Canon


This is part two of a two part review of Canon Revisited by Michael Kruger. You can see part one here which dealt with the various community and historically-determined models of NT canonicity. In part two we will look at Kruger’s proposed canonical model.

Introduction to the Canonical Model

Contra the community and historically-determined models of canonicity, the self-authenticating basis of the canonical model is the belief “that we can know which books are canonical because God has provided the proper epistemic environment where belief in these books can be reliably formed. (p. 113)” In this brief statement we see the defining difference between the other models of canonicity and the canonical model – that the canonicity of a book is inherent within the book itself; that its canonical status is derived from within itself and given to it from without. Thus, the discussion of development of the canon is not one in terms of the timing or date of canonicity but rather it is a look at the stages of canonicity. (p. 119)

Three Part Structure of the Canonical Model

The canonical model includes three aspects which form a “web of mutually reinforcing beliefs”: (1) Scripture bears divine qualities, (2) the canonical books have clear apostolic origins and (3) the canonical books have to be received by the corporate church. (p. 113)

1. The Divine Qualities of Scripture – The foundational basis of the first aspect of the canonical model is that because Scripture is from God Himself (inspired) it bears the very attributes of God. Though there is much Scripture that attests to this assertion, a brief reading through Psalm 119 will provide sufficient support. Scripture as the word of God has authority because of its source from God. This power does not stop at what it says but continues on it what it does (thus the evidence of its power is displayed). Scripture guides, gives light, corrects, instructs, comforts, confronts and is the primary means through which the Spirit of God works in the life of the believer and convicts the unbeliever of their sin and need of salvation. Another aspect in which the divine qualities of Scripture can be seen is in its unity in regards to doctrine, redemptive-historical focus and structural layout. (p.133)

Doctrinal unity – Here Kruger notes the following:

Although the orthodoxy of an individual book is not sufficient to demonstrate its canonicity, the fact that all twenty-seven books share doctrinal harmony with each other (and with the thirty-seven books of the Old Testament) proves to be a compelling argument for the New Testament’s divine origins…..This demonstrates the important fact that some divine qualities can be seen and appreciated only when Scripture is viewed on a canonical level and not simply in a piecemeal fashion. (p. 142)

Redemptive-Historical Unity – The second aspect of the unity of Scripture speaks to overarching story of redemption from Genesis to Revelation. Kruger points out that “the issue for the early Christians was not only whether the New Testament books agreed with the Old Testament books on any given doctrine, but whether the New Testament books actually completed the story begun by the Old Testament. (p. 148-49)” Since Christ is the one both looked forward to and looked back on it is the Christocentric nature of both testaments that further speak to their unity.

Structural Unity – The third aspect of the unity of Scripture is seen in “the way these twenty-seven books fit together as the structural completion of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. (p. 150)” This unity is borne out throughout the covenantal unity of Scripture as seen in the covenants God made with His people and the canonical structure of the whole Bible as seen in the multiple ways in which various parts of Scripture and both testaments respectively have a complementary and fulfilling nature.

2. Apostolic Origins – This second aspect of the canonical model further speaks to the self-authenticating nature of the NT books because of “the foundational role played by the apostles as ‘ministers of the new covenant’ (2 Cor. 3:6). (p. 161)” The emergence of the NT came not as an accident but as the natural result of merge of covenant, redemption and apostolicity.

Covenant as the Structural Framework for Canon – The Old Testament contains several covenants that God made with mankind in which He lays out His plan of redemption and relationship with man. In light of the New Covenant, the NT is a natural outgrowth of this covenantal relationship. “There would have been the clear expectation that this new covenant, like the old covenant, would be accompanied by the appropriate written texts to testify to the terms of the new arrangement that God was establishing with his people.” (p. 166) The NT books are the written texts of the New Covenant following the pattern of the OT books and the covenants contained therein.

Redemption as Rationale for Canon – The canon is built on and around the covenants God made with mankind. Though God’s glory can always be said to be at the center of the Bible and God’s revelation, this glory He reveals is revealed through His plan of redemption. This is the focus of the covenants. “Canonical documents are distinctively the result of God’s redemptive activity in behalf of his people and function to proclaim that redemptive activity to his people.” (p. 171)

Apostles as the Agents of Canon – Like Moses and others in the OT, God needed people to reveal the New Covenant to and record it so others could receive its content. This is where the apostles come into play. Thus, the writing of the NT books was necessary for both the spread of the New Covenant and the protection of its divine content. Kruger notes several NT passages in which the apostles showed self-awareness to their divinely appointed role (Mk. 1:1 &16:7; Jn. 21:24; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 14:37-38).

3. Corporate Reception of the Canon – As the final aspect of the canonical model one can see that this is built on the foundation of the first two aspects. It is through the divine qualities and apostolic authority behind the NT books that the Holy Spirit elicits a response from the church to recognize these books as part of the canon. The church is drawn to the canon because the canon draws it to itself. The corporate reception of the canon is discussed in two phases.

