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1 Thessalonians 2:13 and an Emerging Canon Consciousness

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“And so we too constantly thank God that when you received God’s message that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human message, but as it truly is, God’s message, which is at work among you who believe” (NET).

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (ESV).

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (TNIV).

On the surface, 1 Thess 2:13 includes some of the major elements of bibliology: dual authorshiphuman personality involved in delivering God’s message, though God is the effective cause; canonicity—the Thessalonians accepted the Pauline teaching as the word of God; illumination/transformationνεργεται (this message is now working in those who believe). The point about canonicity is clearer in the ESV and the TNIV than in the NET because the NET has translated λγον θεο as ‘God’s message’ while the ESV and TNIV translate it as ‘the word of God.’

Does this verse mean that Paul really knew that he was speaking and writing scripture? If so, it is the earliest reference to such canon consciousness within the New Testament. And if that is the case, then we have an excellent basis for seeing this emerging canon consciousness as something that was from the beginning.

If we compare this statement to Peter’s admonition (1 Pet 4.11) about spiritual gifts, however, we may get a different take on things: “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God” (NRSV); “If you speak, you should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (NET) [ε τις λαλε, ς λγια θεο]. Should we say that those with teaching gifts are uttering new revelation when they teach? Even minimally, are their words inspired? Yet Peter’s statement comes at least a dozen years after Paul’s. Has he retreated from Paul’s self-conscious inscripturating activity? Or has he included countless unnamed individuals to the list of those who penned scripture?

It might be argued that a different word for ‘word’ is used in 1 Peter 4: λγια instead of λγος. This is true, but probably irrelevant since, if anything, λγια is a stronger, more specific term than λγος.

But to keep to the exact phrase, we do see in the New Testament that many are said to proclaim the ‘word of God.’ Consider the following texts (every reference has λγος θεο in Greek; the translation is that of the NET):

Acts 4:31—“they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously”

Acts 6:7—“The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.”

Acts 8:14—“Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.”

Acts 13:5—“When they arrived in Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the Jewish synagogues.”

Acts 13:46—“Both Paul and Barnabas replied courageously, “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles.”

Acts 17:13—“But when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul had also proclaimed the word of God in Berea, they came there too, inciting and disturbing the crowds.”

2 Cor 2:17—“For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God.”

2 Tim 2:9—“for which I suffer hardship to the point of imprisonment as a criminal, but God’s message is not imprisoned!”

Heb 13:7—“Remember your leaders, who spoke God’s message to you; reflect on the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith.”

Rev 1:9—“I, John, your brother and the one who shares with you in the persecution, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony about Jesus.”

Rev 6:9—“Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given.”

It is evident in most of these passages that ‘the word of God’ is speaking about the Christian message. The standard lexicon by Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich, in fact, says that each of these passages, and plenty more, is speaking about the Christian message rather than the Bible. To be sure, there are some passages in the New Testament in which ‘word of God’ refers to the written word of God, that is, the Old Testament (e.g., Matt 15:6; John 10:35; Rom 9:6), but this is a far less common meaning.

What should be recognized in at least the majority of the texts quoted above is that, on the one hand, the apostolic witness to Christ regarded itself as verbalizing the word of God—or the message from God about Christ—because the ultimate revelation was in Jesus. When Paul speaks of “carrying out the proclamation of the word of God” (Col 1.25) he is not speaking about proclaiming scripture (which would have been the Old Testament) but proclaiming the message about Jesus. Even in 1 Thess 2.13, this must be the case: the ‘word of God’ that Paul is referring to is the proclamation he and Silas made in Thessalonica, not the letter of 1 Thessalonians since he is referring to what he and Silas proclaimed in person before this letter was ever penned. Hence, we must not think that ‘word of God’ = Bible as a rule. On the other hand, Paul recognized that his message originated with God, not with himself. And at some point, it was a natural development for the early church to regard the apostolic writings as scripture, though this did not seem to explicitly happen, except in isolated instances, until the latter half of the second century.

There is thus an emerging ‘canon consciousness’ with respect to the apostolic writings. By AD 50, it is not yet there. There are two passages in the New Testament, both written much later, that are often cited as proof texts that the New Testament writers were self-consciously writing scripture, or at least that they were calling other portions of the New Testament ‘scripture.’ We will examine those in another study, but for now the question that we are raising is this: When did the early church begin to see the writings of the New Testament as scripture? When did they begin to place them explicitly on the same level of authority as the Old Testament? Did it take place within the pages of the New Testament itself, or only later? And, if later, how much later? All of this is part and parcel to the theological development within the New Testament (and beyond) that begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is that radical event that ultimately changed how a small band of Jews would think of God, scripture, the people of God and, above all, the Messiah.

Related Topics: Canon