Sunday, August 9, 2015

When Will Tongues Cease?

Paul offers a fascinating Greek construction in his famous chapter on the enduring character of love as contrasted with the temporary character of spiritual gifts (1 Co. 13:8). He says, But where there are prophecies, they will be abolished. Where there are tongues, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be abolished.

To fully appreciate what Paul is doing in this text, one needs to know something of Greek vocabulary and grammar. In the passage, Paul uses two verbs:

            καταργέω  (katargeo = “to destroy, to abolish, to set aside”)

            παύω (pauo  = “to stop, to cause to stop”)

For the gift of “prophecies”, Paul puts the verb in the 3rd person plural future indicative passive voice form:  katargethesontai = “they will be abolished”.

For the gift of “knowledge”, Paul puts the same verb in the 3rd person singular future indicative passive voice form:  katargethesetai = “it will be abolished”.

Both uses of the verb “to destroy” are identical except for the number (plural vs. singular). However, for the gift of tongues, Paul does something different, something that is not discernible from an English translation but is quite plain in Greek. Here, he puts the verb in the 3rd person plural future indicative middle voice and says that “tongues”: pausontai = “will cease [of themselves]”.

It is this change from passive voice to middle voice that is curious. Why does Paul do this? For English speakers, middle voice is virtually non-existent as a distinct form, but it is very much a distinct form in NT Greek, and in the future tense (which is the case here), it has a specific inflected spelling that is unmistakable (stem + sigma + future middle suffix ending). The middle voice verb in NT Greek expresses action performed by the subject in its own interest or of itself. For instance, when Judas hanged himself, Matthew uses a middle voice verb (this action he performed on himself, which is to say, no one hanged him, but he hanged himself). When Paul tells the Corinthians, “But you washed yourselves…” he uses a middle voice verb.

There are two basic interpretive options as to why Paul uses this distinct middle voice form with regard to the gift of tongues. One is that he intends that the gift of tongues will eventually die out of its own accord. Unlike the gifts of prophecies and knowledge, which ultimately will be abolished “when that which is perfect is come” (here, an oblique reference to the eschaton, 1 Co. 13:9-10), the gift of tongues will cease [of itself]. Hence, some exegetes offer translation possibilities, such as, “they shall make themselves cease” or “automatically cease of themselves” (A. T. Robertson and others). It is on this basis that some interpreters suggest that the lessening use of tongues in the post-apostolic church showed a gradual process of dying out.

The other interpretive option is that Paul varies his verbs for rhetorical reasons rather than didactic ones. Here, Paul simply uses the two different voices to provide linguistic variety. To say that he intends to teach that tongues will cease [of themselves], according to this view, puts too much weight on a brief statement without a larger context to support it (Gordon Fee and others).

In the end, a rather large gate turns on this tiny hinge of a single middle voice verb. Did Paul think that the gift of tongues was in any way time limited—that it would (or should) eventually die out in the future Christian church? Or is he simply varying his verb structure so as not to be unduly repetitive? That is the 64-dollar question. I suspect that most exegetes lean in the direction of their experience, Greek grammar notwithstanding.


  1. The summation comment "a rather large gate turns on this tiny hinge," appears to be most appropriate. If there is anything growing up around farms would teach, is too large a gate on too small a hinge never ends well. Certainly not something one would place too much weight upon regardless the direction the gate is being turned.

  2. Well-stated, Bryan! One must always distinguish between what the Bible clearly teaches, what the Bible leaves ambiguous and those areas in which the Bible is silent. We have no authority to "clarify" the Bible, and if the Holy Spirit chose to leave the language more ambiguous than we might like, we probably would do well to recognize the ambiguity and leave it as it is.

  3. Dan: I have always wondered how our Pentecostal brethren feel about Paul's prediction of the cessation of the charismatic gifts at the "end of the age. "

    They expend great energy - and I believe correctly so - arguing against the cessationist position that spiritual gifts ceased with the closing of the biblical canon. The cessationists argue that the New Testament is the "perfect" thing of which Paul speaks in I Corinthians 13. With the closing of the canon, they reason that which is "perfect" has come and thus the gifts have ceased - they no longer have any function - in the church.

    This is an absolutely weak argument that makes no sense in the context of I Corinthians 12-14. If you can find any reference to the closing of the canon in these chapters, you are a better man than me. You are clearly correct that the eschaton (the end of the age) is what Paul means by that which is "perfect" in this passage.

    Now while I agree with the Pentecostals against the cessationist argument, I cannot help but wonder what these charismatic Christians think about Paul's statements regarding the ending of the gifts at the close of the present age.

    Pentecostals often describe the ecstasy of their enthusiastic worship services - including tongue-speaking and other "excited" expressions of group worship - as a "little foretaste of heaven" in the here-and-now as if the central activity of the afterlife will consist of a never-ending Sunday night worship service filled with the reverie of their own particular brand of demonstrative group praise. In heaven, "it's all over but the shoutin'" the old saying states.

    But Paul is clear that the charismatic gifts - explicitly tongues, prophecy, and knowledge - will cease at the end of the present age. Have you ever heard any Pentecostal "theologizing" about this end-time cessation of tongue-speaking and other charismatic gifts?

  4. Joe, I'm in full agreement with you that the idea of the closing of the canon as "that which is perfect" is particularly weak. Paul's later language in vs. 12, where he speaks of "now" (arti) and "then" (pote), and particularly, the idea of being "known even as I am known" speaks of the eschatological end, not some canonical process in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

    To be fair, of course, most cessationists usually don't argue that all spiritual gifts ended in the Ante-Nicene Period, just the ones they love to dislike (viz., tongues, prophecies, healings, and so forth). Still, even here, their argumentation seems strained.

    The answer to your other question--how do Pentecostals regard Paul's prediction that the charismatic gifts will end when human history closes--is unclear. It's been such a long time since I had a serious conversation with a Pentecostal on such theological subjects that I confess I don't know how they might explain it. I can't remember in my yesteryears this subject coming up, though perhaps it did. In any case, the only substantial case for any spiritual gift ceasing prior to the end of the age is this middle voice verb regarding tongues, and I'm not sure I'd want to hang too much weight on such a small peg. If, as seems abundantly clear, that Paul's larger discussion was to tone down the Corinthians penchant for public tongues-speaking, one would have thought he'd have said a good deal more about the cessation of tongues if that is what he intended. It certainly would have fit with his argument well. Instead, he is content at the end to simply say, "Be eager to prophesy do not forbid to speak in tongues."

  5. Not sure if this will add much to the discussion as it has also been a while since I had such a discussion with them either. If I were to hazard a guess, and I am not sure if the subject has come up in their circles, I would not be surprised to find Pentecostals did not have a problem with the charismatic gifts ending at the close of human history. If you recall some of their eschatological views, they possibly might view the charismatic gifts as no longer necessary. At least in certain segments of the broader Pentecostal movement.