When Do Tongues Cease?

Recently I read a post from Tim Challies on “Why I Am Not Continuationist.” It got me thinking about the subject of cessation or continuation of certain spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing. In this post I select one of these gifts to examine. This lengthy and somewhat technical post is not intended as a response to the reasoning of Challies. What follows though are three common interpretations of 1 Cor 13:8–13. Each interpretation attempts to answer the question, “When did Paul expect speaking in tongues (glossolalia) to cease?” The three positions are those discussed in Christopher Forbes’ Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and its Hellenistic Environment.[1]

Cessation at the Close of the Apostolic Period or Completion of the Canon

The first view, which is the oldest of the three, is “widely held by those who [argue] that glossolalia in fact ceased ‘at the close of the apostolic period’ or ‘when the canon of Scripture was complete,’ is that ‘the perfect,’ or ‘completion,’ is to be identified with one or both or those events.”[2] Some who hold this view argue that the change from the passive to middle voice in v. 8 leads to the conclusion that tongue-speech ceased in and of itself before prophecy and knowledge are rendered inoperative.[3] Others have suggested that due to the nature of tongue-speech Paul would have expected it to die out early in the history of the church.[4]

Forbes dismisses the view that glossolalia ceased at the end of the apostolic period or when the canon was completed. He maintains, this view “cannot be defended on exegetical grounds, but can only be maintained on a dogmatic, a priori basis.”[5] Interpreting “the perfect” in v. 8 in this way does not fit with the immediate context and the “logically related comparisons that follow.”[6]

Cessation When Christ Returns: “Consensus View”[7]

The second view, which Forbes refers to as the “consensus view,” states “that ‘the perfect’ must refer to the return of Christ, when all charismatic gifts will be superseded by the immediate presence of God, when childhood will be replaced with adulthood, dim reflections by face to face reality, partial knowledge by total knowledge.”[8] This view does not see a distinction between the changes from passive to middle voice in v. 8.[9]

Cessation When the Church Comes to Maturity

The third view proposes that “perfection” or “maturity” will happen prior to the parousia (the second coming of Christ). The conclusion is that tongue-speech may cease “when the church comes to maturity” or “when love rules.”[10]

Argument against the Consensus View

Thomas raises four main arguments against the “consensus view.” First, the term teleios is not understood as “perfect” elsewhere in Paul or in the rest of the New Testament.[11] Second, the comparison between “perfect” (teleios) and “partial” (ek merous) “are not compatible antithesis.”[12] The former is qualitative while the latter is quantitative.[13] Third, the argument of vv. 8–12 “is one of progression over time.”[14] Thus, “and now” (nuni) in v. 13 should be understood temporally rather than logically following vv. 8–12.[15] Fourth is the argument that the illustration of childhood to adulthood is not a normal metaphor for this world and the state of the parousia.[16]

Rebuttal to the Argument against the Consensus View

Forbes assessment includes a rebuttal of Thomas’ critique of the “consensus view,” as well as “canon view” and “mature” church view. Forbes assesses Thomas’ critique beginning with his third argument against the “consensus view.” He notes “Two terms and a group of contextual problems have to be considered: the nuni, ‘And now,’ of v. 13, and the menei, ‘remains,’ and the question of the survival into the eschatological future of faith and hope.”[17] He asks the following questions. First, is nuni to be understood in a temporal sense or in a logical sense? Second, is menei to be understood in a temporal and logical sense? If one takes the temporal sense of nuni and menei one is left with the question of faith and hope “remaining.” If one takes the logical sense of nuni one can take menei as either temporal or logical, “but are left with v. 13 patently not following from its context.”[18] Either way one is still left with difficulties. Apparently, Forbes considers the temporal sense to have the least difficulties, since this is the view he affirms.[19]

Next, Forbes assesses the fourth argument. Although the illustration of childhood to adulthood provides difficulties for the “consensus view,” they are not nearly as unbearable as the difficulties resulting from Thomas’ solutions.[20] These difficulties are as follows: this view believes that Paul understood “perfection” to be that which would render all spiritual gifts unnecessary when the church came to a stage of maturity in the body of Christ, one that was prior to the parousia. Thomas describes this stage of maturity,

