What is the “Perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13? It Has Nothing to do with the Completion of the Bible

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For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
1 Corinthians 13:9-10 (KJV)

For as far back as I can remember the popular interpretation of this verse was that the perfect was the completed New Testament. The idea is what once the Bible was completed there wouldn’t be any more need for the miraculous gifts of the Spirit to inform Christians but that everything that was needed would be and could be found in the Bible itself, which is the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God. This was part of our cessationist interpretation, that the Holy Spirit had gone into at least partial if not full on retirement and had nothing left to say directly to us today.

Whether or not that conclusion is a valid conclusion is another matter but is that the best interpretation of this verse? Is this reading the conclusion we want that we then reach back into the text to “find”? You probably already know how I am going to answer those two questions: No and yes.

I believe it was our polemic against other groups to find verses that seemed to prove that they were wrong and we were right. We needed a verse that seemed to say the work and gifts of the Spirit came to an end and this was our verse. To be fair the context does talk about the cessation of miraculous gifts like tongues and prophesy so those who went this route didn’t entirely miss Paul’s point but is this the best interpretation of theses verses as we have them in context?

If you bounced this view (perfect = complete New Testament) off Paul I believe it would leave him dumbfounded. Here is why and we go back to solid principles of biblical interpretation including context and the original language.

The word the KJV, ASV and the NASB translate “perfect” is translated other ways in other translations including “completeness” (NIV & NRSV). Which translation is more accurate? Before I answer that I want to point to something else that is worth considering. This same word is used in the very next chapter and is used in a very similar way and that is in 14:20 but is translated entirely differently even by the KJV itself and even the NASB that prides itself on consistent translation of words from Greek to English.

Here is the KJV on that verse,

Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

How do we go from “perfection” to “men”? The word itself, teleios, means “meeting the highest standard” (BDAG) or “being mature”. What does that have to do with the completion of the New Testament? Absolutely nothing. There is more. Look at the contexts of the two uses,

1 Corinthians 14:18-20
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” – 14:18-20

1 Corinthians 13:8-11
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 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 the ways of childhood behind me.

The contexts are extremely similar. Paul is making a continuous point and it has nothing to do with the completion of the Bible. It has to do with growing into maturity in our thinking and in the ways we view each other and use our gifts in non-competitive ways. The gifts don’t make one more complete or teleios than another person. It is our attitude about the gifts, putting them in perspective that they aren’t eternal, that shows our “teleiosness”.

There is one last point. Let’s say you believe the perfect is the completed Bible, then where does that leave you with what Paul wrote? Not only do the gifts pass away at the completion of the Bible but so does knowledge and none of us would say knowledge passed away when the Bible was completed,

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.”

Let’s keep Paul in context. That means we are left with more mystery surrounding the Spirit. That isn’t a bad thing. God himself is mysterious (Romans 11:33-36) and that never seemed to bother anyone or make us the least uncomfortable accepting God the Father’s work based on our lack of absolute knowledge in regard to HOW God operates today.

I believe the Spirit interacts with us today. I believe the Spirit isn’t mute but the Spirit communicates with us and we need to open ourselves up to that reality. I cannot give you a treatise on the mechanisms (how) the Spirit does what the Spirit does (John 3:8) but I know the Spirit is alive, well and active in our lives today.

3 Responses

  1. I believe that understand “knowledge” to mean “furtherance of revealed knowledge” for those that hold the view that Spiritual gifts are no longer being passed on and that we no longer have prophesy or the Holy Spirit gifts or miracles today.
    The strange things is that it says “we know in part and prophesy in part”, meaning that even with the Holy Spirit present, they didn’t have full revelation and the letters were written during this time period. This would mean that even what we have today is incomplete, because they were written when things were “partial”, especially if they were written using the Holy Spirit and prophesy.

    One place that we don’t go is that if Spiritual gifts such as the laying on of hands, etc. is no longer in motion, then preachers themselves are no longer led by the Holy Spirit and are thus like any other person who interprets the scriptures, unlike those in the past who were commissioned by the Apostles and had the laying on of hands.

  2. I would think that this passage would make it clear that the “perfect” or “completeness” isn’t talking about the “knowledge” itself.
    Paul says that “we” know in part and prophecy in part, which means that what they knew and what they were prophecying was not complete, so this would make the very letters we are reading, even 1 Cor. incomplete, so we do not have perfect or complete today based on this.
    Would the knowledge pass away? Yes, Paul says so, but if taken at face value, then this means that what we read today, which is knowledge, should have passed away.
    Although it seems clear that the “tongues” refers to spiritual gifted tongues, thus the knowledge also is spiritually gifted as well and they both will cease.
    Perhaps the perfect is not only “growing up”, but is actually referring back to the “love” which never fails. Once a person excels in love, then they have perfected their knowledge and the point of the knowledge. After all they saints were using their tongues and knowledge against one another, but Paul is arguing that love is more powerful than faith and hope and even the spiritual gifts.
    Love is the perfection in a mature person.

  3. Thanks Matt, for a well-reasoned argument. I never liked the traditional CoC take on 1 Cor 13: 8-10, as it raised my 2 Peter 1: 20-21 hackles; for, that view is not self-evident except to those who reject in their minds, without authoritive instruction, any continuing manifest supernatural aspect to a Church established supernaturally. Surely, the times seasons and methods are God’s province, and not mankind’s to be opinioned and rationalised about. Look at God’s response to Job when his friends tried to impose on Job their view on what the Almighty could and couldn’t, would and wouldn’t do. Moreover, I’ve never understood how those holding the traditional CoC view could have the gall to temporally limit what the Risen Lord said on what signs would accompany His followers [Mark 16: 17-18], just because it doesn’t fit their experience or convenience. I’ve heard the pragmatic arguments. By the looks of it, things haven’t essentially changed: the Israelites started ‘re-writing’ their religious beliefs when they thought Moses was taking too long up the mountain. Their faith wasn’t great enough. Proverbs 3: 5-6 tells us what to do when we are ‘in the dark’ re understanding, and Paul assures us in 1 Cor 13: 9-10 that understanding will come when God perfects His will in us.

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