White Horse Inn producer Shane Rosenthal and I were chatting about the May/June issue of Modern Reformation and thought you might appreciate some helpful hints on how to approach a blog post. Save your attention-span talents for reality television, or Richard Dawkins’ lastest book, or finding a really good doughnut shop.
Yesterday I offered the musings of a generalist in reaction to Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). As promised, today Michael Kruger digs more deeply into the book as a noted specialist in the field. President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), he wrote his dissertation at Edinburgh under Larry Hurtado on early Christian writings. In addition to scholarly monographs in this field, he is co-author of The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity and his new book, Canon Revisited (highly recommended). He has an extended review of Taussig’s new release at his website, but for us here he focuses on the final section of A New New Testament.
The problems in this section are no less abundant than in other sections, so we will only be able touch on them briefly. We can divide our discussion into three sections: (1) historical problems, (2) methodological problems, and (3) theological /philosophical issues.
There are many historical/factual statements throughout this section that are highly questionable. Let me just mention three.
1. On p.484, Taussig claims that we have fragments of the Gospel of Thomas “from the first hundred years after Jesus died.” In other words, prior to c.130. Curiously, he never mentions which fragment he has in mind. The only options are P.Oxy. 1, 654, and 655, but these are all third century. To suggest there is a Thomas fragment from the early second century is shockingly inaccurate.
2. On p.501, Taussig claims that Clement of Alexandria rejected the gospels of Mark and Luke and “accepted only Matthew and John.” But, this simply isn’t true. Clement affirmed four and only four gospels as authentic. At one point he dismisses a passage in the Gospel of the Egyptians on the grounds that “We do not have this saying in the four gospels that have been handed down to us” (Strom. 3.13). Eusebius agrees and says that Clement affirmed all four gospels (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.14.5-7).
3. On p.506, Taussig argues that there was no New Testament in “the first five hundred years of ‘Christianity’” because “the technology of book production was such that combining all twenty-seven texts into one was more or less impossible.” I find this statement to be incredible. The technology for large codices was in place long before the year 530 (five hundred years after Christ). Not only do we have full NT and OT codices in the 300′s (e.g., codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), but we have multi-quire codices all the way back in the second century (e.g., P66), suggesting that the technology for larger books was in place quite early.
When it comes to choosing the books for this “new” canon, it is clear that Taussig is using a particular methodology. Let me just mention one aspect of this issue.
When describing how these new books were chosen, Taussig says they were “selected in a manner similar to the way historical Christianity made many of its crucial choices: by a collective decision-making process” (512). But, this modern “council” does not function at all like the ancient ones. Taussig gives the impression that ancient councils actually chose books and decided the canon. But that is a misleading way of describing the process. The ancient 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.
In contrast, this modern New Orleans council, is simply picking the books they prefer, not the books that have historically functioned as foundational to the Christian faith. For example, this new council included a bizarre and esoteric poem entitled The Thunder: The Perfect Mind. Was this a foundational document for early Christianity? Not at all. For one, it is not necessarily even a Christian document, never mentioning the name of Christ or any distinctively Christian doctrine. Moreover, as Taussig himself admits, “There is no mention of Thunder in any other known piece of ancient literature”(179). Is this a foundational document? Hardly.
Finally, it should be noted that Taussig, in this final section, reveals a little of the theological motivation for this book. There is nothing wrong with having a theological motivation, but it is still worth pointing out.
Taussig offers a reason for adding these documents, namely that they “can make a real difference in the spiritual lives of ordinary people” (489). What kind of difference? “[The Gospel of Mary] inspired women to think of themselves as real leaders in conventionally male-dominated situations. The Gospel of Thomas proclaims the radical availability of God inside people, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind reframes what it means to be men and women” (489).
It is here that we come to the heart of this book’s theological aims. In fact, Taussig even admits, “These kinds of significant meanings in the lives of real people are at heart of what the New Orleans Council…wanted for the public” (489).
Thus, this book is not about history but theology. Not about the past, but the present. It is a book designed to change our conceptions of gender and to make it more egalitarian. And it is a book designed to give us a Gnostic version of God, a God found inside of us.
In sum, Taussig has produced a new set of Scriptures to accommodate his new theology. And thus he has reversed the normal order of things. While theology usually comes from Scripture, Taussig has used his theology to create a new Scripture. It’s man-made religion at its best.
A Buddhist monk, a rabbi, a nun, and a Protestant professor walk into a bar…
If it weren’t so sad, it might be a good set-up for a joke. But a recent Huffington Post article heralds a New New Testament that now includes heretofore lost pieces of Scripture. As the book’s subtitle has it: “A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts.”
The author, Hal Taussig, is a United Methodist pastor and visiting professor at Union Seminary in New York. He has written several scholarly works along similar lines as well as more popular books such as A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots; Reimagining Life Together in America: A New Gospel of Community (with Catherine Nerney, SSJ); Reimagining Christian Origins (with Elizabeth Castelli); Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration (with Susan Cole and Marian Ronan). This book is the fruit of a meeting convened by Mr. Taussig at Union with a modest group of like-minded scholars and spiritual leaders of different communities. The event culminated in votes for the inclusion of what came to be ten new additions to the New Testament.
