Tough Text Thursday: 1 Corinthians 13

The issue of modern-day miraculous gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and healing is a controversial one. On one hand you have extreme Charismatics who believe these types of gifts are alive and well, and who incorporate them into the church service, often without any order or constraint and are manifested in strange ways. 

On the other hand, you have Cessationists who believe that miraculous gifts ceased in the early church and have “passed away.” Their idea that these gifts are used in modern day worship and practice is viewed as counterproductive at best and counterfeit at worst.

Many in the Charismatic tribe criticize Cessationists for following a “cerebral” Christianity, “which has generally implied that we can get along quite well without the Spirit in the present age, now that the church has achieved its maturity in its orthodoxy.”1

Conversely, many in the Cessationist tribes of Christianity accuse Charismatics of following an emotional Christianity that holds little value for strong Biblical scholarship and theology.

We must always evaluate such issues through the lens of Scripture. And while not capturing the breadth of this issue, today’s tough text, 1 Corinthians 13, is an important passage in understanding whether these gifts are valid for today.  

The Superiority of Love (1 Corinthians 13:1–7)

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.


Chapter 13 is situated between two chapters that speak on the nature of spiritual gifts, which included such things as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous healing (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7–11). Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 13, stated strongly in verses 1–7, is that love is superior to these gifts.2

The Permanence of Love (1 Corinthians 13:8–13)

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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.


No controversy surrounds verses 1–7, as most Christians take Paul at his word that love is superior to miraculous spiritual gifts. But verses 8–13 raise an important question among theologians: Do miraculous gifts exist today?  

D.A. Carson rightly observes that this passage alone cannot settle this question—and too much discussion only obscures Paul’s central point regarding the permanence of love in contrast to the temporary gifts.3 However, this passage is often cited by Cessationists as evidence that the miraculous gifts are no longer in operation.  

No one disputes the temporary nature of these gifts. The verb katargeo means “to pass away” (vv. 8, 10); there is no way around the idea that prophecy and miracles are temporary—as they obviously won’t be needed in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21) when Christians will be in the presence of God for eternity. Further, Paul’s contrast between childhood and adulthood suggests that these gifts were always destined for obsolescence. 

The disagreement between Cessationists and Charismatics is on the meaning of the phrase “when the perfect comes” (v. 10). What does Paul mean by “the perfect?”  

Three Views of “The Perfect”

Historically, there are three broad categories for understanding this passage: 

1. In the early Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas believed it referred to the death of the believer. The problem with this view is that Paul is speaking about an entire community, so it seems inconsistent that he would switch to a discussion of personal destiny. 

2. The “perfect” refers to the completion of the New Testament canon. Once the New Testament was complete, miraculous gifts ceased. This is generally the view of Cessationists. 

3. The “perfect” refers to God’s future eschatological4 kingdom. This is generally the view of Charismatics who rightly point out that while the Bible is perfect in the context of 1 Corinthians 13:12, what is perfect is Jesus who we will see “face to face.”

The Cessationist View

It is common for those holding a Cessationistic position to curiously argue from history rather than Scripture, which seems to indicate their position is on the ropes to begin with. They boldly claim that the miraculous gifts ceased after the time of the early church following the completion of the canon of Scripture. Some view the silence of the early church on miraculous gifts to suggest that these gifts did in fact cease at the close of the New Testament canon. However, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.Furthermore, there is strong evidence to indicate just the opposite.

The Witness of the Ante-Nicene Fathers

Justin Martyr

Martyr’s remarks on gifts come in his Dialogue with Trypho, in which a Jew who has challenged him, as one wearing the philosopher’s robe, to make a case for the Christian faith. Justin is making the point that it is not surprising that the Jews hate Christians, being provoked to jealousy, for this is part of God’s plan:

...knowing that daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ.  For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God.

To this Trypho said to me, “I wish you knew that you are beside yourself, taking these sentiments.”6

In the same work, Martyr argues, “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence, you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us.”7

Irenaeus

In his magisterial work Against Heresies, the Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of Polycarp is making a case for bodily resurrection. One of his points is that Christ, in taking on humanity, perfected human flesh that was originally made in God’s image.

