Don’t Use 1 Corinthians 13:8 to Argue for Cessationism

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Longtime readers will know that I am not a young-earth creationist (I think there are exegetical weaknesses I haven’t been able to overcome), but one of the things I appreciate about the young-earth-only ministry Answers in Genesis is that they have a section on their website entitled Arguments to Avoid.

There are some arguments that seek to advance an end that you agree with, but should be avoided because the premises are not true, or the conclusion does not follow.

Tom Schreiner, in his book on Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter, offers a version of this for cessationis like him.

The verse Schreiner has in mind is 1 Corinthians 13:8:

“But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;

as for tongues, they will cease;

as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”

Here’s the argument he thinks cessationists should avoid:

Some have argued that the particular verb with tongues as the subject is significant. Tongues “will cease” (pausontai), whereas prophecy and knowledge “will come to an end” (katargēthēsetai).

The argument is that the middle voice with the verb pausontai (“will cease”) shows that tongues will cease in and of themselves. . . .

The key feature of this argument is that the gifts will end when “the perfect comes” (1 Cor. 13:10).

On this view, many of the gifts (such as tongues) end when the New Testament is completed, when the canon of Scripture is completed. At that point some of the spiritual gifts are no longer needed, since in the New Testament we have God’s perfect revelation.

A variant of this view is that the perfect doesn’t refer to the writing of the New Testament but to spiritual maturity. Spiritual gifts are no longer necessary because now that we have the New Testament we have all we need for spiritual maturity.

Schreiner argues that rather than seeing “the perfect” as a reference to the close of the canon or to spiritual maturity, Paul clearly was referring to the second coming of Jesus.

If we look at the context of 1 Corinthians 13:8–12, the coming of “the perfect” brings what is “partial” to an end (13:10). Paul says that now we “know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known” (13:12). Presently, our knowledge is incomplete, and “we see only a reflection as in a mirror,” but then we will see “face to face” (13:12).

It is clear, therefore, that “the perfect” is another way of describing “face to face,” and seeing “face to face” most naturally refers to Christ’s second coming. . . .

The idiom “face to face” in 1 Corinthians 13:12 doesn’t suggest something abstract like the New Testament canon or spiritual maturity. Instead, it represents the language of encounter with God, and so naturally refers to the second coming, since we will see Jesus “face to face” when “the perfect comes” (1 Cor. 13:10).

The arguments for cessationism from 1 Corinthians 13:8–10 aren’t exegetically convincing for a number of reasons.

1. The difference between the two verbs (“will cease” vs. “will come to an end”) puts too much weight on the grammatical difference.

The two different verbs “come to an end” (katargeō) and “cease” (pauomai) are used for stylistic variety, and we should not press any distinction between the two verbs. I am not saying that the verbs are absolutely synonymous, but that we shouldn’t read into them a major distinction.

2. It is scarcely evident that Christians are more mature post-canonically.

It isn’t clear . . .  that we are more mature than Christians were in the first century. Such a claim is a rather bold assertion, for it could be read to say that we are even more spiritually mature than the apostles. A quick reading of church history and of the current evangelical landscape raises significant doubts about the assertion as well.

3. Paul’s historical location when he wrote 1 Corinthians creates a significant problem with seeing “the perfect” as the completed canon.

Paul believed Jesus would return soon, and history would come to an end. This isn’t to take away from Paul’s authority or accuracy, for nothing he wrote is contradicted by two thousand years of history passing. The point I am making is that it is almost impossible that Paul could have meant by “the perfect” the New Testament canon.

4. It is even more unlikely that the Corinthians would have understood the word “perfect” as referring to the canon.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul is referring to the New Testament canon. The problem that immediately emerges is that there is no way that the Corinthians would have understood what Paul was talking about! Paul would have had to explain in much more detail than he does here that by “the perfect” he had in mind the completion of the New Testament. Certainly, the Corinthians never imagined or dreamt of a New Testament canon. And why would Paul write about such an idea to them since many—probably most—of them wouldn’t live to see the canon completed, and even if they did live that long, the canon wasn’t compiled together? Indeed, if this is what Paul had in mind, the Corinthians would then know that Jesus could not and would not return for a number of years, and he would only come when the New Testament was finished and accepted as authoritative.

5. The notion that “the perfect” refers to the canon or to spiritual maturity is also ruled out by what Paul says about knowledge.

“When the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end” (1 Cor. 13:10). Now Paul sees imperfectly and knows partially, but when the perfect arrives he will see “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Partial knowledge will give way to complete knowledge (1 Cor. 13:12). If the “perfect” refers to the New Testament canon or to spiritual maturity, we no longer have partial knowledge. Those who have the canon or those who are mature know fully. Indeed, they know more than Paul who confesses that he knows only partially! But any notion that our knowledge is perfect or better than Paul’s is clearly false. Our knowledge continues to be imperfect. We know truly but not comprehensively and exhaustively. We will only know fully when Jesus returns, when we see him face to face.

So, according to Schreiner, there are other reasons to be a cessationist. But this verse isn’t one of them.

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