As I was writing this article, in another room Lovely Bride quizzed Youngest Daughter on her spelling words (including the word “duck”). Meanwhile Oldest Daughter studied at her desk and was just about to get up from her desk and walk to the room where the following dialogue would take place. Lovely Bride paused to ask me a question. The dialogue want like this (exactly):
Lovely Bride (to me): Spell “duck”
Me (looking up from my work, and answering loudly and with authority, because I was confident I knew the answer): d–u–c–k… DUCK.
Lovely Bride (chuckling): Would you like some oatmeal?
Me: That would be great, thank you!
Oldest Daughter (just entering the room): Daddy, why don’t you like oatmeal?
Me (puzzled): I never said that…
Oldest Daughter (puzzled): But do you like the way it tastes?
Me (still puzzled): Well, yeah…why?
Oldest Daughter (still puzzled): But I just heard you say oatmeal was YUCK.
This brief conversation (as I was writing on article on the importance of context) served as a timely reminder to me of the importance of context in any discussion. In this simple exchange my lovely daughter concluded the exact opposite of the truth because she was only privy to part of the context. Thankfully, she dug a little deeper to arrive at the correct answer. Of course, oatmeal and ducks are unimportant compared to God’s communication in Scripture, and unfortunately, we sometimes draw conclusions without digging deep enough in the context.
Question: In handling 1 Corinthians 13 you have suggested the conditional clauses including ean were hyperbolic, but in several instances the clause appears not to be hyperbolic: 1 Corinthians 9:16 (“if I preach the gospel” – which Paul did), 10:28 (meat sacrificed to idols was very plausible), 14:6 (“if I come to you speaking in tongues”), and 15:36 (“that which you sow does not come to life unless it dies” – plausible). How can you conclude that 13:1 (tongues of angels) is hyperbolic?
Answer: In doing exegesis, we understand that many conclusions are possible, but we have a responsibility to understand the distinction between possible and certain. Here’s what I mean: I can read Genesis 1:1 and assert the possibility that God also created life on other planets. I have to admit that the narrow context of Genesis 1:1 does not eliminate that possibility. But is Genesis 1:1 asserting that God created life on other planets? Of course not. While there is a possibility, there is no certainty, and so I cannot use that passage to teach that there is life on other planets. We must explore other contexts.
Here is another example: in classical dispensational theology, some tried to account for an old earth by inserting an indefinite timeframe (perhaps millions of years) between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Does the text itself allow for such a timeframe? It certainly doesn’t immediately and directly eliminate that possibility, but it also does not at all support that possibility as a certainty. So in order to have certainty on the issue of whether there is a time gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 we must explore other contexts. Consequently, even though there is a textual possibility in one immediate context, the introduction of other (related, of course) contexts helps us to move from possibility to certainty – either in favor of or in opposition to a particular conclusion. In other words, before we draw a conclusion regarding certainty in any passage, we must earn it exegetically. This is a vital principle in Biblical interpretation.
Regarding the question of life on other planets, passages like Psalm 19:1–4 help us to understand God’s purpose in creating things we can’t physically access, but doesn’t give us certainty one way or another about otherworldly life. I would suggest the Bible doesn’t directly answer that question (consequently, it would not surprise me or upset the Biblical worldview to discover life elsewhere, and even if I may not expect to find life elsewhere, the investigation is worthwhile). Regarding the question of the time gap in Genesis 1, there is a direct answer. In Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 all the events of Genesis 1 are described as taking place in six days. If we understand those six days in the plain sense, then we have certainty on the issue – that there is no time gap in Genesis 1.
The same principle is in play with the conditional clauses of 1 Corinthians 13 (as it is in every other passage of Scripture). 1 Corinthians 9:16 includes the conditional clause, “if I proclaim the Gospel” (ἐὰν γὰρ εὐαγγελίζωμαι). From this verse we understand it is a possibility that Paul preached the Gospel, but we cannot know it as a certainty. In order to have certainty one way or another, we must examine other contexts. From passages like Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 15:1–2, 2 Corinthians 11:7, and Galatians 1:11, we conclude with certainty that, yes, Paul preached the Gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 10:28 includes the clause, “But if anyone says to you” (δέ τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ). Can we know from 10:28 whether or not anyone said (“This is meat sacrificed to idols”) to them? No. There is nothing in the verse itself that gives us that information. So we examine other contexts in order to discover if we can have certainty or not. While in 1 Corinthians there are several references to things sacrificed to idols (e.g., 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, and 28), there is no definitive statement that such a statement had actually been made to the Corinthians. Of course it is very plausible that such a statement had been made, but we can only recognize it as plausible because of the prominence of the concept (of things sacrificed to idols) in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Hence, we may move from possibility to plausibility, but we must stop short of certainty in this instance – for to assert certainty we would have to go beyond what is written, and we cannot do that and at the same time claim to be exegetical in our method.
In 1 Corinthians 14:6 Paul says, “If I come to you speaking in tongues” (ἐὰν ἔλθω πρὸς ὑμᾶς γλώσσαις λαλῶν). From 14:6 we cannot conclude whether he did or did not speak in tongues at Corinth. In 14:18 he acknowledges that he did speak in tongues, but in 14:19 he adds that in the church (the assembly, ἐκκλησίᾳ) he would rather not. From this context it is not certain that Paul ever came to the Corinthian church speaking in tongues, but it would seem unlikely in light of his communicated preference (14:19). So the condition of 14:6 is possible, and even plausible, but is unlikely.
