Unless You Believed in Vain

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses false teaching in the Corinthian church and challenges the church on their doubt concerning the resurrection: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17). Yet, those who proffer this passage to substantiate the necessity of history for faith fail to see that this same passage—and a plethora of others—demand the same conclusion concerning Scripture. That is, I believe Paul would contend that if Scripture is not God’s Word—and thus trustworthy, inerrant, and authoritative—our faith is in vain. That is a bold claim, but it seems to me to be necessary.

Why doesn’t Paul say this? For Paul, and for the New Testament Church (and the Jews in fact), the doctrine of Scripture was never at stake—the binding authority of God’s revelation was not in doubt: what was in doubt, at various times, was the interpretation of the Old Testament (Paul’s debates with the Jews) or the authenticity of Paul’s preaching as God’s revelation (is Paul a genuine apostle?). In this passage, Paul combats the rejection of a future resurrection with three arguments, all appeals to the message he has preached. First, he begins by asking how they can doubt the future resurrection if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead—he points out the contradiction between this belief they are toying with and the preaching they received. He then brings out further the problem here in two ways: the ministry of Paul and the faith of the people are both at stake if this is true. The risen Christ is the essence of Paul’s preaching: if there is no resurrection, Jesus has not been raised and his preaching is futile (14). This of course brings out a bigger problem: if Christ has not been raised, then their faith futile, they are still in their sins—the message offering salvation is bogus.

 

What does this have to do with Scripture? The New Testament Scriptures are the content of the teaching and preaching of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles. It is, for us, the equivalent of the preaching that the Corinthians’ doubt calls into question. We could then deduce that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, the teaching of Scripture is futile: this is attested in our context. All Scripture concerns Jesus and the Gospel, and he was raised “in accordance with the Scriptures” (4): if He was not raised, than the Old Testament was wrong, the message of Scripture is wrong. What is the point of a book that testifies to reconciliation to and enjoyment of God through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God who was never actually raised? So if Christ was not raised from the dead, we can say that Scripture is futile—it fails to testify to the truth and cannot achieve its goals. But I would contend, and believe Paul would as well, that this goes the other way around as well.

What would happen if Scripture could be broken (contra John 10:35)? What would that say about our faith and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? What if Scripture was not authoritative, trustworthy, or inerrant? (If this is in doubt, read the appendix The Co-inherence of Authority, Trustworthiness, and Inerrancy.) Authority, Trustworthiness, and Inerrancy are all interrelated—what is authoritative must be trustworthy and inerrant, what is inerrant is implicitly authoritative on whatever it speaks; if it is trustworthy it has authority and is free from error. What does this have to do with 1 Corinthians 15? I contend that if Scripture is not authoritative, trustworthy, and inerrant, your faith is futile. How do we get here from what Paul is saying? His whole point rests not on the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that Jesus was raised from the dead and that this has the utmost significance. Stay with me here; it matters that Christ was raised, not Lazarus. Paul cannot make this same point by arguing “if Lazarus was not raised from the dead….” This is obvious, but this means that the significance of Christ’s death was not merely the historical fact that a man was raised from the dead, not even that a man named Jesus was raised from the dead. The significance of the resurrection was that the Christ was crucified for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead in accordance with Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The Corinthian’s belief that there is no future resurrection was so dangerous because it threatened to utterly destroy the Gospel (3-11) and the hope that believers have because of that Gospel (20-49). Their rejection of the final resurrection called into question the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, if it did not happen, would undermine the entire Christian faith. The falsity of this fact would destroy the Christian faith because of the meaning it carries, meaning given to it only by Scripture.

If we were told that Jesus was raised from the dead, yet were not told that He was the eternal son of God incarnate, what good would this do for us: if the resurrection of Lazarus is not the point on which our faith stands our falls, why would the resurrection of this unexplained Jesus be any different? If we were not told that He was crucified for our sins and that His resurrection was for our justification—that He died and was raised for our sins—His resurrection would not mean much, would it? The resurrection is so important because “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The resurrection is so important because if Christ was not raised, there would be no final resurrection—of which His resurrection was the first fruit—and all the trials Christians go through in this life would be meaningless (1 Cor. 15:19-23). If we did not know from the Old Testament who God was, and what He demanded from His creation, there would be no reason for the salvation Christ’s resurrection ensured. We could go on and on and on: every point of the Christian faith feeds into our understanding of the resurrection, our interpretation of it. If we did not have this teaching, this pattern of doctrine, as taught in Scripture, then the resurrection would be meaningless!

