Michael J. Kruger

The World’s Easiest Theological Question

Written by Michael J. Kruger, |
Friday, August 18, 2023
How should we respond to the bad shepherds in our modern day? The same as Jesus. The text tells us that he was “grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). We should mourn for those sheep who lack good shepherds. But, I think we can also follow Jesus’ lead in another way. We can distinguish between good and bad shepherds by again asking the world’s easiest theological question: “Is it lawful . . . to do good or to do harm?”

For those who love to talk about theology, a good head-scratching question can really be fun. It allows us to stay up late in deep conversations with our friends over the mysteries of God and his Word.
Indeed, Jesus was known for asking some pretty tough theological questions. Sometimes the answer seemed obvious when it was not. When Jesus asked the Pharisees, “Whose son is he [the Christ]?” they assumed the answer was simple: “The son of David,” they said (Matt 22:42).
Turns out, however, that it was not at all simple. Jesus proceeds to stump them: “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt 22:45).  The text then tells us: “No one was able to answer him a word.”
Lesson: we’re not the great theologians we often think we are. At any moment, Jesus can take us into the deep theological waters where the currents are swift and we struggle to keep our head above water.
Even so, sometimes Jesus asks easy theological questions where the answer is obvious. Often he does this to make a point about the hardness of men’s hearts. As an example, he asks the Pharisees what may be the world’s easiest theological question:
“Is it lawful . . . to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4)
No one hears this question and thinks, “Hmm. That’s a tough one. The Bible is pretty vague about good vs. evil. Not sure if God wants me to save a life today or murder someone . . . ”
No! Jesus is purposefully asking the Pharisees the world’s easiest theological question. One that any 3-year-old could get right. And how do they respond?
The text tells us, “And they were silent.”
So, let’s not miss how incredible this scene is. The Pharisees—Israel’s foremost scholars, teachers and theologians—won’t answer a question about whether they should perform a good act or an evil act.  What in the world is happening here?
The larger context provides the answer. This remarkable exchange takes place in a series of passages about what one is allowed to do on the Sabbath.
Read More
Related Posts:

How Were the Books of the Bible “Chosen”?

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Wednesday, August 2, 2023
Most people assume (even if they don’t realize it) that religious books are ultimately man-made enterprises. It’s always a group of humans somewhere that are imposing their religious views on others. And if the canon is merely the (arbitrary) choice of a bunch of humans, then it can be edited, reworked, rewritten, or even just ignored.

“Who chose the books of the New Testament canon?”
Among the countless questions I have heard over the years about the origins of the canon, this may be the most common. And that’s totally understandable. The Bible didn’t drop from heaven on golden tablets, perfectly complete and intact. It was delivered through normal historical channels, and people want to know the details of how that happened.
The problem, however, is that the wording of the question already presumes the answer (or at least part of it).  Most people don’t realize this, of course. They are just honestly asking a question, probably using words that come most natural to them (or that they’ve heard others use). But, this particular framing of the question has a number of built-in assumptions that need to be recognized.
Most notably, there is a problem with the word “chose”. It assumes that the church proactively, overtly “decided” which books belonged in the canon. This usually conjures images of some meeting, or council, where people voted on books—some books making the cut, and others left out.
Moreover, the word “chose” also gives the impression that there would not be a canon unless the church acted. It’s almost as if a group of people got together and an individual said, “Hey everyone, don’t you think we need a canon of books?” Then, after everyone nods their head in agreement, the individual says, “Ok then, let’s go find the ones we like the best!”
Read More
Related Posts:

Were Later Versions of Christianity Radically Different than Earlier Ones? Reflecting on Recent Scholarly Claims

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Friday, April 7, 2023
For those interested in the formation of the earliest Christian movement, After Jesus Before Christianity will be a fascinating read. It offers a number of provocative claims that will surely elicit reflection and curiosity in the reader. And it does make some helpful points that need to be made: e.g., early Christianity was more diverse than we typically think; women were valued in the early Christian movement. However, time and again, the authors seem to push well beyond what the evidence can bear. 