Emergence of the Canonical Core – Here Kruger walks the reader through the recognition of the NT canonical books from Scripture itself, the church fathers and other second-century sources. (1) In Scripture itself we note 2 Pt. 3:2 & 16 which place the apostles side by side with the OT prophets (p. 207) and the reference of Peter that Paul’s letters were on par with “the other Scriptures”, referring to the OT (p. 204). Further, the public reading of Scripture point to the believed authority of the apostles own writings. (2) Kruger walks through the writings of the early church fathers such as 1 Clement, The Didache, Ignatius and others to show how they exemplify the churches reception of the NT canon. (3) Following the early church fathers Kruger notes the works of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others who followed the lead of those before them in recognizing the NT canon. What can be clearly seen is the recognition of what would be termed the canonical core: the four Gospels, Paul’s epistles, Acts, 1 Peter and 1 John for sure (p. 231).

Corporate Reception of the Canon – In chapter seven Kruger looks at the various manuscripts of the NT canon as a witness to the books the church recognized as canonical. He addresses issues such as the quantity, quality, how collection was handled, the use of the codex and the significance of transmission. Following this in chapter eight Kruger deals with how the church did and should handle the “problem books”. Problem books are those outside of the canonical core but still canonical, rejected books and heretical books. Kruger follows Eusebius’ fourfold list of dividing early Christian writings: (1) recognized books, (2) disputed books, (3) rejected books and (4) heretical books (p. 266-79). The canonical core are the recognized books. The disputed books, like James, Jude and Revelation, are canonical but were not as easily and readily recognized by the church as the canonical core. The rejected books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, are orthodox in content but were not recognized as having canonical authority. Finally, the heretical books, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were rejected altogether because they were unorthodox and contradicted the canonical books.

Conclusion

The basic argument of Canon Revisited is that the though the church plays a role in the recognition of the NT canon is does not determine its authority. The canon is self-authenticating and the church recognizes its authority. The difference and relationship between recognition and determination are important and run throughout the book. It is God and not the church who began the canon and thus, “the church cannot close the canon because it never started it to begin with.” (p. 280)

Canon Revisited is solid, evangelical, God, Scripture and Christ centered, judicious and clear in its critique of other models and clear in its presentation of the canonical model. This book will become the new standard text book for NT canonical introduction. The footnotes are extensive and instructive. There are 49 pages of bibliography which speaks to the depth and breadth of the sources cited. Kruger is meticulous, honest, clear, thorough and gives Scripture the first and final word on its own origins and authority.

This should be standard reading to all college and seminary NT intro classes. Every pastor and lay leader will be greatly serviced by this book. This will strengthen the arguments of every Christian apologist and I challenge every Christian to make themselves read this book and work through the hard places.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Crossway in return for a review. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review and the words and ideas expressed in this review are my own.

If you found this review to be helpful can you take a minute to give it a positive vote on Amazon?

When it comes to New Testament studies there is perhaps no more of a perennial issue than the issue of the NT canon. Though the subject of canon is important for both testaments, the NT canon lends itself particularly to a host of “problematic” issues. As opposed to the OT canon, the NT canon is the subject of popular movies like The Da Vinci Code (based on the book) and books like The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are and Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into The New Testament all by Bart Ehrman, the most ardent critic of the orthodox Christian understanding of the NT canon.

To put it simply, the NT has a canon problem. Though some may wince at the description of the canon as a problem this is thus the case. But lest we think it unresolvable, the problem of canon is this: as Christians, how can we “know that we have the right twenty-seven books in our New Testament?” (p. 15) It is this problem that Michael Kruger addresses in his recent book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Michael Kruger is professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary and is co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming related volume The Early Text of the New Testament.

I believe Canon Revisited is an important book that is thick with relevant content that I do not want to leave out. Therefore, I will be posting a two part review of the book. The first part will deal with the other models proposed as well as some preliminary considerations to the canonical model Kruger presents. The second part of the review will focus on the aspects of the canonical model and its implications.

Narrowing the Focus

Though there are a number of areas to explore in answering the problem of the NT canon, Kruger focuses on what he calls the de jure objection. That is, if and once it could be established that a NT canon existed, “Christians have no rational basis for thinking they could ever know such a thing in the first place.” (p. 20) Thus, Christians have no sufficient grounds or rational basis for belief in the content of the NT canon. This is an issue of “accounting for our knowledge of the canon.” (p. 21)

Evaluating Community & Historically Determined Models

Before Kruger presents the canonical model as the response to the de jure objection to the problem of the NT canon, Kruger first surveys and responds to the community and historically determined models of canonicity.

