In the last blog, I pointed out that throughout church history there have been four major categories of interpretation for 1 Cor. 13:8-13 and the meaning of the Greek expression to teleion (“the perfect”). These four categories are what might be called (1) The content of knowledge views, (2) The completed canon views, (3) The eschatological views, and (4) The mature body views. In this present blog I will provide a sample illustration of historical support.
The main idea in the content of knowledge view is the assertion that Paul had been speaking about the operation of spiritual gifts (such as prophecy, tongues and the word of knowledge) earlier in chapters 12-13, but he then shifted his discussion in 13:8-13 to focus on the content of our knowledge by saying that one day there will be an end to the present, partial (prophetic) knowledge that we have at the present time and our partial knowledge will become complete/full knowledge (to teleion). The end of this limited knowledge will come either at the return of Christ or at the time of personal death (an idea that could be labeled as “individual eschatology”). Virtually everyone would agree that all will get full prophetic knowledge when we come into the presence of the Lord, but those who take this line of interpretation force a change of topic from the operation of gifts to a discussion about the content of our prophetic knowledge (a shift that must be rejected and is rejected by even Charismatic scholars like Ruthven). Support for this line of reasoning can be found in misc. statements from various early writers even if this is not the exact view they held, e.g., Irenaeus (d. 202), Clement (d. 217), Origen (d, 254). Modern writers who hold to this individual eschatology kind of view include the following as a sample: Richard Baxter (d. 1691), Charles Hodge (1857), R. Fowler White (1992).
The main idea in the completed canon views is that the expression to teleion means a completed canon. That is, Paul recognized the partial nature of the revelatory gifts, but he also knew that a completed canon was in process and once this completed canon was finished the partial gifts would stop. In the opinion of this writer, there is a substantial amount of support for this view, but the major difficulty comes from 13:12. In this verses Paul says that the arrival of to teleion (which they call the completed NT) will bring a face-to-face knowledge of God where we know God in fulness as He knows us. This is a very difficult argument to sustain. Those who have held this view include the following: Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), Kelly (d. 1906), Warfield (d. 1921), Vine (1951), Gromacki (1977), Compton (2004) and others.
The main idea in the eschatological views is that “the perfect” (to teleion) is a reference to some perfect state of affairs that will ensue with the return of Christ at the end of the age. The exact nature and timing would vary depending upon what view of eschatology one holds, but all of them share the idea that “the perfect” is related to eschatology and the return of Christ in some way. Theologians like Carson have noted that if this is what Paul intended by the expression, we must not claim that the prophetic gifts have ended at the present time. Those who hold this view have included the following: Doodridge (d. 1751), Darby (d. 1832), Ellicot (d. 1905), MacArthur, one who still holds to Cessationism (1984), Carson (1987), Grudem (1988), et al. This view has the widest attestation. This view faces three major problems: (1) The lexical force of to teleion is best understood as conveying the idea of “maturity,” and not “perfection.” Lexical sources note that this expression teleios, especially as seen by Paul’s use in close connection with the word nepios (immature, cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; 3:1; 14:20; Eph. 4:13) is best rendered by maturity (Nepios occurs five times in 13:11). (2) Paul’s illustration in 13:12 allows for an imminent parousia, but the illustration in 13:11 argues for the possibility of a gradual process of maturation as well. (3) Church History and present-day experience show us that we do not have miraculous gifts of tongues and prophecy operating today as they did during the apostolic age.
The main idea in the mature body view is that to teleion is best translated by the expression “maturity” as noted above. The nature of this maturity and time of its arrival calls for further explanation that will come in the following blogs. At this point, we can take note of the fact that numerous commentators on 1 Corinthians have recognized that Paul was indicating a process of growth in the church in 13:8-13. Among these are the following: (1) Thomas Scott’s (1747-1821) explanation of τὸ τέλειον and cessationism revolve around the idea of a maturity that comes to the body of Christ through new spiritual knowledge, and the understanding that a cessation would come to prophecy and tongues “when the perfect discoveries of another world are made.” (2) S. T. Bloomfield (1828)writes, “The gifts spoken of ceased in a very short time after the Apostle wrote, having served the purpose intended by bearing testimony to the divine origin of the gospel. It should, therefore, seem that the ceasing and coming to nought was meant to be gradual, and to take place first in this world, and then in the world to come.” (3) Faussett (d. 1910) writes, “A primary fulfillment took place when the Church attained its maturity; then “tongues ceased,” and “prophesying” and “knowledge,” so far as they were supernatural gifts [emphasis original] of the Spirit, were superseded as no longer required when the ordinary preaching of the word, and the Scriptures of the New Testament collected together, had become established institutions..” (4) A. T. Robertson explains that interpreters need to recognize the lexical significance of τέλειον as carrying the idea of “adult” or “mature” (in contrast to the idea of immaturity as seen in νήπιος in 13:11). Robertson explains that Paul’s examples of growth from childhood to adulthood, a concept that also Paul employs in Ephesians 4:13ff., include the idea of a maturity that is accomplished in this life through the fresh revelation of the New-Testament Scriptures. (5) Laurin (1950) explains that, “the things of the early age of Christianity’s immaturity would be supplanted by the things of Christianity’s maturity.” (6) McRay (1971) holds that τὸ τέλειον is best understood with the concept of maturity, and that in 13:8-13 Paul is, “[contrasting] the individual stage of the Christian church with the corporate stage, using teleios to mean the inclusion of the Gentiles. . . . To teleion refers, therefore, to the concluding stages of Paul’s work as an Apostle to the Gentiles.” (7) Thomas holds a mature-body explanation of τὸ τέλειον that largely reflects many of the views of other writers taking the same position. Among his seven arguments for a first-century cessation of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (and other extraordinary gifts) are the following: (1) The body of Christ was in a gradual process of growth that began at Pentecost and would “progress from childhood to maturity, when these [three] and other gifts pertaining to earlier stages of the church’s corporate life would no longer be operative.” (2) The growing New-Testament canon was part of that maturation process, a gradual process illustrated by the illustration in 13:11. The desired maturity was accomplished through the truth that came to the church in the New Testament. (3) That maturation process had the possibility of becoming an immediate and complete maturity if the church were to have experienced the imminent parousia, as reflected in the illustration of 13:12. (4) A proper exegesis of τὸ τέλειον must give due recognition to the lexical force of the term with the dominant, quantitative idea of “maturity,” a point also noted by Dean. (5) A proper exegesis of the passage should give due recognition to every portion of the text, including both of the illustrations Paul used in verses 11 and 12 (v. 12 should not control the interpretation of the entire passage). (6) The closing of the apostolic age brought an end of those revelatory gifts and left the church with a completed canon for the ongoing needs of the Great Commission. (7) In a theological discussion involving the cessation of certain spiritual gifts, one should not disregard the related gifts discussions in Ephesians.
As this short summary shows, one can find considerable historical support for the mature body explanation of 13:8-13. This topic will continue in the next blog.