Friday, February 23, 2018

On the Relationship of Inspiration to Canon in the Church Fathers

Today, there is a renewed focus on the primary sources pertaining to the New Testament text (just peruse most of the posts on this blog) and its canon. Some of our source material is relatively new (MS finds, whole works of church fathers rediscovered etc.), but with regard to canon, the relevant sources have been at our fingertips for a long time. In any case, all of this evidence is under great scrutiny now, and this development is welcomed, for returning to the primary sources is the surest way forward in our current discussions.

One particular area under scrutiny is how to describe the nature of early Christian writings. Did early Christians think only the eventual NT books were inspired or did they view inspired literature as a wider category of books than what eventually became recognized as the canon of authoritative-for-doctrine Scripture? Michael Kruger has brought this issue to the fore in a recent blogpost and it is worth presenting his view along side of Lee McDonald’s, whose view he mentions in the post, in short order without attempting to resolve the differences between the two. Both views affirm the inspiration of the NT books. Both views affirm that early Christians thought their works were inspired in some sense. Both views affirm that early Christians recognized (at least eventually) the NT books as unique revelation. The disagreement is over why early Christians saw these NT books as unique, not whether they saw them as unique.

It’s important to remember that this is a blog exchange and that Kruger has written whole books and articles on the topic of canon. He didn’t say everything in his post. I bet Lee McDonald would even say he didn’t write everything in his most recent two volume tome on the biblical canon. I will include these works along with a few others in the Further Reading section below.

Michael Kruger’s View

Summary of his view: Early Christians didn’t think their works were inspired like Scripture. Helpfully, Kruger introduced his evidence with the following caveat: “So, regardless of whether they viewed themselves as “inspired” in some sense [he will return to this later], we have to acknowledge that they still viewed the inspiration/authority of the apostles as somehow different.” Significantly, Kruger sees the notions of inspiration and authority as inseparable, so that early Christian writings not only hold a secondary/different-in-some-sense authority but now also secondary/different-in-some-sense inspiration when compared to the apostolic writings. This point is crucial, and we will return to it.

Kruger then surveys a number of pertinent texts in which Christians of the second century make a distinction between themselves and the apostles (1 Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus; unfortunately the hyperlinks in Kruger’s post are defunct). Here is an example from Ignatius with Kruger’s commentary:
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, also recognizes the unique role of the apostles as the mouthpiece of Christ, “The Lord did nothing apart from the Father…neither on his own nor through the apostles.” Here Ignatius indicates that the apostles were a distinct historical group and the agents through which Christ worked. Thus, Ignatius goes out of his way to distinguish his own authority as a bishop from the authority of the apostles, “I am not enjoining [commanding] you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles, I am condemned.”
Thus, Kruger’s first point is that the authors of early Christian writings distanced themselves from the apostles and their writings. Kruger’s second point is that generally in the second century early Christians believed that their writings should be viewed differently than the apostolic writings of the earlier era. Here, Kruger cites the Muratorian Fragment, Dionysius of Corinth (c.170), and the anonymous critic of Montanism (c.196; apud Eusebius). All of these sources, on Kruger’s view, show that, “books were regarded as authoritative precisely because they were deemed to have originated fom [sic from] the apostolic time period.”

In Kruger’s third point, he raises the matter of Clement’s claim to inspiration in which his own letters are said to be written through the Holy Spirit (1 Clement). From this evidence, Kruger concludes:
“While such language certainly could be referring to inspiration like the apostles, such language could also be referring to ecclesiastical authority which Christians believe is also guided by the Holy Spirit (though in a different manner).”
How does Kruger arrive at this category of “ecclesiastical authority,” and therefore, inspiration in a different manner? The context of 1 Clement itself. Clement has already distanced himself from the apostles and their authority on the one hand, but on the other hand he claims that his letters to the churches are written through the Holy Spirit. Clement is either contradicting himself, or there are two senses of authority/inspiration operative in his writings. Indeed, there is a distinction between Clement and the apostles, but interpretations over how to describe it differ.

Kruger concludes his post with the following:
In sum, we have very little patristic evidence that the early church fathers saw their own “inspiration” or authority as on par with that of the apostles. When they wanted definitive teaching about Jesus their approach was always retrospective—they looked back to that teaching which was delivered by the apostles.
A crucial piece to Kruger’s discussion is the link between inspiration and authority. Not all scholars agree with this move, and in fact, others would argue that the sources do not suggest a difference in the nature of inspiration itself but only in authority that attends it. The Spirit is the same Spirit, but only one band of apostles and their associates could claim to have walked with and been taught directly by Christ Jesus.

Lee McDonald’s View 

Due to the voluminous nature of McDonald’s writings, summarizing his view of the relationship of inspiration to canon can be a challenge. For those interested see the following pages in the work listed below: Vol. 1, Chapter 5 secs. VII-X (pp. 175-89) and Vol. 2, Chapter 17 sec. IV (pp. 127-36) and Chapter 22 sec. II.F (pp. 341-47). I will focus my summary on the pages from volume 2, the New Testament, where discussion of Inspiration arises in the context of the criteria for canonicity (Apostolicity, Orthodoxy, Antiquity, Use, Adaptability, and Inspiration).

