Sola Scriptura: 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; 13:8-10

Sola Scriptura

In our studies thus far, we have seen that the primary source of religious authority for first-century Christians, based on the New Testament evidence, was not the written Scriptures, but, rather, what may broadly be referred to as the Apostolic Tradition, consisting of—(1) the Gospel proclamation (including a seminal Gospel narrative), (2) preserved sayings and teachings of Jesus, and (3) authoritative teaching by the apostles. This would seem to contradict the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura; and, yet, the Protestant principle could still be harmonized with the New Testament evidence, with the qualifying premise that the Apostolic Tradition was given definitive (inspired and authoritative) form in the writings of the New Testament themselves.

Certainly, by the end of the first-century, some of Paul’s letters were being treated (by at least some Christians) as authoritative Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Similarly, the authoritative status of Synoptic Gospels would have been widely recognized by the middle of the 2nd century (if not earlier); and there can be little doubt that the Johannine Community, c. 100 A.D., would have treated the Gospel of John as a normative (authoritative) text. So, on this basis, it would be reasonable to accept the Sola Scriptura principle, centered on the New Testament Scriptures as ultimately enshrining (for all future generations) the Apostolic Tradition.

A continuing of the Apostolic Tradition?

There are, however, two major challenges to the Protestant view. The first of these may be labeled as a continuing of the Apostolic Tradition. That is to say, rather than the Apostolic Tradition being frozen in a fixed, written form (in the New Testament Scriptures), it continued to exist as a living Tradition, through the personal presence of new inspired leaders (apostles and prophets), who would continue to communicate the authoritative Tradition from one generation to the next. The Roman Catholic Church has maintained their own such version of this ‘apostolic succession’, though rooted in the apostolic office (of bishops, archbishops, and pope), rather than as an inspired gifting of the individual. The New Testament recognizes both the office and gift of Christian leaders, but the stronger weight of the evidence is on the latter.

In particular, we may turn to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which contains the most extensive New Testament discussion on the nature and character of Christian leadership.

1 Corinthians 12:28-29

Paul’s primary discussion of the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) occurs in chapter 12, including the famous list of gifts in verses 4-11. However, a second listing is provided in verse 28. Heading the list are three primary gifts, framed as essential and defining characteristics of the person involved:

“first, apostles [a)posto/loi]; second, prophets [profh/tai]; third, teachers…”

After this come the other gifts (v. 28b). The same is repeated in v. 29, indicating that not everyone is gifted to be apostles, prophets, and teachers, but only those specially chosen by God. Generally speaking, and in ideal terms, every believer would function as an inspired prophet (cf. Acts 2:1-4ff, 17ff, in light of the ideal expressed in Num 11:29). However, in practical terms, the role of prophet—that is, one who acts as a spokesperson for God, communicating His word and will to the rest of the people—tended to be reserved for specially gifted individuals. Insofar as apostles preached the word of God to other believers, they also functioned as prophets.

It is noteworthy that Paul uses the term apostle (apo/stolo$, lit. “one se[n]t forth [i.e. by Christ]”) here without any indication of a difference, between such gifted believers in the congregations and the first generation of apostles (such as the Twelve, and Paul himself). Apparently, these apostles functioned with the same kind of ministerial role and authority, though called by Christ through the Spirit, rather than through his physical presence on earth (or by vision-appearance, in the case of Paul). This suggests that the Apostolic Tradition would continue, beyond the first generation of apostles, as a living tradition, continuing also beyond what was preserved (in written form) in the New Testament Scriptures.

Some Protestants, however, according to one line of interpretation, would claim that the spiritual gifts documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today (contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions). Paul does, in fact, speak of such gifts coming to an end, in the famous Love-chapter of 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 13). He does not refer specifically in this regard to gift of being an apostle, but does refer to the gift of prophecy, which is closely tied to the role of an apostle (and apostolic authority). It is thus worth examining the main verse in this passage which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a, which may be outlined as follows:

    • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
      • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
        —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value
        • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
      • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
        —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
    • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduces this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

    • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai]
      —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
    • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working” —i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time— “when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)” —something which is going to happen or will appear.

What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts; and much the same can also be said of being gifted as an apostle. The implication is that authoritative apostles (and prophets) would continue to exist and function among Christians until the end (i.e., the return of Jesus and the last Judgment, etc).

The situation, however, is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.

It would thus be most difficult to argue that the role of an inspired, Spirit-gifted (and authoritative) apostle would ever cease, to be replaced entirely (or nearly so) by a fixed set of first-century writings. In other words, based on this line of interpretation, the New Testament Scriptures, while they might support and confirm the continuing Apostolic Tradition, could never replace that Tradition nor represent it completely.

In next week’s study, we will examine a second New Testament challenge to the Sola Scriptura principle—namely, the role of the Holy Spirit.

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