The Church and Her New Testament — a Sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:5-4:6

“The Church and Her New Testament”

Reformation Day, 2013. Calvary OPC, Harrisville

According to Melanchthon, one of Luther’s close followers, often considered his successor, Luther “wrote theses on indulgences and posted them on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517.” This event is often considered the start of the Protestant Reformation.

We are just 4 years away from the 500th anniversary of that blessed event. Most of us who have studied both the history of the Reformation and the Bible itself, give thanks for both and wholeheartedly embrace the return to the Bible that Luther, Calvin and others – by God’s grace – brought about.

Nevertheless, in recent years there have been a number of cases where Protestants reverted to the Roman church. Among famous men one might mention G.K. Chesterton and Richard Neuhaus. Closer to home Scott Hahn who served a W.Pa. congregation ministering to its youth, converted to RC and took with him several youths from OP churches in the area. He published a book about his conversion that has been influential across the USA in leading many others back to Rome.   A bit later there was a graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who was under care of our presbytery, who left the OPC and converted to Catholicism.

Speaking personally, I should mention a room-mate of mine in college named, Bob. He was a fellow member of the First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, NY – which is now a PCA church. For a while, both of us pursued the ministry, and both of us attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Phila. Later, Bob converted to the RCC.

While he was at WTS, Bob pursued what he considered was a crucial question in the historical dispute between Rome and the Reformation. Although perhaps oversimplifying just a bit, we might frame that issue by means of this question: Did the church create its New Testament, or did the New Testament create the church?

Another approach to essentially the same question would be this: Why do we accept our NT as the infallible Word of God? The answer Rome gives is this: “because in church history, the church determined that the books that now make up our NT belong there.” In other words, according to Rome, as a matter of church history, the church was responsible for the makeup of the NT as we have it today. By the church, Rome means not the church led by the Apostles in the 1st century, but the church during the 2nd through 4th centuries.

The RCC view is that by the end of the period of the Apostles, that is, roughly by the end of the 1st century, the various churches of the Roman Empire owned, respected, and utilized a variety of documents purporting to be from the Apostles, or their recognized coworkers such as Luke and Mark. In the second century, especially with the rise of some books that were clearly late and heretical, it became necessary for the church to judge which writings it deemed to be the Word of God, versus those which it did not. During that period from the 2nd to the 4th centuries, the church fathers record a series of debates about the suitability of certain disputed books. Church councils ultimately rejected some of those disputed, but accepted others.

It certainly appeared to Bob that it was the church that had determined the NT. To have an infallible NT, therefore, the church, too, would have to have been infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit – not simply the Apostolic church, but the church of the 2,3,4th centuries. If such infallibility for the church must have existed then, then why not today? It is a small step from there to the present day doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope when he is said to speak, “ex cathedra,” i.e. from ‘his (purported) throne’ as ruler over the church.

On the other hand is the Protestant position; its answer to the question as to, Why do we accept our NT, such as it is, as the infallible Word of God?, is perhaps best expressed by the Westminster Confession’s chapter 1, paragraphs 2 and 4: Immediately after listing the books of our NT, the confession says this about those books: “All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.”

They are canonical; those books and none others are in our Bible, because God inspired them. The confession continues in paragraph 4 do deny the RCC view that the church’s determination is the basis for the authority of our canon OT or NT: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it as the Word of God.”

So why do we accept our NT? The OPC, with the churches of the Reformation replies: not because of the church’s decision, but solely “because it is the Word of God.” God himself is not only the author of the Scriptures, but it is He who is responsible for the NT as we have it today. The makeup of the NT does not depend upon “the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God.”

My college roommate, Bob, and too many others like him, have been unwilling or unable to accept our position, countering instead that church history shows our NT in fact to have been dependent not merely upon Apostolic authorship, but also upon the determination of the councils of the later church.

Today [=2013], as we stand just four years shy of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we examine a heretofore poorly understood verse that virtually proves the RCC view to be contrary to the NT itself.

