper, 1994. Decker concludes (p. 67), "The popularity of both these views has probably been a desire to establish a straightforward, single-passage proof text for the cessation of tongues in response to the abuses and extremes of the contemporary charismatic movement." This 85-page paper is available on the Internet. http://ntresources.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/perfectpaper94.pdf


Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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