For this reason does the apostle declare, “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect,” terming those persons “perfect” who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual.8

In another part of the same work, Irenaeus argues against the Montanists, a heretical sect formed by Montanus that claimed fresh revelation and the ministry of the Paraclete [Holy Spirit], which implicitly denied John 14:16 and thus the entire gospel. Irenaeus used an argument from prophecy as evidence that the Spirit has indeed been sent to the true church:

Others, again (the Montanists), that they may set at nought the gift of the Spirit, which in the latter times has been, by the good pleasure of the Father, poured out upon the human race, do not admit that aspect [of the evangelical dispensation] presented by John’s Gospel, in which the Lord promised that he would send the Paraclete; but set aside at once both the gospel and the prophetic Spirit. Wretched men indeed! who wish to be pseudo-prophets, forsooth, but who set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church.9

He adds that the Montanists thus deny the Apostle Paul as well, who recognizes men and women prophesying in church (1 Corinthians 11:4–5). He concludes their sin is against the Holy Spirit and therefore unpardonable.

Tertullian

In his pre-Montanist period, Tertullian, following the example of the great Irenaeus, attempted to refute heresy in principle in The Prescriptions Against the Heretics. He also wrote specific works against opponents and heresies in this period, including Against Marcion that, though it may have been written as early as A.D. 207, seems to anticipate his Montanist leanings. The argument therein is instructive, however, because it, like Irenaeus, appeals to the presence of charismata in the church to refute the opponent:

Let Marcion then exhibit, as gifts of his God, some prophets—such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God—such as have both predicted things to come and have made manifest the secrets of the heart. Let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer—only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy (that is, in a rapture) whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him...Now, all these signs are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty.10

Origen

Origen’s Alexandrian theology is both provocative and problematic. His works are salted with comments on the Holy Spirit, and in many cases he mentions the charismatic gifts in that context:

I consider that the Holy Spirit supplies the material of the gifts (which come from God) to those who—through him and through participation in him—are called saints. As a result, the said substance of the gifts is made powerful by God, is ministered by Christ, and owes its actual existence in men to the Holy Spirit. I am led to this view of the charismata by the words of Paul, which he writes somewhere, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.”11

And again in another work, Origen asserts that the gospel has a divine demonstration of the Spirit and power, “because of the signs and wonders which we must believe to have been performed,” going on to say, “traces of them are still preserved among those who regulate their lives by the precepts of the gospel.”12

Fascinatingly, though Origen considers the demonstrations of the gospel present in his day, he sees them diminishing, a phenomenon he credits to a lack of holiness in his contemporaries. He observes: “Moreover, the Holy Spirit gave signs of his presence at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and after his ascension he gave still more; but since that time these signs have diminished, although there are still traces of his presence in a few who have had their souls purified by the gospel and their actions regulated by its influence.”13 At this point, judgment is reserved as to whether or not this perspective is consistent with a Cessationist or non-Cessationist position, or neither.

Others

Although the sample of Ante-Nicene Fathers above is concise, it is fairly representative of comments from the writing of that period on the subject in question. To get a more rounded perspective, however, a few transitional Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers are important to consult. Eusebius of Cesarea writes of the charismata as being “flashes of God’s lightning,” and adds, “There is a diversity of charismata, but the same Spirit. To some is given a word of wisdom by the Spirit and to another a word of knowledge and another faith and so on...”14 In a similar discussion in another work, he includes “...prophesying future events, healing diseases, raising the dead, and speaking in tongues, and sharing in wisdom and knowledge.”15

Athanasius speaks of the charismata in Trinitarian terms, as being bestowed by the Father through the Logos and divided by the Spirit. Basil in Shorter Rules requires the charismatic gifts, including the 1 Corinthians 12 gifts of tongues, to be ordered according to the pattern of worship Paul set down. Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa identified the charismata as a separate gift to be sought after baptism. And finally, Chrysostom in his homilies on 1 Corinthians preaches of a cessation of gifts in terms similar to Origen, as a function of lost piety in the church.16

Evaluation of the Data

In considering the voices of the early church as represented above, one could manipulate the data to make a case either for a Cessationist or a non-Cessationist position. 

First, there seems to be clear evidence not only that charismatic gifts continued in the early church, but that they were accepted and expected by orthodox church leaders. On the other hand, there are remarks that could be construed as evidence of a recession, or perhaps even a cessation of at least some of the gifts. In the cases of Origen and Chrysostom, there seems to be an expectation of cessation. Again, the thorny issues in interpreting the data are brought to the fore in trying to make them alone responsible to answer the question of cessation or not.

