Many have asked me at one time or another to share my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13.10. It is a critical text in many a debate over hermeneutics and the canon. But I have been hesitant to do so for a variety of reasons: unsure of it myself, to avoid controversy, and lack of time for extended discussion. I have profited greatly from the study of others on this passage and have done some of my own.
What follows are not dogmatic axioms but explorations into the deep wells of God’s unfathomable wisdom. I remain open to correction and study.
There are four basic interpretations of “to teleion” in 1 Cor. 13.10. Not all are equally weighty or persuasive but I offer them nonetheless.
1) Probably the most familiar view among Churches of Christ is that “the perfect,” as the King James Version reads, refers to the completed canon of New Testament scripture. This particular interpretation seems to have arisen historically as a reaction to Pentecostalism. B. B. Warfield is said to have taken this position but I have been unable to document this. But I have checked into the history of the interpretation of this verse and it is true that this view does not seem to exist prior to the 19th century. Usually James 1.25 and Romans 12.2 are appealed to in support of this interpretation. But as the lamented J. W. Roberts wrote these verses are not discussing the canon (see J. W. Roberts, “That Which is Perfect” Firm Foundation [July 25, 1972], 468). This particular interpretation has been shown to be both exegetically and historically wrong by such conservative scholars as Richard Oster, Carl Holladay, J.W. Roberts, Gordon Fee and Donald Carson. In fact I have not found any standard commentary which has adopted this interpretation. The context of the verse and history of interpretation pretty much eliminate this as the proper understanding of the text.
2) The second interpretation that is usually given of “to teleion” is that the phrase refers to “agape” (love). This particular view has more going for it that the one just reviewed. Indeed, this is the view that I once held myself and still find it to be very persuasive. More specifically this view holds that “to teleion” does not refer so much to “perfection” but to the “totality” or “maturity” of the Corinthian Christians in terms of agape love. Carroll Osburn has probably presented the best case that can be made for this interpretation . . . and as I stated before it is a strong case (cf. 1978 Abilene Christian College Lectures, pp. 138-171; Jim McGuiggan presents a summary of Osburn in his commentary on 1 Corinthians). Osburn has done an amazing amount of research into how the Church Fathers interpreted this text. In fact some of his research has moved me to embrace a position different from him.
3) The third interpretation is a nuanced view of #2, in that the church no longer needs gifts. The weakness of this position is that it is not built upon 1 Corinthians but upon Ephesians 4.7-16. This interpretation breaks, what I believe to be an iron clad rule of exegesis, a passage must first be understood in its own context and then seen in light of others. John McRay has written the presentation of this view: “To Teleion in 1 Corinthians 13:10” in Restoration Quarterly (1971): 168-183.
4) The fourth position is the position that I have come to believe as the best interpretation of the verse. This interpretation understands “to teleion” to refer to the Eschaton or the return of the resurrected Lord at the End of Time. In summary fashion let me share why I have come to this position:
A) As Osburn’s research shows, this is basically the position in the history of the church until around 1600. I do not know of a writer who understood “to teleion” to refer to the Bible. But the Fathers almost unanimously agree the “perfection” refers to the End of Time or heaven (eschaton). Origen for example writes in his controversy with Celsus that we cannot know the eternal things here but only in the highest heavens (pros akrois tois ouranouis) and then he says, “we shall ever be engaged in the contemplation of the invisible things of God, which are no longer understood by us through the things which he has made from the creation of the world . . . then face to face [a reference to 13.12] when that which is perfection comes then we that know in part will be done away” (Contra Celsum, VI, xx). Basil, Gregory, Eusebius and Chrysostom all understand the text to refer to the Eschaton. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin (see his Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, I, p.428) take the same position. I am not merely parading names here but showing that there is pretty much universal consensus on the meaning of this text stretching across both centuries but even the Catholic and Protestant divide.
B) However, my reasons for accepting this position are not wholly historical but rather exegetical. It is the exegetical reasons the carried such weight with the names above and I find them convincing. The Apostle frames a great deal of what he writes in the context of eschatology Throughout First Corinthians his advice is repeatedly framed within this forward looking perspective (cf. 1.8f; 2.6; 3.13, 15, 17, 22; 4.4f; 4.8f; 4.19; 5.5; 6.2f; 6.9f; 6.14; 7.17-24, 26, 29, 31; 9.24f; 10.11; 11.26, 29, 32; 15.12ff; 16.22).
In the immediate context of 13.12 we have a clear eschatological frame of reference. “Perfection” thus entails a “state of affairs where my knowledge is in some ways comparable with God’s present knowledge of me” (D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit, pp. 70-71). Gordon Fee has some insight that is not so much the end itself but what will happen at the end . . . that is the goal of the End: “At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God’s saving work in Christ will have been reached” (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, p. 208). Richard Oster in his commentary takes this same position, along with an extended discussion of why this does not force one into accepting Pentecostalism. Another good resource for reading is Klein’s article “Perfection, Mature” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 700.
This interpretation has context on its side, it has the history of interpretation on its side and the consensus of modern scholars. I believe it is the correct interpretation of what Paul meant in this text. Again I think only interpretation 2 is a serious challenger for this view but I feel that context weighs against it.
We long for the "perfect" to come ... Come Lord Jesus.