Tag Archives: 1 Corinthians 13

The Tongues Conundrum (Part 3)

by Scott

Recently I began a series on the gift of tongues (here is part 1 and part 2). From part 2, one major discussion point arose out of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

The discussion surrounded whether or not people can actually speak in the ‘tongues of angels’. I didn’t give much time to discussing this particular aspect of tongues, but maybe I should have seeing some recent discussion here at To Be Continued. In particular, my first article stated these brief words on the subject:

Some will claim that this reference to ‘tongues of angels’ is a hypothetical situation and one should not expect to find themselves speaking in such a manner. But remember the first words of Paul’s statement: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men.’ Now, we know this is an actual certainty – speaking in the tongues of men that we have not learned. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that Paul would refer to one situation that is a reality and one situation that is hypothetical. And, noting that tongues are a Spirit-enabled language, it’s possible that one might speak in a heavenly tongue.

Nothing could be ‘proved’ in regards to this, since tongues can regularly come forth in languages one has never learned, and especially since there are thousands of languages and dialects in the world. But I would propose that, since it is possible to speak in tongues (languages) or men, then the same could be true with regards to tongues of angels.

Particularly, my great co-author and colleague, and much better at biblical languages than I, Marv, gave some good constructive criticism on this same article posted at Theologica. And you can see some other challenging comments that follow the article here at To Be Continued.

One of the major arguments that came forth as probable cause for why Paul did not actually mean that humans can speak in the tongues of angels is the use of hyperbole, especially found in the first three verses:

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And 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. 3If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

I think this was an excellent challenge, one that I must admit I had not really considered. I mean, reading the text now, I see the hyperbole very clear – understand all mysteries and all knowledge (vs2); have all faith (vs2); and give away all I have (vs3). Depending on whether you take Jesus’s own words as hyperbole in places like Matthew 17:20, that will probably determine your view of the phrase, ‘as to remove mountains’.

But, regardless, no one, at least in this present age, can attain to the measure of the word all (Greek pas).

But, the passage does not contain hyperbole at every point, does it? I would suppose these things could actually happen:

  • Speaking in tongues of men – vs1 (This is what I briefly pointed out in the first article.)
  • Have prophetic powers – vs2 (Notice it doesn’t say all prophetic powers’, though I suppose some would argue that was intended.)
  • Deliver up my body to be burned – vs3 (Well, noting Paul’s suffering as stated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, I suppose Paul thought this was possible. But your thoughts on this phrase might be determined by whether you think this refers to suffering or offering your body to show one’s spirituality. Either way, to do such an action is possible.)

So, my conclusion is that I don’t believe it entirely impossible that Paul actually meant that human beings could speak in the languages of angels.

I also pointed out that, when we read accounts of angels communicating to human beings in Scripture, the angels actually verbally spoke. Of course, they spoke the language of the hearer. But angels do communicate, at least at times, via spoken medium. It’s possible they do the same amongst themselves or with God.

But, one final pointer I would like to bring up is Gordon Fee’s commentary thoughts on this passage of 1 Corinthians 13:1. Gordon Fee is both a well-known New Testament scholar and from a Pentecostal-Assembly of God background. And, though Fee is of the Pentecostal-Assembly of God circle, he has not been one who so easily accepts every single Pentecostal-charismatic teaching. He is solid and level-headed when approaching Scripture.

So I think his words are at least worth consideration, noting his long-standing studies on Pentecostal-charismatic issues, like that of tongues. This comes from the New International Commentary of the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians.

That the Corinthians at least, and probably Paul, thought of tongues as the language(s) of angels seems highly likely – for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence from Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly language (or dialects) and that by means of the “Spirit” one could speak these dialects. Thus in the Testament of Job 48-50 Job’s three daughters are given “charismatic sashes”; when these were put on they allowed Hemera, for example, to speak “ecstatically in the angelic dialect, sending up a hymn to God with the hymnic style of the angels. And as she spoke ecstatically, she allowed ‘The Spirit’ to be inscribed on her garment.” Such an understanding of heavenly speech may also lie behind the language of 1 Cor. 14:2 (“speak mysteries by the Spirit”). (2) As has been argued elsewhere, one can make a good deal of sense of the Corinthians view of “spirituality” if they believed that they had already entered into some expression of angelic existence. This would explain their rejection of sexual life and sexual roles (cf. 7:1-7; 11:2-16) and would also partly explain their denial of a future bodily existence (15:12, 35). It might also lie behind their special interest in “wisdom” and “knowledge.” For them the evidence of having “arrived” at such a “spiritual” state would be their speaking the tongues of angels. Hence they high value placed on this gift. (p630-631)

These same words can be found in his God’s Empowering Presence, p200-201.