Summary of his view: Inspiration was not a criterion by which a NT book was given the status of Scripture and later placed into a fixed biblical canon, but rather, as Bruce concluded “a corollary” that follows its recognized status (p. 347). McDonald states also that the answer to “was inspiration a criterion for canon?” was both “yes and no.” On the one hand, no church father ever denied inspiration to a NT book recognized as Scripture. But on the other hand, “it is difficult to make a qualitative difference on this basis between some writings that were accepted as Scripture and others that were not” (p. 341). McDonald continues saying that it is difficult to demonstrate the inspiration of one book over another, for example, Jude over the Didache or 1 Clement. Basically, for McDonald (and here’s the big difference), “the criterion for making that distinction is missing in antiquity except in so far as inspiration was attributed to the orthodoxy of a writing and was affirmed by the majority of churches” (p. 341). That is, recognition of whether a book was inspired Scripture was a retrospective process. Why was the recognition after and not concurrent? One major reason, according to McDonald: “the early church never limited the concept of inspiration to its sacred writings, but rather extended it to everything considered theologically true, whether it was written, taught, or preached” (p. 342). Thus early Christians considered their Scriptures as inspired but that criterion was not enough, since other works were also considered inspired.

McDonald shows that many works were considered inspired among early Christians in so far as they cohered with orthodoxy and were acknowledged by the majority of churches. He points to 2 Clement‘s affirmation of 1 Clement‘s inspiration (2 Clem 11.2 citing 1 Clem 23.3–4), 1 Clement‘s affirmation of Paul’s 1 Corinthians being written with “true inspiration” (ἐπ’ ἀληθείας πνευματικῶς; 1 Clem 47.3) and then his own letter “written through the Holy Spirit” (γεγραμμένοις διὰ τοῦ ἁγίου; 1 Clem 63.2), and several other places, which Kruger also noted. Beyond the Apostolic Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa described Basil’s commentary on the creation story as inspired, an “exposition given by the inspiration of God (θεόπνευστον), admired no less than the words composed by Moses himself.” More examples of this sort of language are adduced. McDonald cites E.R. Kalin’s conclusion of his study on the matter, “If the Scriptures were the only writings the church fathers considered inspired, one would expect them to say so, at least once in a while” (p. 344). Only the works of heretics were called “uninspired.”

Regarding inspiration as criterion for canonicity among early Christians, McDonald concludes, “It would be more accurate to say that inspiration was not limited to the first century, but by the end of the second century the church was beginning to assume that inspired Scripture ceased after the apostolic era“ (p. 345; emphasis added). That is, inspiration of the Holy Spirit was recognized to have occurred in and among Christians in the early centuries of Christianity, but by the end of the second century, Christians began to limit inspired Scripture to the apostolic era. McDonald concluded, “The Christian community believed that God continued to inspire individuals in their proclamation, just as God inspired the writers of the NT literature. They believed that the Spirit was the gift of God to the whole church, not just to writers of sacred literature. There never was any biblical, theological, or ecclesiastical argument in early Christianity that claimed that the Spirit ceased its activity in the church either at the completion of the biblical canon or at any point in its existence” (p. 346).

Remember, Kruger did not deny a wider inspiration than the Scriptures but he made a distinction between the inspiration of the Scriptures and ecclesiastical inspiration, and this distinction is what preserves the uniqueness of the Scriptures over the rest. McDonald asks, “Does this conclusion [wider inspiration] pose an affront to the uniqueness and authority of the biblical literature? That would be true if its only unique characteristic is its inspiration. Inspiration was not the distinguishing factor...” It’s at this point that we need to remember the other criteria for a book’s canonical status to explain why it was distinctive over another. For example, the Shepherd of Hermas, as important and considered to be inspired as it was, never appeared in a single early Christian canon list. So it would fail a number of criteria, but inspiration does not appear to be one of them since some early Christians did think it was inspired or prophetic (e.g. Origen and Clement of Alexandria).

McDonald concludes by citing the statements of Bruce and Metzger, to which I alluded at the beginning of this section.


In summary, both Kruger and McDonald acknowledge that early Christians attributed inspiration to other works outside of the NT. For Kruger, this is an ecclesiastical inspiration that is secondary to the primary inspiration of Scripture. Thus, this primary inspiration still functions as a criterion for canonicity and the uniqueness of NT Scripture. For McDonald, it is the same Spirit at work in all early Christians and these same early Christians never appear to make a distinction between their writings and the writings of the apostles on the basis of inspiration. Rather, on the basis of Apostolicity, Orthodoxy, Antiquity, Use, and Adaptability (with Inspiration assumed) early Christians recognized the NT scripture as unique revelation and canonical. A succinct summary might be: inspiration is a necessary but not sufficient condition of canon for McDonald’s view, while inspiration is a sufficient condition of canon for Kruger’s view.

Further Reading


  1. Thanks for this! Very helpful.

  2. Nice analysis, but it leaves significant questions. Theories of inspiration are all over the map, and McDonald undoubtedly defines “inspiration” differently than Kruger. Interestingly, theopneustos, commonly translated “God-breathed,” does not suggest the kind of “verbal plenary inspiration” often inferred from 2 Tim. 3:16. Pneustos is a passive participle of the verb, pneo, “to blow” (the verb used with wind in John 3:8). Moreover, Luke’s Gospel claims to be a product of human investigation, not divine inspiration. Other common “proof texts” of verbal inspiration (e.g., Heb. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) focus more narrowly on prophecy – not Scripture in general. Hence, the way(s) in which "all Scripture is inspired by God" appears to be somewhat enigmatic.

    1. I have noticed this too. Were there different views in the early church on this? I am curious to know more. I feel like there are a number of issues with taking every word of the Bible to be "verbal plenary inspiration".