Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger

Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.

• Ph.D., University of Edinburgh(advisor Larry W. Hurtado)
• M.Div.  Westminster Theological Seminary in California
• B.S.  The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

Visit Dr. Kruger’s website: Canon Fodder. Follow Dr. Kruger on Twitter: @michaeljkruger

Why Christians Can Be Both Humble and Certain

One of the most common objections made to the absolute claims of Christianity is that Christians are arrogant. Christians are arrogant to claim that they are right; arrogant to claim others are wrong; arrogant to claim that truth can be known. Unfortunately, in the midst of such accusations, no one bothers to ask which definition of humility is being used. Over the years, the definition of humility has undergone a gradual but nonetheless profound change. Especially in the intellectual community. In the modern day, humility has basically become synonymous with another word: uncertainty. To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant. Thus, the cardinal sin in the intellectual world is to claim to know anything for sure.

Of course, this shift presents a real problem for Christianity. Christians believe that God has revealed himself clearly in his Word. Thus, when it comes to key historical questions (Who was Jesus? What did he say? What did he do?) or key theological questions (Who is God? What is Heaven? How does one get there?), Christians believe they have a basis on which they can claim certainty: God’s revelation. Indeed, to claim we don’t know the truth about such matters would be to deny God, and to deny his Word. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians are certain about everything; but there can be certainty about these basic Christian truths).

Thus, for Christians, humility and uncertainty are not synonymous. One can be certain and humble at the same time. How? For this simple reason: Christians believe that they understand truth only because God has revealed it to them (1 Corinthians 1:26-30).  In other words, Christians are humble because their understanding of truth is not based on their own intelligence, their own research, their own acumen. Rather, it is 100% dependent on the grace of God. Christian knowledge is a dependent knowledge. And that leads to humility (1 Corinthians 1:31). This obviously doesn’t mean all Christians are personally humble. But, it does mean they should be, and have adequate grounds to be.

Although Christians have a basis on which they can be humble and certain at the same time, that is not necessarily the case with other worldviews. Take the atheist for instance. He is quite certain of a great many things (contrary to his claim that one cannot be certain of anything). He is certain either that God does not exist (hard atheism), or certain that one cannot know whether God exists (soft atheism). And, in his critique of Christianity, he is quite certain that Christians are mistaken in their claims to be certain. In essence, the atheist is claiming, “I know enough about the world to know that a person cannot possibly have a basis for certainty.” That in itself is a pretty dogmatic claim.

But, on what is the atheist basing these far reaching claims about the universe? His own finite, fallen, human mind. He has access only to his own limited, knowledge. So, now we should ask the question again: Who is being arrogant? The Christian or the atheist? Both claim certainty on a great many transcendental issues. But one does so while claiming to be dependent on the one who would know such things (God), and the other does so dependent on only themselves. If either position is a posture of arrogance, it would not be the Christian one.

No doubt, the atheist would object to this line of reasoning on the grounds that he rejects the Bible as divine revelation. But, this misses the point entirely. The issue is not whether he is convinced of the Bible’s truth, but rather the question is which worldview, the Christian’s or the atheist’s, has a rational basis for claiming certainty about transcendental matters. Only the Christian has such a basis. And since his knowledge of such things is dependent on divine grace, he can be humble and certain at the same time.

For more on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and the issue of Christian knowledge, see my recent sermon.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Did the Early Church Fathers Think that They Were Inspired Like the Apostles?

A number of years ago, Albert Sundberg wrote a well-known article arguing that the early church fathers did not see inspiration as something that was uniquely true of canonical books.[1] Why? Because, according to Sundberg, the early Church Fathers saw their own writings as inspired. Ever since Sundberg, a number of scholars have repeated this claim, insisting that the early fathers saw nothing distinctive about the NT writings as compared to writings being produced in their own time period.

However, upon closer examination, this claim proves to be highly problematic. Let us consider several factors.

First, the early church fathers repeatedly express that the apostles had a distinctive authority that was higher and separate from their own. So, regardless of whether they viewed themselves as “inspired” in some sense, we have to acknowledge that they still viewed the inspiration/authority of the apostles as somehow different.

A few examples should help. The book of 1 Clement not only encourages its readers to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul,”[2] but also offers a clear reason why: “The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the Apostles from the Christ.”[3] In addition the letter refers to the apostles as “the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church.”[4]

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, also recognizes the unique role of the apostles as the mouthpiece of Christ, “The Lord did nothing apart from the Father… neither on his own nor through the apostles.”[5] Here Ignatius indicates that the apostles were a distinct historical group and the agents through which Christ worked. Thus, Ignatius goes out of his way to distinguish own authority as a bishop from the authority of the apostles, “I am not enjoining [commanding] you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles, I am condemned.”[6]

Justin Martyr displays the same appreciation for the distinct authority of the apostles, “For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number… by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God.”[7] Moreover, he views the gospels as the written embodiment of apostolic tradition, “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them.”[8]

Likewise, Irenaeus views all the New Testament Scriptures as the embodiment of apostolic teaching: “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.”[9] Although this is only a sampling of patristic writers (and more could be added), the point is clear. The authoritative role of the apostles was woven into the fabric of Christianity from its very earliest stages.

