Certain grammatical features of 1 Corinthians 13:8 are the focus of a particular spurious argument sometimes made by Cessationists. I want to explain the matter.
I will begin with two English sentences with different uses of the verb stop.
a. Bob stopped the car at the light.
b. The rain stopped.
The difference between the two is that (a) is transitive, while (b) is intransitive. Note that in this particular case the verb is not marked for the difference in transitivity. The usage is simply understood from context. This is a particularity of stop and some other verbs in English. A synonym of the (b) sense is cease, which can only be intransitive. We do not say *“Bob ceased the car at the light.”
Other European languages make the same transitive/intransitive distinction in a different way, marking the verb to make the distinction explicit. For example, for this same contrast French uses a pronominal verb to indicate the intransitive form. This is what is sometimes called a “reflexive verb,” but true reflexivity (for example se tuer “to kill oneself”) is only one of the form’s multiple uses. So French grammarians prefer “pronominal,” since the form is made by attaching a (reflexive) pronoun.
Sentences equivalent to (a) and (b) in French would read:
(c) Bob arrêta la voiture au feu.
(d) La pluie s’arrêta.
Example (d) might appear to non-speakers to mean “the rain stopped itself,” but this would be q misunderstanding. It is not auto-transitive, but merely intransitive. In other words, there is no assignment of causality to the subject. An animate subject might be understood as being the cause of its own “ceasing,” but this is due to its being the cause of the activity or motion in the first place. An inanimate subject that is not considered self-activating does not become the cause of its own ceasing simply because of the pronominal or “reflexive” form.
The pronominal form in French has a range of uses, but for the verb arrêter, it serves as an intransitivizer.
Another European language, Ancient Greek, had a system equivalent to the Greek pronominal verb system. It is known as the middle voice. Like the French pronominal verb it may sometimes express true reflexivity, but it has a range of uses very similar to those of the French pronominal verb. One of those is to serve as an intransitivizer. Thus the verb παύω (pauō) in the active means “I stop,” in the transitive sense. In the middle form, παύομαι (pauomai), means “stop” in the intransitive sense, or “cease.”
And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased (ἐπαύσαντο, epausanto), and there was a calm. (Luke 8:24)
This was the set usage of παύομαι even in Classical Greek. Smyth (Greek Grammar) says of the middle voice in general “It will be noted that the active is often transitive, the middle intransitive.” (§1734); and of this particular verb: “παύειν make to cease, stop (trans.); παύεσθαι cease (intr.)” (§1734.14).
In 1 Corinthians 13:8 we have the same usage:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease (παύσονται, pausontai); as for knowledge, it will pass away.
It is a matter, very simply, of intransitivity. It is precisely the appropriate voice form for this verb. However, the nature of middle voices is often poorly understood. The usual blanket description holds that the verb “in some way acts upon itself.” However, this is really next to useless, because this wording merely seeks to find some common ground for the disparate uses of the middle voice.
The spurious Cessationist argument I referred to above employs one of two errors:
(1) Overstating the force of the grammatical function of grammatical form, for example trying to make it auto-transitive (“The rain stopped itself”) rather than simply intransitive (“The rain stopped.”)
(2) What we might call “double dipping,” where once the grammatical form has done its duty, we call it up again to render a second service.
For example the argument holds that in 1 Cor. 13:8 tongues are said not only to cease (at some future point) but to do so “by themselves.” The middle voice is made to have two functions: (i) changing the active to passive, and (ii) adding the adverbial sense “by themselves.”
The point of this is to argue that the text gives the gift of tongues a time-limited status. So whatever it may be saying about knowledge and prophecy in regard to the coming of “the perfect,” tongues are a different case. They just stop on their own.
We find this argument referenced, of all places, in Dr. Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. It is true that it is listed under “Debatable Examples.” However, Dr. Wallace is quite justifiably seen as a world expert in the Greek language. Also, according to Monergism.com as well as Wikipedia, Dr. Wallace is one of the three best-known classical Cessationists (with Richard Gaffin and John MacArthur). So even if classified as “debatable,” the argument has heft based on his name.
Now, at the end of Dr. Wallace’s discussion on the matter, he does state clearly that the basic function of the middle voice in παύσονται is to make it instransitive (423). Yet this is only after he has introduced the matter as follows:
If the voice of the verb is significant, then Paul is saying either that tongues will cut themselves off (direct middle) or, more likely, cease of their own accord, i.e., “die out” without an intervening agent (indirect middle). (p. 422)
Dr. Wallace, then, is offering a choice between error (1) and error (2). Both distort the actual “significance” of the middle voice, which in this case is no more or less than marking intransitivity. There is in fact no implication at all present in the grammatical voice as to any element of self-causation or limited duration.
The matter is actually less complicated than Dr. Wallace’s discussion makes it appear. One misleading direction it takes is consideration over whether the middle voice here is “deponent” (it is not), or whether Classical usage is still present in the Koine. Thus Dr. Wallace states in a general discussion about the middle voice:
One’s view of the nature of NT Greek has strong implications for this use of the middle voice. If one thinks that NT Greek has abandoned the rules of classical Greek, then h/she would not put much emphasis on the force of the middle voice in a given passage…
However, if one thinks that the NT Greek has, for the most part, retained the rules of classical Greek, then he/she will see more significance in the use of the middle voice. (p. 420)
We have already seen, however, in the citation from Smyth above, that the intransitive-marking function of the middle, particularly with παύω, was the well-established rule for the middle voice.
