1 Corinthians 13:9-10 says, “For we know in part and we prophecy in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.”
Probably the most common interpretation of this scripture (specifically the ‘perfect’) is that Paul was looking forward to the time when the full revelation of God would be available (i.e. the Bible). This is specifically referring to the point at which each of the New Testament books had not only been written, but were also circulated to such an extent that each local church had access. This ought not to be confused with the closing of the canon. In fact, there is no recorded evidence that such an event ever took place.
There’s some fairly strong evidence supporting this interpretation. First, because ‘in part’ is contrasted with ‘the perfect’ and that the end or completion of what is ‘in part’ is so closely tied to the coming of ‘the perfect’, that it should be inferred that ‘the perfect’ is the completion of ’in part’. In other words, when “the partial” reaches its ending, it will give way to “the complete;” and since “the partial” is certainly referring to spiritual gifts, it is a natural connection to interpret “the complete” as the completed revelation of God. For when the Church has access to the full and complete revelation of God, there is no longer a need for spiritual gifts (i.e. prophecy, tongues and knowledge).
The second piece of evidence is that there appears to be a strong connection between the content of verses eight through ten. Verse eight states that where there is prophecy, tongues and knowledge, they will each come to an end. Verse nine follows that, not only will those be done away; both knowledge and prophecy are only done so in part. Meaning, they lack fullness or completeness. Verse ten then serves as a concluding or summarizing verse by stating that when the complete (in contrast to that which was defined as being partial in verse nine) arrives the partial will cease to exist. The partial is certainly referring to the gifts of the spirit. The question to answer then is what would complete or fulfill those gifts—that which makes them unnecessary: the complete revelation of God. Whenever that time would arrive each of the gifts would be unnecessary. For example, once God has fully revealed his written will, then prophecy would no longer be required. There would be no need for someone to proclaim God’s will if it was available in written form. The same example would hold true for knowledge and tongues.
This having been said, this view has some problems. Specifically, it is hardly realistic to assume that Paul was referring to this view when he wrote to the Corinthians. Simply put, this is an anachronism. Paul was living within and writing the revelation of God. In other words, his writing and life was a part of its creation. Logic simply does not allow the conclusion that Paul was living within and was able to see it from without. Similarly, it is just as unlikely to expect the Corinthians in the middle of the first century AD to make this connection when reading Paul’s letter; much less to have the foresight to know that this event (the perfect) would take place approximately 100 years later. There is one final challenge to this interpretation. No one substantively argued for this interpretation until the 19th century (in Britain). It seems odd that if it were the case that it never came up in any of the Patristic literature.
If this isn’t the correct interpretation, then what is? Well, it’s difficult to interpret any part of the Bible without first understanding the context of the passage. Here’s a few thoughts on the context of this passage. Beginning with the first verse of chapter twelve (and continuing through chapter fourteen), Paul has given his undivided attention to addressing a specific issue involving the use of spiritual gifts within the Christian community in Corinth. The problem at hand is most likely abuses by certain members of their assembly as it relates to their spiritual gifts. It is likely that Paul was directing his teaching and admonishment towards those with the gift of prophecy and tongues. Given the previous words by Paul, there is precedent to assume that some of the Corinthians had become arrogant and begun demonstrating a sense of superiority because of their special abilities derived from their particular gifts; and their pursuit of knowledge.
It is within this discussion that 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 is placed. Paul’s principal purpose with this text is to demonstrate (to the Corinthians) just how futile and insignificant their spiritual gifts are when they are not used and accompanied by love. It is clear that they failed to grasp not only the purpose of their spiritual gifts, but what ought to motivate them to exercise them. This pericope specifically addresses the temporal superiority of love, that is, the permanence of love. This having been said, it appears that when Paul referred to ‘the complete’ or ‘perfect’, he was in fact referring to love. Though he does not agree with this conclusion, Gordon Fee explains this idea well when he wrote that the “Corinthian desire for gifts reflects their immaturity; when they have come to the fullness of love they will put away such childish desires.” The purpose of this passage (13:8-13) is to demonstrate and explain the eternal nature of love; which is most aptly demonstrated by the first “Love never fails”, and last “the greatest of these is love” statements.
There are four specific evidences that demonstrate the validity of this interpretation. First, it fits well with the two illustrations that Paul offers in verses eleven and twelve. Second, it fits within the flow of the text. Third, there is textual evidence from Pauline sources in which agape is equated with ‘the perfect’. And finally, it provides the best understanding of the passage without stepping outside of Paul’s discussion.