Second, there is no indication that the early church fathers, as a whole, believed that writings produced in their own time were of the same authority as the apostolic writings and thus could genuinely be contenders for a spot in the NT canon. On the contrary, books were regarded as authoritative precisely because they were deemed to have originated fom the apostolic time period.

A couple of examples should help. The canonical status of the Shepherd of Hermas was rejected by the Muratorian fragment (c.180) on the grounds that was produced “very recently, in our own times.”[10] This is a clear indication that early Christians did not see recently produced works as viable canonical books.

Dionysius of Corinth (c.170) goes to great lengths to distinguish his own letters from the “Scriptures of the Lord” lest anyone get the impression he is composing new canonical books (Hist. eccl. 4.23.12). But why would this concern him if Christians in his own day (presumably including himself) were equally inspired as the apostles and could produce new Scriptures?

The anonymous critic of Montanism (c.196), recorded by Eusebius, shares this same sentiment when he expresses his hesitancy to produce new written documents out of fear that “I might seem to some to be adding to the writings or injunctions of the word of the new covenant” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.3). It is hard to avoid the sense that he thinks newly published books are not equally authoritative as those written by apostles.

Third, and finally, Sundberg does not seem to recognize that inspiration-like language can be used to describe ecclesiastical authority—which is real and should be followed—even though that authority is subordinate to the apostles. For instance, the writer of 1 Clement refers to his own letters to the churches as being written “through the Holy Spirit.”[11] While such language certainly could be referring to inspiration like the apostles, such language could also be referring to ecclesiastical authority which Christians believe is also guided by the Holy Spirit (though in a different manner).

How do we know which is meant by Clement? When we look to the overall context of his writings (some of which we quoted above), it is unmistakenly clear that he puts the apostles in distinct (and higher) category than his own. We must use this larger context to interpret his words about his own authority.  Either Clement is contradicting himself, or he sees his own office as somehow distinct from the apostles.

In sum, we have very little patristic evidence that the early church fathers saw their own “inspiration” or authority as on par with that of the apostles. When they wanted definitive teaching about Jesus their approach was always retrospective—they looked back to that teaching which was delivered by the apostles.

[1] A.C. Sundberg, “The Biblical Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration,” Int 29 (1975): 352–371.

[2] 1 Clem. 47.1-3.

[3] 1 Clem. 42.1-2.

[4] 1 Clem 5.2.

[5] Magn. 7.

[6] Rom. 4.4.

[7] 1 Apol. 39.

[8] Apol. 66.3.

[9] Haer. 3.1.1.

[10] Muratorian Fragment, 74.

[11] 63.2.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

3 Concerns with Modern Mercy Ministry

There has been much talk in the last number of years regarding the role of mercy ministry (advocating for social justice) in the life of the local church. I have addressed that issue in a number of previous posts, including this one here. In addition, I recently led a faculty forum—an informal discussion time between students and faculty—on the topic here on the RTS Charlotte campus.

In that faculty forum, I acknowledged the legitimacy of doing “mercy ministry” in the local church. After all, Christians should be known for acts of kindness and grace. Indeed, in my own research on second-century Christianity, it was clear that the early believers were different from their surrounding culture precisely in their willingness to help the poor and downtrodden when others would not.

However, that said, I also offered a number of area of concerns about modern mercy ministry:

1. We must be careful to maintain “Word ministry,” the proclamation of the gospel and the instruction of God’s people, as the core mission of the church. While deeds of mercy might be a natural response to the gospel, and a fruit of the gospel which rightly adorns the church, it should not be viewed as a co-equal with the mission to proclaim the gospel. The Great Commission (Matt 28:19–20) makes it clear that the core mission of the church is Word and Sacrament: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them.”

2. Even more concerning is the trend in some quarters that actually raises mercy ministry above the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, in some places, mercy ministry is done without any real efforts towards evangelizing or proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Mercy ministry in these instances has, in one sense, replaced the proclamation of the gospel. I mentioned this problem in the prior post here and called us back to a Christ-centered mercy ministry.

3. Our concept of mercy ministry is often too narrowly conceived. When people think of mercy ministry, they most often (and automatically) think of ministry to urban, inner-city, poor. While such ministry is certainly worthy, we need to conceive of mercy in broader ways. Often left out of such discussions is ministry to protect the lives of the unborn. If there were ever an instance of social injustice, surely it is the tragedy of abortion. Are advocates of mercy ministry equally interested in the pro-life cause? And what of groups in suburban or rural contexts? Are they lacking in need? Some of the poorest communities are not located in urban centers. And what about groups other than the poor? What of the sick and the elderly (who are not necessarily poor)? Or those who are victims of crime? Curiously, it is rarely noticed that the needy person in the parable of the Good Samaritan was not a poor person. On the contrary, he carried enough money to be a victim of theft. Who knows, he may have even been wealthy! Regardless, the parable of the good Samaritan reminds us that economic impoverishment is not the only (nor even the greatest) physical need.

I was encouraged to notice many of these same concerns were echoed in a recent article in The Master’s Seminary Journal: “Regaining our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions” by Joel James and Brian Biedebach (a PDF can be found here). The authors are both long-term missionaries in Africa and have observed a trend in the last generation where social justice has begun to eclipse the concern for proclaiming the gospel. Many missionaries, they observe, are no longer planting churches at all (in fact, some seem unconcerned about even being involved in a local church). Instead, some modern missions work has begun to look more like the Peace Corps. I encourage you to read the entire article.

