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

This post was originally published on February 8, 2010. 

Seems that the issue of canon is a major theme in the the blog-o-sphere with another discussion going on here, here, and here.

These discussions all focus on the question “how do we know which books belong in the canon”? There are two important points I want to make regarding the canon before looking at the process and how I can accept a fallible list of infallible books. First is that God determines the canon by inspiring the author of the books. Second is that man is left to discover which books are inspired and therefore part of the canon. The question then is did the Holy Spirit aid this process and to what degree can we infer infallibility of the discovery phase. I provided some difficulties regarding the infallibility of the list here and here.

So how did God determine which books/letters were inspired? He chose and enabled a prophet/apostle to speak and later write what He revealed. The history of the transmission of the OT and NT demonstrates that God speaks through prophets and apostles giving them a message that is clear, confirmable, and unmistakably from Him. These prophets/apostles in turn deliver this message – Thus says the LORD – verbally to others. These messages are often confirmed with near-term prophetic fulfillment and/or signs and wonders. Sometimes the prophets recorded their messages in writing (Isaiah 30:8; Jeremiah 36:2) and other times they did not (Elijah). These verbally transmitted messages could be tested and accepted or rejected by the original audience based on criteria set out by the LORD (Deut 18:15-21). Once the audience was able to confirm the prophet/apostle as authentic, the future writings could also be confirmed. This is the basic process that was used to discover the inspired texts and correctly add them to the canon.

We will look at this process using the letter First Corinthians. As we look at this letter as a case study it is helpful to keep in mind that the church was not founded on apostolic writings but the oral teaching of the apostles (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15). A casual reading of the book of Acts confirms this as does that fact that the church existed for over 10 years before any NT book was written and over 60 years before all the NT books were written.

Before the letter was ever written Paul first visited Corinth after leaving Athens. He remained in the city for 18 months. While he was there Paul taught and testified that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor 15:1-4; Acts 18:1-11). This would likely have been around 50-51 AD. The message Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians regarding Jesus was confirmed in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:1-5). This demonstration is described in more detail in a later letter as the signs and wonders consistent with being an apostle (2 Cor 12:12). This is an essential part of the process where the Holy Spirit is confirming the apostle and the message are from God. This should not be under-estimated as even Jesus was affirmed through signs and wonders (Acts 2:22; John 3:2).

Think about what this would have been like. You are a Gentile living in the 1st century in Greece and you are out at the market when you see the posting – a new philosopher is in town and will be talking tonight at an assembly hall – for free. You decide to check it out. When you get there the teacher, Paul gets up and opens up the OT to the Book of Isaiah and starts reading from the passage on the Suffering Servant. He then starts teaching that the Servant that Isaiah was talking about has already come in the person of Jesus who is the Messiah – God’s Anointed One – and He has suffered and died on a cross as the one true sacrifice for sins that is once and for all – and has been raised from the dead.

As he is talking your child leans over with an inquisitive looks and whispers – “Hey Dad, Dad… are we gonna stone this nut after class”. As class indeed winds up and the families start heading out of the hall – some sizing up the stones and rocks that are nearby, they are approached by a common sight… Bob the beggar. Bob is a regular outside the hall, a young man who can not walk, and for years waits for those coming out of class to take pity on him and give him some money or food.

As the teacher – Paul – comes out the main doors into the crowd he reaches out to Bob and heals him in the name of Jesus – the same One whom he had just finished teaching on. Bob immediately jumps up, thanks him and runs down the street in joy. The crowd stunned, drop their stones. Your child leans over with a look of awe and whispers – “Hey Dad, Dad… Did you see that? Hasn’t Bob been lame for the last several years after that big accident? How did he do that?”. The next week the hall is packed as many come to hear from this new teacher Paul.

That is the picture painted of Paul’s ministry in Corinth. In addition to his preaching and signs, Paul also claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8; Acts 1:21-22) and used his life style to confirm his message (2 Cor 1:12;Matt 7:15-16).

Before there were letters written to Corinth there was a visit to the city by a man named Paul. In Part II, we will examine how this visit leads to the writing and later acceptance of the epistle we call First Corinthians.