Remains of the Jesus Seminar?
My immediate reaction is that it displays the dearth of imagination. Various liberals, it’s the usual cast of characters from the ruins of the “Jesus Seminar.” Given their bios, Buddhist spirituality seems to be the tie that binds. Which makes sense of why they prefer Gnostic gospels to the real ones. And why the Christian church didn’t take long to recognize that they weren’t an authentic part of the New Testament. And remember the reports of the Jesus Seminar participants casting votes for the verses they thought belonged to the proper New Testament? Same methodology with this one.
There was a time when liberals were on the cutting edge of scholarship. Though often weaving entire systems out of thin air, they at least had creativity in their favor. Frankly, it’s astonishing that scholars of any standing in the guild would offer these texts to the public as if they had been freshly discovered in a Vatican vault. Surely they’re familiar with Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian and other ancient Christian writers who refuted these Gnostic writings. It’s also astonishing that those who are so dogmatically committed to late dates for the canonical texts (despite the scholarly trend in recent years) offer dates for the pseudo-gospels that most specialists would consider not implausibly but impossibly early. Evidently, the projected audience for this book is the reader waiting eagerly for a sequel to The DaVinci Code. If evangelical scholars tried this sort of methodology they’d be drummed out of the Society of Biblical Literature.
The key thing in all of this is to see that those who do not like the Bible we actually have are driven by theological motives to spin old heresy as “the other Christianity.” After all, liberalism is the “other Christianity,” which Christianity has consistently rejected as not Christianity. Conspiracy theories abound. A male-dominated clergy (never mind the deeply misogynist remarks in various Gnostic gospels) obsessed with a “blood cult” (Christ’s vicarious death for sinners) marginalized the voices of the ecclesiastically underprivileged (heretics).
There’s a long history here. Various Gnostic revivals erupted in the Middle Ages, claiming to be the true Invisible Church (over against the false visible one). Then radical Pietists like Gottfried Arnold re-wrote church history with the orthodox as villains and the Gnostics as the true Invisible Church. This approach was picked up by the Tübingen School of higher criticism and became part of the mother’s milk for generations of liberal ministers. Those who don’t like Christianity need their own Bible. That’s fine. There are lots of religions that have their own normative texts. However, they don’t pretend to slip in missing gospels to a canon that they don’t really like in the first place.
Which Canon, Which Community?
Only in America do scholars imagine that they can invent a new kind of Christianity by casting votes. Talk about a conspiracy of elites ignoring the voices of millions of believers from every continent and language! Contrast this with the reception of the biblical canon—early and geographically widespread—by the whole church.
It’s a simple point, but I think it goes to the heart of this whole genre of “Re-Imagining Christianity” as if early Christianity were an extended Oprah show. The point is this: certain canons give rise to certain communities. Representing the wider church (long before the rise of the Roman papacy), church councils met not to select texts for inclusion in the canon but to discern which texts were already canonical. As church historians like Eusebius recount, the church’s act was discernment and submission, not creativity and decision. There’s a reason you’ve heard of the 27 New Testament books we have.
The Christian Church, despite all of its divisions, received these as their normative scriptures from the beginning. They were in use as sacred Scripture in churches stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the far reaches of Asia. Clement of Rome quotes from 10 of the 27 books in 95 AD; Polycarp, 16 of them in 120 AD, and so on. They are appealed to as the final court of appeal. The Church only felt obliged to settle the issue when Gnostics tried to add their own scriptures, radically different in worldview, doctrine, practice, and historical connection to the apostolic communities. The first orthodox canon that we know about is the Muratorian Fragment, which may date as early as 170 AD.
Various Gnostic sects arose as parasitical on Christianity—drawing from biblical imagery and terms, but entirely subverting the biblical message. By any standard of critical scholarship—the language used, historical references, etc.—these are much later than the earlier texts that became normative the new covenant community soon after they were written. The claim of A New New Testament that the ancient church was playfully enjoying a symphony of texts beyond these is nothing more than the projection of contemporary heirs of the ancient heretics.
By the way, it’s worth mentioning that this argument only works if, with the ancient church, we believe that the Word is the mother and the church is the offspring. The Word spoken by the apostles created the church; then whatever the Holy Spirit wished to have committed to writing as the new covenant constitution became the basis for preaching, teaching, worship and discipline. If the church created rather than recognized the canonical Word as the voice of its Great Shepherd, then two problems arise. First, we must discount the way in which the earliest Christian writers appealed to Scripture, imposing the anachronism of a later (medieval) development. Second, we have little to say when writers like Hal Taussig, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and others claim that the only reason we have these 27 books is the arbitrary will of a circle of leaders claiming the mantle of the apostles.
In the next post, my friend Michael Kruger, who has read the book in advance of its release, will offer a specialist’s interpretation. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh (under Larry Hurtado) was on non-canonical literature of the early Christian period. Since then, he has written helpful studies bearing on this topic. With Andreas Kostenberger, he is the author of The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. His own recent book, Canon Revisited, is the new gold standard on the subject. Michael Kruger teaches New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), where he is also President.