In summary, we should be clear that both gospel proclamation and deeds of mercy should be part of the life of the church. We are not forced to choose. But we must also be careful to distinguish between them. Deeds of mercy are not the gospel. They are the fruit of the gospel. D.A. Carson said it well:

Some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.

Carson’s point should be particularly compelling to the Reformed church. It is Reformed folks who rightly express concerns about preaching that lacks the gospel. Such preaching is mere moralism, we are told. Would we not therefore expect the same concerns to be offered regarding mercy ministry that lacks the gospel? Otherwise, mercy ministry would be mere moralism.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Do Genesis 1 and 2 Disagree?

In a prior post (see here), I announced a new blog series designed to address problematic passage in the Bible. This new series will feature guest posts from other evangelical scholars and is largely a response to the series by Peter Enns’ entitled, “Aha moments: biblical scholars tell their stories.”

The contributor for this installment is my friend and colleague John Currid (Ph.D., University of Chicago). John is the Carl W. McMurray Professor of Old Testament here at RTS Charlotte and the Project Director of the Bethsaida Excavations Project in Israel (1995–present). He is the author numerous books, including Against the Gods (Crossway, 2013); Doing Archaeology in the Land of the Bible (Baker Academic, 1999); and Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1997).


Those who read this blog know that Peter Enns has a blog series called “aha moments from biblical scholars.” The “aha” moment for these scholars is simply coming to the realization that the Bible is not true in all that it says, but it contains many contradictions that call into question the nature and veracity of the text. One of the guest scholars who has had an “aha” moment is Charles Halton, an assistant professor at Houston Baptist University.

Prof. Halton’s enlightenment regarding the nature of Scripture occurred during his study of Genesis 1 and 2. His conclusion is simple, common, and it has been around a long time: Genesis 1 and 2 are conflicting accounts of creation and are, in reality, two different renditions of creation. The seminal issue for him appears to be that the two texts give two different sequences or chronologies of the creation event. Whereas Genesis 1 presents humans as the last created, Genesis 2 presents them as the first created, even before plants and animals.

The two verses that Prof. Halton uses to support his view of conflicting creation accounts are Genesis 2:5 and 2:19. We will consider each of them in turn.

Although Prof. Halton provides little discussion about Genesis 2:5, it is still clear, at least in my reading of him, that he sees a contradiction between it and Genesis 1. He says in reference to that verse, “after the human is made, God sows a garden and plants begin to sprout.” I assume that he is arguing, as do many others, that humanity was created prior to the plant life in Genesis 2, and, if so, that would be contrary to Genesis 1 in which the opposite is true.

However, one needs to be careful at this juncture to make certain exactly what the text says. Observe that the text does not say there were no plants in the field, but it merely says that they had not yet sprouted or budded. In other words, they are there but they have not grown yet because there is no rain and no man to till the ground at this point.

Many scholars, like Prof. Halton, assume that Genesis 2:5 includes all plant life. As Meredith Kline says, “Verse 5 itself describes a time when the earth was without vegetation.” It seems more likely that this verse merely refers to two categories of plant life and not to all vegetation. And, as we already mentioned, one of these categories is in the ground but has not yet budded. Therefore, it is probably the case that some plant life existed on the earth prior to the creation of mankind in Genesis 2 as in Genesis 1.

Dr. Halton saves most of his discussion for Genesis 2:19. He reads that verse as saying, “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky.” God was, according to Halton, trying to find a companion for Adam. So in this account the animals are created after humanity in contrast to Genesis 1 in which they were created before humans. Indeed, this appears to be a contradiction that is troubling and cannot be easily dismissed.

Halton then accuses two translations—the ESV and the NIV—of obscuring the natural flow of the passage by translating it as “had formed,” which would be an example of a pluperfect tense. The translation “had formed” would reflect a previous creation of animals prior to the creation of mankind. God, then, would simply be bringing the animals before Adam that had already been created. Halton argues that a pluperfect translation does injustice to the verb. The Hebrew verb is a narrative preterite which indicates sequential action, but the pluperfect would, in fact, remove the immediate sequential aspect of the verb. Thus, he is saying that the ESV and the NIV are attempting to harmonize and reconcile two contradictory creation accounts by removing immediate sequential action from the verb “to form.”

Thus, with the flick of the grammatical wrist Prof. Halton concludes that the ESV and NIV translations “opt for a rather forced reading of the Hebrew.” The case, however, is not that simple. Yes, he is correct that normally the narrative preterite verb does require sequence from the immediately preceding verb and the flow of the passage, but certainly not always. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that the narrative preterite verb (sometimes called wayyiqtol) does at times, in fact, serve as a pluperfect. We cannot take the time here to lay out all the evidence and, therefore, I would refer the reader to the important study of C. John Collins, “The WAYYIQTOL as ‘Pluperfect’: When and Why,” Tyndale Bulletin 46.1 (1995):117–40. More recent Hebrew grammars are recognizing the wayyiqtol verb form can be used in a pluperfect sense. For example, the significant syntax book written by Waltke and O’Connor concludes that the wayyiqtol form may indeed entail a pluperfect situation, and they provide some examples of that usage (pp. 552–53). Consequently, the claim of Prof. Halton in this matter is too sweeping and, therefore, should not be used as evidence for contradictory accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.

