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.

Education
• 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

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).

Ouch.

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.


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.


Early Christians Used Non-Canonical Writings... But Not Like Scripture

Full blog series can be found here.

For Christians struggling to understand the development of the New Testament canon, one of the most confusing (and perhaps concerning) facts is that early Christian writers often cited from and used non-canonical writings. In other words, early Christians did not just use books from our current New Testament, but also read books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Usually Christians discover this fact as they read a book or article that is highly critical of the New Testament canon, and this fact is used as a reason to think that our New Testament writings are nothing special. The literary preferences of the earliest Christians were wide open, we are told. Or, as one critic put it, early Christians read a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts.[1]

Because this fact is used to criticize the integrity of the New Testament canon, then all Christians should be keen to learn it. While the fact itself is true—early Christians did read and use many writings not in the canon—the conclusions often drawn from this fact are often not.

When scholars mention the Christian use of non-canonical writings, two facts are often left out:

1.       The manner of citation. It is important to note that while Christians often cited and used non-canonical literature, they only rarely cited them as Scripture. For the most part, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying writings. This is not all that different than practices in our modern day. A preacher may quote from C.S. Lewis in a sermon, but that does not mean he puts Lewis’s authority on par with Scripture itself.

A good example of this phenomenon is the use of theGospel of Peter by the church at Rhossus at the end of the second century. Scholars often appeal to this story as evidence that early Christians had no established gospel canon. However, there is no evidence that the church there used the book as Scripture. 

When we ask the question about which books early Christians cited most often as Scripture, then the answer is overwhelmingly in favor of the books that eventually made it into the New Testament canon.

2.       Frequency of citation. Another often overlooked factor is the relative degree of frequency between citations of New Testament books and citations of non-canonical books. For example, scholars often appeal to Clement of Alexandria as the standard example of an early Christian that used non-canonical literature equally with canonical literature. But when it comes to frequency of citation, this is far from true. 

J.A. Brooks, for instance, has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.”[2] When it comes to gospels, the evidence is even better. Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times, whereas, he cites just the gospel of Matthew 757 times.[3]

In sum, Christians need to memorize this simple fact about the New Testament canon: early Christians used many other books besides those that made it into our Bibles. But this should not surprise us. For, indeed, we still do the very same thing today, even though we have a New Testament that has been settled for over 1600 years.



[1] Dungan, Constantine’s Bible, 52.

[2] Brooks, “Clement of Alexandria,” 48.

[3] Bernard Mutschler, Irenäus als johanneischer Theologe (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 101.


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 Oldest Trick in the Book

I love that GEICO commercial where the guy in the movie theater says, “Did you know there really is an ‘oldest trick in the book’?” Then the scene flashes back to ancient times where a man looks into an old book, and says, “Trick number one. Lookest over there.” The man then points across the room. His apprentice looks and, of course, sees nothing. Then the man says, “Madest thou look.”

The Puritan Thomas Brooks, in his wonderful work Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, reminds us that there is also an “oldest trick in the book” when it comes to Satan’s devices against us. The title of his opening chapter is this: “His First Device to Draw the Soul to Sin.”

What is this first device, Satan’s oldest trick in the book? Brooks tells us: “to present the bait, and hide the hook.”

The fundamental deception of sin is that it promises to bring blessing, when it only brings cursing. It promises to bring life, when it only brings death. It never presents itself as it really is. Just as Satan presents himself as an angel of light, so sin presents itself as the bringer of joy and peace. Given that this was Satan’s means of tricking Adam and Eve, it really is the “oldest trick in the book.”

Brooks lays it out more fully:

Satan’s first device to draw the soul into sin is, to present the bait—and hide the hook; to present the golden cup—and hide the poison; to present the sweet, the pleasure, and the profit that may flow in upon the soul by yielding to sin—and to hide from the soul the wrath and misery that will certainly follow the committing of sin. By this device he deceived our first parents, “And the serpent said unto the woman, You shall not surely die—for God does know, that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). Your eyes shall he opened, and you shall be as gods! Here is the bait, the sweet, the pleasure, the profit. Oh—but he hides the hook—the shame, the wrath, and the loss that would certainly follow!

What is the remedy against this trick? Brooks offers a very simple one: don’t play with the bait. He says:

Keep at the greatest distance from sin, and from playing with the golden bait which Satan holds forth to catch you…. It is our wisest and our safest course to stand at the farthest distance from sin; not to go near the house of the harlot—but to fly from all appearance of evil (Proverbs 5:8, 1 Thess. 5:22). The best course to prevent falling into the pit is to keep at the greatest distance from it; he who will be so bold as to attempt to dance upon the brink of the pit, may find by woeful experience that it is a righteous thing with God that he should fall into the pit. Joseph keeps at a distance from sin, and from playing with Satan’s golden baits, and stands. David draws near, and plays with the bait, and falls, and swallows bait and hook!


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