David G. McDowell

CHT 301 Hermeneutics

Professor Jenkinson

November 29, 2004

The Spiritual Gifts Trilogy
In order to properly understand what Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 12-14, we must understand the context that the entire book of 1 Corinthians was written in. The city of Corinth was located between the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf. It was a wealthy trading center and well known throughout the Roman world as a wicked city. The pagan culture had infiltrated the new church and the Apostle Paul wrote this book regarding proper Christian conduct.

After greeting the church in chapter one, Paul addresses the issue of divisions in the church arguing that Christ is not divided and that the church is united under Christ, not specific apostles.[1] Paul’s Christology comes to the forefront next when he addresses the issue of Christ being the wisdom and power of God.[2] Paul’s belief in the Trinity then comes forth very plainly in chapter two when he speaks of the “Spirit of God” and wisdom of God also coming from the Holy Spirit.[3]

After establishing that Christ is the wisdom and power of God and that wisdom also comes from the Spirit, Paul again addresses divisions in the church. He makes it very clear that Apollos and himself were only “servants, through who you came to believe.”[4] The believer, Paul says, is “God’s temple” and “God’s spirit lives within you.”[5] He warns, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”[6] After speaking of Christ being the wisdom and power of God, the Holy Spirit also being wisdom and indwelling the believer, Paul compares the “wisdom of this world” to the wisdom of God saying “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”[7]

Paul reminds his readers again in chapter four that apostles are mere “servants of Christ.”[8] Apostles have “been made a spectacle to the whole universe.” [9]Paul chides them in the church “taking pride in one man over against another.”[10] However, he concedes that the Corinthian church has very little fathers and he urges the church to imitate him and also agrees to send Timothy in his stead. He also reminds the Corinthian church that he will come to them very soon.[11]

As the next few chapters unfold, it is important to keep in mind that earlier in chapter three, Paul tell the church that he “could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants.”[12] Paul was dealing with immature Christians and as such, found it important to give them instruction regarding seemingly trivial things. In chapter five, Paul urges the church to expel an immoral brother who is having an affair with his stepmother. In chapter six, Paul addresses lawsuits among believers and then sexual immorality. Chapter seven deals primarily with marriage and chapter eight deals with the principle of the weaker brother in the context of food sacrificed to idols. In chapter nine, Paul expounds more on the principle of the weaker brother when he talks about the rights of an apostle. He says, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible…I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I might share its blessings.”[13]

Paul then addresses some warnings from Israel’s history, reminding them that most of the Hebrews fleeing Egypt did not live through the wilderness experience because “God was not pleased with most of them…”[14] As to the why, Paul says, “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.”[15] Paul also addresses the Lord’s Supper and then the issue of the believer’s freedom. Reemphasizing the earlier section on the rights of an apostle, Paul commands, “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience sake…”[16] He then sums up the chapter in this incredible verse: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”[17]

If 1 Corinthians 12-14 were considered a spiritual gifts trilogy, then 1 Corinthians 11 would be the prequel. The entire eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians is in the context of public worship in the church. This is very important. Paul speaks of propriety in worship in the church. He gives condemnations for men and women who do things contrary to the culture that would distract the body of believers, the church. This is just one more addition to his passages on the believer’s freedom. He also gives them instruction regarding the observance of communion in church. It is very clear from the next three chapters that Paul’s primary concern is the edification of the church.

Paul begins the first part of chapter twelve by saying that he did not want the believers to be ignorant of spiritual gifts. He then reminds them that there is only one Spirit, but there are different kinds of service and working and he lists those gifts. The gifts that are listed are: message of wisdom, message of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues.[18]

The next part of chapter twelve is a comparison of the body of Christ to a human body. Paul emphasizes again that there is only one Spirit. He also emphasizes that all the body parts are important. He then says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”[19] The emphasis here seems to be on the word “you.” He reminds them in this way that Christ is not physically present with them, but they are the body of Christ and that is why spiritual gifts are given.

Paul, then, emphasizes for the first time in this epistle, a hierarchy of church offices. The highest-ranking office is that of the apostle, then prophets, then teachers, then workers of miracles, then those having gifts of healing, then those able to help others, then those with gifts of administration, and lastly, those with the gift of speaking in tongues. Notice that the gift of speaking in tongues is last on the list.[20]

Paul then asks a series of rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions are, of course, questions that do not really need an answer or the answer is so obvious it does not even need to be mentioned. He first asks, “Are all apostles?” The obvious answer is no, and we can safely deduce from these string of questions that the others will be no also. “Are all prophets?” No. “Are all teachers?” No. “Do all work miracles?” No. “Do all have gifts of healing?” No. “Do all speak in tongues?” No. “Do all interpret?” No.[21]

Notice that the passage is very clear that not all members of the body of Christ will speak in tongues. This passage is very clear that God gives us different spiritual gifts, “…and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”[22] Nowhere in this passage is it suggested that all believers who have the Spirit will speak in tongues.