A hermeneutic of suspicion appears to dominate those who hold to two separate, contradictory creation accounts from two different sources. It is true that the two chapters of Genesis view the creation event from two different angles or perspectives. Genesis 1 paints the creation of the cosmos in a sequential, broad stroke, whereas Genesis 2:4–25 presents an elaboration of the sixth day and focuses primarily on the creation of mankind. This is one reason that Genesis 1 employs the name Elohim for God: this is the name of the powerful Creator who made the heavens and the earth. Genesis 2 primarily uses the name Yahweh Elohim, not because it is a different account, but it is stressing the covenantal name for God who has a covenantal relationship with his people. Genesis 1 and 2 are not contradictory accounts of the creation, but complementary accounts that highlight different aspects of the creation event.

Prof. Halton’s view has been around for a long time, at least as early as the late 19th century. There is nothing new here. In fact, it really is not an “aha” moment, but actually a “ho-hum” moment.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

5 Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Sermon Illustrations

Everyone loves a good story. They can be powerful, illuminating, inspiring, and, most of all, they can be memorable. And they can really enhance the effectiveness of a sermon. No doubt, some of our favorite sermons are our favorite precisely because of the illustrations or stories they contained.

And history bears this out. Not only was Jesus himself the master storyteller (and illustrator), but some of the most famous sermons in history have contained them. One only needs to think of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards effectively compared the precarious situation of sinners dangling over the fires of hell to the way spiders dangle by the very thinnest of webs.

But illustrations do not always turn out the way we intended. Indeed, sometimes illustrations can do more harm than good. Here are some of the major illustration pitfalls to avoid:

1. Offering an illustration too soon.

When it comes to illustrations, perhaps the number one mistake is offering one before the exegetical or theological point has really been explained or adequately developed. Remember, illustrations are designed to illuminate something else. But they are unable to do that if the something else has never been sufficiently explored.

Too many pastors use illustrations as a substitute for exegesis, rather than as something that illumines or applies their exegesis.

In short, don’t jump the gun. You may have a zinger of an illustration waiting in the wings, but hold onto it until you have made a point worth illustrating.

2. Offering illustrations too often.

Since we know that illustrations can be powerful, we might reach the conclusion that more is always better. But some sermons run the danger of being over-illustrated. A new story or illustration every 3–4 minutes can actually dilute the entire enterprise. Illustrations are necessary and helpful, but use them sparingly. Fewer and more meaningful illustrations can have a deeper impact than numerous and less meaningful ones.

Spurgeon, the master illustrator, said that a sermon without illustrations is like a house without windows. But, he adds, you don’t want a house that is only windows!

3. Offering only one kind of illustration.

In most pulpits today, the standard type of illustration is to tell a story. There is certainly nothing wrong with this.  Jesus told many stories and they can be quite effective. But stories are not the only kind of illustration. Jesus also used analogies or what one might call “word pictures.” These are more brief and usually draw upon some well-known fact of life. For example, “The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed…” (Matt 13:31).

The Puritans were masters of this sort of illustration. When seeking to explain how one sin begets more sin, Richard Baxter simply said, “If one thief be in the house, he will let in the rest.” Short, but powerful. And this sort of illustration does not burn the clock like so many stories are apt to do.

4. Offering illustrations from only one type of source.

Where does a pastor get his illustrations from? It is the source of one’s illustration that can make or break its effectiveness. You want an illustration that virtually all the congregation can relate to—and that fits the tone/mood of the sermon.

Unfortunately, it is has become all too common today for preachers to draw illustrations almost exclusively from pop culture—particularly movies and television shows. Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong (in principle) to using such illustrations. But pastors need to be very careful if this is the only well from which they are drawing. For one, not every congregant may be watching that movie or TV show you are citing. Moreover, you want to be careful about whether you really want them to watch certain movies or shows.

Other sources of illustration are available: historical events, news stories, the natural world, and even personal experiences.

In addition, I would suggest that the best source for good illustrations is often overlooked: the Bible itselfScripture is packed with great stories that are perfect to illustrate virtually any sermon point.  Indeed, it was often the practice of biblical writers to illustrate their point with other biblical stories! (e.g., just see Hebrews 11).

5. Offering illustrations that draw attention to themselves.

There is a certain kind of illustration that can take on a life of its own.  It may be so provocative or so over-the-top, that it becomes clear that the illustration is designed to take center stage. Instead of serving to illumine something else, the illustration itself becomes the point.

Pastors must be careful of these sorts of illustrations, lest they be remembered and the sermon forgotten. As Spurgeon said, illustrations, like windows, “are meant not so much to be seen as to be seen through.”

In the end, we can affirm the very positive role of illustrations. But if these five pitfalls are avoided, they can be even more effective at doing what they were intended, namely pointing away from themselves and to the glory of Christ.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

A Key Sign That You are Maturing as a Preacher

As a seminary professor (and a pastor) I spend a lot of time helping students grow and develop as preachers. After hearing a student preach, I will often get coffee or lunch with that student, and we will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the sermon and how it can be improved. 

Over the years, I have learned to ask students a key question that can reveal a lot about how they are developing as a preacher.

“What did you leave out?”

Most of the time that I ask that question I am met with a blank stare. Students expect to be asked about the content of the sermon—i.e., what was left in. But they are not prepared to answer the question about what is left out. And there is a reason for that. Often, very little is left out.

