Scripture and canon. That’s what we’ll be spending the next few minutes talking About. I’m Mark Mellinger at the Gospel Coalition National Conference 2013 and joining me for this discussion is Dr. Michael Krueger. He is the president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. Good to have you here Dr. Kreuger.
Thank You Mark and good to be here.
Well let’s start here the, the obvious starting place. Which challenges to the veracity of Scripture seemed to have the most resonance in North America today?
Well there’s a lot of attacks on the Bible as you probably know just looking Around. But what I’ve discovered over the years is that the attack that has the most traction with people is one that has to do with how we know which books belong in the Bible and which ones don’t. And so every year you’ll have some sort of media discussion from folks about a new discovery of a new gospel or a secret book of Paul or something right? Yeah and so I often have folks run up to me, even students saying, “Hey, what do we make of this. How do we account for this and how do we know what books belong in the Bible in the first place? And so that tends to be the question I get the most often and I think that’s a place that we need to give some attention to in scholarship And okay toward that end, what are the best biblical answers for why these 66 books that we Protestants clearly recognize as authoritative are the actual God-breathed word to us?
That’s a great question. What I try to encourage people to do when they answer those questions is to break it into little chunks. So rather than talking about the whole Bible at one time, I encourage people to take smaller parts and usually starting with the four Gospels is a good way to do that because the Gospels talk about Jesus. People are interested in the Gospels inherently and so usually I say, “Look, just memorize a couple of key facts about the Gospels and you’ll get a lot of headway with people in regard to Canon. I’ll give you one of those key facts. The four Gospels in our Canon Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only Gospels we have that come from the first century. There’s a simple fact – the earlier the better – and they’re the only ones we have from that time period and so you look at all the apocryphal Gospels like Thomas and Peter and so on. Whatever you might say about those, they’re not first century Gospels and they can never therefore been written by an eyewitness and so when all is said and done, just the one fact that the only four Gospels that we have are from the first century – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – that gives us a reason to think that they have at least a good starting point for being authentic
And what about the New Testament epistles?
Yeah same thing. In fact, the 27 books of our New Testament are the earliest Christian writings we have across the board. There’s no other Christian writing we possess that dates for the first century other than the New Testament. There’s only one exception that comes close and it’s a book called first Clement which dates at the very end of the first century but other than that, if you want to know about first century Christianity the only books you have were the New Testament books.
Paul’s writings are the earliest, right?
Yes absolutely, earlier than the Gospels. Yes there’s a debate about whether Galatians is as early as for James is earliest depending on which scholar you talk to. Somewhere in the mid 40s to early 50s is typically the date range there but regardless of whether you go with James or Galatians as the earliest book, that’s really early and those the only Christian writings we have from that time period and so when you look at the first century, there’s not a bunch of competing writings. There’s just the books of the New Testament.
Let me ask you about this question because this is one that has come up in my discussions with other people. Of the earliest extant manuscripts, there are clearly differences in the text. I think a scholar like you would be the first to admit that. Why do those not bother you? That’s a place that a lot of sceptics like to go to. If this is God’s Word well why didn’t God communicate it clearly? Why did he communicate it with differences in the earliest manuscript?
That’s a great question I get that question a lot. In fact, a number of the different things I’ve written have been about textual criticism which has to do with the transmission of these documents. There’s lots of things about that that people need to know when I think in terms of why we can trust these documents but one of the major things to realize is that the New Testament is no different than any other historical document that comes with transmission. In other words any document, if you want to transmit it, over time has to be copied by hand by scribes so whether you’re copying Plato or Aristotle or whether you’re copying Galatians, everyone’s in the same boat and so the question then at that point is: If scribes make mistakes can we work our way back to what these scribe or what the original author actually said? There’s lots of ways to do that. One of the main ways we can do that is that we have a lot of copies of that book. The more copies we have the better and so if you have a lot of copies that you could compare to one another the more assurance you can have that you can go back to the original source and when it comes to New Testament we’re in a great position there. We have more copies of New Testament writings than any other document in ancient history which is an amazing fact and one that we want to continually remind people of.