The community-determined models approach “the canon as something that is, in some sense, established or constituted by the people – either individually or corporately – who have received these books as Scripture. (p. 29-30)” So canonicity is not something that is inherent within a certain set of books but is rather bestowed upon it by someone or something outside of it. The text does not possess canonicity but it is given canonical status. Kruger evaluates and responds to four community based models of canonicity: historical-critical, Roman Catholic, canonical-criticism and existential-neoorthodox. While each of these four models have different nuances they essentially locate the authority to determine the canonical status of a book or set of books as coming from outside the text. In responding to these four models Kruger states:

The fundamental problem with the historical-critical model is not its affirmation that the church played a role, but rather its insistence that the church played the determinative and decisive role…..the problem, then, is not that the church plays a role in identifying canonical books (Protestants would agree with this), but the Catholic insistence that it plays the only and definitive role…..If the response to this problem is that the Christian community has the authority not only to shape, mold, and change the canonical documents, but also to decide when to stop the “canonical process” and create a canonical version, then it is difficult to avoid the implication that the church bears more authority than the canon itself…..the most unfortunate concerns pertains to the existential model’s unfortunate separation of the authority of God and the authority of Scripture. (p. 34, 44, 54, 64)

In conclusion to his response to the community-determined models of canonicity, Kruger notes, “Although these models rightly recognize the importance of community reception as an aspect of canon, they have absolutized this aspect so that it becomes the defining characteristic of canon. (p. 66)” So the emerging question surfaces, “Where does one get the authority to be the authority that determines canonicity upon a text?”

The historically-determined models of canonicity “seek to establish it by critically investigating the historical merits of each of the canonical books. (p. 67)” Thus, “if a book can be shown to contain authentic Jesus tradition or can be shown to be apostolic, then it is considered part of the genuine canon of Scripture. (p. 67)” There are two basic forms of this model. First there is the canon-within-the-canon model which “is intent on exploring the origins of these books and finding the ‘core’ material that could be considered genuine (p. 68),” which in turn “often involves the historian’s own beliefs about what Jesus should be like or what message he should have preached. (p. 69)” To this Kruger rightly states, “To allow the canon to be ‘edited’ according to what seems reasonable or credible to us will leave us with nothing but a human book. The canon cannot function as norm over the church is the church gets to decide which portions of the canon it will accept and which it will reject. (p. 71)” This is a view that has decidedly given its way to biblical criticism. The second approach is the criteria-of-canonicity model. This model seeks to establish a set of criteria by which the various proposed books are evaluated. Thus, “the authority of the canon can be established by doing a rigorous historical investigation of the New Testament books and showing how they meet these criteria. (p. 74)” A problem with the criteria approach is that it buys into the impossible belief/assumption that the biblical criticism in which it employs is religiously neutral. This is patently false. Kruger rightly asks, “What happens when ‘the assured results of biblical criticism’ shift or change? Does the canon change along with them? (p. 80)” Further, Kruger deftly points out what he believes to be the most fundamental problem to this approach: “If the criteria of canonicity, as the name suggests, provide some sort of norms or standards by which we determine whether a book comes from God, then where do the criteria themselves come from? What are the criteria that determine the criteria? (p. 83)”

Some Preliminaries to The Canonical Model

So if the community and historically based models of canonicity are not adequate, what are we left with? The fundamental argument of the canonical model is that the canon of the NT is self-authenticating. Thus, its canonical status is not grounded in someone or something outside itself but rather within itself. Kruger notes

In essence, to say the canon is self-authenticating is simply to recognize that one cannot authenticate the canon without the canon appealing to the canon. A Self-authenticating canon is not just a canon that claims to have authority, nor is it simply a canon that bears internal evidence of authority, but one that guides and determines how that authority is to be established. (p. 91)

What this requires though is a belief that the canonical books of the NT are not just books written in ink on paper by men (though this is true). It requires the fundamental belief in a self-revealing God who has revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture and therefore revealed in those pages the very criteria by which to validate their canonical authority. This idea echoes the title of chapter three, My Sheep Heart My Voice. If the books of the NT canon are self-authenticating, then they possess canonical status that the church recognizes instead of gives. Thus, the canonical books speak to the community of the church which can be seen throughout the history of the church. They speak to us because it is God who is speaking to us through them. Kruger explains

The books received by the church inform our understating of which books are canonical not because the church is infallible or because it created or constituted the canon, but because the church’s reception of these books is a natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. In the self-authenticating model, however, the church’s reception of these books proves not to be evidence of the church’s authority to create the canon, but evidence of the opposite, namely, the authority, power, and impact of the self-authenticating Scriptures to elicit a corporate response from the church. (p. 106)

This is a powerful argument that stems from the heart of the canonical model.

A final word which Kruger points out is in order. Naturally, one might ask, why is it that, given the existence of God and His self-revealing nature, not everyone will accept this idea of canonical self-authentication? Why does not everyone see Scripture as its own authority? To the title of chapter three again, My Sheep Hear My Voice. If Scripture possesses divine qualities by mere virtue of being the word of God “then how is it that so many people do not receive them or acknowledge them? If they are objectively present, why do so many reject the Bible? (p. 99)” This is an astute question which also flows into the doctrine of salvation. I will close part one of this review with Kruger’s words

The answer is that, because of the noetic effects of sin, the effects of sin on the mind (Rom. 3:10-18), one cannot recognize these marks without the testimonium spiritus sancti internum, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit not only is operative within the canonical books themselves, but also must be operative within those who receive them. Jesus himself affirmed this reality when he declared, “My sheep [i.e, those with the Spirit] hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). When people’s eyes are opened, they are struck by the divine qualities of Scripture – its beauty, harmony, efficacy – and recognize and embrace Scripture for what it is, the word of God. They realize that the voice of Scripture is the voice of the Shepherd. (p. 101)