22 Aug 2006

What Does ‘the Perfect’ Mean?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, Bible, Exegesis, Preaching

What Does “the Perfect” Mean?

From time to time I am asked my opinion on a “controversial” passage of scripture. First Corinthians 13.10 is such a passage. After reflecting on the passage I am offering these observations. What follows are not to be seen as dogmatic axioms but explorations into the deep wells of God’s unfathomable wisdom. I also attempt to connect this to RM history by noting how “we” have interpreted 1 Corinthians 13.10.

There are four basic interpretations of to teleion in 1 Cor. 13.10. Not all are equally weighty or persuasive but I offer them nonetheless.

#1) Probably the most familiar view among Churches of Christ is that “the perfect” as the King James Version reads, refers to the completed canon of New Testament scripture. This particular interpretation seems to have arisen historically as a reaction to Pentecostalism. B. B. Warfield is said to have taken this position but I have been unable to document this. But I have checked into the history of the interpretation of this verse and it is true that this view did not exist prior to the 19th century. Usually James 1.25 and Romans 12.2 are appealed to in support of this position. But as J. W. Roberts, of blessed memory, wrote these verses are not discussing the canon (see J. W. Roberts, “That Which is Perfect? Firm Foundation [July 25, 1972], 468). This particular interpretation has been shown to be both exegetically, and historically, wrong by such conservative scholars as Richard Oster, Carl Holladay, J. W. Roberts, Gordon Fee and D. A. Carson. In fact I have not found any standard commentary which has adopted this interpretation. The context of the verse and history of interpretation pretty much eliminate this as the proper understanding of the text.

#2) The second interpretation that is usually given of to teleion is that the phrase refers to agape (love). This particular view has much more going for it that the one just reviewed. Indeed, this is the view that I once held myself and still find it to be very persuasive. More specifically this view holds that to teleion does not refer so much to “perfection” but to the “totality” or “maturity” of the Corinthian Christians in terms of agape love. Carroll Osburn has probably presented the best case that can be made for this interpretation . . . and as I stated before it is a strong case (cf. 1978 Abilene Christian College Lectures, pp. 138-171; Jim McGuiggan presents a summary of Osburn in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). Osburn has done an amazing amount of research into how the Church Fathers interpreted this text. In fact some of his research has moved me to embrace a position different from him.

#3) The third interpretation is a nuanced view of #2, in that the church no longer needs gifts. The weakness of this position is that it is not built upon 1 Corinthians but upon Ephesians 4.7-16. This interpretation breaks, what I believe to be an iron clad rule of exegesis, a passage must first be understood in its own context and then seen in light of others. John McRay has written the presentation of this view: “To Teleion in 1 Corinthians 13:10? in Restoration Quarterly (1971): 168-183.4.

#4) The fourth position is the one I have come to believe as the best interpretation of the verse. This interpretation understands to teleion to refer to the Eschaton or the return of the resurrected Lord at the End of Time. In summary fashion let me share why I have come to this position:

A) As Osburn’s research shows, this is basically the position in the history of the church until around 1600. I do not know of a writer who understood “to teleion” to refer to the Bible. But the Fathers almost unanimously agree the “perfection” refers to the End of Time or heaven (eschaton). Origen for example writes in his controversy with Celsus that we cannot know the eternal things here but only in the highest heavens (pros akrois tois ouranouis) and then he says, “we shall ever be engaged in the contemplation of the invisible things of God, which are no longer understood by us through the things which he has made from the creation of the world . . . then face to face [a reference to 13.12] when that which is perfection comes then we that know inpart will be done away? (Contra Celsum, VI, xx). Basil, Gregory, Eusebius and Chrysostom all understand the text to refer to the Eschaton. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin (see his Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, I, p.428) take the same position. I am not merely parading names here but showing that there is pretty much universal consensus on the meaning of this text stretching across both centuries but even the Catholic and Protestant divide.

B) However, my reasons for accepting this position are not wholly historical but rather exegetical. It is the exegetical reasons that carried such weight with the names above and I find them convincing. The Apostle frames a great deal of what he writes in the context of eschatology. Throughout First Corinthians his advice is repeatedly framed within this forward looking perspective (cf. 1.8f; 2.6; 3.13, 15, 17, 22; 4.4f; 4.8f; 4.19; 5.5; 6.2f; 6.9f; 6.14; 7.17-24, 26, 29, 31; 9.24f; 10.11; 11.26, 29, 32; 15.12ff; 16.22).

In the immediate context of 13.12 we have a clear eschatological frame of reference. “Perfection” thus entails a “state of affairs where my knowledge is in some ways comparable with God’s present knowledge of me” (D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit, pp. 70-71). Gordon Fee has some insight that the reference is not so much the end itself but what will happen at the end . . . that is the goal of the End: “At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God?s saving work in Christ will have been reached? (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, p. 208). Richard Oster in his commentary takes this same position, along with an extended discussion of why this does not force one into accepting Pentecostalism. Another good resource for reading is Klein’s article “Perfection, Mature” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 700.