And the other thing that I’ve heard scholars such as yourself say to reassure those of us who believe in the Bible as authoritative is we know where the differences are and they are not significant when it comes to a general message of the gospel. Unpack that a little bit.
Yeah well the key is that first phrase – we know where the differences are. The scary thing for us would be that there was a change in the text that we didn’t know happens. And we think it’s original when it really isn’t but this goes back to the number of manuscripts we have. So many we can compare them and we can see where the changes are made and so the key is that we know they happen and if you can spot them when they happen then you know they’re not original and once you know they’re not original then their importance fades away and so even if a scribe here made a big change or a scribe here made a little change, as long as we know they made the change then we know they’re not original and we can work our way back to the original text. So that’s the major issue. There’s only two major changes to the text of the New Testament in the first place and that is the long ending of Mark in the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. Outside of that most of the changes are really small spelling errors and word order changes and things like this.
Couple less things. How does a scholar such as yourself view the mystery of Hebrews? You know some people say, “How can we say that’s authoritative when we don’t even know who the author is?”
Yes that’s a great question that people get hung up on Hebrews all the time. A couple things to note about Hebrews. Even though we don’t know the author for sure because it’s anonymous, what’s interesting about the author of Hebrews, even though he doesn’t tell us who he is, he does tell us his source. He tells us in Chapter two that he got his information directly from the Apostles. This is a key fact. It’s a lot like the Gospel of Luke in the sense Luke says, “Yeah I’m not an apostle but I’m an apostolic man. I mean I got my information from apostles and therefore the material I’m giving you is apostolic material.” And so even though we don’t know the author of Hebrews we can be assured it’s apostolic and if it’s apostolic then we have good confidence that it belongs in the canon.
And I want to end it here. You know our Catholic friends of course would say tradition and Scripture are on a par with one another. And because we got Scripture as a result of tradition. That is what they would say. For the early church fathers, how do you answer that objection in a way that’s gracious toward our Catholic friends?
Yes absolutely. Well I appreciate they’re reminding us of the importance of the role of the church. In my recent book Canon Revisited, it actually gives the church a pretty big role in terms of how we know which books are canonical. The key though is not whether the church plays a role, the key is it doesn’t play the foundational role. The Roman Catholics would say that it plays the foundational role, without the church you cannot know. Protestants would disagree. We think there’re other ways to know which books are canonical besides authoritative declarations of the church. One thing I say in my book is I think the books themselves actually give us a lot of reasons to think that they’re from God and that’s going into this issue of a self-authenticating bible. That’s a big discussion I know we don’t have time to get into but I think it highlights the differences between the Protestants and the Catholics. We think the Bible’s authoritative enough to even be its own ultimate measuring point and that’s a big difference between us and Rome. All right, I like one more question. Is the value of a work like Canon Revisited or the primary value of this work, is it to knock back against like the Bart Erhman’s of the world and reassure Christians? Is it to serve as an inroad to the faith for sceptics combined of course with the work of the Holy Spirit? You can convince, you can come up with the most convincing proofs possible and without the work of the Spirit there’s nothing’s gonna happen in the human heart. So I guess all that is knocking around in the corners of my head as I wonder what’s the primary value of doing works like you’ve done.
Yeah, every work has a different goal and in the introduction of my book I’m very clear what the goal is. My goal is not to prove the canon to the sceptic. I’m not trying to give an apology to the unbeliever. What I’m actually dealing with is Christians, Christians who believe in the Bible but want to know how we know so it’s a question of whether we’re justified in our beliefs as Christians. And in my book I’m trying to argue that Christians are justified in their beliefs that these books are the right books and so it’s very much geared to a Christian audience in the sense that it’s designed to answer the question “how do we know?” Now that being said, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value for sceptics. I think a non-Christian could read the book and find it useful but it’s not designed to persuade them. It’s designed to ask the question of the justification or the warrant of Christian belief. Good work you’re doing Dr. Michael Kruger. Thanks for coming.
Yep glad to be here.