One of the key mistakes of young preachers (and a mistake I still make!) is to take all that they have learned during their sermon prep and to put it in their sermon. Every exegetical observation, every textual nuance, every connection with OT (or the NT), every analogy or illustration, makes it into the final version.

Of course, this is why sermons from seminary students are known for being extremely detailed, overly technical, and often quite lengthy. 

Why do seminary students tend to do this? Positively, it is because they are textually-oriented. They care about content. They care about theology. They care about getting it right. And these motives are to be commended.

But if sermons are going to be effective, and if one is going to grow as a preacher, there needs to be another factor guiding one’s sermon prep beyond concern for content. And that something is the congregation. God calls us to preach the word, to be sure. But he calls us to preach to people. Real, living people. People with a distinctive set of issues, needs, and problems.

And once you have your God-given audience in mind, then suddenly you have a reason to hone, shape, mold, and craft the sermon to connect with the people to whom you are preaching. And when you do that, some things get left out. Some points aren’t as important as others. Some illustrations just don’t work.

And this is, by far, the hardest part of sermon prep. It is one thing to sweep together a bunch of information about a passage. It is quite another to shape that content with real people in mind.

Put simply, preachers need to make a distinction between mining and sifting. Mining is the hardcore research that draws the raw material of a passage together. Sifting is the hard work of picking the jewels out of that material that are needed by your congregation. We do mining because we are textually-oriented. We do sifting because we are people-oriented. Good preachers do both. 

It is the same with those who make films. A director may have countless hours of footage at the end of the production process. But no one puts all their footage into the movie. A good film is due not just to many hours spent filming. A good film is also due to many painful hours spent editing.  

When we are done with our sermon prep, we should be surrounded by many good points, observations, and applications that just didn’t make it into the final version. And that is a good thing.

So, what is a key sign of a maturing preacher? Scraps on the cutting room floor.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

7 Essential Lessons from a Christian Scholar at a Secular University

There are countless stories of evangelicals who head off to Ph.D. programs in hopes of becoming a professor and having a positive influence in the secular university environment. This is particularly the case in the fields of biblical studies or philosophical theology. And such aspirations are certainly commendable.

Unfortunately, the outcome of such endeavors is not always as expected. While these evangelicals intend to influence the academy, very often the academy ends up influencing them. As a result, many evangelicals end up abandoning the very commitments that led them towards advanced study in the first place.

But even though academic study has led some evangelicals to abandon their commitments, occasionally the opposite happens. Sometimes secular scholars abandon their commitment to liberal thinking and actually become evangelicals. And when this happens, their eyes are opened up to a number of truths that they had never noticed before (or at least refused to notice).

Such is the story of Thomas Oden. Oden received his Ph.D from Yale under Richard Niebuhr and was enamored with the theology of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Bultmann. He interacted with some of the greatest minds of his generation such as Gadamer, Pannenberg, and Karl Barth. He was a classic liberal scholar.

But, then Oden had a change of heart. He tells the story in his book A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP, 2014). One day a Jewish friend looked him in the eye and reminded him of something very few would dare to say: that he would stand under divine judgment on the last day.

Then his friend said, “If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground” (137).


The words struck a nerve and Oden began a journey that eventually resulted in a 180-degree turn away from liberalism and towards historic, traditional Christianity. Oden’s story provides a rare glimpse into the world of modern liberal scholarship from the perspective of someone who used to believe all the standard critical views but then changed his mind. Thus, there are a number of lessons we can learn from his journey:

Lesson 1: Contemporary scholarly methods do not always lead one to truth.

The Goliath of the modern academy can be an intimidating foe. People naturally assume that the consensus of modern scholarship must be right. But, Oden discovered that much of what he was taught was flat out wrong. He states, “I had put too much uncritical trust in contemporary methods of historical study and behavioral engineering... the change in perception was momentous for me.” (139).

Lesson 2: Many of the questions raised by modern scholars have been addressed (long) before in the history of Christianity.

When critical scholars uncover what they regard as incongruities or problems with the Bible (or Christianity), they are often presented as new discoveries that no one has heretofore noticed or addressed. But as Oden began to read early Christian writers, particular in the first few centuries of the faith, he realized (to his surprise) that they were quite aware of these challenges and difficulties and were already addressing them head on. He writes, “Every question I previously thought of as new and unprecedented, I found had already been much investigated” (138).

Lesson 3: The quest for originality and newness can be a dangerous one.

One of the standard values of many modern scholars is that new is better than old. New approaches, new ideas, new ways of thinking are highly prized. Old ways are archaic, out of date, and primitive. Oden confesses that he used to think this way, “I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy” (140). But then he came to realize that theology can be done more reliably and faithfully by uncovering the historic Christian teachings on a particular subject, rather than trying to come up with something utterly new. Oden describes his new direction, “I set about trying scrupulously to abstain from creating any new doctrine. It was the best decision I made as a theologian…. I realized that I could be a theologian simply by reflecting accurately out of the great minds of Christian teaching” (144).

Lesson 4: Scholarly views can have serious social consequences.