Reason Rally or Atheist Assembly?

Today on the National Mall in Washington DC, people will gather together at an event called the Reason Rally. What is the purpose of the gathering? According to the web site it is a “coming out of the closet” for secularists. Here is how the Washington Post is describing it:

Reason Rally will show that all the cool people are atheists now and that the days of consent by silence are over. It’s an appeal to millions of hidden atheists to come out of their closets and join the fun.

One of the speakers, is Richard Dawkins, who poses the question who is against reason?

How have we come to the point where reason needs a rally to defend it? To base your life on reason means to base it on evidence and logic. Evidence is the only way we know to discover what’s true about the real world. Logic is how we deduce the consequences that follow from evidence. Who could be against either?

Sadly, Dawkins concludes that anyone who is not a secularist is against reason, logic, and evidence. He lauds science and reason comparing the building of planes, rockets, Mars rovers, the ability to cure diseases,  and the fact that the Earth spins to other things “we know”. Things like the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and the fact that we all evolved from other species.

This is not something new, Dawkins is known for this famous (or is it infamous) quote:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

He, by his own count says 4x in the article that the “Reason Rally is not for you” if you have not outgrown the supernatural.

Tom Gilson over at Thinking Christian wrote the following:

The new atheists–participants in the contemporary anti-religion movement led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, among others–are working overtime to tell the world that reason favors atheism, and atheism alone.

In this article and in this blog entry, he demonstrates where Dawkins fails to apply the reason he is rallying for.

Unfortunately, the notion that anyone who is religious must be against reason is ridiculous. Questioning the conclusions of science in areas like evolution is not rejecting reason or hiding from evidence. It is however recognizing that some things are probable and can’t be known with absolute certainty.

One of my favorite bloggers and theologians, C. Michael Patton has written on the idea of our need for certainty in a provocative entry “Why I am not completely sure Christianity is true”:

We don’t want probability! People can poke holes in that. We want absolute certainty. We want to be indubitable!” Indubitability ultimately equates to infallible knowledge—knowledge that can’t be wrong.

The science of aerodynamics can be proven with absolute certainty. I happen to live near an airport and see the evidence flying overhead every day. As we look overhead at these engineering marvels it is easy to think that science can prove anything in a similar manner. If scientists can build that plane then they can prove things like evolution too. However, this is committing the fallacy of faulty generalization.

  • Science has proven flight is possible by building a plane.
  • Science proposes that all living things evolved.
  • Therefore all living things have evolved because science proves things.

Enns and other theologians have assumed this as a starting point as they grapple with the impacts to theology. But that depends on what we mean by “know” and “prove”. In evaluating Enns claims, I have written about the difference between science that deals with the present, like putting rockets on the moon, and science that deals with the past and events that are a singularity, like the beginning of the universe.

We must all wrestle with the evidences we have available to answer these types of questions regarding what it is true. That even includes our own belief in God as Creator and in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Belief or faith by definition requires trusting something that can’t be proven certain, but does not mean that we are forced to take a “blind leap” that throws reason to the wind.

Christianity is a rational faith based on the historic reality of God interacting with His creation by sending His Son into the world to conquer death and save sinners during the first century. Can we know this with absolute certainty? No.  But having examined the evidence I have come to the logical conclusion that it is probable that Christianity is true.

And, if the Reason Rally is a coming out party for atheists to assert how cool they are then,Dawkins is right it is not for me. But then this event is not really a rally for reason, it is just an assembly of atheists.

Enns on Experts, Evolution, and Evangelicals (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a series. Be sure to read part 1 and part 2.

I have been doing some reading regarding Peter Enns view of Adam. In the first two parts we examined three starting point for Enns.

  • If evolution is correct, than the Biblical narrative regarding creation and Adam/Eve is not.
  • Evangelicals wrongly assume that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins”
  • People who are not trained as scientists are not able to evaluate scientific arguments.

