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

Pin It

[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.

_________________________________________________________

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.

For the Record (Chip McDaniel): Why the Old Testament is Important for the Great Commission Task: Some Thoughts from the Mission Field

Pin It

[Editor's Note: This post by Dr. Chip McDaniel, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern, continues our "For the Record" series by Southeastern faculty. In this post Dr. McDaniel addresses the relevance of the Old Testament for cross-cultural Christian mission. He surveyed several current and former missionaries to get their thoughts.]

The study of the Old Testament is important for all Christians everywhere in the world who seek to walk with God, understand His program on earth and interpret the New Testament.  There are additional considerations for those who are involved in a mission context.  I have asked several friends who have served in missions for their thoughts on this.  Together they have over 130 years of cross-cultural experience

With respect to all believers:

  • The NT shows the OT’s importance by example.  It often uses the OT as proof for its doctrine (e.g., the many times it uses the formula, “that it might be fulfilled”).  The “all Scripture” of 2 Timothy 3:16 includes the OT.
  • Theologically the message of the NT is clearer with knowledge of the OT.  Regarding the “New Covenant” one friend writes, “The ‘New’ Covenant in the NT isn’t really new, in the sense that it is related to Jeremiah’s teaching on the New Covenant in the OT!  A tracing of the major covenants through the OT can help put the New Covenant into the context of God’s redemptive program.” [EB]  The OT also shows that the Church is not divorced from God’s people and working from the very beginning of time (cf. Hebrew 11).
  • The NT makes allusions to OT persons, places and events.  The message of the NT is clearer if one knows these references.
  • Narrative teaches theology by what it affirms or decries.  There are many more lessons from the narratives of the OT than the NT.  We are told to remember the wife of Lot (Luke 17:32) and to draw lessons from Job’s patience (James 5:11).
  • One of the most beloved sections of Scripture for believers of all ages is the Psalms because it helps us enter into the thinking and emotions of the writers more than other types of biblical literature.  When Paul tells of speaking, teaching and admonishing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the Psalms are certainly a part of what is in view (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians  3:16).  The NT quotes or alludes to the Psalms more than any other book of the OT.

Practical considerations for missions:

  • The educated of other cultures thirst for Western knowledge (especially science) and will be increasingly confronted by a naturalism that ignores God’s part in the origin and maintenance of the earth.  Though the NT teaches that Christ made and sustains the world, much of the doctrine of creation is derived from the book of Genesis and passages scattered throughout the OT.
  • Some cultures identify better with the social setting of the OT.  Tribal and pastoral cultures will be able to identify with the lives of those in the OT.  One of my sources writes that when they told the story of Abraham’s seeking a wife for Isaac, the people were more accepting of the Gospel.  They said, “Up until now we’ve been debating whether we want to hear more from you, whether your stories will just end up Westernizing us and turning our people into moral retards.  But now we know that you’re not importing your Western culture.  Everyone knows that people in the West don’t find their wives that way.  This is our kind of story from God’s holy book.  We are now sure that we want to hear everything you have to tell us [about God].”  [DR]  Another source tells that many cultural bridges to his people group opened when they were exposed to the teachings of the OT.  [DS1]
  • The study of the OT plugs all cultures into God’s total program.  He is not a Western God.  His desire is for a relationship with and praise from His creation.  Those who see the Hebrew Bible as just for Jews and the Greek NT just for Christians are confronted in the OT with the view that, as one friend wrote, “The God of the OT is a missionary God with interest in all nations.” [KH]  Genesis, the Psalms and Isaiah are especially helpful here.
  • The NT is built on the story of God’s solution to the problem but the OT teaches abundantly and clearly what that problem is.  It shows the origin of evil and the career of the evil one in society.  In this regard one writes, “Sadly, many people we meet see that Gospel as being irrelevant and meaningless because they don’t even begin to have an accurate OT worldview from which to appreciate the power and genius of the Gospel.”  [DR]
  • The OT has more illustrations of the futility of false worship.  Those trapped in idol worship must come to realize that idols “don’t provide the solution that’s being sought or advertised.”  This awareness of the vanity of false worship is an important lesson for Gospel messengers to teach in an unreached culture.  [DR].
  • Liberal theologians are taking to the Two-Thirds World a message of liberation theology with much of the teaching from the OT, particularly the prophets. Some are exporting a prosperity gospel with much of its teaching coming from the OT, particularly Deuteronomy and the book of Proverbs.
  • Experience demonstrates the value of a chronological presentation of the stories of the OT leading up to the teachings of the Cross and the Christian life.  One friend writes regarding the teaching through the OT narrative, “…the best evangelism (and discipleship) takes place when placing the content of the gospel in the context of God’s total revelation…many of us are now promoting and training our missionaries to do evangelism ‘slower’ by presenting the OT story first and then the NT continuance of that story.”  [DS2]
  • Some religions of the world derive teachings from the OT, some venerate the OT prophets and some encourage the seeking of truth or wisdom wherever it might be found.  Dialog concerning portions of the OT can serve as a bridge to the claims of Christ.
  • The knowledge of the OT that historically could be presupposed in the West is not present in many cultures (or in the West anymore for that matter).  The significance of the coming of Christ is abundantly displayed in the OT.  One friend writes, “I spend much less time debating Jesus vs. [other faiths’ leaders] and more time from the OT showing why Jesus was necessary and how he came to be through the history of the prophets and the people of Abraham.” [RN]

DR, church planting in Asia

DS1, church planting in Central America

DS2, church planting in Europe and South America

EB, theological education in Europe

KH, theological education in Africa

RN, church planting in Africa and Europe

For the Record (Greg Welty): What is a “Christian Worldview”?

