Book Review – “Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins & Authority of the New Testament Books” by Michael Kruger Part 1
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)