Sometimes people have the misperception that scholarly arguments and opinions have no influence on culture and society—they are just ideas locked away in the ivory tower. So people think. But Oden realized that his liberal scholarly views had serious social consequences. They can impact real lives. And after he changed his direction, he lamented and regretted these consequences. He writes, “My past visions of vast plans for social change had irreparably harmed many innocents, especially the unborn. The sexually permissive lifestyle, which I had not joined but failed to critique, led to a generation of fatherless children. The political policies I had promoted were intended to increase justice… but ended in diminishing personal responsibility and freedom” (145). Oden then states, “Since true guilt was seldom mentioned in modern secular ethics, I had to learn to repent, to see my own arrogance.”

Lesson 5: The modern scholarly community is not tolerant like people think.

There is a perception out there that the academy is a community committed to neutrality, tolerance, and intellectual freedom. Professors are free to have whatever beliefs they find compelling and supported by the evidence. Right? While there are still faculty (and institutions) that share this approach, there are many who do not. And Oden discovered this reality. After he changed intellectual directions, his colleagues did not respond with tolerance. They did not give him his intellectual freedom. They did not allow him to hold his own convictions. On the contrary, he was vilified, marginalized, and viewed as an intellectual pariah. He writes, “My colleagues viewed my reversed direction as disastrous academically and they urged me to reconsider…. To become an articulate Christian believer in a modern university is to become a pariah to many” (146). And Oden was treated this way for holding beliefs that have been part of historical Christianity for thousands of years.

Lesson 6: A faithful voice can have a significant impact.

Evangelicals are so outnumbered in the academy that it would be easy to conclude they have no impact. However, the rarity of biblical fidelity at the higher levels of scholarship makes such voices stand out all the more. Although Oden did not see the fruit of his labors at first, it turned out that many were impacted, influenced, and encouraged by his writing and his ministry. In fact, it turned out that many other liberal scholars in his day followed the new path towards traditional Christianity. He writes, “I at times imagined that I was the only one who was on this eccentric path backward from modern accommodation to classic Christianity…. But as I learned to listen to the life stories of others who has similar trajectories to mine, I found their companionship encouraging” (178).

Lesson 7: Modern Ideologies will eventually collapse under their own weight.

Oden tells the story of how modernity collapsed during the 1960s and 1970s because its worldview proved to be too problematic. That movement has now been replaced by postmodernity. But that movement too will eventually collapse under the weight of its own incoherence and internal inconsistency. Oden argues that this is a cycle of the world, but that biblical Christianity will always remain. He writes, “The good news is that the seeds of God’s good news are planted in every dying culture. What is ahead of postmodernity? No one knows, but whatever it is, it will not succeed in destroying the deep roots of Christian memory” (164).

These seven lessons provide both warnings and encouragements for evangelical scholars today. They are a warning about the lure of the academy and the dangers of always trying to come up with something new. And they are an encouragement that fidelity and faithfulness to Scripture are more important than academic respect and the accolades of one’s colleagues.

And more than anything else, it is an encouragement that while challenges to Christianity come and go, the long view of history shows that Christianity will prevail.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

The NT Canon was Not Decided at Nicea—Nor Any Other Church Council

Note: Full blog series can be found here.

For whatever set of reasons, there is a widespread belief out there (internet, popular books) that the New Testament canon was decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD—under the conspiratorial influence of Constantine. The fact that this claim was made in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code shows how widespread it really is. Brown did not make up this belief; he simply used it in his book.

The problem with this belief, however, is that it is patently false. The Council of Nicea had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament canon (nor did Constantine). Nicea was concerned with how Christians should articulate their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus. Thus it was the birthplace of the Nicean creed.

When people discover that Nicea did not decide the canon, the follow up question is usually, “Which council did decide the canon?” Surely we could not have a canon without some sort of authoritative, official act of the church by which it was decided. Surely we have a canon because some group of men somewhere voted on it. Right?

This whole line of reasoning reveals a fundamental assumption about the New Testament canon that needs to be corrected, namely that it was (or had to be) decided by a church council. The fact of the matter is that when we look into early church history there is no such council. Sure, there are regional church councils that made declarations about the canon (Laodicea, Hippo, Carthage). But these regional councils did not just “pick” books they happened to like, but affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. In other words, these councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.

Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that was already there. 

This raises an important fact about the New Testament canon that every Christian should know. The shape of our New Testament canon was not determined by a vote or by a council, but by a broad and ancient consensus. Here we can agree with Bart Ehrman, “The canon of the New Testament was ratified by widespread consensus rather than by official proclamation.”1  

This historical reality is a good reminder that the canon is not just a man-made construct. It was not the result of a power play brokered by rich cultural elites in some smoke-filled room. It was the result of many years of God’s people reading, using, and responding to these books. 

The same was true for the Old Testament canon. Jesus himself used and cited the Old Testament writings with no indication anywhere that there was uncertainty about which books belonged. Indeed, he held his audience accountable for knowing these books. But, in all of this, there was no Old Testament church council that officially picked them (not even Jamnia). They too were the result of ancient and widespread consensus.

In the end, we can certainly acknowledge that humans played a role in the canonical process. But not the role that is so commonly attributed to them. Humans did not determine the canon; they responded to it. In this sense, we can say that the canon really chose itself.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Are Christians Narrow-Minded and Intolerant?

When it comes to modern religious discourse, there is no greater sin than to claim your religion is the only one that is true. You can believe just about anything and receive a shrug of the shoulders from an unbelieving world, but say that you believe in one way to heaven and accusations of narrow-mindedness and intolerance are inevitable.