 

Historical facts need an interpretation to be meaningful, for their significance to be known: Christ’s resurrection was first interpreted by Him to His apostles, and then—by the Holy Spirit—the apostles interpreted it for God’s people. This all important interpretation of the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is only found in Scripture.[1] What, then, is the point of this? If Christ was not raised from the dead, after having died for our sins, and so ensured for us a right verdict before God, ushered in the new creation, and defeated death itself, then our faith would be in vain. But how, in the first place, do we know Christ was raised from the dead? In the end, the truth of the resurrection relies on Scripture: Scripture gives us God’s testimony to it, along with the written testimony of the eyewitnesses and their attestation to other witnesses (e.g., 1 Cor. 15).  All our historical arguments, those seeking to validate these claims on modern criteria, rely on this data. If Scripture were not a trustworthy witness, then we would have no reason to suspect that Jesus was historically raised from the dead (the historical arguments rely on demonstrating, on modern criteria, the trustworthiness of the witnesses recorded by Scripture).

Most importantly, the all-important interpretation of the resurrection relies on Scripture being a trustworthy interpreter. We are given God’s interpretation of a historical fact: if God’s word elsewhere admits error, how can we have the utmost certainty required to found our hope here? One may argue, of course, that though Scripture is true here, it is not necessarily true everywhere—what is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. Yet, if all of Scripture is God’s word, and various parts are in error, this at least admits that the whole is not inerrant—with no guarantee as to which parts are not. On these grounds, our historical arguments cannot just substantiate further what is already attested to with unfailing authority, but have the sole responsibility of proving the resurrection as a fact—the burden of proof falls fully on these arguments. This follows for all of Scripture: if one part can be in error, than it is no longer a self-authenticating authority, all its parts are subject to testing against known authorities. This makes human reason the ultimate subjective measure of truth—what is true is what I can determine with my mind to be true. On these grounds, the more Scripture is “shown” to be in error, the less weight its own testimony would carry. If the word of the Creator requires at every point the authentication of the creature, one would begin to question whether what they had was actually the word of the Creator: “12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things” (John 3:12)? When it comes to something, like the interpretation of the resurrection—where direct external verification is impossible—what foundation do we have for certainty? The only way to trust that this interpretation is correct is to argue that the whole of Scripture is trustworthy, authoritative, and inerrant, therefore each part is so. If the parts may err, then we have no possibility of certainty here, where it matters most. If we doubt Jesus on the earthly, testable facts, how can we not help but doubt Him on the heavenly, unverifiable facts? What becomes of God’s authority if it is subject to the authority of His creation? Where else will we turn to authenticate our interpretation of the resurrection? There is nowhere else to turn. If we cannot trust Him about earthly things, how can we be sure He speaks with truth about heavenly things?

 

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sin. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:17-18). Everything rests on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because of what it means—what He has accomplished through it. If Scripture is not authoritative, trustworthy, and inerrant, then there is no hope to know for sure the meaning of the resurrection, even if we can convince ourselves that it happened. Therefore, I would argue, “If Scripture is not the Inspired Word of God, with the authority and trustworthiness implied therein, our faith is futile.” If I cannot trust Scripture on its own God-derived authority, if it must answer to the authority of autonomous human reason as it wrestles with experience and raw data, if it requires external verification, how sure is my foundation? Every new discovery may, then, call into question my foundational beliefs, the source of my hope, the assurance of resurrection life. Can I really know without a doubt, on such a foundation, that I will stand before God in the Day of Judgment justified by my faith in Jesus Christ?


[1] What about tradition? Tradition is built on the foundation of Scripture—confessedly turns to it for authority and derives its teachings (however imperfectly) therefrom. If the foundation is removed, then this interpretation follows its source.
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