Today the focus of our attention will be on the last verse of our passage, 1 Corinthians 4:6. Previously, we read from the New American Standard Bible. Sadly, it is a poor translation of this key verse. You should have a copy of several other translations of this verse. Please look at that page.

Let me read the translation near the bottom of the handout, the translation I prepared.

 Lauer’s Translation

Brothers, I have figuratively applied these things to myself and Apollos for you, in order that in us you may learn [to keep] the [rule], “Nothing beyond what stands written,” in order that none of you be puffed up for one against the other.

We will not spend time on the details of this corrected translation. Suffice it to say that the spurious infinitive [fronein = ‘to think’] reflected in the KJV’s translation led the church from the fourth through the 18th centuries to fail to recognize that Paul is here quoting a saying. Toward the end of the 19th century Bible students began to realize the mistake in the most common NT text and slowly began to realize that Paul here quotes some sort of saying.

The newer translations such as those near the bottom of the handout, have incorporated this realization into their translations, but none of the older ones, including the ESV which is generally the same as the much older RSV, recognize this newly rediscovered fact.

The saying was in fact a rule that Paul had previously taught the Corinthians and to which he now wants to persuade them to adhere. Why? Let’s look more closely at this verse itself, and think about it in the light of the situation Paul faced at Corinth. First, let us consider the background.

You may recall the in the 1st chapter Paul had rebuked the Corinthians for factions that had arisen in the church, factions that disturbed the unity of the church. In 1:10-12 Paul writes,

 10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.

11 For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you.

12 Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.”

These factions each advanced its own message, its own purported wisdom, and did so in the name of a famous early church leader, such as Peter, Paul or Apollos, or perhaps even Christ Himself.

Paul knew the claim was false, and so rebuked them all. Further, Paul could see that these factions were threatening the heart of the church itself, its commitment to a right understanding of the cross of Christ Himself. For in 1:17 Paul goes on to write, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”

The various man-made forms of wisdom being promoted by these factions actually threatened to “make void the cross of Christ,” that is Christ and Him crucified, as Peter, Paul and Apollos all preached.

After contrasting God’s wisdom, the Gospel, Christ and Him crucified, with all such man-made wisdom, in chapter 2 of this letter, Paul returns to the heart of his concern: the integrity of the Gospel foundation as it had been laid by himself and Apollos during the first several years of the church at Corinth.

Beginning in 1 Cor 3:5, Paul creates a metaphor from farming in order to describe the initial church planting that Apollos and he had done, “I planted; Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” This metaphor paints a picture of both of these men as responsible for the foundation of the church at Corinth – to grow, a seed must both be planted and watered.

In v 9, Paul finishes the parable about the church as God’s farm field, and shifts to one about the church as God’s temple building project. Look again at v 9: “We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Beginning here in v 9, Paul shifts the metaphor to construction of God’s building. Or, as he explains later in vv 16-17, to construction of God’s temple. They, the church are God’s house, his temple.

The future of the Corinthian church was seriously in jeopardy, so Paul warns in vv 16-17:

 16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

 But how was it in jeopardy? What precisely was the peril? Whom does Paul fear might destroy God’s temple, the church, and how? The answer must be sought back in vv 10-11:

10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.

11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

 Here Paul warns those building after himself and Apollos, that is, the current ministers of the church at Corinth. He cautions them to minister – in terms of the metaphor to build – carefully. Why? Verse 11 answers why: “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

The human wisdom being promoted by the leaders of the factions in the name of Paul, Apollos and the others were threatening the very gospel foundation which Paul and Apollos had laid. Should they succeed in supplanting the foundation with something which is no foundation at all, they would destroy the church, the very temple of God.

