About Me

Fort Worth / Burleson, Texas
I am happily married and the proud father of two sons. I serve as professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I previously served for 13 years as a professor of New Testament and Greek at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and three years as academic acquisitions editor for B&H Academic in Nashville, Tennessee.

Friday, November 7, 2014

“Establishing the New Testament Canon”

The word “canon” (Greek: kanōn) originally meant “measuring reed,” but eventually developed the meaning, “standard.” Pertaining to the New Testament, the term refers to those books the church accepted as the standard that governs Christian belief and conduct.

When the apostles were alive and operating in the first century, no great need existed for a canon to be defined. This fact was because the apostles were divinely appointed and ordained men who had in themselves the authority of the Lord Jesus (Matt 10:40; 1 Cor 9:1–3).[1] The apostles got the church “off the ground,” in a manner of speaking. They were God’s authority on earth between the time of the Lord’s ascension into heaven and the completion of the New Testament Scriptures, which would then become the final and continuing authority. As long as the apostles and their immediate disciples were alive, people could easily determine what constituted apostolic teaching. As time wore on, however, certain developments prompted the need for defining a New Testament canon.

Rise of Heresies—The rise of certain heresies occasioned the need for defining a New Testament canon. For example, Marcion came on the scene around A.D. 144 advocating heretical views. He held to an Old Testament god, who was a harsh, judgmental and vindictive being, and a New Testament god, who was a loving, gracious and kind individual. Marcion believed the New Testament god sent Jesus to redeem people from the Old Testament god. He also contended that the apostle Paul was the only preacher of the true word of God; thus, he compiled his own Bible. He rejected the Old Testament as inferior; his “canon” consisted of the works of Luke (with certain adjustments for things he did not like) and 10 of the Pauline epistles. He did not include the Pastoral Epistles or Hebrews. When heretics began to publish their views and establish canons themselves, the true followers of Christ necessarily had to refute them by defining what the whole church regarded as the canon.[2]

Roman Persecution—During times of intermittent Roman persecution,[3] Christians were subject to imprisonment and even death if they possessed any of the Christian Scriptures. The possibility of imprisonment or death made it imperative to differentiate between which books the church would recognize as being a part of God’s Word and any corollary or supplemental works.[4]

Apostles Dying—As the second century wore on, the apostles’ oral teaching was becoming less familiar to believers, and the apostles’ disciples were beginning to die. Thus, Christians were being separated further from the apostles’ authoritative teaching. This meant Christians placed less reliance on the apostles’ oral teaching and more reliance on their writings and those under their supervision. Thus, the early believers recognized the need to define the canon of Scripture so that later generations might know what apostolic doctrine was and was not.[5]

Criteria of Canonicity
The basic criterion for recognizing books as being part of the New Testament is whether they were considered “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Books do not become inspired because they are recognized as being canonical; rather, they are recognized as being canonical because they are inspired by God. Thus, the church did not “produce” the canon.

Three principal criteria seemed to emerge which the early church used in recognizing books that had been God inspired and thus canonical:[6] apostolic origin, recognition by the churches, and apostolic content.

Apostolic Origin—The Lord had commissioned His apostles to be His authoritative spokesmen after His ascension. Additionally, the Holy Spirit inspired and gifted these men, enabling them to write inerrant Scripture and teach inerrant doctrine. Therefore, the canonical books were to be related in some way to one of these authoritative, inspired apostles.[7] The early Christians essentially asked, “Is this particular work under question the work of one of the apostles?” or, “If it is not the work of the apostle himself, was it produced under the supervision of and with the stamp of approval of one of the apostles?”

Jesus’ apostles wrote most of the books in the New Testament.[8] For example, John and Matthew were apostles. Additionally, Paul accounts for roughly half of the books. Luke, who wrote two New Testament books, was not an apostle. The early church, though, generally recognized him as Paul’s protégé, advisor, traveling companion, and physician. They believed that the apostle Paul supervised and approved what Luke wrote.[9] Or consider the writer of the Gospel of Mark; although John Mark was not an apostle, early Christians generally recognized Peter as Mark’s historical source.[10] These works thus meet the criterion of apostolicity.

Recognition by the Churches—This principle asked how the earliest leading churches regarded the book.[11] If the churches at Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Carthage for example accepted a book as authoritative, then chances were strong that the church as a whole would give it serious consideration for inclusion.