Pursuing the argument from a primarily historical angle is the immanent Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield. In chapter 1 of his Counterfeit Miracles, Warfield provides a sweeping critique of the quotes and sources I have compiled above, and more. His criticism centers on the lack of specific instances and details included or apparently even available to the post-apostolic writers to verify their general claims (which appear as firsthand accounts in their writings) that miraculous powers continued beyond the generation of the apostles.17 So weighty is his argument that, nearly 100 years later, it is still considered the sine qua non of Cessationist polemics.18

Warfield admits none of the passages quoted above in this paper as face-value evidence of miraculous occurrences or continuing charismatic gifts. He asserts, “The writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers contain no clear and certain allusions to miracle-working or to the exercise of the charismatic gifts, contemporaneously with themselves.”19 He questions the genuineness of the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom in a letter of the church of Smyrna based on the accounts of miracles contained therein.20 Stopping just short of discrediting Irenaeus, Warfield suggests that the early miracle accounts, especially of purported raising-from-the-dead stories (in contrast to healing, exorcisms, and prophecy) are indeed events that happened within living memory rather than in Irenaeus’ present experience.21 His counter-thesis is simply that:

These gifts were not the possession of the primitive Christian as such, nor for that matter of the Apostolic Church or the Apostolic age for themselves; they were distinctively the authentication of the Apostles. They were part of the credentials of the Apostles as the authoritative agents of God in founding the church. Their function thus confined them to distinctively the Apostolic Church, and they necessarily passed away with it.22

One could say that Warfield’s read of the early church fathers on the subject of miracles reveals an a priori skepticism regarding the evidence, to the extent that in order to admit any claim of supernatural effect as genuine it must first be scrutinized in terms of modern scientific parameters. Such a presupposition is not admitted by Warfield. On a different presupposition, that of a pre-modern Christian who “understands by faith” (Hebrews 11:6) the facts of the natural world (often labeled “superstition” by modern writers in their own chronological snobbery) would count a Christianity devoid of supernatural experience as a dead religious formalism (see 2 Timothy 3:5, for example).

Opponent Jon Ruthven, whose writing may be said to evince a similar prejudice against Warfield and his whole Calvinistic polemic against “the implicit attack on the sufficiency of scriptural authority made by those claiming miracles and extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit,” nonetheless offers a substantial critique of Counterfeit Miracles.23 It is beyond the scope of this post to evaluate that work and referee the debate. The question in the present case regards, primarily, the historical evidence of cessation or continuance of charismatic gifts. Since that is also in view in Counterfeit Miracles, a bit more analysis is warranted. 

The Charismatic View

For Charismatics, the “perfect” refers to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom when the new heavens and new earth are here. Miraculous gifts are present from the time of Pentecost until Christ’s return.24 The most obvious argument for “perfect” as referring to the future, eschatological kingdom comes from immediate context. 1 Corinthians 13:12 speaks of seeing God “face to face.” This was a phrase used in the Old Testament to refer to direct encounters with God (Genesis 32:30 and Judges 6:22,25 Deuteronomy 5:4, 34:10, Ezekiel 20:35, 33:11). Such personal experiences could hardly be confused with the close of the canon.   

Context is helpful in another way. Paul speaks of the eternal nature of love: he wants his readers to understand this passage in light of all eternity. Paul states elsewhere, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7), meaning that he saw these gifts as a temporary provision to be done away with at the Lord’s return.  

Finally, there is the testimony of history. Though, as was mentioned, the early church was reluctant to speak to these issues, their writings revealed openness26 to miraculous phenomena.27 Gordon Fee argues that these miraculous events were quite common in the early church and that Paul writes of them so infrequently (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 and 1 Corinthians 12–14) only reflects their abuses, not that these were unusual events.28

Conclusion

One of the distinct theological points of Mars Hill Church is that we hold both to gospel-centered theology associated commonly with reformed Christianity and we hold to the importance of the spirit-filled lives, which includes miraculous gifts. These two tribes, the Reformed and the Charismatic (or Continuationist), are not traditionally paired together, but we have come to these convictions through our study of Scripture rather than the traditions of the past.

In light of the evidence, we believe that 1 Corinthians 13 looks at the future Second Coming of Christ rather than the close of the Biblical canon. But we must be cautious to assume that this concludes the matter. Even the Cessationist Reformer John Calvin disagreed that this passage could be used to settle the issue in its entirety.29 Church history obscures the issue further, in that it can’t be confirmed that early apostolic practice has been preserved in today’s Charismatic circles.30

However, the lack of clarity regarding the total cessation of these gifts suggests that we may be “open yet discerning” with regard to these gifts. At Mars Hill Church, this is why we say we’re “Charismatic with a seat belt.” We seek to be gospel-centered and ordered in our approach to spiritual gifts while also not letting what has been abuse of spiritual gifts in some circles inhibit our belief that God does move miraculously today. 

