Love that Surpasses Knowledge

December 09, 2016

by Scott Oliphint

There is a fascinating passage in the first letter to the Corinthians that is often overshadowed by its context. First Corinthians 13 is famously known as “the love chapter.” It is indeed an exposition of the biblical view of love; that is the main point of the chapter. It is important to recognize, however, the reason why such an exposition was needed.

The Corinthians wrote a letter to the apostle Paul. In that letter, they asked him a number of questions. Paul set out to answer their questions, beginning in chapter 7. Notice: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Cor 7:1). As Paul moves through the questions in their letter to him, he typically begins by addressing them in the same way: “Now concerning . . .” (see 1 Cor 7:25; 8:1; 12:1). Beginning in chapter 12, he addresses their questions about spiritual gifts.

It is not clear exactly what the Corinthians had asked Paul about spiritual gifts. What is clear is that Paul knew the Corinthians were taking the good gifts that the Lord had established in and given to the church and were making those gifts the focus of dissension and pride.  Those who had the “greatest” gifts thought themselves to be in no need of those who had “lesser” gifts.

It is in this context of the Corinthians’ questions about spiritual gifts that Paul pens “the love chapter.” The point of that chapter is, ultimately, to show the supremacy of the gift of love: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). If it is a ranking of gifts that is important to the Corinthians, then Paul’s instruction is that love must be seen to be the greatest gift, even over the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and teaching. Surely, no matter what other gifts people in the Church might have, the gift of love is the great equalizer. All in the Church are meant to have it and to exercise it toward each other (cf. Matt 22:36–40).

Dim Mirror Theology 

One of the ways that Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 13 is to remind his readers of the temporary character of so much that is now integral and necessary for our Christian walk. It will be helpful to have the passage in front of us as we consider it in light of our discussions of mystery:

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When 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. For 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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:8–13)

Paul invokes two analogies to explain the supremacy of love as our greatest spiritual gift. The first is the analogy of childhood to adulthood; the second is the analogy of a reflection in a mirror to its reality.

The two analogies are not identical in their scope but are meant to provide two important, distinct but related, truths concerning the relationship of this life to the next. The first analogy teaches us that this life is analogous to childhood. Children speak differently than adults; their thinking is partial, even while it grows. The first analogy shows us that this life, especially our Christian life, is a process of growth and of moving forward to adulthood and to completion in glory.

This life is a process of growth and of moving forward to adulthood and to completion in glory.

The second analogy tells us more about that “childhood to adulthood” stage, in which we all reside this side of heaven. To “speak like a child” and to “think like a child” means, says Paul, that, for now “we see in a mirror dimly.” The term Paul uses here, translated “dimly,” is the Greek word ainigma, from which we get the English word “enigma.” An enigma is something mysterious or puzzling. Paul’s point is that, in this life, what we see with the eyes of faith we see “enigmatically.” We do see, but our mode of seeing is as through a mirror. It is not the fullness of the actual thing that we see, but a reflection of the actual, and that reflection remains an enigma to us. Charles Hodge, in his commentary on the word “dimly,” puts it this way:

The idea may be that we see divine things as it were wrapped up in enigmas. We do not see the things themselves, but those things as set forth in symbols and words which imperfectly express them. (An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 274)

It is important at this stage to recognize what Paul is not saying in these analogies. It might be tempting to conclude that the truth that we now have from the Lord, as it is given in His Word, is therefore imperfect and insufficient to reveal what it purports to reveal. But this is no part of Paul’s teaching here.

Paul’s analogy of childhood to adulthood, for example, is meant to communicate the process of true speaking and true knowledge, not a contrast of false knowledge and true knowledge. So also, a mirror adequately reflects, even if “dimly,” the reality of which it is a reflection. A mirror does the job it is meant to do. But the image in a mirror, even when adequate, is an indirect reflection of reality. Paul’s point here is not that childhood and mirrors are distortions or denials of the way things are, or of our knowledge of them. His main point is that there is more, much more, to come.

We can see that the way Paul brings up these analogies explains their use. He uses the analogies of “childhood/adulthood” and “mirror images/face to face” in order to illustrate what he means when he further says, “But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” The word “perfect” (teleion) here is not referring to a moral quality. It refers to “completion” or “fullness.” So, adulthood is analogous to the “perfect” and childhood is compared to the “partial.” “Face to face” provides the completion of reality, whereas a mirror image is only partial. In both cases, however, there is continuity, and not discontinuity, between the “partial” and the “perfect.” Childhood leads to adulthood; a mirror image points to the reality it reflects.

Mysterious Knowledge 

The love that will remain in and for us, as faith and hope no longer remain, is a direct consequence of God’s eternal love for us.

The point of our discussion of this passage thus far, in relation to our overall discussion of mystery, is found in what Paul says at the end of verse 12: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” This verse can sound confusing if taken on its own and out of context. On its own, it might be thought that Scripture is telling us that there will be a point at which we will know everything; we will know “fully.” There will be no more mystery, as we will know all that there is to know. As a matter of fact, this is not Paul’s point. Now that we have looked at the context, what Scripture says here will be more obvious to us. Paul is explaining the fact that, as history advances toward its final goal, the Church is in process. That process includes good and necessary gifts, gifts that the Church is given for encouragement and for spiritual growth in this life. But, as with childhood, some of those gifts are only for a time; they are partial and will not be needed when time is no more and when the perfect comes. The gifts are given because the full reality is not yet present to us; they are given to those who must see that reality in a mirror dimly in this life.

So, to paraphrase our passage, it is not as though we don’t know at all. Rather, it is that we know, but in part. It is not as if we are unable to see; we do see, but we see as in a mirror. We see “enigmatically.” But, there will come a day when we will no longer see in a mirror dimly; we will no longer walk by faith. The faith that is necessary for us now in this life will give way to sight then, in the new heaven and new earth. The enigmatic images that we see now will give way to our face-to-face knowledge of Jesus Christ. The love that will remain in and for us, as faith and hope no longer remain, is a direct consequence of God’s eternal love for us.

Isn’t this why love is the greatest gift? Isn’t this why it is love that remains in us when faith and hope are no longer needed? Knowing “fully,” as Paul puts it, means knowing according to the culmination of the love of God, which is demonstrated on that final day, when we will walk, for eternity, by sight.

This post was adapted from K. Scott Oliphint, The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 194–199. Used with permission of the publisher.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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