It pictures the Christian church collectively, growing up as one body, beginning with its birth, progressing through different stages of development during the present and reaching complete maturity at the parousia … He [Paul] conceived a constant growth process in the body of Christ and a gradual attainment of new degree of maturity … As the body grew, it conceivably to Paul might reach a point before the parousia where continuing revelation was no longer necessary … To Paul it was not revealed which of the two states would come first. So he under divine inspiration carefully chose vocabulary and illustrations that would allow for either possibility.[21]

Forbes admits that this view makes “very good sense of the child/adult metaphor in verse 11.”[22] However, it fails to adequately deal with “face to face” and “I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (v. 12b).[23] Forbes continues, “There is also a problem with identifying ‘the perfect’ with an earthly stage in which prophecy will cease to be necessary in 14:20, where the Corinthians are urged to be teleios in their thinking, and thus to prefer prophecy to glossolalia.”[24] Thomas’ view also purposes that Paul has a view of the body of Christ on earth as the universal church, which is alien to Paul.[25] Likewise, the suggestion of Thomas that Paul was not really sure “which of the two states would come first” and that he “under divine inspiration carefully chose vocabulary and illustrations that would allow for either possibility” does not follow. The logical flow of Paul’s argument assumes that he believed the coming of “the perfect” and the cessation of spiritual gifts would coincide.[26]

Forbes concludes his critique of Thomas by noting that his strongest and most important point “is his criticism that to teleion in Paul does not normally refer to the parousia.”[27] While this is correct, “a more thorough examination of Paul’s usage brings to light material quite consistent with the parousia [consensus view] interpretation.”[28] Forbes notes that the “well known ‘eschatoligical tensions’ in Pauline theology,” such as one’s present salvation and the future consummation/completion of that salvation, and “between the indicative and the imperative, are to be found in Paul’s usage of teleios/teleioō word group.”[29] After a brief look at several passages in which the teleios/teleioō word group is used in contexts for those who are called perfect, a general call to be perfect, and those who in the future will be perfect, Forbes concludes that only the context of 1 Cor 13 can help one to understand what Paul means. He believes, “Nothing short of the Parousia and its results for the church can be in view.”[30]

Argument for the Close of the Apostolic Period or Completion of the Canon View

Finally, Forbes discusses Paul’s change in verbs and voices in 13:8. The question at hand is, “By the changes did Paul intend to make a distinction between the fate of prophecy and knowledge, and glossolalia?” Stanley Toussaint affirms the distinction. He gives three reasons, which are grammatical and contextual in nature.

First, there is the change of verbs in v. 8. Paul uses katargeō translated “cease” with both prophecies and knowledge to indicate they will be done away. However, when he speaks of tongue speech ceasing he uses the verb pauō. Katargeō “means ‘to render inoperative, to supersede.’ In the active voice pauō means ‘to make to cease.’”[31] The difference is not that Paul wants to avoid repetition. In fact, he used katargeō four times in vv. 8, 10, and 11. The change of verbs is intended to show that tongue speech will cease prior to prophecies and knowledge being done away with.[32]

Second, there is the change of voice in the verbs of v. 8. Katargeō used with both prophecies and knowledge is a future passive. On the other hand, pauō used with tongues is future middle. As noted earlier, in the active voice pauō means “to make to cease.” Paul would have likely used this form if he intended to say that tongue speech would cease when Jesus returns. But he used the middle voice. In the middle voice pauō means simply “to cease.” Therefore, “While the content of prophecies and knowledge will endure until the coming of the Lord Jesus, tongues will in and of themselves cease in the meantime. They will not be abrogated by the rapture” (emphasis mine).[33]

 

Third, tongue speech is not mentioned in vv. 9 and 12, while both prophecies and knowledge are mentioned in v. 9 and prophecies are alluded to in v. 12. Prophecies and knowledge are said to be rendered useless in v. 10. Tongue speech however is not. Toussaint concludes, “The implication is clear. Tongues will not be in existence to be rendered inoperative when the Lord Jesus comes … Tongues cease in the church age before the return of Christ.”[34]

 

Rebuttal to the Close of the Apostolic Period or Completion of the Canon View

 

Forbes does not affirm this position. He concludes, this view “cannot be [supported] from this passage alone, but would have to make sense of Paul’s wider discussion of the functions of glossolalia, for, at the level of grammar alone, there is no good reason not to take the verb itself as a deponent, and the change of verb as a stylistic variation.”[35]

 

