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 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.

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.

5 Warning Signs for the Church in a “Facebook Culture”

One of my favorite childhood memories is watching the movie Star Wars in the theater in 1977. I (along with an entire nation) was awestruck. Nothing like that had ever been done before. We were all sucked into a new world of spaceships, light sabers, strange creatures, and distant galaxies. But of all the things that caught the attention of the average Star Wars viewer, no doubt the amazing technology of the future was near the top of the list. What would it be like to have robots with personalities, to hover above the ground on a “land speeder,” to play “chess” with virtual-holographic images, and to have lost limbs restored with robotic parts?

Of course, in our modern day these very things have largely been realized. In fact, I noticed that when my own son watched Star Wars on DVD a few years ago, he was not amazed by much of anything technological—some of that probably seemed pretty realistic to him. He was mesmerized instead by the fast flying ships, light saber fights, and fun action scenes. We live in a world where technology advances at such a mind-boggling pace that we hardly have time to stop and be amazed by it. We feel this today particularly in the area of “social media” such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and just plain ol’ texting. We are (supposedly) more connected with each other, more in touch with each other, more often communicating with each other, than ever before.

But, as I think about my son’s future, and even about life in the modern day, I have to ask the simple question: What effect does “social media” technology have on the way we view church? What effect does it have on the way we conceive of life in the body of Christ? Of course, much of social media is positive. And the church has used this technology to advance the cause of Christ. Moreover, I cannot miss the irony of writing about the affects of technological forms of communication on my own website! Nevertheless, I do have some concerns—and so should you. Here are a few characteristics of a “Facebook culture” that we certainly need to reckon with as believers:

1. Short attention span/limited learning style. For folks who can absorb information at the rate of a short text message or “tweet,” it’s difficult to imagine them sitting through a 35 minute sermon and being able to engage in a sustained manner. Does this mean we shorten our sermons or make them more entertaining? Or does this mean we have to work harder to train our congregations in the way they learn? Hopefully the latter.

2. Low view of authority/over-focus on equality. One of the most oft-overlooked impact of social media is the effect it has on the way we view authority figures. The Internet is the great equalizer—everyone has a voice. Now everyone has a platform to speak their mind, say their piece. After any blog article or any news story, a person can write their own opinion and their own comments. And certainly much of this is good. But it can also lead to an “egalitarian” view of authority; that no one person’s opinion should be valued or weighted anymore than another’s. This presents problems for a biblical ecclesiology that understands the church and the pastors to have real authority in the lives of its people.

3. “Surfacey” interactions/artificial relationships.  MIT professor Sherry Turkle has recently written the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011). She observes, “On social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but out profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be” ( p.153). In other word, people might feel more connected, but they can really be more distant, at least from who they really are. In contrast, true Christian fellowship requires that we engage with people as we really are, so that we can honestly face our sin and grow together in Christ.

4. Lack of Physical Presence. Turkle observes again: “People readily admit they would rather leave a voicemail or send an email than talk face-to-face…. The new technologies allow us to ‘dial down’ human contact, to titrate its nature and extant” (p.15). Modern technology can create an almost non-physical, quasi-Gnostic existence. It’s ironic that one of Christianity’s earliest enemies was Gnosticism, which held the belief that the physical world was inherently evil and that salvation was largely a release from the physical body. In contrast, biblical Christianity has always had a robust and positive view of the physical. Face-to-face presence matters. Indeed, one day, in the new heavens and new earth, we will have new, resurrected bodies and we will see Christ (and each other) physically. Forever.

5. Low Commitment/Accountability. One of the attractive features of a Facebook-style of communication is that it requires very little of us. It is a low-commitment and low-accountability type of interaction. We control—and entirely control—the duration, intensity, and level of contact. At any moment, we can simply stop. But the Christian life and real Christian relationships don’t work like this. We do have obligations to one another, covenant obligations. Put differently, Christianity has a corporate aspect to it that stands directly against the trend of individualistic and self-determined relational patterns of our modern technological age.