But, I would urge those who are fearful of going to far in accepting miraculous spiritual gifts to consider if they are not guilty of the opposite sin—not going far enough in the Spirit? While we do not want unbiblical excess, we also do not want fear of such excess to compel us toward unbiblical lack of Holy Spirit power and giftedness. 

1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” And Ephesians 4:30 says, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…” 

At the end of the day, the issue of miraculous spiritual gifts must be viewed as an open-handed issue, meaning it is not essential to salvation such a closed-handed issue like Jesus being the only way to salvation. This means that while we can differ theologically on our positions of miraculous spiritual gifts, as there is room for discussion, we must not let those differences be a dividing wedge between brothers and sisters in Christ and hinder our mission together as churches to make disciples of Jesus.

But, in closing I would press my Cessationist brothers and sisters to earnestly consider if their fear of the supernatural is not in fact quite worldly. The miraculous only came into question in a big way following the thinking of such materialist atheists as David Hume during the Modern era. Therefore, I find it curious that those claiming to defend the Bible argue against the supernatural and miraculous do so with reasoning that more echoes Modernistic atheism than Biblical revelation. 

 

1 Gordon D. Fee, The Epistle to the Corinthians. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Compant, 1987), p. 652.  Similar sentiment is reflected by Jack Deere: “No one ever just picked up the Bible, started reading, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away. The doctrine of Cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the Scriptures. The doctrine of Cessationism originated in experience.  (Jack Deere, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), p. 99.

2 Grudem writes: “It is not enough to ‘seek the greater gifts’ (12:31a, author’s translation).  One must also ‘seek after love (14:1, author’s translation)…” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Intervarsity Press, 1994), p. 1032.  

3 D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), p. 66.

4 The word “eschatology” simply refers to God’s future plans, including the return of Jesus and the establishment of a new heavens and a new earth.  

5 Graham Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), 254. 

6Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 214 (hereafter cited as ANF).

7Ibid., 240.

8Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in ANF, vol.1, 531.

9Ibid., 429.

10Quoted in David W. Bercott, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 301.

11Origen, De Principiis, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 4 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 329.

12Origen, Against Celsus, in ANF, vol 3, 397-398.

13Ibid., 614.

14Eusebius, Commentary on the Psalms, 76.16-17, quoted in Eusebius A. 

Stephanou, “The Charismata in the Early Church Fathers,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 21 (1976): 136.

15Eusebius, Commentary on Isaiah, 6.2, quoted in “The Charismata”, 135.

16This summary follows Stephanou, “The Charismata,” 136-139.  The material on Chrysostom’s view of cessation is corroborated in a separate homily on 1 Corinthians 14: “...of old they thus used to speak, not of their own wisdom, but moved by the Spirit. But not so now... the present church is like a woman who hath fallen from her former prosperous days, and in many respects retains the symbols only of that ancient prosperity; displaying indeed the repositories and caskets of her golden ornaments, but bereft of her wealth: such an one doth the present Church resemble. And I say not this in respect of gifts: for it were nothing marvelous if it were this only: but in respect also of life and virtue.” The Homilies of Saint John Chrysostom, trans. Talbot W. Chambers in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, ed., vol. 12, (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Printing Co., 1989), 219-220.

17B.B Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, (1918; reprint, Ediburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), 11-15.

18See for example the substantial treatise by Jon Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993): “...this study treats Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles as the final, authoritative and representative expression of Cessationism for conservative American evangelicalism.” pp. 22-23.

19Warfield, Miracles, 10.

20Ibid., 10-11.

21Ibid., 15.

22Ibid., 5-6.

23Ruthven, On the Cessation, 43.

24 Fee writes: “These are manifestations of the Spirit for the church’s present eschatological existence, in which God’s new people live ‘between the times’—between the inauguration of the End through the death and resurrection of Jesus with this subsequent outpouring of the Spirit and the final consummation when God will be ‘all in all.’” Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 643.

25 Note that both have the same Greek wording in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  

26 We might cite as simply one example, the incident in which Augustine converted to Christianity after hearing the voice Tolle Lege! Meaning “take and read.”  His experience drove him to read Scripture and discover the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

27 “Gifts of the spirit,” David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers (Peabody, mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 298-304.

28 G.D. Fee:  “Gifts of the Spirit” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 346

29 Specifically, Calvin said, “It is stupid of people to make the whole of this discussion apply to the intervening time.”  John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. By J. W. Fraser, ed. By D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 281.

30 Gordon Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2000), p. 115.