The Content of the Book—This criterion asked whether a particular book’s content agreed with the doctrine the apostles taught orally or wrote when they were still alive. If anything was contrary to the apostles’ actual teaching, it was considered spurious and not the Word of God. The early church leaders—those who had heard the apostles, or who at least had heard the immediate disciples of the apostles—recognized that as time wore on, these distinctions would become increasingly difficult to determine. This motivated them to determine and delineate the genuine New Testament canon in the earliest Christian centuries. This means the only apostolic doctrine we know today is what we get out of those written Scriptures.

So, all of this leads to what was perhaps the “prime” criterion, that being, “Was this book produced by an apostle or under the auspices of an apostle, and does it obviously correspond in doctrine to what the apostles themselves taught when they were on earth as God’s divinely appointed spokesmen?”

An example of this criterion at work is the Gospel of Thomas, a book that did not attain canonical status. This writing bears the name of an apostle, but it is not in accord with what the apostles taught. The book for many years was clearly recognized as a Gnostic forgery representing the heresy of Gnosticism. The fact that an apostle’s name is attached to it does not mean that it was apostolic; its content does not agree with apostolic doctrine.

Pivotal Dates
What were the pivotal dates for the recognition and formal establishment of the New Testament canon? In the eastern church the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, dates to A.D. 367. This document was the bishop’s letter to the faithful written on the occasion of Passover. In this letter Athanasius mentions 27 books the church accepted as being the New Testament. In the western church the Council of Carthage met in A.D. 397. Part of the Council’s work was to publish the names of the 27 books that the church held to be genuine Scripture. Putting these two dates together makes evident that by the middle-to-late fourth century the church had no question about the 27 books that would comprise the New Testament. No really serious question has risen since.

Results
Not all the books that the apostles wrote became Scripture. For example, Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, two of which are lost and thus not in the canon. Nonetheless, the New Testament that we possess today can be trusted.

Jesus, while on earth, did not specifically mention writings that would become what we know as the New Testament. He did, however, seem to “pre-authenticate” the New Testament when he told his disciples: “These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25–26, writer’s translation).

The prophets of old spoke “as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21, HCSB). We can affirm with confidence that those who penned the New Testament wrote in like manner. Their work is God’s inerrant word, entirely true, and the result of His sovereign oversight and provision. By God’s grace and providence, the early church recognized those books that were inspired of God were to be included in the New Testament canon.

Notes

1 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 119-20, 256-59; Terry L. Wilder, Pseudonymity, the New Testament, and Deception (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004), 165–216. Scripture lists in the article are representative. Other passages, not listed due to space, could also apply. With slight modification, this article first appeared in Biblical Illustrator (Spring 2013): Center Spread. I am indebted to William E. Bell, Jr. former professor of Religion at Dallas Baptist University. Much of this article is based on teachings I first heard in his classes.

2 Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 75–106.

3 Roman persecution began around A.D. 64 and occurred intermittently over the course of about three centuries.

4 Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 106-108.

5 Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1988), 12-24.

6 Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 255-69.

7 Ibid., 253; Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 12-15.

8 Cf. the discussion of E. E. Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 66, 89-91.

9 Tertullian in Against Marcion (4.2.4) spoke of Luke not as an apostle but as being “apostolic.”

10 See Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.15) who records Papias’ remarks on Mark’s gospel that “Mark became Peter’s interpreter.”

11 Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 253-54.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Martin Luther on the Languages of Scripture

A.T. Robertson, the noted Greek scholar of yesteryear, in his grammar shared the conviction of A.M. Fairbairn when he said, “No man can be a theologian who is not a philologian. He who is no grammarian is no divine” (Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek NT, x). In other words, both of these men thought that learning and knowing Greek and Hebrew were necessary for anyone studying Scripture and theology. Unfortunately, in our day many theological students, pastors, and even some scholars see no need or use to study the biblical languages because, among other things, so many English Bible translations are readily available to us.

Somewhat of a similar problem existed in the time of Martin Luther, the German reformer. He once asked the question: “Do you inquire what use there is in learning the languages? Do you say, ‘We can read the Bible very well in German?’”

Luther gave a lengthy answer to the question he posed.

"Without languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude."

"If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel . . . No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, than this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom . . . In former times the fathers were frequently mistaken, because they were ignorant of the languages and in our days there are some who, like the Waldenses, do not think the languages of any use; but although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure" [boldface emphasis mine].

