7 Feb 2009

To Toleion: The Perfect? First Corinthians 13.10

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

Many have asked me at one time or another to share my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13.10. It is a critical text in many a debate over hermeneutics and the canon. But I have been hesitant to do so for a variety of reasons: unsure of it myself, to avoid controversy, and lack of time for extended discussion. I have profited greatly from the study of others on this passage and have done some of my own.

What follows are not dogmatic axioms but explorations into the deep wells of God’s unfathomable wisdom. I remain open to correction and study.

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 does not seem to exist prior to the 19th century. Usually James 1.25 and Romans 12.2 are appealed to in support of this interpretation. But as the lamented J. W. Roberts 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 Donald 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 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) The fourth position is the position that 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 in part 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 the 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 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.

We long for the “perfect” to come … Come Lord Jesus.

15 Responses to “To Toleion: The Perfect? First Corinthians 13.10”

  1. Joseph Kelly Says:

    Richard Gaffin in his book Perspectives on Pentecost takes the fourth view, argues for it on exegetical grounds, and also explains (in the larger context of the book) why this does not force one into accepting Pentecostalism. His argument is both concise and cogent. I use it when discussing the issue with those who take the first view because he shows how their “perfect” is of the same intrinsic qualities of the “partial”.

  2. Tim Archer Says:

    I’m glad that you now say that option 2 is a strong argument; to me it’s the only one that takes into consideration the use of the word in Corinthians itself, as well as the overall theme of lack of maturity in 1 Corinthians.

    I wrote on this a couple of weeks ago:

    Grace and peace,

    P.S.–You might search a bit for Osburn’s presentation on this passage at the ACU Lectureship in the early 90s. He revised his position. If memory serves, he now agrees with you.

  3. Gardner Hall Says:

    Though I acknowledge the tendency of “Church of Christers” to eagerly jump to any position that might help them in a debate with Pentecostals no matter how forced (for example Guy N. Wood’s position on Ephensians 4, uggh!) and the fact that most traditional commentaries don’t take position #1, I’m not ready to discard it yet.

    Of course “the canon” in the sense of 27 accepted books isn’t in the context. I don’t really think you can find direct reference to the canon in that sense anywhere in the N.T. Instead, what you see are references to revelation and through implication the fact that at some time direct revelation would cease. Revelation is in the immediate context of 1 Cor. 13:10, for example, try the verse before it! Robert Gromacki of the Presybterian and Reformed Publishing Company (they have a lot of good stuff) defends the first position well in his book, “The Modern Tongues Movement.”

    As for the position number 4, doesn’t verse 13 argue against that, since it implies that faith and hope would continue after “to teleion”? That wouldn’t fit with an end time fulfillment.

    Since you are so much more knowledgeable than I am, I don’t have to remind you that “church fathers” and traditional commentators are often at odds with each other and often wrong when they supposedly reach a “consensus.”

    However, you as always, have left me plenty to chew on. God bless, Gardner

  4. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    A lot of what I’d say would repeat what you and Joseph K. have mentioned here. I think View 4 is correct.

    A generalization: Churches of Christ have canonized View 1. To them View 4, as attractive as it truly is, feels like a surrender to Pentecostalism. View 1 has been advanced in many debates against pentecostal preachers.

    A side note: One Church of Christ debater said that neuter gender nouns (as in “that which is perfect”) are never used to speak of Christ in the NT. Wrong! His pentecostal opponent spent the rest of the debate beating him over the head with 1 John 1:1, “That which was from the beginning . . . ”

    Years ago, when preaching thorugh 1Corinthians, I told the congregation why I thought we’d been wrong about that passage and why I thought View 4 was correct. An older woman in the congregation (a CofC lifer like myself) spent the rest of the week insisting that I reverse my position and say so the next Sunday. I didn’t and she got over it.

  5. James Thrasher Says:

    I, too, feel #4 is the correct understanding. The temptation to slant the meaning of a text to combat pentecostals a strong draw for many, but we must allow the text to say what it says, and find our arguring points somewhere else.