Years ago, there was a well-known interview between Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise about Scientology. Oprah was clearly skeptical of Cruise’s religious beliefs, but she then asked the million dollar question: “You don’t believe Scientology is the only true religion, do you?” It was easy to tell that the question was loaded with a mountain of implications; answer this wrongly and the floodgates would be opened.

Cruise, of course, answered the question as Oprah would expect. He denied that Scientology claimed to be the only true religion (apparently only evangelical Christians are that foolish). After clarifying this, one could sense the tension in the room immediately lessen.

Given this cultural context, how should Christians deal with the inevitable confrontation over the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven? For one, we need to clarify that this is not simply a claim that we are making on behalf of Christianity. It is not as if Christians enjoy their religion so much that they decide to make extravagant claims about it. Nor are the exclusive claims of Christianity merely a fear tactic designed to recruit more converts.

Instead, we need to remind folks that this is a claim that Jesus himself made (John 14:6) and that we, as followers of Jesus, are simply upholding his teachings. For this reason, I like the answer that RTS Charlotte professor James Anderson gave to this question in a recent interview for The Gospel Coalition:

It’s narrow-minded and intolerant to claim Jesus is the only way to God. No religion has the whole truth—including yours.

If it’s narrow-minded and intolerant to claim that Jesus is the only way to God, then Jesus himself must have been narrow-minded and intolerant, because that’s exactly what he claimed about himself (see, for example, Matthew 11:27 and John 14:6). Jesus also claimed to be the Son of God from heaven and that only those who believe in him will have eternal life. Yet when we read the four Gospels, we don’t encounter a narrow-minded, intolerant, arrogant man. Rather, we see a wide-hearted, selfless, and humble man, full of grace and compassion toward others.

When you say, “No religion has the whole truth,” I have to ask: How do you know? How could you know? Have you thoroughly investigated every world religion? And wouldn’t you need some kind of access to the whole truth yourself in order to make the judgment that no religion has the whole truth? The more pertinent question isn’t whether any religion has the whole truth, but whether the central and defining claims of any particular religion are in fact true.

Christians don’t claim to possess the whole truth. Only God could make that claim! But we do believe God has revealed the most important truths through Jesus, and that Jesus has more credibility than anyone else in his claim to know—indeed, to be—the way to God. Is there anyone in history who has a more credible claim to know God? Is there anyone who showed greater insight into the human heart and our deepest spiritual needs? Don’t take my word for it. Study the Gospels for yourself and draw your own conclusions!

Anderson’s response also highlights the problems with the well-worn analogy that all religions are like blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. As the blind men try to determine what an elephant is like, one feels the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake!” Another feels the tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope!” Another feels a leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree trunk!” And so, the argument goes, they are all right because they are only seeing part of the truth.

The core problem with the elephant analogy is that the person using the analogy is assuming that they themselves are not blind! The person using the analogy is basically saying, “Let me tell you how all religions really work.” But that is an enormous (and arrogant!) claim that requires near-omniscient knowledge. How would this person know how all religions work? And why should this person be exempt from the very analogy they just gave?

This is precisely Anderson’s point. As soon as the non-Christian claims that no one has absolute truth, then he himself is making a wide, sweeping, all-encompassing truth claim that must be justified.

It is as this point that the distinctiveness of Christianity stands out. Christians don’t make exclusive claims on the basis of their own knowledge, but on the basis of Christ’s knowledge. If he is the very Son of God, it is reasonable to trust what he says about the way religion works.

To put it simply, if a person is going to make absolute, all-encompassing truth claims, they better have access to some source of knowledge that is absolute and all-encompassing. And, of course, this is the very thing that the non-Christian lacks.

To read the whole interview with James Anderson, see here.

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

Do You Obey God with Hopefulness?

God has a habit of asking his people to do difficult things. Unthinkable things. Nonsensical things. He asked Noah to build a 400-foot ark in the middle of dry land. He asked Gideon to send 32,000 troops home before the battle with the Midianites, leaving him only 300 men. And he asked Hosea to marry an unfaithful woman—a prostitute. In all such instances, God calls his people to radical obedience. He calls us to trust Him.

But do we? The issue isn’t just whether we obey. The issue is how we obey.  Do we do the difficult thing God is calling us to do with hope and confidence that all things work for good? Or do we obey God with a sense of resignation and despair? I fear the latter is all too often the case. Sure, we may do the unthinkable thing God is asking us to do. But we have already determined ahead of time that all hope is lost. No good can come from this. So, we obey out of sheer duty.

But there is a better way. And Abraham models it for us. Perhaps no one was tested more deeply and profoundly than Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice his one and only son (Gen 22:1). Not only was this the beloved boy that he and Sarah had waited and longed for, but all the promises of God converged upon him. Abraham had been told that all nations would be blessed through his offspring—blessings that included the coming of the promised Messiah. And Isaac was the key to all of these promises.

While this scenario would certainly constitute a good basis for wallowing in despair, Abraham does not take this path. Instead, he does something radical. He believes. We see this amazing faith at a point in the story that is often overlooked. After reaching Mt. Moriah, Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Notice that Abraham expressly states that both he and the boy will return from the mountain. This is not just Abraham putting on a good face for his servants. Abraham really believed that somehow, some way God would keep his promises regarding Isaac. In fact, Hebrews 11:19 tells us why Abraham was so confident, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.”

