Thursday, November 10, 2005

When Perfection Comes

1 Corinthians 13[11-(13)]-14[04]
11 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.
12 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.
13 So now
faith,
hope,
and love abide,
these three;
but the greatest of these is love.
14:1 Pursue love,
and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts,


especially that you may prophesy..
2 For one who speaks in a tongue
speaks not to men but to God;
for no one understands him,
but he utters mysteries in the Spirit..
3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people
for their upbuilding
and encouragement
and consolation.
4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,
but the one who prophesies builds up the church.


The surprising choice of text denotes nothing sinister. It’s the right length for an expository preaching unit and it extends right over the problematic junction between the two chapters. The structural outline is quite straightforward in spite of this bridging of two chapters because the first and the third paragraphs both deal with the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. In the middle paragraph, the saving graces of faith, hope and love are brought together with the three states of knowing in part, knowing fully and having been fully known.
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It’s this middle section that I want to talk about first. There is a correspondence between the three states of knowing and the three saving graces. We can begin to see that as we bring back to remembrance that 1 Corinthians 13 is all about love and v. 13 caps what has been said about love in the rest of the chapter. So, why is the greatest of these love? It has been said that it is so because faith and hope will come to an end and love will ‘abide alone’ but I don’t know that that’s it. In fact, I think it denigrates faith to say that it will ‘give way to sight’ and I don’t see any reason why realized hope ceases to be hope. Love is the greatest of these for a number of reasons, two of which are that love is a summation of all the graces and that God is Love!

We find a third reason close by in the structuring of knowledge where we see that love is the greatest because it is by God’s love that we ‘have been fully known.’ Well it is! Faith isn’t complete and utter ignorance but it is knowing ‘in part’ and hope is not placed in the now but in the then of ‘then I shall know fully.’ Love isn’t the greatest because faith and hope are going to cease but because love is the grace that is fully engaged with us right now: we ‘know in part’ but we ‘have been fully known ’, we ‘shall know fully’ but we ‘have been fully known.’ These verses about spiritual gifts have been intruded into 1 Corinthians 13 in order to support the argument that love is the greatest of graces and thus to continue the chapter’s theme that love is superlative.

Well, that’s partly why the gifts are there. We need to not only put verses into context in their chapters but chapters into context in their books and the context of chapters 12 to 14 is ‘concerning spiritual gifts’ so the whole statement about love is actually about the ‘still more excellent way’ in which the gifts should be viewed. We could even consider, though this is quite radical, that the verse about love being the greatest of the graces is there to instruct us about the gifts, particularly about knowledge.
—•—

Let’s run with what this juxtaposition does tell us about knowledge, though, because having a mature understanding about knowledge or having clarity of vision about where it fits into the spiritual gifts and into these verses could be very important for solving a fundamental problem in charismatic versus cessationist debate.
• If one of the graces can be described as ‘the greatest of these’ can one of these states of knowledge be also described as the greatest?
• Can that same comparison be extended to judge which of the spiritual gifts should be considered the greatest?
• How does this measuring of ‘greatness’ tie in, if it does tie in, with the timing of the ‘when the perfect comes’ of v.10?
• What sort of knowledge can this gift of knowledge be of which it can be said both that ‘it will pass away’ and that ‘then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known’?
—•—

It is a thing, is it not, to think that our full knowledge that we shall enter into is not the greatest knowledge that there is? It’s not that the partial knowledge that we now have is better than the full knowledge that we shall have — of course not, that gets it backwards for, just as hope realized will be better than faith exercised, so we are expected to be glad to exchange the partial for the fulness. Assurance of hope is better than assurance of faith, didn’t you know that? To be with Christ is far better. To travel hopefully is not better than to arrive when the ‘hope’ is put back into ‘hopefully.’ If we were to compare two of the graces we would have to say that ‘So now faith and hope abide, these two; but the greater of these is hope.’ — But hope isn’t the greatest of the graces, for love is and, just as putting this comparison next to an unpacking of the states of knowledge helps us to see a way in which love is the greatest, so, working the analogy the other way, love being the greatest indicates how it is that the greatest knowledge is that knowledge that God now has of us.