So, where do we go from here? Do we abandon the technology of our modern world, move to the countryside and adopt an Amish-style existence? Not at all. The point of this post has not been to condemn modern communication technology (I am using it this very moment!).  Rather, the point has been that we must be aware of the challenges that it creates for ministry in our modern and postmodern world. The technology does not necessarily create sin patterns, but exacerbates the sin patterns that are already present within our hearts, and the hearts of our congregations. In response, we need to do something that we needed to do anyway: give our people a robust and vibrant picture of what the church is and their place in it.  In other words, we need to give them a full-orbed biblical ecclesiology.

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

How Do You Know the Scriptures are from God?

It probably comes as no surprise that the most common question I receive from both Christians and non-Christians is “How do I know the Bible is the Word of God?” And the reason this question is at the top of the list is not hard to determine. The authority of the Bible is the foundation for everything that we believe as Christians. It is the source of our doctrine and our ethics. Thus, we need to be able to answer this question when asked.

Let me say from the outset that there is not just one answer to this question. I think there are many ways that Christians can come to know the Scriptures are from God. God can certainly use historical evidences to convince us of the truth of his Word (though it is important to understand the limitations of evidence). And God can use the testimony of the church to convince us of the truth of his Word (I cover the details of this in Canon Revisited).

But it is noteworthy that throughout the history of the church, many Christians have ascertained the divine origins of the Bible in yet another way: its internal qualities. Apparently some Christians were persuaded of the Bible’s authority by reading it and observing its distinctive character and power.

Tatian is one such Christian. Tatian was a second-century Christian thinker, a disciple of Justin Martyr, and the author of an apologetic work known as Oration to the Greeks (c.165). In this work, Tatian makes his case for the truth of Christianity. During one section, he lays out his personal conversion story and recounts how he carefully examined all the pagan religious writings and found them incoherent, problematic, and, sometimes, downright evil.  But then he happened to come across the Scriptures and began to read:

I was led to put my faith in these by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centered on one Being. And my soul being taught of God, I discern that the former class of [pagan] writings lead to condemnation, but that these [Scriptures] put an end to the slavery that is in the world (29).

This is a profound statement. Tatian, the impressive intellect that he was, was not persuaded by historical evidence nor from the testimony of the church (though, as noted above, both are legitimate when appropriately utilized), but by the internal qualities of the Scriptures themselves. There was something about the Scriptures that came alive to him. How did he discern this? As he indicates, “my soul being taught of God.” Presumably this is a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit.

And Tatian was not the only one who thought like this. One century later, Origen says something very similar:

If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings… it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize that the words he is reading are not the utterances of men but the language of God (Princ. 4.1.6).

The Reformers also thought this way.  They believed the truth of Scripture could be ascertained, by the help of the Holy Spirit, from the Scriptures themselves. This is what they meant when they said the Scriptures were self-authenticating.

Such a reality should come as no surprise. After all Jesus said, “My sheep here my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

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

The 7 Sections of the Bible: A Sign of God’s Inspiration?

There are so many historical details to manage in the study of the NT and OT canon, that it is often difficult to step back and get the big picture. Scholarly energies are typically preoccupied with whether a certain church father cited a certain biblical book, and thus the entire biblical collection is rarely viewed as a completed whole.

In short, we tend to study the canon one book at a time. But, as Walter Brueggemann observed regarding this approach, “That is problematic because one never gets a sense of the whole of the Bible” (Creative Word, 5).

When we take that step back, and examine the overall canonical structure, some fascinating details emerge. One noteworthy example is the fact that the complete biblical canon can be viewed in seven distinct units.

There are good historical reasons to think that the OT canon in the time of Jesus was divided into the standard tripartite structure: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The structure finds confirmation in a number of historical sources that we cannot examine fully here (b. Bat. 14b; Josephus, Ap. 1.37-42; 4QMMT (95-96); Philo, Contempl. Life, 25. ). Jesus even seems to allude to this tripartite structure when he says, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

When it comes to the structure of the NT canon, at least as it emerged within the early church, it seems to have been divided into four sections. David Trobisch has demonstrated that these four clear sub-sections—Gospels, Praxapostolos (Acts and Catholic [general] epistles), Pauline epistles, and Revelation—as can be seen from the uniform witness of the manuscript collections themselves (The First Edition of the New Testament).