Pin It

[Editor's Note: Greg Welty is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern and holds the D.Phil. from the University of Oxford. As one well qualified to think, talk, and write about the intersection of Christian theology and philosophy, we asked Dr. Welty to explain a "Christian worldview." What do you think?]

“Christian worldview” is a trendy term among evangelicals. But what does it mean and why should we care? Let’s consider three questions about the term that can occasion clearer thinking about the topic.

Is “Christian worldview” a misleading term? After all, the world is a pretty big place, almost unimaginably big. Isn’t it impossible to ‘view’ all of it at once? There are at least a billion facts about the table in front of me that I do not know and will never know. So at best a worldview is a fragment or subset of knowable facts that are out there. Which facts should be included in a ‘worldview’ and why? It’s not as if God explicitly lists for us, in Proverbs or Ephesians, which propositions should make the cut. (The term ‘worldview’ doesn’t even appear in the Bible.)

Is “Christian worldview” redundant? Christians already hold that whatever God has revealed for us to believe, we should believe it – full stop. God is creator, providential sustainer, redeemer, and judge, and whatever he has done in these or any other capacities we should believe he has done, and live in light of it. And we already have terms that convey this fundamental idea: ‘theology,’ ‘biblical doctrine,’ ‘systematics’. How does ‘worldview’ add to this notion in a helpful way? If a “Christian worldview” is just my believing whatever God tells me to believe, then it’s not clear why I need a separate class on this in seminary.

Is “Christian worldview” trivial? Let’s recognize that there is now a tradition of reserving the term for Christian teaching on broad themes that intersect with the main areas of philosophy. Worldview is metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and Christian worldview is what God says on those topics. This seems to narrow things down:

1)    Metaphysics is about what is ultimately real. Well, God and his creation are ultimately real. Solipsism – the view that only I exist – is false.

2)    Epistemology is about the sources, structure, and limits of knowledge. Again, God and his creation are knowable in a variety of ways (Scripture, reason, experience, intuition), though Scripture is our primary source of knowledge of God, our primary source of the most important truths about creation, and has ‘veto power’ over any other alleged source of knowledge in any area. Global skepticism – the view that we cannot have any knowledge at all – is false.

3)    Ethics is about whether there are objective norms for human behavior, and if so, in what do they consist? (Rules? The best means to the best ends? The cultivation of virtue?) Relativism – the view that all ethical norms are relative to individuals or cultures – and nihilism – the view that there are no norms at all – are both false.

But by narrowing things down to what the Bible unambiguously teaches us in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, don’t we border on triviality? “Don’t be a solipsist! Don’t be a global skeptic! Don’t be a relativist or nihilist!” These preach well, but they are pretty thin gruel for Christian growth and guidance. It’s not even clear they’re distinctively Christian claims. (Lots of non-Christians believe these things). Is this handful of truisms all we can say on the topic of philosophy? And how many genuine solipsists, global skeptics, and relativists/nihilists are out there anyway?

Thankfully, “Christian worldview” doesn’t have to be misleading, redundant, or trivial. It does involve getting the right answers on matters of being, knowledge and value, and being able to explain why they are the right answers. But it goes far beyond this. A Christian worldview is about using all the resources of Scripture to illuminate the whole range of traditional philosophical disputes, by opening up theological avenues of insight and argument typically neglected in a secular context. It’s not that we’re limited to citing isolated Bible verses in an attempt to decide technical philosophical disputes (although if a verse does speak clearly and relevantly to any question, then go for it!). Rather, as Christian philosophers we seek to show again and again how the existence of the triune, incarnate God who has created all things for his glory and who is reconciling all things to himself matters for how we address the deepest questions of being, knowledge, and value. This God is not a new dashboard ornament we add to our collection, a thing among many other things we can believe in. He is the One in whose light we see light, and in whose absence all is darkness.

Space permits just one example. A perennial philosophical dispute is over the existence and nature of ‘universals’. What is justice? What is goodness? What is wisdom?

1)    Are these just words, bits of language we’ve invented for various practical purposes, labels that at best refer to subjective ideas in our head but which have no reference to anything existing distinct from us or independent of us? (That would be nominalism.)

2)    Do ‘justice,’ ‘goodness,’ and ‘wisdom’ instead refer to something that only exists in individual things and nowhere else? (That would be ‘moderate’ or Aristotelian realism.)

3)    Do they refer to something that exists over and above us and everything else in the world, something that would exist even if there was no physical world at all? (That would be ‘extreme’ or Platonic realism.)

4)    Or is there room for an additional view here, the view that universals are in some way true ideas in God’s mind that he has by nature, true ideas that God has of his nature and power? This would be a God-centered view of universals that combines the best of the preceding views.

  1. As in nominalism, they are ideas (divine ideas).
  2. As in Aristotelian realism, they exist in an individual and not apart from an individual (God).
  3. As in Platonic realism they exist quite independently of us and anything else in creation.

So God is the exemplar of justice, goodness, and wisdom. Creatures only have these things insofar as they imitate God, the standard. Suddenly the most abstruse debates of the ancient, medieval, and modern periods become matters to which a theologically-informed ‘worldview’ can speak, and in a way that displays how our faith contrasts with other ‘faiths’. This contrast isn’t misleading, redundant, or trivial, and it exists in dozens of other areas besides this one.

This is ‘faith seeking understanding’: by faith we already believe that God exists and that he has ideas of his nature, but our faith seeks further understanding of how these and similar truths can help illuminate a whole range of inquiries about the world. In this way Christian philosophy (or a “Christian worldview”) becomes a pathway to intellectual maturity, by repeatedly leading us to see that God is at the center and not the periphery, no matter the subject of discussion.