Yes, it’s one more post responding to John MacArthur and the “Strange Fire” conference. I know, I know, everyone and his brother has already checked in on this, and I’m a little late to the party, but it seems like this issue is still hot, and I’ve got something I still want to say, and this is a good time and place to say it. So, here goes…
A few days ago, over at Challies.com, Tim Challies gave the opportunity for his readers to pose a question to John MacArthur related to the content of the “Strange Fire” conference, promising to pick some of the best and/or most popular questions, and relay them to Dr. MacArthur, who, in turn, it appears, has promised to respond to these particular questions.
The question I left in the comment stream (299 comments strong the last time I checked) is the following:
Is “the end” in 1 Cor. 1:8 referring to the same event as “that which is perfect” in 1 Cor. 13:10? Does the “all utterance” and “all knowledge” in 1 Cor. 1:5 include the gifts of prophecy, tongues, word of wisdom, and word of knowledge of 1 Cor. 12–14? Does the “confirmation” of 1 Cor. 1:6 and 8 have anything to do with the “confirmation” and “God bearing witness” of Heb. 2:3–4? In the light of all this, might 1 Cor. 1:4–8 have something to say with regard to the continuation/cessation of miraculous gifts as a sign to confirm the proclamation of the gospel, and the timing of this continuation/cessation?
Out of all of the questions that were presented, I do not necessarily expect Dr. MacArthur to answer my question. I would love it if he did, but I’m not holding my breath. But, for me, it is a very important question. In a an interview with Jason Allen, President of Mid-Western Seminary, subsequent to the “Strange Fire” conference, MacArthur offered the following comments:
The kickback has been, “Oh, you are painting with a broad brush,” or, “You have not acknowledged that there are good things that happen in the movement.” So far, we have not seen anything that argues the biblical points. Eventually, the book Strange Fire, the conference, and what was said there is going to have to be debated on the grounds of biblical interpretation. That is where we would like to force the issue.
It is precisely in this spirit that I present my argument here, with the hope that some of you who have taken the time to study the relevant passages of Scripture beyond a surface level may be able to help me out on this.
Back a number of years ago, when I was beginning to formulate my own views on spiritual gifts, continuationism, and cessationism, I did an in-depth study of various passages such as 1 Corinthians 12–14 and the book of Acts. I read everything I could get my hands on about these topics, and I intentionally tried to read from different perspectives. One of the most influential studies at that time from a cessationist perspective was Dr. MacArthur’s well-known book The Charismatics. Especially relevant was his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:8–13, which I present here from the New American Standard Bible:
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
According to MacArthur’s exegesis (if I am representing him fairly), this passage teaches that certain gifts (namely, tongues, revelatory prophecy, and other “sign gifts”) will cease when “the perfect” comes. A key factor (and indeed, the key factor) in interpreting this passage is correctly identifying “the perfect.” According to MacArthur, it is the completion of the New Testament canon. There are a lot of other details that go into MacArthur’s exegesis, but in order to avoid making this post more complicated than necessary, I will not get into that here (though I am open to entertaining comments on these details in the comment stream).
In any case, as I understand it, MacArthur’s biblical defense of cessationism (along with that of many other cessationists) hinges, to a large degree, on the identification of “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 with some event in the history of the early church: either the completion of the New Testament canon, or the corresponding development or maturity of New Testament teaching in the early church.
On a first read, MacArthur’s argument seemed to me to be fairly convincing. I knew then (as I know now) that his command of the Greek and of basic principles of biblical exegesis was far superior to mine, and that he had done a much more thorough analysis of the relevant passages than I will ever do. But as Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.”
To make a long story somewhat shorter, I continued to read and to mull over these things. And, to be honest, I don’t remember for sure now if I first came upon this through my own Bible study, or if someone else clued me in on it, but one day I read 1 Corinthians 1:4–8 and noticed some things there I had not noticed before. I began to think through the implications of what it has to say with regard to correctly identifying “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10. And the more I continued to look into this passage, study the relevant Greek words and constructions, and read it in context with other parallel passages, the more I migrated from a position of practical agnosticism with regard to continuationism/cessationism to one of convinced continuationism.
It has been claimed by many, from both a continuationist and cessationist perspective, that the New Testament does not clearly specify how long the so-called “sign gifts” would continue to function in the church, and that the evidence in favor of continuationism or cessationism must therefore be derived from other sources (e.g. church history, objective analysis of the purported contemporary practice of so-called “sign gifts,” etc.). The leading theory advocating any specifically Scriptural support for cessationism that I know of is MacArthur’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:8–13. Upon doing a thorough study of 1 Corinthians 1:4–8, though, I am convinced that it specifically teaches that those spiritual gifts commonly referred to as “sign gifts” will continue in operation until the Second Coming of Christ. I think it fairly clearly demonstrates that “the perfect” that Paul had in mind when writing 1 Corinthians 13:10 was not the completion of the canon but rather the Second Coming of Christ (and, coinciding with the Second Coming, the full maturity of the Church).