Now, one might notice that some of these thoughts centre on what the Corinthians might have thought. And we know the Corinthians had some off-base theology, hence Paul’s corrective words not just on practical life matters, but doctrinal matters. But Fee also reckons that it was probable that Paul also held that humans could speak in tongues of angels. And, he then proceeds to share two main reasons why speaking in the tongues of angels is probable, with the first probably being more substantial for why Paul might believe this.

So, I thought it was interesting to share some of Fee’s thoughts on this passage.

In all, we cannot make a 100% conclusion either way. Again, I did appreciate some of the comments of Marv, as he pointed out his understanding of why he believes Paul didn’t actually believe this was a possibility. And there were other goods thought shared as well, like from commenter Ted Bigelow.

For these reasons, though such is difficult at times, it might be good that we not be closed off to either views, respecting them both. This could be hyperbolic language right throughout the entire vs1-3, or it could be that some words could become part of real life and some were hyperbole. I lean towards the latter view, but am now much more aware of the former.

What is “the Perfect”?

By Marv

1 Corinthians 13:9-10 reads: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” (ESV)

a. Does “the perfect” refer to the Bible here? No.

b. Does “the perfect” refer to the Second Coming of Christ? No, but (b) is closer than (a).

Think about it. Why would Paul refer to either of these in this enigmatic way? Yes, you can find reasons, excuses, to understand either one of those, and surely other things, by the title “the perfect.” But we don’t have to scour distant contexts to discover what is motivating this choice of words here.

“The perfect” isn’t any one thing; it is a class of things. Or rather it is a state in which many different things can be: whole, as opposed to partial. We know that is what “the perfect” is, because that is what “the partial” is. Paul states in verse 9 two things that we do “in part”: know and prophecy. The phrase for “in part,” ek merous, is the most prominent part of each clause in verse 9. It’s what he is talking about. Reading it in the Greek order: “In part we know, and in part we prophesy.”

Then he takes this prepositional phrase and nominalizes it by adding the article: “the in part,” to ek merous. This is what the ESV translates as “the partial.” Another way of saying this would be “that which is only in part,” not referring to a specific thing, but anything which is partial.

The contrast Paul is making between “the partial” and “the perfect” tells us what specific meaning he has in mind for “perfect,” teleion. It means the state in which something has reached its fullness or completeness. The phrase he uses parallels “the perfect” to teleion with “the partial,” to ek merous.

The point he makes about these two states of being is not so much a prediction as a principle, a proverb, something that is true across the board: when the full and complete version of something arrives, the preliminary, partial version of it loses its value.

He provides an analogy and two examples to illustrate. First, he states that at one time his thoughts and words were those of a child, but as a grown man, of full age, his education complete, the ideas he had while still under age were not worth holding on to.

So then “partial” and “complete” also correlate with “now” and “then,” in comparison with minority and majority. This is equivalent to “not yet” and “already,” and at this point we see that “the perfect” is not itself a reference to the Second Coming but the state of things that will only occur at the second coming.

Now we see some things but much remains unseen (v.12a) . For these we have “faith” and “hope” (v. 13). Then, at the consummation of all things, our partial sight yields to completeness of sight, as faith becomes sight.

The same is true for our knowledge (v. 12b), which is partial now, but will in that day be complete. The two phrases are unmistakably descriptions of conditions only available beyond this age; we will “see face to face,” and we will “know as we are known.”

Faith is the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Who hopes for what he sees (Rom. 8:24)? So even faith and hope, which remain “now,” will give way “then” to sight and fullness of knowledge. Love, however, is greater because as it reaches completeness it has all the more reason to continue.

This is the reason Paul commends it above all that it “in part.” The examples he gives are prophecy, knowledge, and tongues. These are things that are in a state of “in part.”

Prophecy entails revelation in bits and pieces, riddles and puzzles (Num. 12:8). It reaches its fulness, obviously, when it is fulfilled. So even the prophecies of Revelation, of the completed Canon, are partial until all is fulfilled.

Knowledge too can only ever be partial in this age, but one day the knowledge of God will cover the earth as water covers the sea (Hab. 2:14).

If tongues is a “sign to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22a), then it has value while there are still unbelievers. The contrast of faith and lack of faith exists only in this age when sight is partial. So tongues reaches its fullness when every knees bows and every tongue confesses (Phil. 2:10).

Love alone surpasses this age. The rest, even faith, even hope are for the present age, where knowledge and sight are partial. If Paul is telling us anything about the gifts he mentions, it is that they correspond to the age of the partial, they are coterminous with faith and hope. They come to an end, yes, they cease, yes, but only when they reach the state of their fulness.

It is odd that this passage is so often used to teach the previous cessation of these gifts, when it is such a very strong argument for their enduring until the end of this age.