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.

Canonization: a case study in First Corinthians (Part II)

This post was originally published on February 12, 2010. 

In our last post we looked at Paul’s visit in Corinth that preceded his letters to the church that he founded in that city around 50/51 AD. Paul came as an apostle/prophet to share the good news, but before he was accepted he had to pass the TEST.

  • Testifying about Jesus.
  • Eyewitness to the risen Christ.
  • Signs and wonders confirmed his testimony.
  • Traits of Christ characterized his life.

But what does that have to do with the canon? That is what we will explore in this post.

Eventually Paul had to leave Corinth. After recharging in Antioch, Paul kept his promise (Acts 18:21) and returned to Ephesus where he would minister for 3 years (Acts 20:31) while performing many miracles (Acts 19:11) based on the account of Acts. From this city he would eventually write the epistle we know as First Corinthians around 54 AD (1 Cor 16:8). This letter was in response to divisions, sin in the church, and a letter with questions that was sent to him by that church (1 Cor 7:1).

Step back for a moment and imagine living in the 1st century in Corinth around 54 AD. You have recently placed your trust in Jesus based on the teachings of an apostle named Paul who came to your city just a few years ago. His message coupled with the signs he performed and the character he demonstrated while living in your city helped establish the body of believers that make up the church you attend.

Now the young church is struggling with various issues. In addition more teachers seem to be coming and going though your town. These teachers bring new ideas about Jesus but their message does not quite line up with the teachings of the apostle Paul and they are incapable of supporting their message with the dramatic signs and wonders either. However some of their teachings are still creeping into the church. The elders of the church decide to write a letter to Paul and ask him to clarify some doctrinal issues.

After some amount of time the courier arrives back in town. He is a known companion of the apostle Paul and he brings some news on how the missionary work is proceeding in Ephesus and gives the elders a letter. When you meet for church on Sunday the letter is read to the church body. Is it authentic?

Paul wrote to the Corinthians who would have had to accept the letter as authentic or reject it as a fraud. Could a fraudulent letter written just a few years after Paul’s visit have been accepted if the claims in the letter were false? The intended audience could easily verify that Paul had been there (1 Cor 2:1-2), claimed to see Jesus risen (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8), and performed signs and wonders (1 Cor 2:4-5). Paul encouraged other churches to be on the lookout for false letters (1 Thess 5:21; 2 Thess 2:2), would he not have warned the Corinthians to do the same thing. He even gave them the test – compare the new teaching with what he taught when he was there in person (2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6-8). The recipients of the letter would be able to verify whether the contents of the letter contradicted the teachings of Paul that were given while he was there in person. Paul even signed the letter knowing that they would recognize his handwriting (1 Cor 16:21). If any of these claims were false the letter would have been rejected not kept, studied, and circulated.

But the evidence shows that this letter, like many others was circulated (Col 4:16). This circulation process would have been slow going in the first century. Starting with Corinth then likely Athens and on to other Greek cities. Then further north into Macedonia. By 90 AD we know it made its way to Rome where Clement demonstrates that he has a copy of the letter using it to deal with another set of problems in Corinth.

Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.

Here Clement writing to the Corinthian church uses Paul’s letter to back up his appeal to restore deposed elders. At this time many people would still be alive that could verify Paul’s visit as well as the acceptance of the original letter. Clearly Clement was aware of this and was relying on this fact. He makes an appeal to the church based on their acceptance of the letter. His appeal would make no sense if the church had rejected the letter.

By 180 AD (likely much earlier, especially if Paul left a copy in Ephesus when he wrote it) the letter was circulating and accepted in Asia Minor. Irenaues certainly knew of the letter as well as Clement’s use of it.

Ad Haer Book III Chapter 3

[Clement], as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels.

Irenaues started this book describing the end of the apostolic era with the death of the apostles and the focus on the writings they left behind.

Ad Haer Book III Chapter 1

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.

This quotation from Irenaues preserves the understanding of the early church regarding the process of transmitting the gospel and God’s revelation to us – first by the public teaching of the apostles and now through their writings, which are the Scriptures.

By 180-200 the Pauline letters are known to have been collected and circulated all the way to Egypt based on the finding of the papyri known as P46 in Cairo. In addition the earliest known list of the NT – the Muratorian Fragment dated around 170 AD – also contains the Corinthian letters.

This process of circulation and acceptance in the churches for the letter to the Corinthians was true for all the writings/letters of the NT as well as other writings some solid but uninspired and others that were false. The Holy Spirit having confirmed His messengers to the church and inspired their writings would rely on the local churches to confirm these writings that were later sent to them. Augustine affirms that it was the testimony of these local churches that was used to discover the authentic and inspired books. It is this research that was affirmed at the local synods of Hippo and Carthage in the 4th century.