Notice at least three things in the answer Luther gave. First, he said, “Without languages we could not have received the gospel.” Luther knew that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and some Aramaic, while the New Testament was penned in Greek. It was through these languages that God’s story, and specifically, the gospel came to mankind. Remember also that Luther was a professor of New Testament and engaged in an exegetical study of Romans in Greek when he “rediscovered” the gospel that had been long been lost, in particular, the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ. Second, the reformer stated, “If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel.” He thought that just as languages were necessary in receiving the gospel so also they were essential in keeping the gospel. Third, Luther knew that preachers contemporary in his time preached good doctrinal sermons; in other words, their theology and doctrine were good and even orthodox; however, he also knew that it was possible to be correct in one’s theology and doctrine but not know the actual meaning of the texts on which that doctrine was supposed to be based. Unfortunately, this problem is one current in our day just as it was in Luther’s time with the Waldenses. Luther thought that having the right theology but erring in determining the actual meaning of the biblical text left one “without arms,” i.e., defenseless to fight against errors that encroach upon faith in Christ.

He went on to say,

"It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O’ how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor— yes, almost without any labor at all—can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame" [boldface emphasis mine].

Luther lamented the neglect of the Bible and its languages. He thought that it was shameful not to know the Bible well. He believed it even more sinful not to study the languages, especially when the opportunity to learn them well afforded itself in his day with an abundance of resources. How much more so in our present day!

When contrasting “simple preachers” who did not use or know the languages with preachers of God’s Word who were “versed” in the languages, Luther said,

"Though the faith and the Gospel may be proclaimed by simple preachers without the languages, such preaching is flat and tame, men grow at last wearied and disgusted and it falls to the ground. But when the preacher is versed in the languages, his discourse has freshness and force, the whole of Scripture is treated, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and words" [boldface emphasis mine].

Luther thought that the biblical languages brought “freshness and force” to one’s preaching. He opined that those who preached without the languages were limited, and these limitations would ultimately show up in their preaching. He went on further to say, “to interpret Scripture, to treat it independently, and to dispute with those who cite it incorrectly . . . cannot be done without languages.” This giant of the Reformation spoke with great conviction, and we need to hear him on these matters.

Please know that I do not mention all of these things in this blog to condemn those who have not had or do not know the biblical languages. My thinking is that God will hold us accountable for what opportunities we have had and for what we did with them. Thus, if you have learned the languages, I would urge you to be faithful with the training you have acquired. Learn and use them well! If you have not had the facility to learn the languages, I would encourage you to take some language courses in Hebrew or Greek should the opportunity be available. You will not regret it and will not have to continue rehearsing what commentator x, y, or z has to say when you preach on a biblical text. On one thing I think we would all agree: all of us want to be faithful and more effective stewards of the gospel with which God has entrusted us. Knowing the biblical languages goes a long way towards that end, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is a great place to learn them! Blessings.

(All of the quotes above from Martin Luther are public domain and can be found compiled in a variety of places and resources, e.g., Hugh T. Kerr, ed., A Compend of Luther’s Theology [Westminster John Knox Press, 1966]).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Phoebe, the Letter-Carrier of Romans

Scholars are not only divided along ideological lines but also clearly undecided or uncertain on what role Phoebe played in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In their discussions on this topic, they often particularly focus on how Paul used the word διάκονος as it pertains to Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1–2. On the one hand, the term may be used generically to denote a “servant,” i.e., one who performs various kinds of service. On the other hand, the word can also designate the office of “deacon” (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12; Ign. Eph. 2.1; Magn. 6.1). So, the question usually arises in Romans 16:1–2 whether Paul is commending Phoebe in his letter because she is a noteworthy “servant,” or because she is specifically a “deacon” of the church at Cenchrea. A third possibility exists; viz., Phoebe was the letter-carrier of Romans (a position I have held since the year 2000).