This interpretation has context on its side, it has the history of interpretation on its side and the consensus of modern scholars. I believe it is the correct interpretation of what Paul meant in this text. Again I think only interpretation 2 is a serious challenger for this view but I feel that context weighs against it.

Bobby Valentine
Milwaukee, WI
Ut omnes unum sint (John 17.21, Vulgate, that they may all be one’)

22 Responses to “What Does ‘the Perfect’ Mean?”

  1. Ben Overby Says:

    Excellent, Bobby. I agree with your conclusions!

  2. David Cook Says:

    Good Post Bobby well researched.

  3. Scott Freeman Says:

    Bobby, as always you give me much to think about in regards to your spot on analysis.
    I’d love your thoughts on my latest entry.

  4. cwinwc Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. One of the reasons I have you linked is to benefit from your scholarly insight. Thanks for taking the time to expound upon this scripture.

  5. Mark Says:

    Thanks Bobby, I’ve wrestled with that passage a little here and there. I have one guy who insists rather adamently that it MUST be referring to the NT canon’s completion. That was a very nice overview. What brought this post on, by the way?

  6. preacherman Says:

    Wonderful thoughts.
    Your blog strengthens my faith and understanding of the scripture.
    Keep up the great work.
    I am enjoying your book.

    God bless you.

  7. Stoogelover Says:

    I’ve never considered myself a brilliant person nor much of a scholar, nor to imply that I have this or any difficult text figured out, but many years ago when I heard this verse preached preached from the persepctive of #1 in your blog, I immediately rejected it simply because it made no sense! And the person preaching that sermon (who later became my dearly esteemed father-in-law) could not answer my arguments with anything that made sense. At that time I figured it had to do with Life after life since that was the only time I would know as I am known.
    But your research is, indeed, interesting. And it’s good to know that sound research is somewhere behind one’s conclusions!

  8. GA Tidwell Says:

    You are right on target with this article. I have always believed that the position you have expressed regarding this passage is the only one which rests on the text itself.

  9. John Roberts Says:

    Bobby, thanks for the thoughtful research and overview of the positions. Very helpful.

  10. Gene Says:

    Hi Bobby. Good post, though I still haven’t worked my way through all the possibilities.

    To: GA Tidwell…hi old buddy.

    Why not prepare an article and run it in the magazine in a few months? If most are believing a wrong position on this, why not edify them?

  11. Zieg Says:

    Bobby, this is a wonderful treatment of this verse. I agree with you on your conclusions, with a tendency towards a combination of #s 2 and 4. It goes something like: The love we’ll be sustained by to the end and that will receive us will bring us to completion in heaven so that we fully know as we are fully known, in and by love’s eyes. I may have to refine it even more in favor of your view here given the fine scholarship and the points you make here.

    Blessings, Brother,


  12. Tim Archer Says:


    I remember you posting something like this in the Berean Spirit group. I still come down on a modified version of #2 (the tie-in with verse 11 is strong, plus it fits all of the discussion about maturity in 1 Corinthians), but always enjoy reading your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.


  13. Tim Archer Says:

    I can’t resist. I dug up my response to this when you posted it last year. The comments still apply:

    “Hmmm… I’m a bit more of an “Interpretation #3” man myself. I don’t
    think that it wholly rests on Ephesians 4, although I do find
    significant parallelism between the two. You might mention that
    “perfect” can also be translated “mature,” which fits very well into
    the context of 1 Corinthians 13. And it is the most probable sense of
    the word in 1 Corinthians 2:6, which should comfort you a bit as far
    as dealing with its own context.

    Considering Paul’s description of the immaturity of the Corinthian
    church (chapters 2 and 3), it makes perfect sense that this immature
    church is the one that still needs to talk about these gifts. Isn’t it
    telling that discussions about miraculous activity in the church are
    noticeably absent from the other letters?

    The only other use of the word in Corinthians deals with a problem of
    maturity. Paul frequently uses the word to discuss maturity. The city
    that seems to have had a real problem with maturity had a fascination
    with spiritual gifts. The verse that follows speaks of maturing, of
    giving up childish ways. This view fits the context *extremely* well.”

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this again.

  14. Niki Says:

    I’m with you on this one Bobby! Like stoogelover, I rejected the #1 perspective pretty quickly, studied it for awhile, and took on #4 for some of the same reasons. I guess we’ll find out someday, won’t we?

    Your researcher mind came through loud and clear! 😉

  15. bob Says:

    Excellent, Bobby. I agree with your conclusions!

