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

[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.

Book Notice: Preaching the Farewell Discourse

Kellum_preaching-the-farewell-discourseYou can’t say you weren’t informed. Scott Kellum’s fine new book, Preaching the Farewell Discourse: An Expository Walk-Through of John 13:31–17:26, is published (B&H, 2014) and available for purchase.

Kellum, Associate Professor of Greek and New Testament at SEBTS, is perfectly positioned to write this book, as he is both an expert in the Farewell Discourse and a seasoned preacher. In the book, he argues that expository preaching is more than the serial public exegesis of a biblical book on Sunday mornings. He argues that preaching is a complex exercise that combines hermeneutics, exegesis, examination of literary context, illustration, and application.

He argues that the structure and concepts of a given text (from its largest to smallest parts) ought to form the structure of your sermon. Kellum says, “In an expository sermon everything about the text should drive the framework of the sermon (in both structure and concept).” (p. 12) In discovering the structure of a passage one discovers the meaning a biblical author wanted to convey. To preach is to discover that meaning and translate it into a contemporary idiom when the church gathers.

In chapter one, Kellum outlines his expository theory, which contains a step-by-step process for doing this. Sermon prep should include: an examination of literary context, identification of the historical context and canonical (whole Bible) context, and preparation of the proclamation, which includes outlining and illustrations (pp. 15–39). Chapter two contains Kellum’s method for analyzing the literary structure and flow of thought of John 13:31–17:26. He employs what linguists and biblical scholars call “discourse analysis” to show readers what he means. (He is clear that this is a way, not the way to study the text –– see p. 227.) Though the terminology may be new and somewhat daunting, Kellum ably explains this approach and demonstrates its payoff for studying the Bible.

Chapters 3–7 contain his study of each major section of the Farewell Discourse using the approach outlined in chapter 2. Each major unit (e.g. 14:1–31) is broken into smaller sections. Sermon sketches of these smaller units show how one moves from text to sermon. Each sketch shows the main idea of the text, main idea of the sermon, and an outline of the text. Two appendices offer practical helps in study resources (Appendix 1) and collected outlines of the Farewell Discourse (Appendix 2).

Kellum closes the book by saying, “Be confident that our Paraclete is working through you to his people. His Word will not return void to him. Set his Word on the wind, and watch the Spirit go where he desires. He requires you to be faithful. Abide in him. May God richly bless your preaching and teaching ministry.” (p. 227) The best books challenge our minds and stir our hearts. This book does both. It is well worth buying.

 

Book Notice: “A Theology of Matthew” by Charles L. Quarles

Quarles_Matt picSoutheastern’s own Chuck Quarles, Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, has recently published yet another fine work in New Testament studies. Already the author of several books including The Cradle, The Cross, & The Crown and The Sermon on the Mount, Quarles recently published A Theology of Matthew: Jesus Revealed as Deliverer, King, and Incarnate Creator (P&R, 2013).

Quarles wrote the book in order to combat what he calls “the doctrinal anemia of the contemporary church.” “Doctrinal anemia,” Quarles writes, “involves ignorance of fundamental truths of the Christian faith that are essential to the salvation of individuals or necessary for the spiritual health of God’s people” (p. 1). He communicates to the reader the results of a survey he has administered regularly to college freshmen. The test does not measure their convictions, but only what they know or understand about the key doctrines of Christianity. Quarles’s findings are not heart warming: 78% think all people are basically good; 65% cannot identify the definition of new birth from a multiple-choice question; 54% think that faith in Jesus is unnecessary for salvation. The anemia continues on down the theological line (pp. 1–2).

Rather than allowing himself to descend into a state of weltscherz, Quarles aims to write biblical theology for the church. A Theology of Matthew is the first fruit of his desire to rectify things, and he launches the project by teaching us what Matthew thought of Jesus. “Rediscovery of biblical theology best begins with a rediscovery of who Jesus is and why he came. The Gospel of Matthew is an excellent place to rediscover the biblical view of Jesus” (p. 2).