We know that that knowledge is extensive so that even the hairs on our heads are numbered and, open theists being wrong, we know that God has perfect foresight so that we can also say that the days of the hairs of our heads are numbered. Never mind, the whole creation groans at that one, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God but it’s neither the extent of God’s knowledge nor the perfection of his foreknowledge that’s in view here. The greatest knowledge is the knowledge that God has of us now in his lavishing of his love on us. He loved us while we were yet sinners and he loves us while we are as yet merely sinners saved by grace. We love him because he first loved us and [Rom 5:8] ‘but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ This rather insists that we bring into our discussion of the gifts, the no-small matter of the disposition of the giver towards us, does it not?
—•—

Nevertheless, we can press on and ask if it is legitimate to put these spiritual gifts into order of greatness on the basis of what the text says about the graces. Indeed, the text seems to encourage this and plows ahead to make a definite preferment of prophecy over tongues in chapter 14. This preference for prophecy is simply explained in terms of usefulness in the church: ‘The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.’ So if I may extract a comparison again and remind us that we are looking at this from Paul’s perspective in the time he was writing (i.e. before the cessation!) we could picture Paul saying, ‘So now tongues and prophecy abide, these two; but the greater of these is prophecy.’

Prophecy has a threefold purpose in the church and guess what, these three purposes relate to the three graces enough for us to postulate that ‘the greatest of these purposes is consolation.’ I’m sure that we’ve already made the connections so we only mention them to reinforce them. We need to be built up in our faith. We need to be encouraged in our hope. We need to be consoled in the love of Christ.

About tongues, we have now come, all unexpectedly, to our first place of convergence between cessationists and Reformed charismatics. In normal circumstances there will be nothing important lost and something gained if the gift of tongues is not practiced in our assemblies. Now, for the moment, both sides need to recognise that the other will hold some things in reserve about this statement since every part of it can be, and, let’s face it, will be interpreted differently. That said, it’s a start and if I’m reading the descriptions correctly, the encouragement being given in Reformed charismatic churches is that more use should be made of tongues but also that that use, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 14, should be in private.
—•—

Reverting back to looking at knowledge, we come to the question about perfection: How does this measuring of ‘greatness’ tie in, if it does tie in, with the timing of the ‘when the perfect comes’ of v.10? As we have noted, it is quite normal for us to think that love is greater than faith because one day faith will ‘give way to sight’ and love will ‘abide alone’ and looking back to v 10 might reinforce that explanation: when else will faith give place to sight than at the second coming and what else can ‘the perfect’ be than the second coming? Traditionally, the riposte from cessationists would be that ‘the perfect’ must be the completion of the canon of the New Testament but looking once again at knowledge will show us that, at least for whatever is meant by knowledge here, neither answer will do. Knowledge per se did not cease with the completion of Scripture but the lives of those who know are not all going to last until the second coming either. That which is perfect for the one who knows in part is to know fully even as he is fully known and that takes place when the one who knows in part dies.

Immediately, we have to note that that explanation for ‘what is perfect’ doesn’t hold for prophecy or for tongues. The death of prophets neither puts an end to prophecy — certainly not if Elijah’s mantle and a double-portion of his spirit should fall upon Elisha — nor does it bring the prophet into a perfection of prophetic utterance. Here’s where the old cessationist standby of the completion of the canon comes back into its own. It cannot be denied that the possession of a complete Bible must have made a difference in the churches and we do not see repeated in later church history the sort of conference of prophets that we get throughout Acts. Silencing the Bible in the church would make for a much greater difference than that that’s alleged to exist between cessationist and charismatic churches.

Since Reformed charismatics are not looking, as far as I know, to restore cadres of prophets to the churches who should ‘… all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,’ [1 Corinthians 14:31], we should probably post another cessationist / Reformed charismatic converging point: In normal circumstances we should expect God to give ‘prophetic’ utterance to his church through his Word and through the preaching of the Word. Note immediately that it is the cessationist who is being enticed furthest out of his comfort zone by this convergence. No Reformed charismatic is made uncomfortable by assertions that the Scriptures are perfect but it is certainly uncomfortable for the cessationist to move to admitting that ‘prophecy’ in 1 Corinthians 13:8 might very well be a technical term designating the acting together of those prophets who acted together for the guidance of churches in the absence of a complete canon of Scripture because it means that God still speaks prophetically today as well as that prophecy has passed away. Looking in a mirror is a metaphor for looking at Scripture used at least from the writing of James’s epistle [James 1:23-25] and 1 Corinthians 14:20-22 links tongues with the sort of childish things that are put away at maturity. I’m not saying that tongues are childish, just that 13:11 is about tongues and somehow illustrates them ceasing.