  6. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    I had to go look it up: The debate was between Tom Sharp (“Oneness” Pentecostal) and Henry McCaghren (Church of Christ), March 1973.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    The words of 1 Cor. 13:10 are just one of many NT verses considered in a ten page, elder counsil position paper titled, “cessationism and non-cessationism”. I do not know the identity of the cofC eldership that authored it, but it is exceptionally well-written and free of perjoratives. It has a bibliography that includes church fathers. I will be happy to fwd the attachment containing it to anyone. wayne7282@msn.com

  8. David Says:

    Thanks Bobby for the research on this. I, too, in conversations with friends and fellow preachers in Churches of Christ have felt that #1 is not exegetically driven but is driven by a need to ‘prove’ that tongues-speaking had to have ceased in those days (though what precisely is that day is never given conclusively).

    To me option #4 seems to be the contextual answer, especially considering verses 11-12, but option #2 is one I’ve never seriously considered but will have to think about now. Again, thanks.

  9. kingdomseeking Says:

    These are the sort of passages that make for good exegetical papers in seminary since there is no lack for an abundance of secondary literature on the subject… then again, that also makes it a job reading through everything.

  10. RICH Says:

    thanks bobbie
    might as well rethink this too…
    boy…wish i had, in a lot of respects, more time. although i am greatful for CHANGE…
    rich constant

  11. Doug Post Says:

    Bobby, you are appealing to false authority (uninspired men) without actually demonstrating your conclusion. Of course, Fee is Pentecostal (Church of God). You quote Oster: …”this does not force one into accepting Pentecostalism,” but fail to demonstrate the reasons your conclusion does not imply just that (Pentecostalism). But I take it you are appealing to the Pentecostal mindset of miraculous gifts not having ceased.

    I also find it interesting that you do not see the analogy of James 1:22-25 about the “perfect” law of liberty or the “perfect” will of God (Rom. 12:2).

    Just WHO is the “that which is in part” in 1 Cor.13, concerning which the inspired Paul is making a contrast with that which is perfect? Of course Paul was not discussing persons, but things.

    You listed numerous “proof-texts” but failed to prove their application to the immediate context of 1 Cor.13:8-12. In doing so you simply proved your interpretation.

    You quote DA Carson: “Perfection’ thus entails a ‘state of affairs where my knowledge is in some ways comparable with God’s present knowledge of me.'” The state of affairs you and Carson refer to would not be such without Jesus being in the center of it at His second coming. Moreover, are we going to know how God looked at us then (at the end of time) but not in the Christian Age? Is that what Paul is saying in I Cor. 13:8-12? No.

    You and Carson say, “God’s present knowledge of me”, but Bobby, the present would be past if the perfect is the 2nd coming, the coming of Jesus. If the end of time is meant here, then what benefit would the Christian have in his present Christian walk if his “knowledge is in some ways comparable with God’s present knowledge of me”? Would not it be just the opposite from what Carson suggested?

    If what Carson argues is the case then where would his expression, “my knowledge” be in relation to time? Carson appears to inconsistently argue that the Christian (while on earth) obtains knowledge prior to the giving of such knowledge, i.e., knowledge which will only be revealed at the coming of Christ. He has the Christian possessing in his lifetime that which is not yet given of God. Interesting and impossible.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    I find it so odd how the only three “gifts” mentioned in the text here were knowledge, prophecies, and tounges; yet the others all seem to be written off as well by non-gift believers. What scripture context can you find where the gift of healing was done away with??

  13. Moonbeam Says:

    I agree, Bobby. And once Jesus came in AD 70 the spiritual gifts were gone. The Corinthians were told they would be confirmed with the gifts until the end, when Christ came (1 Cor 1:8). Either they are still alive and have the spiritual gifts, or Christ returned in their lifetime.

  14. Tina Rae Says:

    Hey, Bobby, I’m just wondering, what do you think this means? I happen to agree with what you say. But do you think this means spiritual gifts remain today or that the end (the perfect) has come?

    1 Corinthians 1:7  So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:
    8  Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    It seems here that these particular people would remain alive and keep their spiritual gifts to the end, when Christ came. So I would say the end has come. Do you say that as well?

    An interesting site that has more on my views is here: http://www.eschatology.org/

  15. Limblog Says:

    Although I thought view 1 was unsatisfactory even as a teenager, it is a little unfair to say that all those who defend it think it means the KJV. Absolutely no one in my entourage thought that, they merely took “to teleion” to mean the completed NT.

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