In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul, in one sense the “father” of the Corinthian believers,1 exhorts these same believers to engage in godly mimesis–to be imitators of him.2 How are they to do it? How are they to know what they are to do? To answer that very question–“for that very reason”–Paul has sent Timothy to them.
15 ἐὰν γὰρ μυρίους παιδαγωγοὺς ἔχητε ἐν Χριστῷ, ἀλλ’ οὐ πολλοὺς πατέρας, ἐν γὰρ Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ διὰ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ἐγὼ ὑμᾶς ἐγέννησα. 16 παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς, μιμηταί μου γίνεσθε. 17 διὰ τοῦτο ἔπεμψα ὑμῖν Τιμόθεον, ὅς ἐστίν μου τέκνον ἀγαπητὸν καὶ πιστὸν ἐν κυρίῳ, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἀναμνήσει τὰς ὁδούς μου τὰς ἐν ΧριστῷἸησοῦ, καθὼς πανταχοῦ ἐν πάσῃ ἐκκλησίᾳ διδάσκω.
For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (ESV)
Why, again, has Paul sent Timothy? So that he might remind them (ἀναμνήσει) of what Paul has already taught them.3 When Timothy arrives, he will not have anything new to tell the Corinthians. He can only recall Paul’s “ways in Christ.”
But what if they are unsure if he is telling the truth? What if he says Paul has developed, changed his views on things, grown in his understanding? Caveat auditor. Paul’s messenger should say the same things that Paul says–and Paul says the same things everywhere. There is not one message for initiates, one for outsiders, one for Corinthians, one for Romans, one for officers, one for laity. Paul’s teaching is public–and therefore publicly verifiable–and is consistent globally.
What Paul expresses here is, if you like, the faithful mirror of the problematic Vincentian canon, which we can rephrase thus: quod ubique, quod semper, quod omnibus docendum est.4
What can we conclude? Paul assumes both the capability and the responsibility of his Christian audience for ensuring that what they hear and receive is of a piece with what he himself has taught. This accountable capacity is the same one as that which the Bereans are praised for using in Acts 17; it is the same one whose employment Paul demands in the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians. The duty implied here cannot be outsourced. It must be owned by each confessing individual. Every Christian teacher is called to the office of faithful proclamation; every Christian is called to the office of responsible hearing.
- And we should mark that sense: he is their father “through the gospel.”
- Note that he doesn’t just suggest such “imitation”; he summons them to it. Note also Calvin’s elucidation: “But to what extent he wishes them to be imitators of him, he shows elsewhere, when he adds, as he was of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1.) This limitation must always be observed, so as not to follow any man, except in so far as he leads us to Christ.”
- He will remind them by his words, certainly–but perhaps also by his own manner of life?
- The omission of ab with omnibus is not a typo, since agency with the passive periphrastic is expressed by the dative. If one likes the ab for the sake of a closer mimesis, it is perfectly intelligible syntactically: quod ab omnibus docendum est.