A Machete Order Reading of the Bible (NT)

Imagine if you had a free weekend and decided to watch the set of Star Wars movies. There is great debate about the order in which one should watch the Star Wars movies. Should one watch them in the order in which they were released (IV, V, VI, I, II, III) or in historical order (I, II, III, IV, V, VI).

Rod Hilton has proposed an order called – machete order, which preserves the surprise relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as well as allow for the entire viewing to end on the celebratory high note of beating the Empire. This order has a very “epic” poem approach that “tells the story better”.

Star Wars: Machete Order

I was recently posed a question  about reading the Bible all the way through. Continue reading

Revisiting a fallible NT collection in light of self authenticating documents

Looking through church history, particularly within the first four centuries, we find multiple lists describing the NT collection of documents that are considered Scripture. This leaves us with questions like which list is right? And who determines (or discovers) which list of documents is correct? And can we be absolutely certain that a particular list is correct? The history of the canon led me to conclude that the list of NT books is fallible, even if the documents themselves are inspired.

A particular post on Canon Fodder got me thinking. How does the idea of self-authenticating documents impact the canon. Particularly how does it impact our ability to know that we have an inspired and infallible list of inspired and infallible documents. In the post Dr. Kruger concluded that tradition (the early church passing on the apostolic teaching) is important but it is not the only way to know which books belong in the canon.

… I think the consensus eventually reached by the church on the books of the NT can help us know which books are from God.  However, I would disagree with Patton (and the Catholics) that this is the only way to know (Patton said, “it is only through tradition…”).  Entirely overlooked in this regard is the intrinsic authority built into these books and how that intrinsic authority could play a role in their authentication.

What is this intrinsic authority?

The protestant reformers referred to this as the self-authenticating (autopistic) nature of Scripture.  It is simply the idea that the books themselves bear the qualities and attributes that can identify them as having come from God

Dr. Kruger expands on this idea in an interview with Derek Thomas:

Our belief that we have the right 27 books is certainly founded on the fact that God providentially worked in the early church.  But, our answer to the question of how we know we have the right books can go further than just saying “God’s providence.”  I argue in Canon Revisited that God has provided a reliable means by which God’s people can recognize his books (through the help of the Holy Spirit).  Part of that means is the fact that God’s books bear divine qualities; they have attributes that reflect God’s power and character.

I agree with Kruger that the inspired documents are self-authenticating and that the Holy Spirit was active in the role of the canon process. However, even with documents possessing these qualities, we are not any closer to obtaining absolute certainty regarding the collection of NT documents.

A document may be inspired and therefore possess divine qualities. However the book must still be assessed. While the assessment does not cause the document to be inspired, it is the recognition of the document as such, that allows the church to accept it. And it is fallible man that is still responsible for discovering or correctly evaluating that the book possesses these qualities. Unless people are able to recognize these qualities with absolute certainty, this would make the process of assembling the list fallible. This would be further complicated by man having to also understand what constitutes true divine qualities so that he may be able to identify them correctly in the document.

If the documents possess self-authenticating qualities, then who is to examine these documents and assess them? Was this a recognition that was done at a point in time by the early church to stand throughout history? Or is this something we encourage every believer to do today? How do we resolve conflicting claims?

If we are to evaluate the documents today, we are at a disadvantage. The early church would have had the “apostle’s teachings still ringing in their ears” and would have witnessed their signs and wonders which would help them recognize the documents that were written and inspired. Furthermore, we are reliant on their first cut of recognizing these books because these are the ones that are preserved for us to examine today. In this we are trusting their evaluations and relying on tradition.

The example of James

The epistle of James is part of our 27 document NT canon. However, history shows that this document, despite any self-authenticating attributes, has had a tough time keeping its place in the canon. James was missing from the Muratorian Fragment (2nd century) and was one of the books that was still being disputed in the early part of the fourth century as noted by Eusebius (Eccl Hist 3.25).

Martin Luther’s Preface to the New Testament in the 1522 edition calls James an “epistle of straw“. In the preface to the book of James itself, he writes “[t]hough this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, …  However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle…”. Luther goes on to describe the characteristics in the book that cause him to  consider it unworthy of a place in the canon.

Who evaluated the epistle of James correctly?

  • the many in the early church who recognized it
  • those in the early church who did not
  • Martin Luther
  • The Magisiterium at Trent
  • Each believer must evaluate the book

How ever we wrestle through these questions it seems we are still left with a certainty problem. And therefore I still have to accept a fallible list of infallible books. However the NT canon is a collection of documents that we can still have confidence in and accept.

A Canon Theology and Misconceptions (Canon Fodder)

As readers here know, I have been exploring the NT canon as it is a topic of interest for me. Recently I found a great new blog called “Canon Fodder”. The blog is written by Dr. Michael J. Kruger, Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte, NC) and the author of the recent book on canonicity called “Canon Revisited”.

Amazon: Canon Revisited

The Gospel Coalition has a review of the book here.

Over at Reformation 21, Derek Thomas interviewed Dr. Kruger discussing the topic – can the NT Canon be defended. One of the comments made by Kruger is that:

[MK] I think one of the critical weaknesses in modern canonical studies is that Christians often have no theology of canon.  We have a lot of historical facts–anyone who has read the fine works of Metzger and Bruce will have plenty of patristic data to work with.  But, a pile of historical facts is not sufficient to authenticate these books.  We need a framework for understanding what the canon is, how God gave it, and what means God gave for believers to identify these books.  And those issues are inevitably derived from our theological beliefs. Thus, the canon is ultimately a theological issue.

He goes on to encourage pastors to explain and explore canon issues to better equip their flocks. Having taught on canon issues a few times I have found that even a a grasp of the historical facts regarding the compilation of the NT is not something many are familiar with. I encourage you to read the full interview.

B.J. Stockman also had an interview with  Dr. Kruger tackling 10 common questions on the canon. Some of the questions covered include , what is the canon of Scripture, why is there a canon of Scripture, and who decided what books made up the canon of Scripture, though you’ll need to read the interview to see the answers.

Question #8 in that interview probes the misconceptions people have about the canon given the popularity of Bart Ehrman and The DaVinci Code. The answer pointed readers to a series Dr. Kruger has started on his blog called 10 common misconceptions about the canon. Here are the ten that will be covered during the series (with links to the first four which have been published).

  1. The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
  2. Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
  3. The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
  4. New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
  5. Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
  6. In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
  7. Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
  8. Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
  9. The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
  10. Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books

In misconceptions #2 and #3, Dr. Kruger has answered the challenge that the apostles did not know they were writing Scripture (authoritative documents). He ably demonstrates that the apostles were given the authority to speak for Jesus and therefore what they wrote would carry the same authority, especially when establishing in the document that they were writing as an apostle (2 Thess 2:25; 3:14; 1 Cor 14:37-38).

I look forward to the rest of the series and the book.

UPDATE: links to articles in the series will be added as they become available.