Thus, when the OT and NT canons are considered together, it seems the overall biblical canon would have had a seven-fold structure. Given the well-established biblical usage of the number seven as representative of completeness or wholeness, a seven-fold canonical structure would speak to the overall unity of the biblical canon and provides further reason to think that the New Testament canon we possess is the proper conclusion to the original books of the Old Testament.

Moreover, a structure that has Genesis and Revelation as the “bookends” is particularly fitting given the role the number seven plays in each of those books. Genesis begins the biblical witness with a seven-fold creative structure that provides the foundation for the seven-fold work week, and then Revelation recapitulates this attention to the number seven by having seven churches, seven angels, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven plagues, and so on.

Thus, in effect, the first and last books of the canon form an “inclusio” of sevens, functioning as appropriate bookends to the overall seven-fold canonical structure—with Revelation as an appropriate “sabbath.”

Of course, many of these connections are only apparent when we view the canon as a whole and therefore would not have been as accessible to the earliest Christians who did not yet possess a completed canon (or had the books in a different order, as some did). This fact reminds us again that some qualities of canonicity are synergistic—the whole can be greater than the constituent parts. It is like the “fifth voice” of a barbershop quartet; you only hear it when all four voices are joined together in harmony.

In the end, the canon’s seven-fold structure fits with the kind of structure we might expect God to give to his revelation, namely a structure that attests to the harmony, coherence, and unity of his Word.

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

The Most Important Passage in the Whole of Scripture

I have been teaching a weekly Bible study on the book of Romans to women in the Charlotte community. For the last several months, we have been plodding our way through the first three chapters as Paul has laid out his case that all mankind—Jew and Gentile—are sinful and rightly under the judgment of God.  Paul finishes this section of his letter with this monumental statement: “For by works of the Law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom 3:20).

You can almost hear the gavel fall with a boom.

Thankfully, Paul does not end his letter here. This morning, in the last installment of the women’s study for the Fall term (we will resume in the new year), we will move onto to 3:21 and following. There Paul utters two of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture, “But now….” These two little words provide a great sigh of relief for any sin-wracked soul wondering about his fate.

“But now” tells us that something has been done to solve the problem of our sins.

What is it that solves the problem of our sins? “A righteousness of (from) God has been manifested apart from the law… through faith in Jesus Christ” (3:21–22). Luther referred to these verses as “the center of the whole Bible.” Martin Lloyd Jones called it “the most important and crucial passage in the whole of Scripture.” Leon Morris said it is “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”

This passage is the basis for the great Reformation doctrine of sola fide—the idea that we are saved by faith alone and not by the works of the law.

But Paul makes a critical clarification here. He makes it clear that the righteous status we so desperately need comes through faith (v.22), but it is not the faith itself that is the grounds of our justification. The grounds of our justification—the reason God can declare us sinners to be righteous—is because of the righteousness of Christ given to us. He can regard us as righteous because a righteous status has been granted to us.

Thus, faith is merely the instrument or the means by which that righteous status is attained.

This is a critical reminder for Christians today. Whenever our world discusses religion, they will praise the merits of “faith” and laud people who possess it (think Oprah Winfrey). But notice the world never praises the merits of the object of that faith. It doesn’t matter what you believe in (after all, all religions are the same), what matters is that you are sincerely committed.

For our world, then, faith is its own object.

Contrast that to what Paul is saying in Rom 3:21–22. Paul is saying that you are not saved because of faith (as if it were meritorious in itself), but you are saved through and by faith in Christ. The object of the faith is what is definitive.

So, the Reformed doctrine of sola fide does not mean what the world might think it means. For the world, it simply means that all you need is faith. For the Reformers, it meant faith is the sole instrument by which you acquire a righteous status in Christ (and thus not by works).

For those who doubt their faith and find their faith to be weak, this is a great encouragement. Our hope is not in how strong our faith is, but in how strong and righteous our Savior is.

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

Some NT Writers Quote Other NT Writers as Scripture

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

One of the most controversial issues in the study of the New Testament canon is the date when these books were regarded as Scripture. When were these books first used as an authoritative guide for the church? Critical scholars will argue that these books were not written to be Scripture and were not even used as Scripture until the end of the second century.

