το τελειον: The Perfect?

Last week, I posted an article on Speaking in Tongues, due in part to others posting on it as well. Since then, we have a pretty good conversation concerning the subject, with a good friend of the blog (and sometimes copy editor !) Wb Moore posting an article on his site. Further, the Stoned-Campbell Disciple, has posted one the subject of 1st Corinthians 13.10, the key verse in the Cessionist argument.

So, I thought that I may add some other thoughts, solely on this verse.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect (το τελειον) has come, then that which is in part will be done away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NKJV)

Borrowing from the Stoned-Campbell, we find four views on just what ‘the perfect’ is in relation to this verse:

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 , 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.

I follow the 4th position.

We must cross reference this verse to 2nd Corinthians 2.6 which reads,

However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. (1 Corinthians 2:6 NKJV)

And of course,

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; (Ephesians 4:11-13 NKJV)

The answer, for me, is simple. The ‘perfect’ in 1st Corinthians is the ‘perfect’ of Ephesians: An Eschatological Church, complete with the Knowledge of God, with perfect Doctrine, and at home with God – settled and full. We must see that the gifts of the Church, just as the leadership of the Church, will last until the Consummation of all things.

Now, we can debate just what is speaking in tongues and the spirituality of it.

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