Scott Kellum: What is the New Testament Canon (Part 1)?

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[Editor's Note: This post first appeared on August 7, 2012. In this four-part series, L. Scott Kellum, Associate Professor of New Testament & Greek at Southeastern, addresses the complex but very important question of the New Testament canon: why is there a New Testament; why are certain documents but not others included in the New Testament; and what does all this mean for ministry in the church and engagement with the world? Check in next Monday for part 2.]

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. “The NT Canon (the authoritative collection of books) was formed over a period of sorting and sifting overseen by the Holy Spirit that was essentially completed by AD 200. The early church councils settled the fuzzy edges of the Canon.” This was what I heard as a young Christian. I suspect you’ve heard something similar. Upon further study I am convinced that this is at least 100 years too late in its date and places far too much emphasis on the church councils. This week I will address many aspects of the NT Canon to defend my thesis. In this post, I want to briefly explore the origins of the idea of a New Testament. Why did the early Christians endorse the idea of new Scriptures? If someone came to you and said, “we have new scripture for you,” you would rightly refuse it. Why is it that they did not?

Before we do that, however, let’s first correctly understand the early church councils. No evidence exists that the early councils actually debated the Canon. They only listed their books. If we evangelicals embrace the list in the councils we make two mistakes. First, to grant the councils the final word is to give too much authority to these councils. This is something evangelicals have always hesitated to do. Second, they also endorsed the OT Apocrypha as Scripture. If we take them as authoritative, we must also adopt these extra books to the OT. Again, we are on good grounds not to do so. Instead, it is better to evaluate the councils than submit to them. I think it is clear they were endorsing the Testaments as they were handed down to them in Greek. Regarding the NT, the choice is correct. In the OT, they were simply listing the books of the Septuagint that included these extra books. The councils, then, are best understood as a witness to our present 27-book NT.

So then, why were the early believers willing to accept roughly contemporaneous documents as authoritative Scripture? This question comprises two concepts. First, there is the very idea of Canon, i.e., a closed set of authoritative writings that in itself is authoritative. Second, when the question comes to the NT, why add to the OT Canon, which, by definition, is closed?

Because few works survive from the 1st and 2d centuries when these decisions happened, answering these questions is not easy. But there are works that do survive and what they explicitly cite and infer will help answer these questions. Examining the Church Fathers from before AD 150 we see every book of the NT cited as an authority. 3 John is often said to be missing, however, a few sources do show echoes of 3 John. So we see that the books in the present NT Canon were recognized, but what about the whole set?

Many scholars suggest the idea of a canon came from Marcion (a Gnostic-like heretic, expelled from the church of Rome c. AD 144). Marcion did produce a canon that was an edited edition of Luke and Paul’s letters. It is said that the early church’s response was a longer canon. This hypothesis, however, is coming under more and more suspicion in the academy. It is more likely that the origins of a Canon concept are earlier than Marcion. Irenaeus, writing only a few decades after Marcion and Tertullian, about 60 years later, both chastised Marcion for destructive not creative activity. Furthermore, some documents previous to Marcion are responding to the existence of an authoritative set of books. If so, it is most likely that Marcion was editing orthodox documents rather than “orthodoxing” documents.

So why is it a closed collection? Christians inherited the Canon concept from the Jews. So that Christianity already had a Canon: the OT. The Jewish historian Josephus contrasts the OT with a myriad of Pagan scriptures and notes that Judaism has a “fixed number of books.” Certainly sounds like “Canon” doesn’t it? The Second-century Christians not only had a Canon (the OT), there existed a body of literature that they recognized as NT Canon.

Yet it was not just a second-century phenomenon. It is clear that the new Scripture was being recognized very early. Both 2 Peter 3:15-16 (Paul’s letters) and 1 Timothy 5:18 (the Gospel of Luke) affirm new works as Scripture (equal with the OT). What led to this phenomenon?

I believe that the answer is found in understanding that the OT was “the book of the Covenant.” Ancient Near East covenants usually were accompanied by documents stipulating the terms. Within the OT, portions of it were called “the book of the covenant” (see, Exod 24:7; Deut 29:20; 31:9, 26; 2 Kgs 23:2, 21; 2 Chr 34:30). The same description can be found in Second-temple Jewish literature (see 1 Maccabees 1:56–57 and Sirach 24:23) referring to the whole OT. Thus, both the OT itself and later Jews considered the OT to be “book(s) of the covenant.” So then, with the advent of the New Covenant, covenant documents naturally would be expected. It is the prophesied New Covenant that is the impetus for new Scriptures (covenant documents).