But one of the most basic facts that Christians should know is that some New Testament writers actually quote other New Testament writers as Scripture. This demonstrates that the concept of a new corpus of biblical books was not a late development, but one that seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon is 2 Pet 3:15-16 where Peter refers to Paul’s letters “Scripture” on par with the books of the Old Testament. It is noteworthy that Peter mentions multiple letters of Paul, indicating that he was aware of some sort of collection. And, even more importantly, he assumes his audience is aware of this collection as well. There is no indication that the scriptural status of Paul’s letters is a new or novel idea—Peter mentions it quite casually and naturally.

The implications of Peter’s statement should not be missed. It shows that apostolic letters (in this instance Paul’s) had a scriptural status in early Christianity. If so, then it hard to imagine Peter would not have expected his own letter to be received with the same authority. After all, just a few verses earlier Peter made it clear that the teachings of the apostles were on par with the Old Testament itself (2 Pet 3:2).

Another example of this phenomenon is found in 1 Tim 5:18 which says: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain’ and ‘the laborer deserves his wages.’” While the first quote comes from Deut 25:4, the latter quote is an exact match with Luke 10:7. Although one might suggest that Paul is citing oral Jesus tradition, that option is precluded by the fact that he introduces the saying with “the Scripture says.”

Although Paul might be citing some unknown apocryphal gospel (that just happens to have the exact same wording of Luke 10:7), why should we prefer an unknown hypothetical source over a known source? We know that Luke actually was used as Scripture in the early church—the same cannot be said of this hypothetical apocryphal gospel.

Of course, because these two passages seem to cite other NT books as Scripture, scholars have argued these books are forgeries, having a late date probably around the turn of the century (c.100).  We cannot delve into these academic debates here, but it should be noted that these debates are by no means settled. Moreover, even if one concedes the late date for these books (for the sake of argument), that still puts the date of the canon at a remarkably early time.

If the NT writers were citing other NT writers as Scripture, then that suggests the canon was not a later ecclesiastical development, but something early and innate to the early Christian faith. And that is a basic fact that all Christians should know.

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

The “Mother” Sin We Have Forgotten

The last of the ten commandments seems a bit out of place, doesn’t it? “Do not covet.” While the heinousness of the other commandments is relatively obvious to us, the tenth commandment stands out, in our own minds, as relatively benign. How serious can it be?

But when you probe deeper into this commandment, something very different emerges. It is much more serious than we think. For one, aspects of coveting are mentioning in a number of key places in the Bible.  It is the “love of money,” a form of coveting, that is the “root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). And when Paul is looking for a good example of how sin traps and tricks us, he chooses the sin of coveting (Romans 7:7).

And, most foundationally, the very first sin, that of Eve in the garden, appears to be that of coveting. When she looked at the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are told that she “desired” it, and it was a “delight to the eyes.”

It is for these reasons, that the Puritan author Thomas Watson referred to coveting as a “mother sin.” The problem with coveting is not just coveting itself, but the manner in which it gives birth to other sins. It leads us to hate our neighbor, instead of love him. To despise him, instead of wishing him good. It leads us to steal and take. It robs us of our joy and peace. And ultimately, it leads us to despise God, whom we think has deprived us of what we really desire.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend the two interviews below by my wife, Melissa. One of these is on CBN, and one on the Reformed Forum. And, of course, check out her book, The Envy of Eve.

Video Clip

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

A New ‘New Testament’ is an Old, Old Idea

My email inbox has been flooded over the last day or so with queries about the recent book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). I have to admit, I love the title. When it comes to sensationalistic claims about the New Testament canon, modern publishers know what sells. This volume has bypassed the normal catchwords found in the titles of such books—words like “lost”, “forgotten”, “secret”, or “banned”—and has set a new standard for marketing apocryphal writings.

This volume also sets itself apart by the grandiosity of its claims. Here is the promo for the book:

To create this New New Testament, Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in a New New Testament.

It’s one thing to suggest apocryphal books are early, or that they contain some true historical nuggets, but it is quite another to pick an entirely new canon on the basis of some arbitrarily chosen council of modern “scholars and spiritual leaders.” Do we really think these 19 people are in a position to decide such things? Is that the way we know which books are Scripture and which are not?