A brief survey of commentaries written on Romans reveals that a majority of scholars say that Phoebe may have been the letter-carrier for Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but then they often say, primarily on the basis of the word διάκονος, that she was a deacon. For example, though he provided no proof that Phoebe was a letter-carrier, F. F. Bruce maintained that the letter to the Romans evidently was taken by her to the church; he then states that she was a deacon (Romans, TNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], 252). T. Schreiner also thinks that Phoebe was probably the bearer of the letter, but then he too goes on to say that she held the office of deacon (Romans, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 786-87). Though D. Moo strongly alludes to Phoebe being the letter-carrier of Romans, he likewise believes that she was a deacon—however, he is cautious about saying she held the office because he notes that regular offices in the church were still in the process of being established (Moo, Romans, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 913-14). J. D. G. Dunn is no different and holds a similar viewpoint to that of Moo (Dunn, Romans, WBC [Dallas: Word, 1988], 886-87). C. E. B. Cranfield says that it is highly probable that Phoebe was to be the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but then he says it is virtually certain that Phoebe was a deacon of the church in question (Cranfield, Romans, ICC [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979], 78-81).

In Romans 16:1–2, however, I think Paul clearly commended Phoebe as the letter-carrier for his epistle to the Roman church. That is to say, although Phoebe was generally exercising a service-oriented task, she was specifically one involved in dispatch letter service, i.e., the courier of the letter to the Romans. Various Greek texts show that the word διάκονος unmistakably can refer to one who is a letter-carrier or courier (a list of texts can be found in LSJ, 398; cf. also BDAG, 230). Moreover, Paul’s recommendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2— though more extensive— nonetheless fits the pattern found in ancient texts where letter-carriers are commended to the recipients of letters (many scholars on ancient letters— e.g., Kim, White, Stowers, Richards— acknowledge that Paul’s commendation of Phoebe shows characteristics featured in Greek papyri letters of recommendation).

Consequently, this conclusion has a considerable impact not only on interpretation, but also on biblical theology, especially the role of women in church and ministry.

(For more, see my full article titled, "Phoebe, the Letter-Carrier of Romans, and the Impact of Her Role on Biblical Theology," SWJT 56.1 [Fall 2013]: 43–52).

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Center of a Christian Worldview

Tawa Anderson has basically defined a worldview as “the conceptual lens through which we view our world.” A worldview is a comprehensive and integrated grid or framework through which we see things. For one who follows Christ, a thoroughgoing view of the world must operate from a biblical standpoint.

The Christian worldview stands in contradistinction with other worldviews present in the lives of people—philosophies like naturalism, spiritism, pantheism, and postmodernism, to name a few. Steeped in sin and outside of Christ we typically follow whatever system or combination of beliefs are trendy, meet our needs, or satisfy our desires, and often they are those which hold us the least accountable for our actions and decisions. Even those people outside of Christ who are earnestly moralistic fall short of God's standards. Such is the nature of humanity.

The magnitude and horrific nature of sin is not a pretty picture! Outside of Christ we are dead in sin and indeed enslaved to it. We are separated and estranged from a holy God who cannot tolerate our sin. We stand in need of salvation, redemption, and deliverance from sin and its effects. However, the problem is that God judges and exacts payment for sin, but we can neither save ourselves nor do anything to satisfy the demands of this holy God. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Through his death on the cross, Christ appeases or satisfies the wrath of God toward sin and makes payment for it (cf. 1 John 2:2). We appropriate the salvific grace of God through Christ’s death on the cross into our lives through faith (Eph 2:8). “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus “died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for the one who died and was raised on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:15).

So, given the above, what is it that leads or changes us so that we view the world through a biblical, Christian “conceptual lens”? I would maintain it is the person of Jesus Christ and what he has done on the cross that leads us to see the world from a Christian perspective. Though it may seem like a blatantly obvious deduction, this tenet is arguably the center of a Christian worldview. The Lord Jesus has secured salvation for us through his cross-death on our behalf, and now we want to see the world as he does. We learn about his life and teachings as revealed in the word of God. Outside of Christ we have no real reason to care about the Christian worldview, but when we believe in Jesus and follow him our way of life and thinking transforms (2 Cor 5:17); our way of seeing things changes. Such a change is the work of the Spirit through salvation.

Part of this new way of thinking is the realization and acknowledgment that Christ “owns” or possesses us. The church at Corinth, a group of believers who in essence had gotten away from a Christian worldview, were chided by Paul into acknowledging the Lord’s “ownership” of them and the implications of that ownership in the different areas of their lives. First Corinthians 6:19c–20 reads, “You are not your own. For you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.” Though the apostle wrote these words in the immediate context of warning his readers against sexual immorality, the larger context is one in which he instructed the Corinthians with the principle that they “belong to Christ” and not to so-and so (cf. 1 Cor 1:12).