I think it’s fair to say that the last decade has witnessed a bit of a resurgence of academic interest in early Christianity.
By “early Christianity,” I don’t mean the Christianity represented by the major figures in the fourth and fifth centuries when the church had risen to power—e.g., Athanasius, Constantine, Augustine. Rather, I am referring to the time period immediately after the apostles, mainly the second and third centuries, when Christianity was still in its infancy, struggling to find its way in a hostile Roman world.
Recent books covering this critical time period (and sometimes more periods) include Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (2011), Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (2016), my own Christianity at the Crossroads (2017), Bart Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity (2018), and James Edwards, From Christ to Christianity (2021).
So, why all the interest? I think scholars are realizing afresh something that we have always known, namely that the validity of the later (and fuller) version of Christianity is dependent, at least somewhat, upon whether its core features can be traced back to the earlier stages of Christianity.
And if this cannot be done, if it can be shown that there is a radical gap between the two, then we might conclude that the Christianity that arose to dominance is not the “real” Christianity after all. Rather, it is just a man-made construction—born of politics or power or just random chance—that is out of sync with the earlier (and more authentic) version.
Then we might conclude that this earlier (more authentic) version of the faith has been suppressed and forgotten for all these generations. And then we might wish there were scholars brave enough to recover that lost version of the faith for us, restoring it to its proper place.
Well, if someone has such a wish, it can be realized in the latest volume, After Jesus Before Christianity: A Historical Exploration of the First Two Centuries of Jesus Movements (HarperOne, 2021). It is authored by Erin Vearncombe, Brandon Scott, and Hal Taussig—all writing on behalf of the Westar Institute (effectively the umbrella organization for the well-known Jesus Seminar).
A Bold Thesis
If the foreword by Sue Monk Kidd is any indication, the thesis of this volume certainly does not lack in boldness: “You are about to read a book that possesses the potential to rewrite history, namely, the long-held ‘master-narrative’ of how Christianity came to be” (xi). And what is this “master narrative” the book intends to rewrite? It’s the belief that “‘Christianity’ acted as a unified, continuous early tradition in unbroken line representing a single truth” (3).
In other words, the book aims to show that there is a radical gap between the later version of Christianity and its earlier iterations. While the later version might look stable and unified, the early stage of Christianity was a diverse, vibrant “kaleidoscope” of different views—a mosaic of “many-shaped tiles”—that defy neat categorizations and traditional labels (3).
The authors put it bluntly, “In the first two centuries, what we think of as ‘Christianity’ did not exist” (4).
Walter Bauer Revisited
Of course, anyone familiar with 20th century scholarship on early Christianity will quickly recognize that this overall thesis is not new. Walter Bauer’s 1934 volume, Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, essentially made these same claims about radical diversity in the earliest centuries, and how “orthodoxy” was merely the result of the stabilization of the church in the 4th/5th century. Indeed, much of modern critical scholarship on early Christianity has been built on the Bauer paradigm (in some form or another).
Now, while Bauer’s thesis has been roundly (and some would say decisively) critiqued, he did get some things right. For one, it is fair to say that these earliest centuries of the Christian faith had a lot more theological-doctrinal diversity than we typically recognize.
And the same is true of the present volume. At a number of points, it rightly recognizes that these early centuries were quite different than the later centuries, and we need to understand those differences better.
Read More
Related Posts:

How a Pagan Philosopher Came to Believe the Scriptures Are from God

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
The Reformers…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 hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

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 my book 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: they read it.  Rather than being persuaded through a deep dive into the historical evidences, many have come to believe the Bible is from God by observing its distinctive character and power.

Related Posts:

A Forgotten Fact about the Earliest Christian Movement

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Tuesday, January 17, 2023
So, if you want to recapture your identity as a believer, don’t just think about the future. Look to the past. Remember what Christians have always been: voyagers. We are travelers. As such, take up the invitation of Paul: “Travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 8:19).

The lovable Disney film Moana, tells the story of a young girl who lives on a Polynesian island and is the daughter of the chief. Like many fathers, the chief is overly protective of his daughter, and also of the people he rules.
As a result, the people of Moana’s village are in a bit of a rut. They are rather uninspired and somewhat in-grown, not sure of their purpose or destiny. And Moana feels the same unrest. The core of the movie catalogs her struggle to discover her identity and calling.
But here’s the key. While she is curious about what her future should be, her breakthrough comes when she begins to consider the past. One night she explores the hidden caves on the island and discovers a fleet of boats that have been sealed away and forgotten. Then it hits her: “We were voyagers!”
This core realization is the key to her identity. Her people were not (originally) a static people, an in-grown and home-bound people, but rather they were people on the move. They were travelers, always looking to move forward rather than backwards.
When I first saw this film with my daughter a number of years ago, I was struck by how much Moana is a picture of the early Christian movement. (Yes, even when I watch Disney movies I am still doing academic work in my head!).
In the midst of my current research project, I am learning this afresh. It’s something I sort of already knew, but had forgotten to some extent. As I have been studying the early Christian sources I had a bit of an epiphany similar to Moana’s: “We were voyagers!”
In other words, one of the central features of the early Christian movement was that they were a people who traveled, and traveled extensively.
Of course, the remarkable missionary efforts, and rapid expansion of the Christian movement in the earliest centuries, have been well-documented (see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity). Indeed, the new Christian movement could be characterized as one with a “transient life-style” as believers sought to evangelize the world around them.
Harnack’s classic study, which need not be rehearsed here, catalogs a substantial number of early Christian leaders/teachers who were known for their extensive travel. Of course, this would include first-century individuals like Paul, Peter, Priscilla and Aquila, and many more, as documented in the book of Acts and beyond.  But, Harnack also highlights the extensive travel of later Christian leaders such as Justin, Hegesippus, Julius Africanus, and (especially) Origen.
Read More
Related Posts:

A Curious Clue about the Origins of the New Testament Canon

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Tuesday, December 20, 2022
Covenants were largely conceived as something written or read; i.e., something in a book.  It is precisely for this reason that warnings were given not to change the text of the covenant (Deuteronomy 4:2), and there were concerns about it being in the proper physical location (Exodus 25:16).