Again, in vv 16-17, Paul warns them sharply of the grave consequences if that should happen:

16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

 With this understanding of the circumstances, that is, the danger then present in the church in Corinth, we return to the focus of our attention, to the translation of 4:6 I have offered:

Lauer’s Translation

Brothers, I have figuratively applied these things to myself and Apollos for you, in order that in us you may learn [to keep] the [rule], “Nothing beyond what stands written,” in order that none of you be puffed up for one against the other.

Here in the first part of the verse Paul tells us what he has just done in the two metaphors of chapter 3, and he tells us why he did so.

When he writes, “I have figuratively applied these things to myself and Apollos for you,” he is describing the two metaphors. He has figuratively applied “these things”, i.e. things from agriculture and things from building construction, to himself and Apollos.

He then explains why he did so. That is, he then tells us what was his goal in crafting the two metaphors:  The goal of the two metaphors is certainly to protect the gospel foundation of the church from dangerous teachers, but here he explains just how that is to happen; he reminds them of the prophylactic he had previously prescribed against that pernicious malady.

In short, the successors of Paul and Apollos to the Corinthian pulpit must learn to obey, to keep the rule of which he then reminds them: “Nothing beyond what stands written.” This is a rule Paul had imposed upon those to whom he had entrusted the ministry at Corinth as he departed about 4 years earlier.

When Paul as an Apostle preached the Gospel, he did so from memory, what he, like the other apostles, had learned from the Lord Himself. As Apostles, they had been authorized, official spokesmen for the Lord. According to John 14-16, they were promised special anointing by the Holy Spirit so as to accurately recall all that the Lord Himself had taught.

However, the Apostles did not allow others to likewise preach Christ from memory, that is, from what they had learned by oral tradition. Thus, very early in the life of the Apostolic churches, the Apostle Matthew had prepared a document, one which was recognized by the other Apostles as accurate, as reliable. Although the Apostles each preached the gospel from memory and thus established churches built upon the true foundation, they did not leave those churches to be nurtured by non-apostolic teachers relying on memory and oral tradition. Rather, from the very earliest days of the church, they charged their successors with the saying, the rule that Paul had likewise imposed at Corinth: “Nothing beyond what stands written.” That is to say, “as you teach and preach, you must rely solely upon the recognized Gospel for the content of your message about Christ, and him crucified.”

At Corinth, the leadership of that church had abandoned that rule. It had begun to rely rather on oral traditions ostensibly derived from the Apostles. Paul knew that such traditions were in fact unreliable. As we see going into chapters 5 and 6, those delinquent teachers were wreaking havoc in the church, endangering its very existence as Christ’s church.

That Gospel writing which Paul had imposed upon the Corinthian teachers was already the NT of the church at that time. To be sure, more would come over time, just as the prophets and other writings had been added to the OT to supplement the Law of Moses, given at the start.

Nevertheless, the church had a canon, a NT, from its very earliest days. It was created and imposed on the church not by fallible later ministers and elders, but by the Lord through his own directly empowered apostles. The canon of the NT of the early church was indeed determined by Christ, through the ministry of his Spirit at work as promised in his authorized Apostles.

Rome is grievously wrong in its pretentious claim that the post-apostolic church is responsible for the NT. She is mistaken in her assertion that we accept the NT canon on the basis of the testimony of the later church. The church is the product of the Bible, including the NT; the NT is not the product of the church, but of Christ Himself, through his uniquely empowered Apostles. The evidence is clear in this once obscure verse.

In the 2nd century and beyond, the church had to defend its apostolically imposed canon against various heresies that challenged it and sought to add to it, but the church never formed or determined the content or the extent of the NT, much less of the OT.

People of God we need to be prepared to answer Rome on this key question. If we are not, the Scott Hahns of Rome will continue to draw our young people to itself, and away from the only infallible God-given rule of faith and life.

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About woody lauer

Husband of Laurie, Father of 7, Grandfather of 5 OPC missionary at Kita Numazu RCJ chapel Adjunct Faculty at Kobe Theological Hall
This entry was posted in Canonics, NT Canon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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