At this point cessationists who can’t accept that God is free to give someone an impression to do something, say something or pray specifically in a particular way, today, should perhaps consider that they are maybe not so much cessationists as anti-charismatics. Likewise, charismatics who don’t want to recognise a primacy of the Word and of preaching might do well to consider that they are not Reformed. I for one feel much more in tune with Reformed charismatics than I could be with so-called hard-line cessationists who deny any possibility that God might act in an extraordinary way today.
—•—

There remains one more question about knowledge: What sort of knowledge can this gift of knowledge be of which it can be said both that ‘it will pass away’ and that ‘then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known’? It could be said that the Corinthians had a difficulty with the practice of prophecy and of tongues but Chapter 14, which deals with the resolution of these difficulties doesn’t deal with knowledge so is there any evidence that there was a problem in Corinth over knowledge that could help us to specify what kind of knowledge we have in 13:8?

It seems to me that there was a knowledge problem in Corinth similar to or even contiguous with the prophecy / tongues problem. This was the conflict that set ‘the utterance of knowledge’ up against ‘the utterance of wisdom’ and had some of the Corinthians saying ‘I follow Paul’, others, ‘I follow Apollos’, others, ‘I follow Cephas (i.e. the Apostle Peter)’ and still others ‘I follow Christ.’ The problem with those who said ‘I follow Christ’ seems to have been their unspoken implication, ‘and you’re not’ but the other choices indicate preferences for differing rallying themes. Some were for Paul simply because he was Paul, the founder of the church but those who were for Apollos seem to have gravitated towards him because of the organization of his thinking and the rhetorical wisdom he used in his preaching. That leaves Cephas, who was once noticed to be ‘uneducated and common,’ to stand for ‘knowledge’ in the thinking of the Corinthians but the aha! moment comes for us when we finish the analysis of those who thought Peter and John to be ‘uneducated and common,’ that ‘they recognized that they had been with Jesus.’ [Act 4:13] Aha! indeed! that’s the sort of knowledge that Peter had and that’s the sort of knowledge that passed away when Peter was carried where he didn’t want to go to thereafter know fully, even as he had been known.

Paul uses eyewitness knowledge, wisdom and his own prophetic authority to answer some questions that were sent to him by the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7. The content might seem hard enough to deal with without Paul’s structuring but we should not think that what we have is 1st, 2nd and 3rd class Scripture. 1Corinthians 7:10 ‘To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband’ is something that comes from the teaching of Jesus and was passed on by those who heard him. 1Corinthians 7:12 ‘To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.’ means, not that this is of lesser authority but that it is a word of prophecy rather than a word of knowledge. 1Corinthians 7:25 ‘Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.’ not only shows that what he had said in v. 12 was authoritative but that he too could speak with spiritual authority and wisdom: 1Corinthians 7:40b ‘… And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.’ Quite!

Time for one more ‘convergence’: The witness of the 12 apostles (and of Paul) was unique but we have not lost the faith, hope and love to which they bore witness. We know that they have just gone on before us. And, affirming this, we are built up in our faith, encouraged in our hope and consoled by the love of God.

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Thanks for noticing Rob and Phil, I’m very sorry for getting you mixed up with a nondescript town in Scotland and my only excuse is that I’m named after another Scottish town (and a range of quite nice hills) myself.

2 comments:

Phil (Col 1:27-28) said...

Thanks for a rather interesting post. While I am not wholly in agreement with your post, I genuinely thankyou for making it. At least it is an honest attempt at using the Scriptures in this whole thing that is going on. SO, again, thankyou.

Blessings in Chirst Jesus!

Chris Daukas said...

Hi John,

I too appreciate your attempt to bridge the gap in this conversation.....

Having read your position on knowledge, I am not persuaded. I would like to read it again though because it is not clear to me how you come to the conclusions that you hold.

The knowledge, prophesy, and tongue gifts mentioned in 1 Cor 13 are spiritual gifts. I believe that you still need to wrestle with the time that 1 Cor puts forth for these to pass away (when I am fully known and see face to face - clear references to the return of Christ). And why is Paul writing about this contextually?

It seems as if you have moved away from exegesis somewhat and into more logic driven interpretations. How do you explain being fully known? When will we say face to face? When did Paul anticipate these things happening? At the closing of the canon? The return of Christ?

I am a reformed cessationist moved charismatic not on experience but on the Scriptures (fyi).

Thanks for the dialogue - I am sure that we both stand equally righteous in the blood of Christ and that are differences are minor in light of the glorious gospel. Please continue to read my blog and tweak my thinking if you believe it to be in error. Thanks brother.