We too belong to Christ, and because God has “bought us,” we want to please him, not only out of duty, but also out of gratitude. Indeed, followers of Jesus who stand in a right relationship with God want their way of thinking and viewing of the world to be Christ’s. They want to do his will. But how do believers in Jesus know the will of God? Where is it to be found? The will of God is grounded in and upon the written revelation of the Bible. We know God and come to understand his way of thinking and viewing the world through his authoritative word.

As mentioned earlier, the Christian worldview stands in stark contrast to other worldviews. What is it about the person of Christ that separates the truth claims of the Christian worldview from those of all other philosophies? Easy—it is his resurrection from the dead. Jesus Christ “was declared the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4; cf. 1 Cor 15:3–4). He is God. No other founder or advocate of another worldview can genuinely claim that for himself. Preach!

(A slight variation of this article first appeared in the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, May 22, 2012.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"The Church, Academy and Calling: Interview"

I was interviewed last year by Joshua Mann, a former student of mine at Midwestern Seminary, who is now studying for the PhD at Edinburgh University. The interview was on the subject of "The Church, Academy and Calling" and originally appeared at http://www.joshualmann.com/the-church-academy-and-calling-interview-with-terry-wilder/. Below are the questions that were asked of me along with my answers. I am asked such questions from time to time by students so I thought it prudent to run the interview again here. For Josh's full blog post (and others like it), please visit the Web site mentioned above.

1. How would you describe the relationship between your “scholarly” endeavors and your involvement in the ministry of the local church?

First of all, let me say that I do not think that scholarship should be divorced from local church ministry. I teach New Testament, so most of my involvement in ministry is in teaching or preaching. I also visit people to share the gospel and try to be an encourager and help for my pastor. Further, since much of my academic work is on pseudonymity, the NT, and ancient authorship, I have spoken in ministry venues on ethical issues and the trustworthiness of Scripture.

2. What led you to decide on the vocation (of pastor, scholar, or scholar/pastor) you now find yourself in?

I think God decided for me. After he called me into ministry, I went to university first planning on becoming a vocational evangelist, and then a pastor, but as time went on realized that my spiritual giftedness was in teaching. So, following the Lord’s leading, I began preparing for that vocation.

3. How would you describe any sense of “calling” you feel to do what you do?

Any sense of calling I have stems from Christ’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples” (Matt 28:19-20). I am concerned that the word of God be properly interpreted and faithfully taught to future generations (cf. 2 Tim 2:2). So, given that, I am particularly burdened for the training of pastors and others, especially in the biblical languages and in hermeneutics.

4. How might the chasm often present between the church and academy be more effectively bridged?

Academicians need to make it a point to get involved in the ministry of the local church, perhaps teaching Sunday School or something. Also, they should never forget their roots and learn to communicate difficult concepts in simpler terms. On the flip side, pastors and churches need to realize that eventually academic trends and challenges filter down to the churches, and thus it is important to take advantage of any help the academy may have to offer.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Regulative principle of worship or normative?

Does your church practice in worship only those things found in Scripture, or whatever is not prohibited in the Bible as long as the church agrees? In other words, does your church exercise the regulative principle of worship or carefully hold to the normative one? Why? Thoughts?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Brief Response to the Idea That Life is Not Fair

Recently, a Christian teenager very dear to me posted on his Facebook "Sometimes life is so unfair that it deserves a pause button." Of course, I will make it a point to talk with him in person, but the following is my response to him.

I understand what you mean. From a biblical perspective, we are never promised success or that life will be fair. To the contrary, we will undergo suffering in this life because of the fall when sin entered the world. However, Jesus promised us peace to deal with anything that may come our way. Plus, believers in Jesus have eternal life; this life is not all there is. Please feel free to talk with me if you need to do so.

More on this deep subject . . . And though life doesn't always seem fair, our Lord is more than fair. As difficult as it is, we need to view the things that come our way in life as "Father-filtered." In other words, he allows those things/events that come into our life. God is "sovereign"; he is in control of all things; he is not surprised or unaware of our circumstances. Now, that doesn't mean that all things that come our way are good (and God is definitely not the author of evil), or that we will even like them, but God uses them for his purposes and for our good, to make us more like Christ (Rom 8:28). Sorry for the long comment! I hope that it is helpful.