Although most discussions about the development of the canon focus on the patristic period (second century and later), there is much canonical gold yet to mine from the pages of the New Testament itself.  Unfortunately, this step is often skipped.
There are a number of possible reasons for why it is skipped.  But perhaps most people just assume that the whole idea of a “canon” is a late development anyway, and thus we wouldn’t expect to find anything about it in the New Testament books themselves.
Aside from the fact that such a position already presupposes an entire canonical “worldview” known as the extrinsic model (for my critique of this model see my book The Question of Canon), it keeps us from noticing some fascinating clues.
One passage that I think contains a number of intriguing clues is 2 Cor 3:14 when Paul says, “When they read the Old Covenant, that same veil remains unlifted.”
Often overlooked in this passage is that Paul understands a covenant to be something that you read.  In other words, for Paul (and his audience) covenants are understood to be written documents.
When we look at Paul’s Jewish context this should come as no surprise.  So close is the relationship between the covenant, and the written documentation of the covenant, that Old Testament authors would frequently equate the two—the covenant, in one sense, is a written text.
Read More
Related Posts:

Do We Have the Right Books of the Bible?

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
The New Testament canon that we possess today is due not to the machinations of later church leaders or to the political influence of Constantine but to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities. In other words, these books were used the most because they proved themselves to be worthy of that use.

From the very beginning, Christians have plainly affirmed that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God. That much is clear. But looming in the background of such an affirmation is a question that won’t seem to go away: How do we know that these books are from God? It’s one thing to say that they are from God; it’s another thing to have a reason for saying it.
Of course, critical scholars have long challenged the Christian view of Scripture at precisely this point. It’s not enough to merely claim that these books are inspired. Christians need to have some way of knowing whether they are inspired. As James Barr liked to point out, “Books do not necessarily say whether they are divinely inspired or not.”
Over the years, Christians have offered a number of answers to this question. Certainly, the Apostolic origins of a book can help identify it as being from God. If a book can be traced to an Apostle, and Apostles are inspired, then we have good reasons to think that the book is from God.
But this is not all that can be said. Christian theologians—especially in the Reformed world—have long argued that there is a more foundational way that we can know that books are from God: the internal qualities of the books themselves.
In other words, they have argued that these books bear certain attributes (Latin indicia) that distinguish them as being from God. They argue that believers hear the voice of their Lord in these particular books. In modern theological language, they believe that the canonical books are self-authenticating. As Jesus said in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
Anyone familiar with Reformation-era authors will know that this was the core argument given by the likes of John Calvin, William Whitaker, and John Owen in some of the key discussions on Scripture. Moreover, the idea of self-authentication is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which holds that the Bible does “evidence itself” to be from God by its own internal qualities:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God. (1.5)
Beyond this, the concept of a self- authenticating Bible played a central role for later Reformed thinkers, particularly Herman Bavinck, as they sought to explain how we know that books are from God.
But some will wonder, Is this whole idea of a “self-authenticating” Bible just a novel invention of the Reformers? Did they invent the idea just as a tool in their fight against Rome? Not at all. When we look back even in the patristic period, we see that this concept was there from the beginning. Here are a few examples.
Read More
Related Posts:

How the 5 Solas Do More Than Respond to Catholicism

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Thursday, September 8, 2022
The solas basically argue against idolatry, legalism, humanism, pluralism, and pride. And those things need to be battled in every generation. It is precisely here that we see how Christianity is unique among all the religions in the world. The solas show us that Christianity does not look like a religion that any human being would have made up. And that is a reason to think that it just might be from God after all.