    In His Love and Grace Bob

  16. steven clark goad Says:

    First of all, I think Ben Overby’s wife is gorgeous. Smile. Second, I appreciate your research and approach to “the perfect.” I am inclined to think Paul was speaking of maturity, however that position does pose some problems intellectually for me. I, of course, have not glued the perfect law of liberty to the perfect as some have. Blessings, Bobby.

  17. Darin L. Hamm Says:

    Thanks Bobby.

  18. Falantedios Says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  19. Falantedios Says:

    I’m leaning towards the ‘maturity’ concept rather than the eschatological one (although I’m not necessarily sold on there being such a solid and uncrossable line between the two ideas), probably because I’ve got Holladay’s 1 Cor commentary in my lap and his exposition is pretty convincing.

    He says that Paul’s poetic language in 13:8-13 is intentionally elusive and impressionistic rather than realistic and decisive. His ambiguity is probably intentional, and so our attempts to lend precision and clarity to his language are automatically dubious, and in danger of moving right into presumptuous. And yet, we strive to do so, because people ask us questions.

    After giving a solid synopsis of the evidence in favor of the eschatological hypothesis, he says:

    “Yet there are still persistent questions. The end is never referred to in the New Testament as “that which is PERFECT” (to teleion); the common word for “end” (telos) belongs to the same word-family, but it is not the term used here. Usually, to teleion denotes a “moral state,” used to describe persons and personal conduct (2 Cor 2:6; 14:20; Eph 4:13; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; 4:12; cf. Matt 5:48; 19:21; Heb 5:14; James 1:4; 3:2; 1 Jn 4:18; cf. Heb 6:1). The verb form, however, can be used to describe the Christian’s “perfected state” at the coming of the Lord (cf. Phil 3:12). Read in this way, verse 10 would describe the mature state to which Paul is urging the Corinthians, in which prophecies, knowledge, and tongues will no longer be the decisive criteria among them. And his reference to his own growth from immaturity to maturity will be seen as a model for them to follow; they will see that their speaking (in tongues), their knowledge, and their thinking have been childish, conduct unbecoming to genuinely mature Christians (cf. 3:11ff).”

    That’s Holladay’s argument, but I think he also sees that maturity and eschatology are inextricably bound together. Even mature Christians, this side of the Eschaton, will still suffer from lapses into immaturity and unloving behavior, so we need to strive to abide in Jesus, even after we attain a certain level of ‘maturity in Christ’.

    in HIS love,

  20. Falantedios Says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  21. Falantedios Says:

    Sorry! My computer spammed your blog with 4 copies of my comment! LOL!!

    Bad ‘puter! No chips!

    in HIS love,

  22. Alan Says:

    Hi Bobby,

    I’m curious what your foundation is for rejecting #1. You listed the names of some men who agree with you but really never dealt with the argument itself.

    I have only a secondary interest in the opinions of third century church fathers. There were certainly some strange things being advocated by that time. The strongest arguments must come from the passage itself, using the context and sound principles of translation.

    The Gk word ‘teleios’ can be translated as “perfect” or “mature” or “complete”. It is used to refer to mortal men in several passages (1 Cor 2:6, 1 Cor 14:20 to cite two examples in the same book). Standard rules of translation call for us to choose the translation based on the context. In 1 Cor 13 Paul is contrasting something that is partial to something that is “teleios”. So “complete” is a more natural contrast than “perfect”. In fact, in King James English, “perfect” meant “complete” or “mature” and did not necessarily carry the divine connotations we generally attribute to perfection.

    But there is another strong reason in this context to choose something other than divine perfection as the translation for teleios.

    Clearly Paul refers to some time when tongues would cease. This is in contrast to verse 13, where he says faith, hope, and love would remain. He is showing which gifts are greater based on which ones will persist longer. That is the flow of Paul’s argument.

    So for example, there is a time when faith would remain, but speaking in tongues would have passed away. And there would be a time when hope would remain, but tongues would have passed away.

    Nobody hopes for what he has already received (Rom 8:24) So hope is a feature of this world, not the next. Similarly, faith is being certain of what we do not see (Heb 11:1). So like hope, faith is also a feature of this world and not the next. We will not hope for heaven after we have received it, and we will not need to have faith in the promise after we have seen God’s fulfillment of the promise with our own eyes.

    Therefore Paul is saying that a time was coming, prior to final judgment and final receipt the promised inheritance, when faith and hope would still exist but when tongues would not. Tongues then would necessarily end in the present age, prior to the second coming of Jesus. Therefore “teleios” could not refer to Jesus.

    By the way, note that love will abide after faith and hope have become obsolete. Therefore love is the greatest of all these virtues (1 Cor 13:13).

    This reasoning is based on sound translation principles and on the evidence in the passage itself. I am not saying this is the only possible way to look at the passage, but I have not seen equivalent evidence and reasoning leading to a contradictory conclusion.

Leave a Reply