Question: To what does the phrase, “that which is perfect,” refer in 1 Cor. 13?
E W Rogers, Oxford
Answer.In answering this question it is necessary to bear in mind (a) the object of the writer in penning the chapter and (b) the method he adopts in achieving that object. His object is to show the superiority of love over gift and the utter incompatibility of gift without love. The method he adopts is to show that the gifts in which the Corinthians were boasting minus love were of a transient nature and, whilst they would pass love would abide. The gifts themselves were the marks of an imperfect condition and were to be superseded by something which is perfect; the gifts had to do with that which was “in part”; they were to be followed by that which had all parts, namely, that which is perfect. While respecting the judgment of godly men who defer the arrival of, “the perfect,” the “seeing face to face,” and the “knowing fully” till the Lord comes, I believe that such an interpretation ignores the fact that the abiding nature of faith, hope and love are set over against the temporary nature of the gifts named. Faith will give place to sight and hope to reality when the Lord comes; they will not then abide. Consequently, I am disposed to think that we must look for an earlier arrival of that which is perfect or complete, which would coincide, with the passing of the gifts concerned. Now if we bear in mind that the gifts were given in order to validate Christianity which was then new, and that they were a temporary expedient to provide for the needs of the saints till the whole of the Scriptures were written we shall, I think, not wrongly reach the conclusion that the passing of the gifts synchronised with the possession by the church of the complete canon of scripture. Some object that this is putting Paul in an inferior position to the believers of to-day. His position, it is recognised, was unique: yet his use of the first person pronoun in both the plural and singular must, surely, be taken as representative, and illustrative. He speaks as one of the Corinthian company. Nor need the phrase, “knowing fully,” constitute a serious difficulty. In the possession of the complete volume of scripture the believers have the potential capacity of fully knowing the mind of God, for it is all contained in the scriptures. I admit that the phraseology of the last part of the chapter is capable of bearing a construction which would embrace the time when the Lord has come, but I do not think that to be its first meaning.