Here is 1 Corinthians 1:4–8 in the NASB (which I have chosen intentionally, as it translates some key terms more clearly than various other versions that somewhat obscure the meaning).
4 I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, 6 even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In what follows, I will present some exegetical observations that I believe support my continuationist understanding of this passage. I will intentionally keep these observations as simple as possible, due to the length constraints of a normal blog post (and my own time constraints). A more thorough online analysis of this passage (and other related passages) with regard to the question of continuationism and cessationism can be found here.
Observation #1. The topic of this passage is spiritual gifts. The term grace in v. 4 (chariti), while likely embracing all the broader aspects of the grace of God in the lives of believers, in the context of Pauline writings has a special connotation with the topic of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6). The term gift in v. 7 (charismati), although at times referring in a more general sense to some gift or another proceeding from the grace of God, within the context of 1 Corinthians almost always refers to what we normally call spiritual (or “charismatic”) gifts (1 Corinthians 7:7; 12:4, 9, 28, 30–31).
Observation #2. Although Paul specifically states that the Corinthian believers were “not lacking in any gift,” the particular gifts in view in this passage are identified in v. 5 as belonging to two categories: speech (logo) and knowledge (gnosei). Though, like the terms grace and gift, both of these terms may have a broader, more general connotation, within the context of 1 Corinthians, and especially in this passage that uses other terminology related to spiritual gifts (which is repeated in 1 Corinthians 12–14), the likely reference is to spiritual gifts having to do with speech and knowledge, such as the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:8–10). Even more relevant for our present discussion is the parallel to prophecy, tongues, and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8.
Observation #3. One of the functions of these spiritual gifts of speech and knowledge with which God, through His grace, had enriched the Corinthian believers, was to “confirm” in them “the testimony concerning Christ” (v. 6). This observation has particular relevance with regard to the traditional cessationist argument based on Hebrews 2:1–4 that certain gifts were given to the early church (and most specifically, to the apostles of the early church) with the purpose of confirming the testimony proclaimed by them to the message of salvation “first spoken through the Lord”:
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
The word confirmed in 1 Corinthians 1:6 (ebebaiothe) is the exact same word used in Hebrews 2:3. The clear implication is that the confirmatory spiritual gifts attributed to those who heard the message “first spoken through the Lord” (along with “signs and wonders” and “various miracles”) are also attributed to the Corinthian believers in general in 1 Corinthians 1:4–8.
Observation #4. This same confirmation will continue until “the end” (v. 8), an event connected to both “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7), and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). Though various Bible versions translate the word confirm in v. 8 as something else, such as “sustain” (ESV, RSV), “strengthen” (HSCB), or “keep you firm” (NIV), the Greek word (bebaiosei) is actually another form of the same word translated “confirm” in v. 6 and in Hebrews 2:3. It is also very significant that the term translated “the end” in v. 8 (telous) is etymologically tied to the term translated “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 (teleion). While it is certain that telous normally refers to “the end” in the sense of “ultimate purpose,” and teleion is generally related to the concepts of “perfection” or “maturity,” it is hard to avoid the conclusion, given the other parallels between the two passages, that “the end” of 1 Corinthians 1:8 occurs at the same time, and quite possibly refers to the same event, as “the perfect” of 1 Corinthians 13:10. In any case, while the identification of the timing of “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is somewhat uncertain when taken on its own, the timing of “the end” in 1 Corinthians 1:8 is almost certainly the Second Coming of Jesus. And 1 Corinthians 1:4–8 teaches that spiritual gifts classified as gifts of speech and knowledge would continue to confirm the believers in Corinth until “the end.”
One possible objection that may be offered to this interpretation is that this assurance offered by Paul that the confirmatory gifts would continue in operation until “the end” was given specifically to the direct recipients of his epistle (i.e. the believers in Corinth) and not to Christians in general. It should be remembered, however, that Jesus in the Great Commission told the eleven disciples that He would be with them “always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is not generally taken as an unfulfilled promise, inasmuch as the disciples are taken as representative of the general body of disciples down through the centuries. I believe most Bible interpreters will agree that the same general principle holds true with regard to the fulfillment of the promise given in 1 Corinthians 1:8. While the initial promise was given to the direct recipients of the epistle, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise, as is the case of all the promises and blessings in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20; Ephesians 1:3) is applicable for the Universal Church down through the ages.