Our friend, Gene E. Veith, links to Rod Dreher’s recent article in American Conservative on the death match between Christianity and the changing sexual mores of America.
This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Dreher’s entire article is worth a read. But Veith’s conclusions are stellar:
If Christianity becomes radically marginalized, having no cultural power at all, perhaps Christianity will have to return to its essence: Christ, the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins. Because no matter how much people wish to erase anything that restricts them and makes them feel guilty, if Christianity is true (and it is), the moral reality remains. It’s like thinking we can destroy nature; nature always destroys us. Sin kills. People in a society that give itself over to sin will feel those sins. The Gospel will become good news again. Christ will save them. And, ironically, once the Gospel predominates again in the Church, cultural influence–including the Christian view of sexual morality–may well come back as a byproduct.
Kim Riddlebarger is cohost of the White Horse Inn, senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, and an adjunct professor at Westminster Seminary California. Kim recently contributed to the Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament series with a commentary on First Corinthians.
The White Horse Inn store is currently taking pre-orders for this volume. We realize that some outlets might be shipping these books already, but we’ve asked Kim to take the time to add a little something extra for our friends. Each book you purchase through our store is signed by Dr. Riddlebarger himself!
To place your pre-order Click here
Here’s Mike Horton’s endorsement from the book’s jacket:
Having shared and sat under the ministry of Kim Riddlebarger for many years, I am delighted to see the fruit of his faithful labors reach a wider audience. Combining attention to exegetical detail with decades of pastoral experience, this commentary will reward generously with its unique insights into this wonderful epistle.
Coming out of the recent The Gospel Coalition conference, Zondervan is selling a number of their ebooks at greatly reduced prices! Among those books on sale are a few from Dr. Horton:
For Calvinism $3.99
Pilgrim Theology $7.99
A Place for Weakness $3.99
The sale goes through April 22, although some retailers might continue through April 29 so take advantage of this offer soon! For more information click here
Your support of White Horse Inn makes it possible for our program to reach around the world and touch folks just like you in far away places. Here’s a comment from a listener in the Philippines that was passed on to us recently:
Thank you so much for bringing White Horse Inn to the Philippines. The first time I chanced upon this program (i think sometime last year), the discussion they were having readily hit me. I felt that the hosts were really making sense with what they were saying. And as I continued to listen over the next weeks and months, I increasingly realized that they were in fact discussing the teachings that the Scripture wants to convey to the people. They were getting into the heart of the matter, so to speak. The discussions were in-depth, incisive, objective, thought provoking (that would seem confusing sometimes. also had to learn some of the terms they are using that are not really common in today’s evangelical circles). It’s such a great blessing!
This week, Mike Horton has been teaching at the International Reformed Evangelical Seminary in Jakarta, Indonesia. His course was called God’s Theater of Grace. It was a week-long intensive unit for the students at the seminary on Reformed spirituality. The lecture titles were:
Monday, 25 March—‘Living Before God’
Tuesday, 26 March—‘Living In God’
Wednesday, 27 March—‘Living In The Body’
Thursday, 28 March—‘Living In The World’
After class on Thursday, he was interviewed for Reformed 21, a television program that broadcasts sermons, lectures, interviews, and programs designed to spread Reformed theology in Indonesia (which is almost 90% Muslim).
Please continue to pray for Mike and Julius Kim, his colleague from Westminster Seminary California. Tonight, Mike will preach at a Good Friday service before coming back home to the United States.
Is the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a man known to the public, whom witnesses saw tried, beaten, crucified, and buried–is his Resurrection from the dead fact or fiction? This is the central question of Christianity. Every other question pales in significance, because unless Jesus is really raised from the dead, then all else is vain: all of our morals, all of our good ideas, all of our philosophies, all of our behavior, all of our hopes and dreams. None of it matters if Christ is not risen.
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, we invite you to prepare your own heart for worship by listening to this special lecture from Mike Horton in which he gives evidences for the Resurrection. We’ve also included below a list of other important resources to help you talk with unbelieving friends and family members about the most important claim of Christianity: He is risen!
- Hope you are enjoying the John Series – which comes to its final conclusion on EASTER Sunday: The Gospel of John
- “How to have a conversation” about the truth claims of Christianity: Communicating the Claims of Easter
- In 2011 we posted a lengthy (but terrific) apologetic on 4 common accusations against the resurrection: 4 Common Accusations Against the Resurrection
- Enjoy this from 2010: Risen Indeed
Although it’s still relatively early on Saturday morning here on the west coast, it’s late Saturday night in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mike Horton has a habit of enjoying late night talks with his friends, but I hope his hosts get him to bed soon so that he can be ready to preach at the Reformed Millennium Center tomorrow morning.
His text will be Romans 4, “The Promise Driven Life.” You can tune in via the church’s livestream webcam at 10:00 am Sunday (Jakarta time, about 12 hours from now).