But while such grandiose claims about the New Testament canon may seem entirely new, it is in fact a very, very old idea. For one, there are other modern examples of such activity. The book The Five Gospels (Harper One, 1996), effectively rewrote the 4-Gospel canon by adding a fifth gospel, The Gospel of Thomas. Moreover, the book included the results of the votes of members of the “Jesus Seminar” about which sayings/stories of Jesus were authentic and which were not.

In the end, we were left not with a New Testament, but with the Jesus Seminar’s personal, private New Testament. And that is something entirely different.

But the idea of rewriting the canon according to one’s personal preferences goes back even further. In fact, this was a challenge faced by the very earliest Christians. In the 140’s, a wealthy shipowner named Marcion decided that the canon of the church was not the one he preferred and proceeded to offer his own—a truncated canon composed of only Luke and 10 epistles of Paul. But Marcion went even further. In addition to selecting his own books, he took out the scalpel and edited these books, attempting to take out as much of the “Jewish” aspects as he could.

Marcion’s actions were widely condemned by the early church. He was condemned not only for his heretical views, but for his willingness to reshape and rewrite the New Testament canon according to his own personal preferences. The canon is just not something that one person (or 19!) can create.

Thus, despite the claims of this modern book to be doing something new and original, it is nothing of the sort. The idea of a New New Testament, is an old, old idea. One that has already been tried, and already been rejected.

Over the next few months, I will offer an extended review of Taussig’s new book, spread over a number of different blog posts. And I want to assure my friend Michael Bird that I will take a “nice deep breath” before I do so!

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

How the Scandal of Preaching Will Reach Our Postmodern World

By now it is old news that we live in a world marked by postmodernity. In such a world, truth is not something that is outside ourselves, but something that is self-determined. Each of us constructs our own private, personal realities. What’s ‘true’ for you is not ‘true’ for me.

So, how do we break into the lives of people who are immersed in this postmodern reality? How do we reach them for the gospel? Do we find ways to show them how the gospel is existentially satisfying? Do we offer therapeutic entertainment to draw them in?

Nope. Instead, we do the unthinkable in our modern age. We preach.

Of course, the first reaction to such an idea is, “Are you kidding?” When faced with the challenges of postmodernity, do we really think the solution is to stick some guy in front of the group and let him talk for 30 minutes? Wouldn’t a video be more effective? Or at least a dialogue or panel discussion?

But, as scandalous as it is, there is something about preaching that is unique and special. Let us consider what those things are.

1. Preaching is Word-Centered (in a world that is people-centered).

Preaching doesn’t ask first, “what works?” nor does it ask “what is personally satisfying?” Rather, preaching asks, most fundamentally, what does God have to say in his Word? Thus, preaching is a decisive challenge to the postmodern world because it takes the attention off of us and onto the Scriptures. It forces us to go outside of ourselves.

This is precisely why preaching that does not focus on the Word is not really preaching. Indeed, such an activity (whatever you want to call it) actually serves to exacerbate the problem of postmodernity rather than remedy it. It reinforces people’s perception that they get to define truth for themselves.

2. Preaching is Authoritative (in a world that is anti-authority).

Our world’s anti-authority posture is so pervasive that even Christians cannot escape its effects. Indeed, it even influences the way we receive God’s Word. We prefer Bible studies, personal devotions, or small groups, as the primary means we receive God’s Word. It allows us to be in charge. We are the authoritative interpreters and guides.

There is nothing wrong with these activities, but preaching is something wholly other. In the act of preaching, a duly-ordained man comes to us representing God himself and speaks with real authority. So much so, that the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) can declare, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

Of course, our world will find this highly offensive. “Who does this man think he is?” they might ask incredulously. But they are missing the point. He speaks not for himself, but for another. The preacher is a representative.

Thus, preaching, at its core is a vertical act (between man and God), not a horizontal one (between man and man).

3. Preaching is Proclamation (in a world that wants ‘dialogue’).

What makes preaching so unique is that is intentionally one-directional. It is not designed for discussion, or conversation, or for Q&A. It is designed as a powerful, one-way act of declaration by which we are encouraged, challenged, rebuked, and inspired. Sure, preaching includes information; it does supply us with data. But at its core it is an act of powerful exhortation. Thus, preaching is the antithesis of Oprah’s couch.