Sandwiched in between chapters twelve and fourteen is a chapter of the Bible commonly known as “the love chapter.” Paul emphasizes in this chapter that if spiritual gifts are not given with love, they are useless. Verse one says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”[23] Paul speaks here of two different types of tongues, one of men and one of angels. In the next few verses, several attributes of love are given. Then Paul says, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”[24] There is no question, according to these verses, that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will pass away. The question is, when?

The passage goes on: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” The word here translated “perfection” denotes maturity and completion.[25] It also has built into it a component of the will of God. In other words, when we are in the perfect will of God, we will no longer need prophecy and tongues.[26] Paul uses the same word here that he uses in Colossians 1:28 where he says, “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ…”The word “imperfect” denotes a part or a portion, an incompleteness.[27] This leads the Theological Dictionary of The New Testament to say, “There is now no perfect knowledge, no full exercise of the prophetic gift. Though controlled by the Spirit, the earthly existence of Christians stands under the sign of the partial. Only in a future aeon will what is partial…be replaced by what is perfect.”[28] There is no doubt here that Paul is saying that when completeness comes, the incomplete will disappear. He goes in verse eleven to speak of childish and talk of behavior and how it should be put away.

In verse twelve, Paul says, “Now we see but a poor reflection, but then we shall see face to face.” There is a controversy regarding the word “then.” When does it refer to? Contextually speaking, it seems to refer to the time that perfection comes. If this is the case, “then” cannot refer to the biblical canon, but rather when we see God face to face. Not only that, but according to verse thirteen, “then” we will be “fully known.”[29]

In his book Charismatic Chaos, John MacArthur argues that the gift of tongues has ceased. Although agreeing that the “then” in verse twelve does not refer to the completion of the biblical canon, he argues that the Greek suggests that tongues have ceased altogether. He says:

The language of the passage [1 Corinthians 13] puts tongues in a category apart from prophecy and knowledge. Verse 8 says prophecy and knowledge will be ‘done away’…but tongues “will cease”…[The Greek word] appears as a passive verb, meaning that the subject of the sentence receives the action: Prophecy and knowledge will be “done away” by the “perfect.” [The Greek word], however, appears in the Greek middle voice, which here seems to signify a reflexive action: The gift of tongues will ‘stop itself.’…History suggests that tongues ceased shortly after Paul wrote this epistle…[30]

MacArthur is one of the few published pastors and/or scholars that will try to argue from Scripture that tongues have ceased. In addition, the tones of MacArthur’s book as well as the broad stereotypes that he presents do not properly represent a proper cessationist view. Rich Nathan, a pastor with the Association of Vineyard Churches, uses this to counter MacArthur’s view. He says: “MacArthur has the unfortunate weakness of exaggerating his opponent’s faults…Excessive dogmatism is another fault of MacArthur’s book…Since MacArthur is dogmatic about virtually everything he says (something is either ‘Biblical’ or “patently unbiblical” in MacArthur’s book), he leaves absolutely no room for the reader to disagree and yet still be viewed as orthodox.”[31]

Like any issue, there are many views. John MacArthur has the extreme view mentioned above and the other extreme is that you must speak in tongues to be a believer. The latter view will not be dealt with here, suffice to say that it is not orthodox. A much more balanced view of cessationism can be found in the book Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? The book is a collection of essays written by four scholars who believe differently regarding this issue. The cessationist view is presented by Richard B. Gaffin, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Gaffin makes it clear that he does not argue that all the gifts have ceased, just some. Gaffin’s concern is mainly with the revelatory gifts which he says “stands in tension with the canonicity of the New Testament, particularly the canon as closed.”[32] Throughout his essay, he also links these gifts directly to the apostles.

The issue for many reformed theologians lies very firmly on the shoulders of the doctrine of Sola Scriputura or “Scripture Alone.” Many would argue that since the Biblical canon is closed, no further revelation is needed. Berkhof begins his Systematic Theology with the doctrine of God and he uses Scripture as one of the proofs for the existence of God[33], but nowhere mentions proof for the Scriptures as the Word of God. Rather, it is simply assumed. One can deduce from this that Berkhof had a very high view of Scripture. He never mentions the issue of spiritual gifts in Systematic Theology because it seems to be a rather secondary and possibly almost nonexistent issue for him. His high view of Scripture leaves no room for further revelation.

Others would argue from the standpoint of apostolic authority, claiming that tongues and the other charismatic gifts were only for the apostles, defining apostles as ones who witnessed Christ with their physical eyes. One of the more interesting views is that of Neoorthodoxy, whose primary spokesperson was Karl Barth, arguably the most influential theologian of the 20th century. Barth argued that Scripture was not the Word of God until it came in contact with the Christ. Indeed, the Scriptures were “the witness of divine revelation”[34] but not necessarily divine revelation in and of itself. As such, he did not accept Sola Scriptura and even argued that the biblical canon may not be closed. Thus, one might argue that Barth would have open to further revelation and possibly charismata.