This explains a few things for us: 1) the rapid recognition of apostolic documents as Scripture, 2) the limitation to apostolic men as authors for they were the witnesses of the covenant, and 3) it also explains the name of the collection. We are used to “New Testament,” but the title in Greek “he kaine diatheke” is better translated, “the New Covenant.”

Thus, the idea of a NT Canon was not the result of the councils, or a reaction to a Roman heretic. Instead, the NT flows organically from the establishment of a new covenant, predicted by the OT prophets, and instituted in and through the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the very fount, not only of all Christian blessings, but also of the NT Canon.

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The following sources were employed in this post (and great for further reading!): Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2d ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997 (reprint, 1987); C.E. Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004; C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010; A. J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, & C. L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: B & H, 2009.

Matthew Mullins: Is God Surely Dead?

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Editor’s Note: Matt Mullins is Assistant Professor of English and History of Ideas at the College at Southeastern. He also serves as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Matt has a PhD in English from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and is a perceptive reader of American literature and culture. So, he makes the right person to review Terry Eagleton’s recent book, Culture and the Death of God.

In his new book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton claims that God is not nearly as dead as many believe. Despite many attempts to kill Him off, the Almighty remains a resilient presence in contemporary culture. In fact, many thinkers on opposite sides of the God debate agree that God has made something of a comeback in recent years. Beginning with the 17th century Enlightenment, Eagleton tracks various challenges to religion over the last few centuries. He ultimately argues that culture has been unable to do away with God because it continues to rely on a view of the human that draws its significance from a sense of transcendence.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment never set out to refute religion. Enlightenment thinkers sought to civilize religion, to bring it in line with rationalist thought. Eagleton argues that it was not the personal or communal practice of religion, but religion in an “institutional sense that most of the philosophes took as their target.” Enlightenment thought ultimately failed to rationalize religion because reason was far too abstract to provide the kind of common ground societies need to motivate morality.

If the Enlightenment sought to rationalize religion, Idealism and Romanticism set out to replace it. Idealists attempted to make reason itself religious. But Idealism turns out to have been, well, too ideal. Its “dewy-eyed” view of humanity could not account for all that was wrong with the world. Given Idealism’s failed attempt to replace religion, the Romantics thought perhaps art could do the job. Imagination becomes “a secular form of grace,” and along with nature “both could serve as secular modes of transcendence.”

Idealism and Romanticism try to establish non-religious religions, preserving the need for God. The product of these failed experiments is what Eagleton calls “The Crisis of Culture.” Culture, encompassing everything from foundational values to collective identity, emerges as a vague and hazy alternative to religion. The fundamental problem at the heart of the conflict between culture and religion is the division of society into a rational elite and a religious populace: “You could opt for a politically docile populace, whose backward religious views implicitly questioned your own faith in the universality of Reason; or you could plump for a rational-minded citizenry who might confirm your own faith in the scope of Reason, but only at the cost of potential political disaffection.” In other words, each generation faces the dilemma of either embracing religion or finding a replacement that accomplishes similar social results.

Given this dilemma, it should be no surprise that nationalism turns out to be religion’s fiercest rival. Like God, the nation transcends the individual while simultaneously shaping personal identity. The intellectuals and the masses can be citizens of the same nation. The nation-state draws on the best features of Idealism and Romanticism by creating a culture with “a secular set-up (state) and…the spiritual wisdom of the common folk (nation).” Yet national cultures tend to be entangled with religion at their cores, and nationalism itself is finally another attempt to replace God rather than do away with him completely.

Each of these surrogate religions fails to muster the courage to break with God completely by acknowledging what Friedrich Nietzsche hailed as the ultimate truth: to get rid of God we must get rid of Man. “Modern secular societies,” Eagleton asserts, “have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient—even imperative—to behave as though they have not.” They have abandoned the name of God but maintain religious values because of the social dilemma. If God is to be truly killed off, we would have to totally rethink the human.