I am reminded of the story of George Whitfield where a man came to ask if he could print his sermons. “Well, I have no inherent objection if you like,” said Whitfield, “but you will never be able to put on the printed page the lightning and the thunder.”

4. Preaching is Corporate (in a world that prefers individualism).

People might prefer to sit at home on a Sunday morning and listen to a sermon on the web. But that does not capture what preaching is intended to be. Preaching is a corporate enterprise that takes place when the people of God are gathered together. In effect, preaching is the team meeting when the coach gives the big pep talk. Such things cannot happen individually. They must happen as a group.

And when preaching happens as a group, the entire enterprise is (rightly) taken out of our control. We cannot so easily change the channel or shut off the iPod. We are drawn into an event that is larger than ourselves. We are being drawn into the very body of Christ where preaching finds its proper home.

Thus, preaching is anti-individualistic. It directly challenges the postmodern sentiment that all I need is me, my Bible, and Jesus. It forces us to recover a higher ecclesiology.

In sum, preaching is a stunningly simple solution to a complex and daunting problem (postmodernity). But, the solution has been there all along. Paul said it plainly when he laid out our mission, “But we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23).

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

Did the Earliest Jewish Christians Worship Jesus as God?

Recently I have been doing some work on the Gospel of John and first-century Jewish monotheism. Anyone who explores the high Christology in John is forced to ask how it would have (or could have) emerged within a monotheistic context. How could early Jews have believed in the one true God of Israel, and also have believed that Jesus was divine?

There are many scholarly works that prove helpful in this discussion, but one of the best is the collection of essays by my doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, in his wonderful book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005).

For the past twenty-five years Larry has been at the forefront of historical investigations into the origins of Jesus devotion within early Christianity. With his groundbreaking work One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; reprint T&T Clark, 2003), Hurtado laid forth the argument that worship of Jesus amongst early Christians was much earlier than previously thought—a monumental fact given that such devotion arose within circles of Second-Temple devout Jews. In 2003, he published Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, which in many ways is a capstone work that continues his fundamental investigation into early Jesus devotion and draws together much of his research over the past two decades. 

How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is a more compact presentation of Hurtado’s prior research and pulls together a number of previous publications on the subject (mainly journal articles) as well as material from the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. 

All the chapters in the volume are helpful, but the first two are the most foundational. In chapter one, Hurtado gives us the lay of the land by surveying the variety of other approaches to Jesus devotion within early Christianity, offering a brief critical review of each of them, so that his own approach can be seen in contrast to its scholarly competitors. In particular, he sets his sites on the “evolutionary” approach most aptly represented by William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), which argued that worship of Jesus arose with Gentile Christian circles heavily influenced by the pagan Greco-Roman cult.

It is here that the key historical issue at hand is crystallized. The challenge, argues Hurtado, is not simply explaining how Jesus was seen as divine by early Christians, but rather the challenge is explaining the manner in which he was seen as divine. Early Christians drew a sharp line between their worship of Jesus and all the other pagan gods of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus was not simply a new addition to a pantheon of gods they already believed in, but was considered to be the only God rightly deserving of worship. 

The exclusive nature of such worship is monotheistic at the core and suggests a Jewish origin, not a pagan-Gentile one. It is such remarkable devotion to Jesus, within a monotheistic context, that demands some sort of serious historical explanation. Hurtado declares, “But it was a major and unprecedented move for people influenced by the exclusive monotheistic stance of Second-Temple Judaism to include another figure singularly alongside God as the recipient of cultic devotion in their worship gatherings” (25).

In chapter two, Hurtado continues his response to the evolutionary model by developing a larger argument for why devotion to Jesus originated from within a monotheistic Jewish context. Hurtado bases his argument on two primary pillars: (a) He argues that such devotion to Jesus can be traced so far back into the first century (even to the 40s) that an evolutionary model simply does not have time to work; and (b) the demographic origin of such devotion in the earliest followers of Jesus is decidedly Jewish (particularly in the crucial first few decades). Even though diaspora communities were influenced broadly by pagan culture, there are no reasons to think that such influence would have caused Jewish believers to question the uniqueness of the one true God of Israel; indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. 