D. A. Carson comes to a similar assessment. He believes that when all occurrences of this verb in the middle are studied one cannot conclude that tongues will cease of themselves.[36] This same verb is found in the middle voice in Luke 8:24 where Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves to stop. This was certainly not accomplished under the power of the wind and the waves.[37] He argues that not much can be made of the use of pausontai, “any more than one can make much of other stylistic features that regularly escape detailed comment (e.g., prophecy and knowledge change their order when Paul moves from v. 8 to v. 9).”[38]

 

With regard to the omission of tongues in vv. 9–10, Carson argues against this view on two fronts. First, is it necessary for Paul to continue to mention tongues, prophecy and knowledge throughout these verses? Second, “what applies to the content of prophecy … surely applies to the content of tongues once it is assumed that tongues are interpreted (see especially 14:5).”[39]


[1] Christian Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Testament 2/75 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1995), 85–91.

[2] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 85.

[3] For example see Stanley Toussaint, “Symposium on the Tongues Movement: First Corinthians Thirteen and the Tongues Question,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (1963): 313–315.

[4] For example see O. Palmer Robertson, “Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing,” Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975): 45–53.

[5] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 86.

[6] Ibid. See also M. M. B. Turner, “Spiritual Gifts Then and Now,” Vox Evangelica 15 (1985): 38–39 and D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 69–72.

[7] This is the position I hold.

[8] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 86.

[9] For example see Carson, Showing the Spirit, 67–72 and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1035–1036.

[10] For example see Robert L. Thomas, “Tongues … Will Cease,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1974): 81–89.

[11] Ibid., 83.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 87.

[15] Thomas, “Tongues … Will Cease,” 83–84.

[16] Ibid., 85.

[17] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 87. See also C. K. Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2nd ed. (London: Black, 1971), 308–311 and Carson, Showing the Spirit, 74–75 both argue that faith and hope may continue in the eschatological state.

[18] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 88.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Thomas, “Tongues … Will Cease,” 86–88.

[22] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 88.

[23] Carson [see also Barrett, The First Epistle (1971), 306; Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1988), 226; Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 213] makes two pertinent points. The first refers to v. 12a, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face [emphasis mine].” We shall see “face to face” is used like a “formula in the Septuagint for a theophany, and therefore almost certainly a reference to the new state brought about by the parousia” (Showing the Spirit, 71). Of equal importance is his next point. Carson says that those who believe that “perfection” refers to the close of the canon do so with the assumption that prophecy and tongues have “the same revelatory and authoritative significance as inscripturated prophecy.” If this position can be challenged, then there is less pressure to hold such a position (Ibid., 72). Part of his discussion on prophecy and tongues in chapter three seeks to defend his stance that prophecy and tongues do not have the same level of authority as Scripture. Vern S. Poythress [“Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit with Cessation Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39 (1996): 71–101] challenges the position that tongues have “the same revelatory and authoritative significance as inscripturated prophecy.”

[24] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 88.

[25] Ibid., 89.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 90.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 91.

[31] S. D. Toussaint, “Symposium on the Tongues Movement: First Corinthians Thirteen and the Tongues Question,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (1963): 314.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 315.

[34] Ibid. See also Thomas R. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? (Neptune: Loizeau, 1983), 336–37. See also his article “The Cessation of the Sign Gifts,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (1988): 371–386 in which he does not even address 1 Cor 13:8–13.

[35] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 91.

[36] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 422–423. Wallace is in favor of this use of the middle voice. Despite this interpretation of the middle, Wallace does not believe this verse proves that tongues have already ceased. This verse does not specifically address the issue of when tongues cease.

[37] Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics, 422. Wallace argues that this is a misunderstanding of the usage of the middle voice in this verse. He believes Carson’s position (he does not directly identify Carson, just the position) “is a misunderstanding of the literary features of the passage: If the wind and sea cannot cease voluntarily, why does Jesus rebuke them? And why do the disciples speak of the wind and sea as having obeyed Jesus? The elements are personified in Luke 8 and their ceasing from turbulence is therefore presented as volitional obedience to Jesus. If anything, Luke 8:24 supports the indirect middle view.” Is this Luke’s intent though? Is he trying to show the obedience of the waves to Jesus? Or is he trying to show the power and authority of Jesus over creation, which is an indicator of his divinity? I think the later.

[38] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 67.

[39] Ibid.

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