Monday, January 19, 2015

3 Corinthians

What if a lost letter written by the apostle Paul had been newly discovered? For example, in 1 Cor. 5:9, Paul makes reference to another letter that he had previously written. We’ll call it 3 Corinthians. In the unlikely event that this letter were discovered today and determined to be truly authentic, what should Christians say about it? Is the letter divinely inspired? Should it be viewed as canonical?

Granted, these are only hypothetical questions, but hypothetical questions allow us to think carefully about how our systems work. In responding to a question like this one, if I answer affirmatively while someone else answers negatively, then it shows that our doctrine of Scripture is in some way different. And then we can work to find out what exactly those differences are. Hypothetical questions are useful in that way.

I’m also aware that some people don’t believe 1 Cor. 5:9 is referring to a separate letter that was lost, but that’s beside the point. This is a hypothetical enquiry. Work with me.

Personally, I’ve never quite understood why evangelicals, in my experience, typically argue that a newly-discovered lost letter of Paul should not be viewed as canonical. For starters, consider what Peter says about Paul’s writings: “Just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters” (2 Pet. 3:16). This verse is often cited as supporting the apostle Paul’s divine inspiration – and it’s an inspiration that’s present in all his letters. So why would this not include 3 Corinthians?

Some get hung up on the idea that God would allow his word to be hidden for such a long period of time. Why would God do that? Beats me, but at the same time, it’s not like this would be entirely unprecedented. In the Old Testament, God allowed the Book of the Law to be lost and forgotten for a significant amount of time (2 Kings 22). And when Josiah discovered it, he didn’t respond by saying, “Well, surely this can’t be authoritative, because God would never have allowed his word to be hidden for so long.” Instead, he responded by submitting himself to it.

Last week, I read a short article from Baptist Press by a guy named Rob Phillips. Citing Craig Blomberg, Phillips outlines three major criteria for canonicity: apostolicity, catholicity (i.e. universality), and orthodoxy. He argues that while 3 Corinthians could pass the tests of apostolicity and orthodoxy, it would fail the test of catholicity, since the letter was apparently not widely circulated among Christians.

And that’s a pretty fair point, but at the same time, I’m inclined to ask who in the patristic period ever said that catholicity was a standard for canonicity, and why did they say that? Whence came the assumption that a writing must be widely circulated before it’s to be considered divinely inspired? What’s the logic there? Paul’s letters were divinely inspired because of the God-given apostolic wisdom in which they were written, not because of how many Christians had read them. They were inspired as soon as they were penned and before they ever traveled a mile.

I’m using the categories of canonicity and inspiration interchangeably here, but Michael Kruger distinguishes these, at least with respect to the apostolic period:
“. . . it seems best to refer to these lost apostolic writings as ‘inspired books’ or perhaps even as ‘Scripture.’ In regard to the latter term, this would be the one instance, contra Sundberg, where there is a legitimate distinction between Scripture and canon. But this distinction is only applicable to the narrow foundational and redemptive-historical period of the apostles . . .” (Canon Revisited, p. 96).
But if Kruger affirms that the lost letters were “inspired books,” then I wonder what he would say about the canonical status of these letters in the event that they were newly discovered. Are they still inspired, or were they only inspired for a limited time? And if they’re still inspired – God-breathed – then why should they not be considered canonical?

A brief concluding thought: If apostolicity is an important criteria for canonicity, then it’s ironic that evangelicals would, on the one hand, reject the canonicity of a letter that was written by an apostle (our hypothetical 3 Corinthians), while at the same time accepting the canonicity of a letter that they profess to have no idea who wrote (Hebrews). To be clear, I do believe apostolicity is critical, and I do believe Hebrews is inspired. But I also believe that Hebrews was first recognized as inspired largely because it was held to have been written by Paul, which is a historic view that I’m happy to go along with.

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