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.”
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” 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.” 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.
This is confirmed by the fact that Justin cites from all three Synoptic Gospels, 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). 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” to him.
 Haer. 3.11.8.
 1 Apol. 66.3.
 Dial. 103.
 G. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” NTS 43 (1997): 317–346.
 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.”
 1 Apol. 61.4.
 Haer 3.1.1.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Theistic evolution is nothing new. For generations, Christians have attempted to import the evolutionary process into the early chapters of Genesis in hopes of finding a harmony between the two. The organization Biologos is devoted to this very task. According to its website, Biologos exists for the purpose of “exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith.”
While the existence of theistic evolution is certainly not new, I have been struck by the degree to which it is promoted with evangelistic zeal by Biologos. The goal of this organization is not just that theistic evolution would be viewed as an “allowable” view amongst Christians, but that theistic evolution would be seen as the only viable choice for believing Christians. This trend is evident in the most recent Biologos newsletter, which provided a recap of the March 20-22, 2012 Biologos conference entitled Theology of Celebration III (hosted by PCA pastor Tim Keller @ Redeemer NYC). According to the newsletter, this conference was designed to expose an area of “deep concern” for the church. What is this area of “deep concern”? It is simply this: “That almost half of America’s protestant pastors hold or strongly lean toward a belief in a universe less than 10,000 years.” In other words, the deep concern of this conference is that most evangelicals take the Genesis account as straightforward history and thus reject the billions-of-years-old universe required by evolution. What should be done about this crisis? According to the newsletter, conference participants left with an “urgent desire to bring about change” and a desire that “the church will be impacted.” In essence, Biologos is on a quest to rescue the church from non-theistic evolutionists.
Now, I am sure that the church needs to be rescued from many things. But, is this really one of them? This raises the question of what is driving the Biologos crusade to rescue the church from non-theistic evolutionists. What allows them to be so certain that a straightforward reading of Genesis is detrimental to the church? Is their certainty driven by convictions about what the Scripture says? Not so much. The newsletter reveals the grounds for their certainty very plainly. Biologos wants to change the church’s view on this issue because “the church of the coming decades cannot divorce itself from matters about which there is scientific certainty.” In other words, the motive for Biologos is the certainty of science. And, in their minds, credibility of the Christian faith is at stake. If we reject evolution then we will look foolish and ridiculous in the eyes of the world that knows it true.
What is stunning about all of this is the absolute, unequivocal, and almost religious certainty Biologos has about evolution. It is absolutely undisputed—it cannot be questioned. Ironically, at the same time, the meaning of the earliest chapters of Genesis is entirely uncertain, unclear, and very much in dispute. It could mean just about anything, we are told (except for straightforward history). Put differently, when it comes to interpreting Genesis no certainty is possible, but when it comes to interpreting scientific evidence then apparently certainty is possible. But why is this? Is science immune to subjectivity of interpretation? Is science a neutral enterprise that involves no perspectives and no bias? Biologos, it seems, has a misplaced confidence in modern science. Indeed, it could use a fresh dose of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Sadly, the whole “Christianity must acquiesce to the claims of science or lose its credibility” speech is not a new one. This same phenomenon happened in the 18th and 19th centuries regarding the credibility of the miracle accounts in the Gospels. After all, modern science during that time (and even during our modern day) found miracles to be rather unscientific. Science had shown that people just do not rise from the dead. As a result, some Christians took it upon themselves to “rescue” the church from its unscientific commitments. For instance, Heinrich Paulus (1761-1851), one of the original participants in the so-called Quest of the Historical Jesus, sought to save the church by suggesting the Gospel accounts should not be interpreted as describing real miraculous events. Instead, he suggested that they be interpreted as natural events that the disciples simply misinterpreted. Thankfully, his approach was not heeded by most evangelicals in that time.
Often lost in such discussions is the high theological price that must be paid to accommodate all the claims of modern science. If one adopts full-blown theistic evolution, then the idea of a historical Adam and Eve from which all humanity descends must be abandoned (Biologos expressly denies that all humanity descended from Adam and Eve). Such a belief, of course, destroys the doctrine of imputation as outlined in Romans 5. On the other hand, refusing to adopt theistic evolution also has a price. We would be mocked and ridiculed by the world. But, given the choice between these two prices—losing the doctrine of imputation or being mocked and ridiculed by the world—I will pay the latter. After all, the latter is true already.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
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.<
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.
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.