“What is Reformed theology?” This is the question I get asked all the time. Especially since I teach at a school called Reformed Theological Seminary!
While there are many ways to answer that question, I have found that the 5 Solas of the Reformation provide one of the best summaries of what it means to be Reformed: sola scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone).
Since the 5 Solas are borne out of the Protestant Reformation, then it would not be surprising to know that, in many ways, they reflect the circumstances of the time period in which they were formulated. Each of the solas are a response to what the Reformers saw as problematic in the Roman Catholic church of their day.
As an example, sola scriptura—the affirmation that the Scriptures are the highest and only infallible authority—is an obvious response to the Roman Catholic claim that the church (and church tradition) should be seen as equally authoritative as Scripture.
But here’s the thing. Some misunderstand the 5 Solas as merely a response to Roman Catholicism and nothing more. In other words, they are viewed as a time-bound, historically conditioned set of affirmations that are largely applicable to an era that is long gone.
It is precisely here that I want to offer a bit of pushback. Let me suggest that the 5 Solas are much more than a response to Catholicism. On the contrary, they are a response to the universal tendencies of fallen human hearts everywhere. Put differently, the 5 Solas are inherently counter-cultural. They run contrary to the average human intuition about the way life (and religion) ought to be.
Let me explain:
1. Sola Scriptura.  As noted, sola scriptura obviously was designed to counter Roman Catholic claims about church tradition.
Read More
Related Posts:

Is the Concept of a “Self-Authenticating” Bible a Modern Invention?

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Wednesday, May 4, 2022
The NT canon we possess today is not due to the machinations of later church leaders, or to the political influence of Constantine, but due to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities. 

How do we know which books are from God, and which are not?  Certainly the apostolic origins of a book can help identify it as being from God (see post here). And, the church’s overall consensus on a book can be part of how we identify it as being from God (see post here).
But, Christian theologians—especially in the Reformed world—have long argued that there is a more foundational way we can know books are from God: the internal qualities of the books themselves.
In other words, they have argued that these books bear certain attributes (Latin indicia) that distinguished them as being from God. They argued that believers hear the voice of their Lord in these particular books. In modern theological language, they believed that canonical books are self-authenticating.  As Jesus said in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
Anyone familiar with Reformation-era authors will know this was the core argument in some of the key discussions on Scripture by the likes of John Calvin, William Whitaker, John Owen, and others. Moreover, the idea of self-authentication is embodied in the Westminster Confession of Faith which holds that the Bible does “evidence itself” to be from God by its own internal qualities (1.5).  Beyond this, the concept of a self-authenticating Bible played a central role in later Reformed thinkers, particularly Herman Bavinck, as they sought to explain how we know books are from God.
But, some will wonder, is this whole idea of a “self-authenticating” Bible just a novel invention of the Reformers? Did they invent the idea just as a tool in their fight against Rome?
No at all. When we look back even in the patristic period, we see that this concept was there from the beginning.  Here are a few examples.
Origen is quite clear that the divine qualities of books play a role in their authentication: “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 the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God” (Princ. 4.1.6. ). And elsewhere, Origen insists that OT prophets “are sufficient to produce faith in any one who reads them” and thereby the Gospel offers “a demonstration of its own” (Cels. 2.1.).
Read More
Related Posts:

One of the Most Overlooked Arguments for the Resurrection

Written by Michael J. Kruger |
Sunday, April 17, 2022
At the end of the day we are faced with a remarkable confluence of events. We have an early Christian movement that radically reverses it’s view of Jesus—from defeated would-be Messiah to the true and only Messiah—and also believes that the tomb was empty and that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at once. It is no surprise, then, that they reached the only conclusion that a sane and reasonable person could reach. Jesus of Nazareth had died, and then, three days later, he came back to life.

Well, soon it will be Easter. That wonderful time of the year when we remember (and celebrate) the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
But, not all will be celebrating. There are many that find Easter to be a senseless holiday—apart from, perhaps, the joys of Sunday brunch or chocolate eggs. After all, it is argued, we all know that people don’t rise from the dead. And there are no reasons to think it happened in the case of Jesus of Nazareth.
In response to such skepticism, apologists have been making their best arguments for the resurrection.  There’s the empty tomb. There’s the fact that women were the first eyewitnesses which was unlikely to be invented. And there’s the larger appearance to the 500 witnesses.
But, of course, each of these claims has been contested. As for the empty tomb, scholars have argued that standard Roman practice was to put crucified criminals in a common grave, not a private tomb. As for the women as the first witnesses, some have pointed out that women were the ones who typically prepared bodies for burial and so would naturally be the first to visit the tomb. As for the 500 witnesses, maybe those were just “bereavement visions.”
Now, to be clear, I don’t believe all of these rebuttals are cogent. And I think there are good rebuttals to the rebuttals. But, what these typical proofs lack is an overall context that makes them persuasive.
And that brings us to another fact that I think is harder to challenge. It is an often overlooked fact that provides the necessary context for the discussion. That fact is simply this: the earliest Christians came to believe, against all odds and against all expectations, that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead.
Notice the distinctive nature of this claim. The claim is not that Jesus rose from the dead (though, I think he did).  The claim is that the earliest followers of Jesus came to believe—and very strongly believe— that he did.  And that is a wholly other matter.
Why? Because it is a historical fact that is not disputed. And it is a historical fact that requires a substantive explanation.  Even Bart Ehrman agrees: “It is indisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and something had to have happened to make them think so” (How Jesus Became God, 182-83).
Read More

Scroll to top