In this post we look at his approach to Adam, which goes something like this:

  • Paul understood Adam and Eve to be the first humans and the parents of all humans.
  • The theories (like evolution) that are offered based on the scientific and archaeological evidence contradict Paul’s view of Adam and human origins.
  • Scientific theories like evolution are right.
  • Therefore Paul’s view is wrong and/or we are reading him incorrectly.

This is a logical argument and it is not too hard to understand how Enns, who is not a trained scientist, arrives at his conclusion. One of his starting points is the inability of a non-scientist to “contest” scientific theories. Therefore he must accept them and figure out how to handle Paul’s view of Adam in light of evolution.

Adam: man or myth?

Over at BioLogos Enns  has a 6 part series on Paul’s Adam.  In the series he lists 9 factors that are important in considering how to interpret Paul’s treatment of Adam. Without getting into all the factors here, Enns acknowledges that the Bible and Paul treat Adam as a real historical person:

The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.

There is really little doubt that Paul understood Adam to be a real person, the first created human from whom all humans descended. And for many Christians, this settles the issue of whether there was a historical Adam.

Enns then agrees that Paul’s theology is the Grand Unifying Theory (GUT) of Scripture

This is breath-taking theology. In a few short verses, Paul is doing nothing less than bringing together the grand narrative of Scripture. The crucified and risen Messiah brings closure to the entire biblical drama. The Christ is the second, obedient, Adam (Romans 5), the firstfruits of the new humanity (1 Corinthians 15). In Christ, all of creation starts over.

and concludes:

This is the problem in a nutshell: Paul says something of vital and abiding theological importance that is anchored in an ancient view of human origins.

The cognitive dissonance is created when one accepts the theory of evolution. So Enns suggests that Paul’s view is wrong. How can this be? Paul, despite being an apostle with the gift of prophecy, was a first century Jew. He wrote from a scientific understanding that was accepted at the time in which he lived but is now known to be incorrect based on modern science.

Paul was an ancient man, not a modern one. Should we expect him, therefore, to share views of the world, of humanity, the cosmos, etc., common to his time? Or, does Paul’s inspired status mean that his view of physical reality transcends his time and place?

What we are really asking here is “What does ‘inspiration’ mean?” That is a huge question, but let’s remain focused on the Adam issue. The question is this: Does Paul’s status as an inspired author of Scripture mean that his views of human origins and the world as a whole are scientifically accurate (since, as the argument goes, a text inspired by God could not give false information)? Does his inspired status mean Paul cannot share the view of the “ancient science” of his first-century world?

These are some serious questions that invite discussion, beyond what can be done in this post. Paul certainly wrote to people using the language and culture in which he lived. The letters that he wrote were written primarily to address problems in various churches, encourage the faithful, and communicate theological truths. Paul was not writing a science or history textbook, but God (and therefore theology) interacts with both. Therefore it is possible to write a scientifically accurate view of human origins that was written primarily as a historical account of how God interacted with His creation.

I am not sure what Enns argues for in the book Evolution of Adam, but in the series he concludes (actually precludes since it was the first post) that Adam is a literary device that helps explain Israel’s origins.

… the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins. … The question in Genesis is whether “Adam” will be obedient to “the law” and stay in Eden, thus continuing this special relationship, or join the other “adam” outside in “exile.” This is the same question with Israel: after being “created” by God, will they obey and remain in the land, or disobey and be exiled?

After Enns lays out his general argument for a non-historical Adam, he reminds us that we all must weigh the two options 1) accept Paul’s view or 2) reject Paul’s view. That should open up the discussion for all who wish to engage. Right?

Any version of #1 above is, at the end of the day, or even the beginning for that matter, unrealistic and wrong.

In Enns view there is not room to discuss option #1. If you accept Paul’s view that Adam is a historical person you are wrong and the discussion appears closed. It is only open (for Enns) if you are working through some scenario in option #2.

[rejecting Paul’s view of Adam and origins ] is where the conversation begins for those wishing to maintain a biblical faith in a modern world. And whatever way forward is chosen, we must be clear on one thing: we have all left “Paul’s Adam.” We are all “creating Adam,” as it were, in an effort to reconcile Scripture and the modern understanding of human origins.

