The discussion on Spiritual Gifts from yesterday made me think about 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 — specifically the part about “the perfect”. Most charismatics I know (and also the ones I don’t know) understand this passage to mean the second coming of Christ. But not so fast…
I recall a great presentation from seminary a couple of years back by Pastor Rich Peralez. I’ll try to give the bullet points from memory. The text says (emphasis mine):
 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Now, both sides agree that what’s partial & passing are the spiritual gifts, such as tongues. It’s a matter of when. If the perfect means Christ’s return, then spiritual gifts should continue until then. But what else would it mean?
I think the answer is Scripture. At the time Paul is writing his epistle to the Corinthians the canon was not yet completed. There was more to come and it would be profitable for every good work (1 Timothy 3:16-17) and not something to add to (inferred from Revelation 22:18).
You may say “That seems like a stretch.” But consider the following about the 2nd coming interpretation.
- The word used is “telios” which means “brought to its end, finished; lacking nothing necessary to completeness; perfect”. This describes the completed canon of the Scriptures and also Christ himself, but not so much Christ’s reappearance. There’s more that follows his 2nd coming.
- If “perfect” does refer to Christ, it’s the only gender neutral description of him found in the Bible. Curious.
- So if we understand perfect to mean 2nd coming rather than a neutered Christ, the comparison doesn’t make much logical sense. Verse 9 says we are knowing in part — with a promise of knowing completely at the perfect. Now if you’re of the premill persuasion, as many of the early charismatics were, you might say “Yup, during Christ’s 1000 year reign He will be dropping all kinds of knowledge on us & we won’t speak in tongues.” OK, but I still think there are problems here.
- If this means Christ’s 2nd coming, then we’re holding a position where spiritual gifts are giving knowledge in part that is otherwise unavailable (say through the completed & sufficient canon of Scripture). This is a problem.
You see, the whole passage reads as a comparison of something incomplete and fleeting contrasted against a fullness. Paul uses the metaphor of a dim mirror vs. the clear vision of seeing face to face. Some do injustice to the literary style by mixing the metaphor & taking face to face to mean looking Jesus in the eyes… but there’s no indication that’s what it means and it strains his comparison. These gifts are finite and show knowledge and authority of God for those in and around the church. The completed canon of Scriptures do the same — but in an entirely sufficient manner. So if the gifts are a dim reflection of God’s perfect and completed Word to us… why do we still need them? And if Paul is talking about the Scripture instead of Christ’s return, why would we insist that he was wrong about the gifts coming to a close (1 Cor. 13:8)?