Monday, May 07, 2012

What does (or doesn't) Paul say about miraculous gifts?

"Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Something that I came across this morning caused me to think about my position on Spiritual Gifts. Paul tells us that the Spiritual Gifts were given "for the common good" of the church. They are the abilities that God has given to every Christian in order to instruct or improve the church. Paul also gives us several lists of gifts in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. Within those lists are what we term as "miraculous gifts." These gifts include: prophecy, healing, miracles, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. When it comes to these gifts there are two basic schools of thought. The first position is that of Cessationism which means that these gifts were only around while the Apostles were alive. After the Apostles died the gifts ceased to exist. The second position is that of Continuationsim which means that these gifts continue to exist in the same way that they did in the days of the Apostles.

The passage–1 Corinthians 13:8-12–that is quoted above is sometimes used as a proof-text by those that say the miraculous gifts are no longer in use. The claim is that Paul is talking about the time when the Canon of Scripture is closed. This claim is based on the phrase "but when the perfect comes, the partial with pass away" and is referring to the doctrine of the Inerrancy of the Bible. In other words these miraculous gifts were being used by the Apostles to authenticate and spread the Gospel message in an imperfect verbal form but once the Gospel was being circulated in the perfect written format the need for these miraculous gifts was no longer necessary.

While it might be true that the need for miraculous gifts is greatly reduced by the existence of the Bible, I don't think that this is what the passage is saying. And to be perfectly fair, I don't know that there are many Cessationists who believe that this is what the passage is saying.

The passage does give us the impression that miraculous gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues will cease. But the reason that the passage gives for them passing away is that one day we will see "face to face" and "know fully." And that creates problems for those that want to claim that this passage is referring to the coming of Scripture. Even with written Scripture it is easy to understand that we do not yet see face to face nor do we fully know.

On top of that, it does not make any sense that this written passage of Scripture is referring to written Scripture. It might be argued that Paul did not view his writing as one day being considered Scripture. This argument would not account for the fact that Paul would then need to view the written Gospel message as superior to the spoken Gospel message. However in his instructions to the Thessalonians Paul gives equal weight to both:

"So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter."

Finally, it just doesn't make sense that this is what Paul is saying when we view the passage in the larger context of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12 Paul brings up the topic of Spiritual Gifts and how the giving of these gifts should not be looked at as a popularity contest. Paul's point is that having a certain gift does not make someone superior or more important to the church than someone with a different gift. In chapter 14 Paul speaks about the use of these gifts in an orderly worship. Nestled in between these two chapters is what may be the most well known chapter in the Bible on love. Paul takes time between these two chapters to tell us how love is greater than anything else. His point is not to teach about the details of the cessation of particular gifts. Rather his point is to teach us that when these gifts do cease that we will still have love. Paul is telling us that when Christ returns and we finally see him face to face we won't have any need for Spiritual Gifts but we will still have love.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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