On Christian Doctrine Book II Chapter 8

…Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of [universal] churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the [universal] churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.

The process of collecting the writings of the apostles was not without debate. It was fallible man that researched how the Holy Spirit worked through the churches and whether the writings were accepted to resolve debate over the NT canon. We have to trust the fallible work of the church in collecting these works into a single canon.

Canonization: a case study in First Corinthians (Part I)

This post was originally published on February 8, 2010. 

Seems that the issue of canon is a major theme in the the blog-o-sphere with another discussion going on here, here, and here.

These discussions all focus on the question “how do we know which books belong in the canon”? There are two important points I want to make regarding the canon before looking at the process and how I can accept a fallible list of infallible books. First is that God determines the canon by inspiring the author of the books. Second is that man is left to discover which books are inspired and therefore part of the canon. The question then is did the Holy Spirit aid this process and to what degree can we infer infallibility of the discovery phase. I provided some difficulties regarding the infallibility of the list here and here.

So how did God determine which books/letters were inspired? He chose and enabled a prophet/apostle to speak and later write what He revealed. The history of the transmission of the OT and NT demonstrates that God speaks through prophets and apostles giving them a message that is clear, confirmable, and unmistakably from Him. These prophets/apostles in turn deliver this message – Thus says the LORD – verbally to others. These messages are often confirmed with near-term prophetic fulfillment and/or signs and wonders. Sometimes the prophets recorded their messages in writing (Isaiah 30:8; Jeremiah 36:2) and other times they did not (Elijah). These verbally transmitted messages could be tested and accepted or rejected by the original audience based on criteria set out by the LORD (Deut 18:15-21). Once the audience was able to confirm the prophet/apostle as authentic, the future writings could also be confirmed. This is the basic process that was used to discover the inspired texts and correctly add them to the canon.

We will look at this process using the letter First Corinthians. As we look at this letter as a case study it is helpful to keep in mind that the church was not founded on apostolic writings but the oral teaching of the apostles (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15). A casual reading of the book of Acts confirms this as does that fact that the church existed for over 10 years before any NT book was written and over 60 years before all the NT books were written.

Before the letter was ever written Paul first visited Corinth after leaving Athens. He remained in the city for 18 months. While he was there Paul taught and testified that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor 15:1-4; Acts 18:1-11). This would likely have been around 50-51 AD. The message Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians regarding Jesus was confirmed in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:1-5). This demonstration is described in more detail in a later letter as the signs and wonders consistent with being an apostle (2 Cor 12:12). This is an essential part of the process where the Holy Spirit is confirming the apostle and the message are from God. This should not be under-estimated as even Jesus was affirmed through signs and wonders (Acts 2:22; John 3:2).

Think about what this would have been like. You are a Gentile living in the 1st century in Greece and you are out at the market when you see the posting – a new philosopher is in town and will be talking tonight at an assembly hall – for free. You decide to check it out. When you get there the teacher, Paul gets up and opens up the OT to the Book of Isaiah and starts reading from the passage on the Suffering Servant. He then starts teaching that the Servant that Isaiah was talking about has already come in the person of Jesus who is the Messiah – God’s Anointed One – and He has suffered and died on a cross as the one true sacrifice for sins that is once and for all – and has been raised from the dead.

As he is talking your child leans over with an inquisitive looks and whispers – “Hey Dad, Dad… are we gonna stone this nut after class”. As class indeed winds up and the families start heading out of the hall – some sizing up the stones and rocks that are nearby, they are approached by a common sight… Bob the beggar. Bob is a regular outside the hall, a young man who can not walk, and for years waits for those coming out of class to take pity on him and give him some money or food.

As the teacher – Paul – comes out the main doors into the crowd he reaches out to Bob and heals him in the name of Jesus – the same One whom he had just finished teaching on. Bob immediately jumps up, thanks him and runs down the street in joy. The crowd stunned, drop their stones. Your child leans over with a look of awe and whispers – “Hey Dad, Dad… Did you see that? Hasn’t Bob been lame for the last several years after that big accident? How did he do that?”. The next week the hall is packed as many come to hear from this new teacher Paul.

That is the picture painted of Paul’s ministry in Corinth. In addition to his preaching and signs, Paul also claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8; Acts 1:21-22) and used his life style to confirm his message (2 Cor 1:12;Matt 7:15-16).

Before there were letters written to Corinth there was a visit to the city by a man named Paul. In Part II, we will examine how this visit leads to the writing and later acceptance of the epistle we call First Corinthians.