C. Samuel Storms, the president of Grace Training Center, a Bible School connected with Metro Vineyard Fellowship of Kansas City and also an associate pastor of the Metro Vineyard Fellowship, delves into 1 Corinthians 14 and asks some critical questions. In verse one, Paul says, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” Here, Paul seems to specify a type of speaking in tongues that is not used in public worship, a type without interpretation since “no one understands him.” Verse three says “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.”

In verse four, Paul says, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” There is often an assumption made with this passage that edifying one’s self is considered an evil thing. This does not seem to be a comparison of an evil thing to a good thing, but rather a good thing to a better thing. In essence, Paul is not saying that edifying one’s self the biblical way is wrong. He is saying that edifying the church is better.

In verse five, Paul says, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” The hierarchy of the gifts and Paul’s concern for the church comes forth here.

Storms also maintains that these gifts are for the edification of the church and asks several questions to men, like MacArthur and others, who disagree with him. He asks:

1. What does “one do with 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, the list of what all agree are miraculous gifts…these gifts says Paul, were distributed to the body of Christ ‘for the common good’ (v.7), that is for the edification and benefit of the church!”

2. “One must also explain 1 Corinthians 14:3, where Paul asserts that prophecy, one of the miraculous gifts listed in 12:7-10, functions to edify, exhort, and console others in the church.”

3. “If tongues were never intended to edify believers, why did God provide the gift of interpretation so that tongues might used in the gathered assembly of believers?”

4. “If tongues never were intended to edify believers, why did Paul himself exercise that gift in the privacy of his own devotions (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:18-19)?”

Storms asks other questions, but he summarizes his view like this: “My point is this: All the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, whether prophecy or mercy, whether healing or helps, were given, among other reasons, for the edification, building up, encouraging, instructing, consoling, and sanctifying the body of Christ.”

Using this background, it is apparent that all of the gifts of the Spirit are available to us today and 1 Corinthians 12-14, particularly 14, is a guideline for how to use these gifts. The context of this passage is set in public worship, although it is evidenced as Paul writes, that the gift of tongues was not limited exclusively to public worship, but is also available for private use. Paul’s primary concern regarding all spiritual gifts is that they are used in order, in love, and for the edification of the church.

In chapter fourteen, Paul lists several guidelines for the use of spiritual gifts in church:

1. Anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says (1 Corinthians 14:13). (This also infers that one may speak in tongue and not be able to interpret.)

2. All of the gifts must be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

3. “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:26).

4. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:26). (This also infers that a believer can speak in tongues to himself and to God without interpretation.)

It is apparent from these chapters that the gifts of the Spirit, in their entirety, are available to us today. However, Paul is very clear that the use of the gifts, particularly the charismatic gifts, and among them, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues, should be used cautiously, in order, and most of all, in love.

Works Cited

Holy Bible. New International Version. Zondervan. 1973.

Souter, Alexander. A Pocket Lexicon To The Greek New Testament. London: Oxford University Press. London. 1960.

Friedrich, Gerhard. ed. Theological Dictionary of The New Testament. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 1972.

MacArthur, John. Charismatic Chaos. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Nathan, Rich. “A Response To Charismatic Chaos.” Anaheim: The Association of Vineyard Churches, 1993.

Grudem, Wayne, Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eermans, 1968.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics Volume One: The Doctrine of The Word of God. New York: Evangelischer Verlag A.G. Zollikon—Zurich, 1956.

[1] Holy Bible. New International Version. Zondervan. 1973. 1 Corinthians 1:13-17

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:11

[4] 1 Corinthians 3:5

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:16-17

[6] 1 Corinthians 3:17

[7] 1 Corinthians 3:19

[8] 1 Corinthians 4:1

[9] 1 Corinthians 4:9

[10] 1 Corinthians 4:6

[11] 1 Corinthians 4:15-21

[12] 1 Corinthians 3:1

[13] 1 Corinthians 9:19, 23

[14] 1 Corinthians 10:5

[15] 1 Corinthians 10:6

[16] 1 Corinthians 10:27-28

[17] 1 Corinthians 10:31

[18] 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

[19] 1 Corinthians 12:27 Italics added

[20] 1 Corinthians 12:27-28

[21] 1 Corinthians 12:29-31

[22] 1 Corinthians 12:11

[23] 1 Corinthians 13:1

[24] 1 Corinthians 13:8

[25] Souter, Alexander. A Pocket Lexicon To The Greek New Testament. London: Oxford University Press. London. 1960. P. 258

[26] Friedrich, Gerhard., ed. Theological Dictionary of The New Testament Vol.VIII. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids. 1972. p. 76.

[27] Souter, p. 156

[28] Gerhard., Vol. IV. P. 596

[29] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[30] MacArthur, John. Charismatic Chaos. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992. p. 231

[31] Nathan, Rich. “A Response To Charismatic Chaos.” Anaheim: The Association of Vineyard Churches, 1993.

[32] Grudem, Wayne, Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

[33] Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eermans, 1968.

[34] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics Volume One: The Doctrine of The Word of God. Evangelischer Verlag A.G. Zollikon—Zurich. New York: 1956.


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