Cessationism, the belief that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased since the times described in the New Testament, is biblically justified almost exclusively with reference to 1 Corinthians 13:
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11When 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. 12For 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.
13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I quote the full chapter rather than just verses 8-10 because the context is so very critical. The verses on the cessation of spiritual gifts are too frequently treated in isolation, which allows for a radically broad interpretation of what “the perfect” is. Christians, and even non-Christians, are largely familiar both with Paul’s definition of love (i.e. “Love is patient…”) and the triumvirate of Christian virtues (i.e. “So now faith, hope, and love abide…”). In the wake of Pentecostalism, Protestants--particularly those groups with a penchant for controversy--are equally familiar with the promise that speaking in tongues will cease. What seems to be entirely forgotten is that the prediction of cessation is sandwiched neatly in between Paul’s two most memorable statements about love. The verse about tongues-speaking and prophecy are not out of place. It is intimately related to Paul’s argument here, and the true meaning of these verses about cessation are wrapped up in precisely what that argument is.
Paul is writing in 1 Corinthians to a church that is perhaps more troubled than any other represented at length in the New Testament. In Corinth, they prefer human names to the name of Christ (Chapter 1), they prefer wisdom to divine folly (Chapter 2), they prefer libertinism to holiness (Chapter 5), they prefer “justice” to forgiveness (Chapter 6), and in this chapter Paul is dealing with their preference for spiritual gifts over the fruits of the Sprit (if I may subtly propose an intertextual relationship between 1 Cor. 13 and Gal. 5). The purpose in this chapter is neither merely to define love in a list of primary Christian virtues nor to stamp an expiration date on spiritual gifts. Paul’s aim is to show the superiority of love to spiritual gifts.
Paul achieves this aim in three broad strokes that roughly correspond to the paragraph divisions that we see in our modern English translations. First, Paul insists that love is what constitutes the value of the Christian life. Spiritual gifts, knowledge, charity, and even faith (which, incidentally, ought to qualify any valid understanding of sola fide) without love as their primary content and motive are all worthless.
Next, Paul gives an exposition of how love appears when it is manifest. The qualities which are listed are not so subtle jabs at the way the Corinthians have been treating one another. In fact, let’s break it down to see just how Paul’s description of love links back in to Paul’s earlier teachings in the same book:
- Love does not boast.
- Love is not arrogant.
- Love is not self-seeking.
- Love keeps no record of wrongs.
- Love does not delight in evil.
In all this it becomes quite clear that the point Paul is trying to get at is that love is characterized by behaviors and dispositions quite contrary to what the Corinthians are presently practicing. Notably, he once again elevates love even above both faith and hope by saying that love both believes (the verb is “πιστευει”) and hopes all things.
Finally, Paul concludes that--though all things are contingent on love, even faith and hope--love is contingent on nothing, not even time. “Love never ends,” and with this phrase Paul introduces the part of his argument that includes the reference to cessation. The spiritual gifts which the Corinthians are delighting in and allowing to disrupt their services, these things are ultimately transient. There was a time when they began; there will be a time when they end. Love, however, is without end. Ben Witherington has noted that even here love supersedes faith and hope, which both become obsolete eventually. In the final analysis, faith becomes sight and hope is fulfilled. Love only ever increases into eternity.
In the final rendering then, Paul is concerned first and foremost with the perfect nature of love in contrast not only to spiritual gifts, but to the knowledge that the Corinthians professed to have and to the childish behaviors that they have been exhibiting. When Paul speaks of the cessation of miraculous gifts, it is not as a passing statement of fact meant simply to inform the church at Corinth that their prophecies had a "best by" date on them. It was to illustrate that even these great gifts which they had would one day pass away, but love never would. Love, therefore, is the proper object of pursuit, the proper quality for boasting and pride (except that love does not boast and is not proud). There is nothing to glory in except love which is an all-sufficient and eternal glory.
Though I believe this analysis will be fruitful in time, the above does not really immediately solve the problem of precisely when spiritual gifts like prophecy and tongues-speaking will cease. The only thing that seems self-evident to me is that every Christian ought to be in some sense a cessationist. There will be a time when prophecies cease. The only thing left to decide is exactly when that time is.