Eagleton’s analysis suggests, then, that a culture’s view of humanity can serve as a sort of canary in the coal mine for its view of God. For thousands of years philosophers and scientists have sought to explain human existence without reference to the Divine. Today, with the emergence of neuroimaging technologies, neuroscientists continue this tradition by seeking purely biological explanations for human behavior, sociality, and morality. Perhaps we will finally succeed in reasoning God into the grave. Perhaps humans are not sparks or images of the Divine but only neurons and electrical pulses. If human consciousness and action can be explained solely in immanent terms, what need do we have of transcendence?

Neuroimaging and other similar technologies may, in fact, be able to demonstrate how our brains function. They may provide evidence that reading the poetry of Rumi ignites some people’s sensory cortexes more than others, for instance. But such technologies cannot answer the question “Why?” Until we develop a technology that can address this question, or, following Eagleton’s logic, until humans stop wanting an answer, we should remain skeptical about culture’s ability to dispense with the Divine.

Daniel Heimbach gives us a Manual for Defending Marriage against Radical Deconstruction

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Why Not Same SexSEBTS Senior Professor of Christian Ethics Daniel Heimbach has recently published a unique book in the vast literature about same-sex marriage. Why Not Same-Sex Marriage: A Manual for Defending Marriage against Radical Deconstruction. Is a thorough and comprehensive treatment of the subject from an evangelical Christian viewpoint, but it is not written for an evangelical audience. Instead, it is written to persuade those who are “on the fence.”

The rapid rise of the same-sex marriage movement has left many Christians with the sense that there is something wrong with the arguments for homosexuality, but without the time or ability to research and articulate defenses for the arguments. Contributing to this, the broad and varied stream of arguments used to support normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are being broadcast as an incessant barrage in an attempt to sweep away all opposition to same-sex marriage.

This book is offers a reasonable argument in the midst of many hostile and emotional appeals for redefining the basic social institution of marriage. Heimbach writes,

Truth is the first casualty in political contests where one or both sides rely chiefly on emotion, on making good impressions, and on grabbing favorable attention at all costs. When this occurs, contests degenerate into emotional rhetoric severed from objective reality. Opponents are blackened beyond recognition, and champions become larger than life. This book enters a fray in which both sides are passionate, but it does so clinging to objective reality while resisting mischaracterization and distortion. (xiii)

In support of this goal, Heimbach presents 101 arguments, with a paragraph length statement for each argument, for the redefinition of marriage. Heimbach then offers a page-long response to the argument posed in firm, but charitable terms. Next comes a single-sentence statement of the main objection to the argument. Finally, each section includes a representative bibliography of popular and academic sources that weigh-in on both sides of the argument.

Though many conservative and evangelical blogs have helped to explain some of the arguments and counter-arguments surrounding same-sex marriage, many of those responses answer only a few of the varied attacks against traditional marriage or, sometimes, they lack the charity and careful research to make them compelling and convincing to a hostile audience.

Heimbach’s book, Why Not Same-Sex Marriage, fills the void admirably. The main substance of the volume is a collection of gracious answers to 101 false arguments for redefining civil marriage. Each of the arguments has been categorized by its type and the book arranged to reflect that. Heimbach uses categories like “Arguments Regarding the Nature of Marriage,” “Arguments Regarding Society and Social Order,” “Arguments Regarding Constitutional Law,” and “Arguments Regarding God and Theology.” The book is designed to be a reference manual for engaging in cultural dialogue.

In the back of the book, Heimbach includes two testimonies of former homosexuals who renounced their same-sex sin as they sought to live holy lives patterned after biblical norms; they were not “cured” so much as they were redeemed from their sin. He also includes two scholarly essays that provide an academically robust treatment on some of the movements that seek to redefine marriage. Finally, the book closes with a list of resources and agencies that provide assistance and information to those with questions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

This book, as any argument on this topic, is easy to caricature. Opponents will tend to dismiss alternate viewpoints and malign the motivations of those who stand by the traditional understanding of gender complementarity in marriage. However, anyone who picks up this book and reads a few arguments will find that the reasoning is sound, the assumptions are stated, and both viewpoints are represented fairly. Heimbach has done his readers a favor by grabbing a “third rail” in the ongoing cultural discussion and attempting to fairly answer the arguments of those who would want marriage redefined. Why Not Same-Sex Marriage is a substantive and significant contribution to the ongoing cultural debate.