Quarles does not simply describe Matthew’s Gospel or his theology. Quarles teaches readers how to study the Gospel. In part 1, he provides the foundations for this study by describing the key historical details of the Gospel––who, what, when, where, how, and why (ch. 1). He then explains the mutually interpreting ways we ought to read the Gospel (ch. 2). For instance, we do well to read the Gospel vertically and horizontally, and especially in the light of the Old Testament, which Matthew deeply relied upon.

In Parts 2–5, Quarles explores the theological themes that emerge from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus. Matthew presents Jesus as the New Moses (part 2), New David (part 3), New Abraham (part 4), and New Creator (part 5). Quarles expertly shows how these identities of Jesus––truly one, divine identity––tie together with his roles: our Savior (part 2), our King (part 3), our Founder (part 4), and our God (part 5). The back cover nicely summarizes Quarles’s approach: “Who is Jesus? Why should we worship him? This book answers these questions by surveying Matthew’s primary theological themes and how they interconnect with the rest of the Bible. Quarles focuses on Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the Savior of sinners, the King of God’s people, the founder of a new Israel, and the incarnation of the Creator.”

Quarles has produced a coherent, clear, and moving exposition of the theology of Matthew. He has done this so that we might sit in awe of the treasures of Jesus. Yet, this is not all. “As amazing as it is to see Matthew’s awe-inspiring treasures on display, Matthew intends far more than this. . . . Matthew intends to share his treasure, not merely to show it. He longs for his treasure to become ours” (p. 193). Quarles shares this desire of Matthew, and he has expertly passed on Matthew’s theology to us so that we might truly know and worship Jesus.

Quarles also represents the commitment of SEBTS and its biblical studies faculty to serving the church through scholarship. Recent publications include but certainly are not limited to: Quarles, Andreas Köstenberger, and Scott Kellum, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Broadman & Holman, 2009), and The Lion and The Lamb (B&H, 2012); Tracy McKenzie, Idolatry in the Pentateuch (Wipf & Stock, 2010); Ben Merkle edits the very helpful 40 Questions series (Kregel); Maurice Robinson, Analytical Lexicon of New Testament Greek: Revised and Updated. Co-edited with Mark House (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012); Mark Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century (B&H, 2010); Heath Thomas, Poetry & Theology in Lamentations: The Aesthetics of an Open Text (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012); and numerous journal articles by these and others.

For those who seek to follow God’s call and keep the commands of Jesus Christ in the Great Commission, consider these SEBTS programs taught by Chuck Quarles and our other excellent biblical studies faculty.

The Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies with a minor in Biblical Studies introduces undergraduate students to the knowledge and skills central to the work of pastors, particularly in the area of Old and New Testament competency. The Master or Arts (Biblical Languages) prepares students to serve as translators and as field supervisors for Bible translation teams. The Master of Arts (Old Testament) provides serious students with an opportunity for advanced study beyond the Master of Divinity or baccalaureate degrees.

The M.Div. with Pastoral Ministry prepares students for pastoral ministry in the local church with and is grounded in study of the Old and New Testament. The M.Div. with Christian Ministry offers the same strong core education while giving one freedom to pursue elective courses in the area of OT, NT, Hebrew and Greek. The M.Div. with Advanced Biblical Studies offers the greatest opportunity for focus in the biblical languages, preparing one for a pastoral or teaching ministry. The Th.M. in Biblical Studies equips post-M.Div. students who want to enhance their theological training, either for preparation for doctoral study or as an advanced degree for service in the church. Students can take the thesis or non-thesis tracks under the supervision of a professor in the area of Old Testament. Finally, the Ph.D. in Biblical Studies prepares students to teach the Bible and biblical languages to college or seminary students, and to write about the interpretation and theology of the OT and NT.

Click the links to find out more and apply.