Hurtado concludes, therefore, that the earliest devotion to Jesus was in some sense “binitarian.” Christians worshiped Jesus not a second god, but worshiped him alongside the one true God of the Jews. Such a radical and astounding “mutation” within early monotheistic Judaism cannot be accounted for, argues Hurtado, by the evolutionary model (or, for that matter, most other current models).

Overall, this volume by Hurtado continues to expand his already compelling argument that worship of Jesus was a remarkably early innovation that demands rigorous historical investigation. Perhaps more than any other scholar in recent years, Hurtado has doggedly pursued this one issue and has thankfully caused the scholarly community to engage in deeper and more thorough historical reflections on the subject. 

Thus, he has succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate over the origins of Christianity and the nature of the historical Jesus. Instead of getting drawn into endless discussions about historical sources, redaction criticism, and the like, Hurtado has refreshingly streamlined the discussion by asking simple questions about the origins of the beliefs and practices of early Christians. Such beliefs and practices cannot simply be observed by the modern scholar, but they demand historical explanations for their existence. It is at this point that the biblical explanation (early Christians experienced the resurrection of Jesus) shows itself to be the most compelling. 

Note: Much of this review of Hurtado’s book was originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 369-372.

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

Why We Need the Book of James in the New Testament Canon

In many ways, the book of James has not had an easy journey into the New Testament canon. We have few references to it in the earliest stages; it was doubted by some church fathers, and, of course, Luther himself referred to it as “an epistle of straw.”

However, we should be immensely grateful that God has preserved this book for us. Despite its detractors, the book of James provides essential theological balance for the key doctrinal debates in the church today. Several key contributions:

1. James reminds us that one can offer extended moral exhortations without being a “moralist.” In an effort to avoid the charge of “moralism,” many modern preachers hesitate to offer extended moral/ethical exhortations to their congregations. Indeed, sermons often focus on how the congregation cannot keep the law and that only Christ can keep the law for them.

While it is certainly true that we cannot be justified by the law, the book of James reminds us that there is a proper place for sermons that focus on our ethics. James offers five chapters of ethical applications and there is no discussion of atonement, or original sin, or grace.

This doesn’t mean James rejects these truths; it simply means that one need not always include them explicitly for teaching to be regarded as “Christian.” Put simply, a sermon (or treatise, or letter) doesn’t always have to be about justification in order to be about Christ.

2. James reminds us that Christians should also view the Law of God positively. Compared to Paul’s insistence that the law is a “curse” that “imprisons” us (Gal 3:13, 22), James’ approach to the law is shockingly positive. He refers to the law as the “law of liberty,” or as the NIV puts it, “the perfect law that gives freedom” (Jas 1:25).

Do Paul and James contradict each other? Not at all. Paul is looking at the law from the perspective of justification—can I be saved by law-keeping? If you try this, says Paul, the law is only a curse. James is looking at the law through the lens of sanctification. From this perspective the law is a blessing. It is the way of righteousness. We can say with the Psalmist, “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97).

Paul reminds us that the law cannot save. James reminds us that we follow the law because we are saved. Both aspects are critical if we are to rightly understand justification and sanctification.

3. James reminds us that it is fine to use OT stories as moral examples. Again, some in the modern day, in an effort to avoid moralism, will insist that we can never preach an Old Testament story where the applications is “Be like [insert OT character]“. Instead, we can only point to these OT characters as a “type” of Christ.

The problem with this approach to the Old Testament is that it is not shared by the book of James. On the contrary, James is quite keen to use OT characters as moral examples. Indeed, he appeals to Elijah as an example of what can be done through a life of faithful prayer (Jas 5:17–18). We find this same pattern in Paul who blatantly states, “These things [OT stories] took place as examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6).

Of course, we can also look to these OT characters as a type of Christ—they point forward to the ultimate savior/deliverer. But why must these passages be preached only as a type of Christ? Why can they not be preached as both a type of Christ, and as a moral example?

In the end, we can be thankful that we have the book of James in our NT canon. It provides a wonderful balance to our understanding of law, grace, justification, sanctification, and more.

In this regard, Luther was mistaken. If justification is all that matters, then perhaps one might find James unnecessary. But if sanctification also matters, then it is essential.

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