Canonization: a case study in First Corinthians (Part II)

This post was originally published on February 12, 2010. 

In our last post we looked at Paul’s visit in Corinth that preceded his letters to the church that he founded in that city around 50/51 AD. Paul came as an apostle/prophet to share the good news, but before he was accepted he had to pass the TEST.

  • Testifying about Jesus.
  • Eyewitness to the risen Christ.
  • Signs and wonders confirmed his testimony.
  • Traits of Christ characterized his life.

But what does that have to do with the canon? That is what we will explore in this post.

Eventually Paul had to leave Corinth. After recharging in Antioch, Paul kept his promise (Acts 18:21) and returned to Ephesus where he would minister for 3 years (Acts 20:31) while performing many miracles (Acts 19:11) based on the account of Acts. From this city he would eventually write the epistle we know as First Corinthians around 54 AD (1 Cor 16:8). This letter was in response to divisions, sin in the church, and a letter with questions that was sent to him by that church (1 Cor 7:1).

Step back for a moment and imagine living in the 1st century in Corinth around 54 AD. You have recently placed your trust in Jesus based on the teachings of an apostle named Paul who came to your city just a few years ago. His message coupled with the signs he performed and the character he demonstrated while living in your city helped establish the body of believers that make up the church you attend.

Now the young church is struggling with various issues. In addition more teachers seem to be coming and going though your town. These teachers bring new ideas about Jesus but their message does not quite line up with the teachings of the apostle Paul and they are incapable of supporting their message with the dramatic signs and wonders either. However some of their teachings are still creeping into the church. The elders of the church decide to write a letter to Paul and ask him to clarify some doctrinal issues.

After some amount of time the courier arrives back in town. He is a known companion of the apostle Paul and he brings some news on how the missionary work is proceeding in Ephesus and gives the elders a letter. When you meet for church on Sunday the letter is read to the church body. Is it authentic?

Paul wrote to the Corinthians who would have had to accept the letter as authentic or reject it as a fraud. Could a fraudulent letter written just a few years after Paul’s visit have been accepted if the claims in the letter were false? The intended audience could easily verify that Paul had been there (1 Cor 2:1-2), claimed to see Jesus risen (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8), and performed signs and wonders (1 Cor 2:4-5). Paul encouraged other churches to be on the lookout for false letters (1 Thess 5:21; 2 Thess 2:2), would he not have warned the Corinthians to do the same thing. He even gave them the test – compare the new teaching with what he taught when he was there in person (2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6-8). The recipients of the letter would be able to verify whether the contents of the letter contradicted the teachings of Paul that were given while he was there in person. Paul even signed the letter knowing that they would recognize his handwriting (1 Cor 16:21). If any of these claims were false the letter would have been rejected not kept, studied, and circulated.

But the evidence shows that this letter, like many others was circulated (Col 4:16). This circulation process would have been slow going in the first century. Starting with Corinth then likely Athens and on to other Greek cities. Then further north into Macedonia. By 90 AD we know it made its way to Rome where Clement demonstrates that he has a copy of the letter using it to deal with another set of problems in Corinth.

Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.

Here Clement writing to the Corinthian church uses Paul’s letter to back up his appeal to restore deposed elders. At this time many people would still be alive that could verify Paul’s visit as well as the acceptance of the original letter. Clearly Clement was aware of this and was relying on this fact. He makes an appeal to the church based on their acceptance of the letter. His appeal would make no sense if the church had rejected the letter.

By 180 AD (likely much earlier, especially if Paul left a copy in Ephesus when he wrote it) the letter was circulating and accepted in Asia Minor. Irenaues certainly knew of the letter as well as Clement’s use of it.

Ad Haer Book III Chapter 3

[Clement], as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels.

Irenaues started this book describing the end of the apostolic era with the death of the apostles and the focus on the writings they left behind.

Ad Haer Book III Chapter 1

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.

This quotation from Irenaues preserves the understanding of the early church regarding the process of transmitting the gospel and God’s revelation to us – first by the public teaching of the apostles and now through their writings, which are the Scriptures.

By 180-200 the Pauline letters are known to have been collected and circulated all the way to Egypt based on the finding of the papyri known as P46 in Cairo. In addition the earliest known list of the NT – the Muratorian Fragment dated around 170 AD – also contains the Corinthian letters.

This process of circulation and acceptance in the churches for the letter to the Corinthians was true for all the writings/letters of the NT as well as other writings some solid but uninspired and others that were false. The Holy Spirit having confirmed His messengers to the church and inspired their writings would rely on the local churches to confirm these writings that were later sent to them. Augustine affirms that it was the testimony of these local churches that was used to discover the authentic and inspired books. It is this research that was affirmed at the local synods of Hippo and Carthage in the 4th century.

On Christian Doctrine Book II Chapter 8

…Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of [universal] churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the [universal] churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.

The process of collecting the writings of the apostles was not without debate. It was fallible man that researched how the Holy Spirit worked through the churches and whether the writings were accepted to resolve debate over the NT canon. We have to trust the fallible work of the church in collecting these works into a single canon.

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