In other words, Abraham didn’t just obey God. He obeyed with hopefulness. He obeyed with a Godly optimism. And that is the only way we can obey God in the midst of unthinkable trials. And it is the only way we can obey God over the long term. Our obedience must flow from our belief that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28).

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.

The Four Gospels Were Well Established by the End of the Second Century

Note: This is the fifth installment of a blog series announced here.

When it comes to basic facts about the NT canon that Christians should memorize, one of the most critical is the statement by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, around A.D. 180: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced.”1

Here Irenaeus not only affirms the canonicity the four gospels, but is keen to point out that only these four gospels are recognized by the church. Indeed, Irenaeus is so certain that the canon of the gospels is closed that he can argue that it is entrenched in the very structure of creation—four zones of the world, four principle winds, etc.

In an effort to minimize the implications of Irenaeus’ statement, some scholars have suggested that only Irenaeus held this view. He is thus portrayed as lonely, isolated, innovator who is trying to break into new and uncharted territory. This whole idea of a fourfold gospel, we are told, was invented by Irenaeus.

But does this Irenaeus-as-innovator approach fit the facts? Not really. There are several considerations that raise doubts about it:

1. Irenaeus’ own writings. When Irenaeus talks about the fourfold gospel in his writings, he gives no indication that he is presenting a new idea, or that he is asking the reader to consider a new concept. On the contrary, he speaks in a manner that assumes the reader knows and follows these same gospels. He speaks of them naturally and unapologetically. In short, Irenaeus does not write like a person advocating the scriptural status of these books for the first time.

2. Irenaeus’ contemporaries. The idea that Irenaeus was alone runs into a serious challenge, namely that there were other writers at the end of the second century that affirmed these same four gospels as exclusive. The Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, and Theophilus of Antioch are examples. Apparently, Irenaeus was not the only one under the impression that the church had four gospels.

In addition, one should consider Tatian’s Diatesseron—a harmony of the four gospels written c.170. The Diatesseron not only tells us that these four gospels were known and used, but it tells us that they were seen as authoritative enough to warrant harmonization. After all, why would one bother harmonizing books that were not authoritative? If they weren’t authoritative, then it wouldn’t matter if they contradicted each other.

3. Irenaeus’ Predecessors. Although the evidence prior to Irenaeus is less clear, we can still see a commitment to the fourfold gospel. For instance, Justin Martyr, writing c.150, refers to plural “gospels”2 and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.”3 Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels.4

This is confirmed by the fact that Justin cites from all three Synoptic Gospels,5 and even seems to cite the gospel of John directly, “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (cf. John 3:3).6 The fact that Justin was the mentor for Tatian (who produced a harmony of the four gospels) provides yet another reason to think that he had a fourfold gospel.

In the end, there are ample reasons to reject the idea that Irenaeus was the inventor of the fourfold gospel canon. Not only did his contemporaries have this same view, but this view was even shared by those before him. Thus, we must consider the possibility that Irenaeus was actually telling the truth when he says that the fourfold gospel was something that was “handed down”7 to him.

[1] Haer. 3.11.8.

[2] 1 Apol. 66.3.

[3] Dial. 103.

[4] G. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” NTS 43 (1997): 317–346.

[5] E.g., Dial 100.1; 103.8; 106.3-4.  Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, 38, declares that the citations in Justin “derive from written gospels, usually from Matthew and Luke, in one instance from Mark.”

[6] 1 Apol. 61.4.

[7] Haer 3.1.1.

Why Do Modern Christians Rarely Talk about Rewards in Heaven?

When is the last time you heard a sermon that suggested that a motive for our obedience should be the rewards we receive in heaven? I imagine for most of us it has been a long time, maybe even never. Whenever a sermon (or book) provides a motive for obedience, it is almost always thankfulness for what Christ has done. And certainly that is a wonderful and foundational motivation. But is it the only motivation?

The New Testament writings suggest it is not. For those who faithfully endure persecution, Jesus makes it clear, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Paul states it plainly, “But each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Corinthians 3:8). The author of Hebrews even reminds us that Moses was motivated by rewards, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:26).

But if rewards are clearly presented as a motivation in the Christian life, why don’t we hear more about rewards in our modern pulpits? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but let me suggest one: we have been convinced that our obedience doesn’t matter. While we are rightly told that only Christ’s obedience can secure our justification and that he has kept the law perfectly for us, our own obedience receives far less attention in the pulpit. Justification is center stage, and sanctification is peripheral.

No doubt, the downplaying of Christian obedience is borne out of good motives—some think Christ is glorified the most when we disparage our own obedience. Our good works are just “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), we are reminded.

But, this whole line of thought misses the distinction between an unbeliever’s attempts at law-keeping and that of regenerated believer. Granted, neither can merit salvation or justification. Both fall woefully short of God’s perfect standards. But that does not mean that the believer’s obedience doesn’t matter. God can still be pleased with it, even though it is imperfect. Consider John Piper’s comments on this point:

It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…[But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags” (Future Grace, 151-152).

It is only when we recognize that the obedience of the believer really does matter, and that we really can please our Father, that the rewards passages in the Bible will make any sense. And that can be a tremendous encouragement to those of us who labor heavily in ministry. When we toil for the cause of Christ, we want to hear, and are bolstered by hearing, the encouraging words of Paul: “Your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.