Monday, May 29, 2023

Anonymous Asks (251)

“What does ‘test yourselves’ mean in 2 Corinthians 13:5?”

Self-assessments are notoriously hard to get right, even for Christians. As Jeremiah put it, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” If our security in Christ depends on our ability to correctly analyze the state of our own belief, then we are bound to be perpetually short of the spiritual confidence necessary to live victoriously.

I think the key to properly understanding that passage is recognizing Paul intended “test yourselves” neither individually nor subjectively. Evidence to follow …

1/ Not Individual

Greek word studies do not help us much in clarifying authorial intent when pronouns are used (as in “Jesus Christ is in you”). The manuscript tradition followed by the ESV is ambiguous on that front. In the tradition followed by the KJV, however, “you” is distinctly plural, though it is unwise to push such a fine grammatical distinction too far. But the ambiguity with the pronouns in the verse raises the distinct possibility that Paul is actually speaking collectively here rather than individually. He is addressing Corinth as a church, not merely as individually saved men and women.

Further, the preposition en (translated “in” in the phrase “Jesus Christ is in you”) is also translated as “among” over 100 times in the New Testament.

With the legitimacy of those readings established, let me paraphrase our verse this way:

“Examine yourselves, Corinthian church, to see whether your beliefs and practices are consistent with the faith. Test yourselves as to your orthodoxy. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is among you when you gather? — unless indeed your church fails to meet the test!”

That’s quite different, isn’t it? It’s a less obvious way of looking at the verse, but I believe it’s more consistent with the context than an instruction to self-assess. (And I suspect it’s only less obvious because we are terminally preoccupied with individualism in our generation.)

Why do I say this? Three reasons:

i) The Problem in View

In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s primary concern is the danger that the church might reject his apostleship for the false teaching of others. He says, “You seek proof that Christ is speaking in me.” This is the major theme of his later chapters, not individual salvation.

Over the previous chapters, Paul has reluctantly but necessarily mustered a number of arguments to confirm the legitimacy of his spiritual authority. It is entirely in keeping with context for him to tell the church in Corinth that they ought to examine the current beliefs and practices of their own gathering to see if they are consistent with an objective standard.

The context is not about salvation but about orthodoxy:

Orthodoxy (from Greek ὀρθός, orthos (‘right’, ‘true’) and δόξα, doxa (‘belief’ or ‘opinion’)) is adherence to correct or accepted norms, more specifically to creeds, especially in religion. In the Christian sense the term means ‘conforming to the Christian faith as represented in the creeds of the early Church’.”

Question: What would motivate Paul to suddenly change the subject to the salvation status of his critics at this point in his argument? Answer: Nothing. He didn’t.

ii) More Pronoun Issues

It is important to realize that Paul’s “we” in these verses is not to be understood as a royal “we” such as occurs in English. That is to say, he is not merely referring to himself personally when he goes on to add, “I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test.”

2 Corinthians has many passages where Paul uses “we” and “our”, but plenty of others where he uses “I”, “me” and “my”; where what he is saying is obviously his own thought process, like when he speaks of his own visions and his personal “thorn in the flesh”.

But this clear distinction between singular and plural pronouns throughout the book is not merely a helpful clarification provided at the discretion of English translators. The original Greek consistently makes the same distinction, using μοι and με (for “my” and “me”) and ἡμῶν and ἡμᾶς (for “our” and “we”).

It is a group test or examination that Paul is here proposing, not an individual one.

iii) The Contrast

Paul goes on to suggest that the same test he proposes for the Corinthian church (that of being “in the faith”) can be legitimately applied to his own group (again, a collective) rather than to himself alone. The Corinthian church was established by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. Paul did not act unilaterally but as a member of a team. Further, the letter itself is not from Paul, but from Paul and Timothy together. Further still, Paul makes reference to Titus and “the brother” and asks, “Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?” So there was a group involved in planting the church in Corinth, not just Paul. It was a group that spoke with a single voice, and followed up at Corinth afterward. It is this group that Paul proposes be examined by the Corinthian church to see if they are “in the faith”.

Thus it is significant that Paul speaks of “our authority ... for building you up” and not merely his own.

Question: If Paul is contrasting the “examination” of the Corinthians in our verse with a single proposed examination of his own group with respect to their orthodoxy, why would we read the earlier part of the verse as referring to a series of subjective personal examinations related to salvation? Answer: We shouldn’t.

2/ Not Subjective

The Faith

Further, Paul is not proposing a subjective test but a very objective one. He speaks of “the faith”. Not “your faith” or “a faith” or “having faith” or even “being faithful”. Rather, it is “the faith”. That’s not a nebulous term.

In the New Testament, “the faith” refers to a body of truth revealed by God, the acceptance of which was a fundamental test of orthodoxy. Paul has already summed up the most critical elements of the faith for the Corinthians in his first letter. It is a “test” with which they ought to be thoroughly familiar. Further, he says this truth was “received” and he says that it is “of first importance”. It is by believing these truths that you are saved, and it is in this, he says, that the Corinthians “stand”.

That sounds an awful lot like orthodoxy to me.

The Gospel Summarized

Here’s Paul’s summary of the gospel:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

The Faith and Paul’s Teaching

Now, my salvation did not require me to believe Jesus Christ appeared to Paul and made him his apostle, but being orthodox definitely does. That truth was among the things delivered to the Corinthian church “as of first importance”. That should not be a surprise.

Furthermore, he says, “Whether then it was I [Paul] or they [the rest of the apostles], so we preach and so you believed.” There is a body of apostolic truth that is consistent across the board. All the apostles said the same thing, and the Corinthian church had accepted it and was founded squarely on it. Reject the writing of the apostle Paul and you reject pretty much everything consequential about the Christian faith. Certainly you reject virtually every spiritual explanation of the life and work of Christ.

This faith was delivered. The faith was received. It was not formulated, concocted or deduced. It arrived as a package from the apostles, most comprehensively and effectively articulated by Paul. It is far from subjective. You believe it or you don’t. It sure doesn’t turn on how you or I feel about our own behavior.

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