In 1 Corinthians 15:36 Paul uses the clause, (“That which you sow does not come to life…”) “…unless it dies” (ἐὰν μὴ ἀποθάνῃ). Does Paul write with the expectation that what is sown will die? We cannot know from 15:36, but in an earlier context, Paul argues that Christ was raised from the dead (15:20), and that all who are in Christ will also be made alive in the same way (15:22). Consequently, it is evident that in order for resurrection to occur, there must be death (15:42-46). Yet in asserting the general certainty of death preceding resurrection, Paul introduces an exceptional case of resurrection preceded by a putting off of the mortal, yet without death (15:51-56) – I identify this as a clear reference to the event we call the rapture. In any case, the conditional clause of 15:36 can be understood from near contexts as referring not only to something which is possible and plausible, but is, in fact, certain, with only one exceptional scenario (rapture).
In these conditional clauses we have examples of at least possible, plausible, unlikely, likely, and certain (both negative and positive). When we arrive at the conditional clause introducing 13:1, the same considerations are in view. The clause reads: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…” (Ἐὰν ταῖς γλώσσαις τῶν ἀνθρώπων λαλῶ καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων). Take special note that in the Greek the verb comes after “of the men” and before “and of the angels.” The clause could be translated: “If with the tongues of the men I speak and of the angels…” Word order matters here, and the separation of the two objects (the men, and the angels) by the verb could be significant.
There are two possibilities: (1) since Paul uses the verb only once in the clause, the implication could be that the tongues of men and angels were the same, (2) since Paul separates the two with the verb, they ought to be understood as distinct. From 13:1 we cannot be certain that either possibility is the correct understanding. Again, we have to rely on other contexts. Notably, 1 Corinthians 13:1 is the only reference in Scripture to tongues of angels. So we can make no certain statements regarding whether tongues of men and angels are distinct from each other or identical.
If the two are identical, then a practical question may be resolved: tongues of men, to that point, were identifiable human languages (e.g., Acts 2:8-11), and every tongue (or sound) had its distinct meaning (1 Cor 14:10-11). If tongues of men and angels are identical, then there can be no case made that tongues of angels had no discernible meaning. – angels would have simply spoken in human languages or vice versa. However, if the two are different (as I take them to be), then the use of the two objects separated by the verb could indicate that the phrase “and of the angels” (καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων) is a hyperbolic tack-on. We already know that Paul spoke in tongues (even though he didn’t announce that fact until 14:18), but there is no other Biblical context upon which we may rely that indicates any data whatsoever about tongues of angels. Absent of such data, we cannot conclude it certain, likely, or even plausible that such a condition (people speaking with tongues of angels) existed. Instead, we can only see it as possible, and then only if the conditional clause itself doesn’t preclude the possibility.
It is also notable that Paul adds, “…but do not have love” (ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω) to the condition The hypothetical issue is not merely the speaking in certain kinds of tongues, but the speaking in those kinds of tongues without love. It is an if/then proposition. If there is speaking without love, then there is only a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. So the question is not whether Paul spoke in tongues, but whether Paul spoke in tongues without love. Was that possible? Certainly. Was it plausible? We have no exegetical data to support whether or not Paul ever did such a thing,
Consequently, Paul is not presenting the clause (the speaking without love) as something he had done, but rather as a hypothetical for the Corinthians to consider. The additional phrase “and of angels” would elevate the hypothetical to a superlative degree – much like Paul’s conditional reference in Galatians 1:8 to an angel from heaven preaching a contrary gospel, Is it possible that an angel from heaven did or would do such a thing? From Galatians 1:8 we cannot rule it out, but to assert it as plausible, likely, or certain would require exegetical evidence (of an angel preaching falsely to the Galatians) – evidence we don’t have. Paul’s purpose is not to warn the Galatians against angels who would come to them bearing false gospels, but to warn them of the authority of the true gospel – that even superlative falsehoods are not worthy to offset the truth of the gospel the Galatians had received.
In like manner, the introduction to 1 Corinthians 13 is hypothetical, with the phrase “and of angels” extending the hypothetical to the superlative degree. The primary application for the Corinthians was that no matter how superlative their gifting, it was worthless without love. The grammatical structure supports this. The data in the context and the absence of data in other contexts supports this, and other instances of Pauline hypothetical and hyperbole supports this. To assert to the contrary that Paul is suggesting believers can speak with the tongues of angels, and to extrapolate that assertion into a doctrine of tongues which includes tongues of angels as prayer languages and for other purposes, is to engage in the same eisegetical fallacy committed by those asserting the gap theory: one can make the argument from a singular isolated; in the light of such limited context the theory is possible, but to ignore related contexts and still maintain the idea as plausible, likely, or certain, we go far beyond what is written in trying to defend a theological point. And after all what is more important – our theological viewpoints or God’s communication in Scripture? Hopefully we will conform those viewpoints to God’s word.