Enns raises many points on Genesis and Paul in the series. He seems to open a door to discussion but then slams it closed by rejecting out of hand the acceptance Paul’s view of Adam and origins. Why? The evidence can’t be ignored.

I speak as a biblical scholar, not a scientist. But ignoring evidence is not a reasonable option. And reconfiguring the evidence to support Paul’s assumptions of a 6000 year-old earth and two humans as parents of the entire human race is, quite simply, impossible.

are you a man or a mouse?

Francis Collins in his book Language of God explains some of the evidence for a common mammalian ancestor

The study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things. …

Even more compelling evidence for a common ancestor comes from the study of what are known as ancient repetitive elements (AREs). There arise from “jumping genes,” which are capable of coping and inserting themselves in various other locations in the genome, usually without any functional consequences. Mammalian genomes are littered with such AREs, with roughly 45 percent of the human genome made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.

When one aligns sections of the human and mouse genomes, anchored by the appearance of gene counterparts that occur in the same order, one can usually also identify AREs in approximately the same location in these two genomes.

Some of these may have been lost in one species or the other, but many of them remain in a position that is most consistent with their having arrived in the genome of a common mammalian ancestor, and having been carried along ever since. Of course some might argue that these are actually functional elements placed there by the Creator for a good reason, and our discounting them as “junk DNA” just betrays our current level of ignorance. And indeed, some small fraction of them may play important regulatory roles. But certain examples severly strain the credulity of that explanation. The process of transposition often damages the jumping gene. There are AREs throughout the human and mouse genomes that were truncated when they landed, removing any possibility of their functioning. In many instances, one can identify a decapitated and utterly defunct ARE in parallel positions in the human and the mouse genome. (The Language of God., 133-37)

He concludes:

Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable. This kind of recent genome data thus presents an overwhelming challenge to those who hold to the idea that all species were created ex nihilo”.

Interesting. The argument that the presence of “junk DNA” all but proves a common ancestor because God is not the author of confusing and misleading information. However I see incredible parallels to the argument Enns is making. According to Enns, Paul clearly wrote and taught that Adam is the first human and parent to all other humans but that interpretation must be rejected. Why? Because “junk DNA” proves Paul was wrong.

With apologies to Collins, I rewrote the last paragraph as a response to Enns argument:

Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed the poetic/mythical Adam in the Scriptures in such precise positions as genealogies and  major theological treatises to confuse and mislead us (as well as his apostles and prophets), the conclusion of a historical Adam is virtually inescapable. This kind of Biblical data thus presents an overwhelming challenge to those who hold to the idea that Adam is a literal device used to explain Israel’s origins.

one man’s junk is another man’s functioning genome

Enns wrote that for those willing to move to option #2

you have left Paul’s Adam and are now working with an Adam that is partially and even largely shaped by your own understanding and worldview. You are in an entirely different discussion.

Considering the fact that “junk DNA” is still undergoing research and revision among scientists and that our understanding of genetics is still in its relative infancy – the human genome was only mapped in 2003 – I think that Enns may be overstating the case regarding evolution. Jonathan Wells, who has a Ph.D in Molecular and Cell Biology Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, was interviewed in Salvo magazine (Aug 2011) about his latest book The Myth of Junk DNA. He suggested:

Actually, Collins no longer relies on “junk DNA.” In 2007 he announced in an interview for Wired magazine that he had “stopped using the term.” In 2010 he wrote that “discoveries of the past decade, little known to most of the public, have completely overturned much of what used to be taught in high school biology. If you thought the DNA molecule comprised thousands of genes but far more ‘junk DNA,’ think again” (The Language of Life, pp. 5–6).

Christians should not be afraid of science, however they should also not be afraid to challenge and explore the theories proposed by science. We should be good Bereans of both the theology and the science we are taught. Science is great for explaining how the world works now but we should be wary of accepting the latest scientific explanation for what happened in the past.  As for me, on this day I will settle for Paul’s Adam over the one I would create and shape based on my own understanding or the theories of “junk DNA”.