To show how this argument has escaped the bounds of Dr. Wallace’s “Debatable Examples,” here re some much less restrained statements from another of the “three best-known classical Cessationists,” John MacArthur:
The verb that says tongues will cease (pauo) is in the middle voice. Let me show you the differences in the active, passive, and middle voices. In the active voice we would say, “I hit the ball.” In the passive voice we would say, “The ball hit me.” And in the middle voice (if English had a middle voice) we would say, “I hit myself.” In other words, the Greek middle voice is reflexive, indicating that the subject is acting upon itself. The middle voice also indicates intense action on the part of the subject. Literally, then, verse 8 says, “Tongues will stop by themselves.” That’s the meaning that the middle voice gives to the verb pauo. (“Speaking in Tongues”)
Here Dr. MacArthur does not even characterize the passive voice correctly (it would be “I was hit by the ball” not “the ball hit me.”) His description of the middle voice, however, is completely wrong. This is clearly a matter of inferences drawn from a grammar’s general description of the middle voice. His reference to “intense action on the part of the subject” is a dead give-away here. Apparently, as learned an exegete as he is, he simply does not understand the middle voice in Greek.
Elsewhere he states:
It should be noted that 1 Corinthians 13:8 itself does not say when tongues were to cease. Although I Corinthians 13:9-10 teaches that prophecy and knowledge will cease when the “perfect” (i.e., the eternal state) comes, the language of the passage – particularly the middle voice of the Greek verb translated “will cease”- puts tongues in a category apart from these gifts. Paul writes that while prophecy and knowledge will be “done away” (passive voice) by “the perfect,” the gift of tongues “will cease” in and of itself (middle voice) prior to the time that “the perfect” arrives. When did this cessation of tongues take place? The evidence of Scripture and history indicate that tongues ceased in the apostolic age. ( “The Gift of Tongues”)
Here he is taking the implication far beyond what the text actually says, not only that tongues would cease “in and of themselves,” but “prior to the time that ‘the perfect’ arrives.” This statement is completely unwarranted.
He even includes this fallacious argument in his commentary on 1 Corinthians:
Cease is from pauo, which means “to stop, to come to an end.” Unlike katargeo, this verb is here used in the Greek middle voice, which, when used of persons, indicates intentional, voluntary action upon oneself. Used of inanimate objects, it indicates reflexive, self-causing action. The cause comes from within; it is built it. God gave the gift of tongues a built-in stopping place. “That gift will stop by itself,” Paul says. Like a battery, it had a limited energy supply and a limited lifespan. When its limits were reached, its activity automatically ended. Prophecy and knowledge will be stopped by something outside themselves, but the gift of tongues will stop by itself. This distinction in terms in unarguable. (I Corinthians. p. 359.)
Again, this statement is based on a very faulty understanding of the function of the middle voice. There is nothing in it about a “built in” cause. This is absurd merely on the intuitive level, that every time a Greek speaker says “The rain stopped” using the middle form παύομαι that he is making a statement about its “limited lifespan” or a “built-in stopping place.” This is nonsense, human language just doesn’t work this way.
There is a secondary matter that requires comment. This “distinction in terms” that Dr. MacArthur refers to is a related part of this spurious Cessationist argument. It is an interesting question, however: Why in the ēcases of knowledge and prophecy does Paul employ the verb καταργέω (katargeō), but with tongues he “switches to” παύσονται? Is he not drawing a distinction here, as MacArthur asserts is “unarguable”?
No, actually, he is not. Sometimes the answer is given “stylistic variation,” but there is a bit more to it that this. It is a matter of collocation.
Collocation has to do with the appropriateness of words to occur together even if they are grammatically able to do so. It is what is wrong with Noam Chomsky’s example of linguistic nonsense: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but the sense of the words causes a “collocational clash.”
So in 1 Cor. 13, Paul generally wishes to make a point about the future obsolescence of the partial in the presence of the complete (more here), and his general statement is in v. 10: “but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away (καταργηθήσεται, katargēsētai).”
Now this verb works well enough with “prophecies” and “knowledge,” but “tongues” is a different class of noun. These are all shorthand designations for particular spiritual gifts. “Prophecy” and “knowledge” refer to cognitive and communication acts in the first instance and the particular informational content as a result, in the second. This information, being partial, becomes obsolete in the face of full knowledge and fulfilled prophecy. Thus the verb καταργηθήσεται, translated here “will pass away” (ESV), is semantically appropriate, and there is no collocational clash.
“Tongues,” however, γλῶσσαι (glōssai) in Greek, is a different category of noun. It does not refer to so much to the informational content of the activity, but to the activity itself. The interpretation of a “tongue” may function in a way similar to prophecy (1 Cor. 14:5), but the word itself is more a designation of the activity than the result of the activity. In the first instance the noun refers to the literal organ of speech and taste, the tongue. In a second major sense, it means “language.” The concept of speaking “in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4) was a specialized meaning within the Christian community.
As such an activity does not so much “pass away” as discontinue, cease. So evidently the verb καταργηθήσεται presented collocational difficulty (like “sleeping furiously”), and so Paul used the more appropriate idea of “cease.”
Besides this, there is an issue of the other meanings causing confusion. Paul was not communicating that after the Parousia physical tongues would not be a part of our resurrection bodies, or that language and languages would also “pass away.”
At any rate, the semantic nature of γλῶσσαι is quite sufficient to motivate Paul’s verb choice. So that to infer from this choice an implicit message about an early expiration for the gift of tongue is completely unwarranted.