Revjw’s Book Corner 7.26.12 Canon Revisited

Canon Revisited:

Establishing the Origins and Authority of

the New Testament

By Michael J. Kruger, PhD

Wheaton:  Crossway 2012

362pp, Bibliography, General and Scripture Indices

Here is a book I can confidently endorse and encourage you all to get your hands on and read!  Michael Kruger, professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC and ordained minister in the PCA, has authored a fascinating study of the formation of the NT canon from a Reformed perspective that deals with historical details while also taking theological concerns seriously.

Building on the insights of Alvin Plantinga (especially the book Warranted Christian Belief, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000),  and his distinction between de facto and de jure objections to the Christian faith and canon formation in particular, Kruger seeks to provide Christians with confidence that they have solid reasons for believing that the NT canon is reliable.  De facto objections have to do with whether the Christian faith is true and de jure questions with whether Christians have warrant to believe the faith.

“Our purpose here, simply put, has been to answer the question about whether the Christian belief in the canon is intellectually acceptable.  Is it rational for Christians to believe that we have the right twenty-seven books in our New Testament” (288)?  “The de jure objection against the Christian belief in the canon is not that it is false, but that it is intellectually unjustifiable (even if it happens to be true)” (288).

Canon Revisited is organized into two parts with a helpful conclusion where the author revisits the territory covered and discusses the implications of the model of canon formation that he advocates throughout the book.  The first part of the book is dedicated to “determining the canonical model” and the second part is devoted to “exploring and defending the canonical model.”

In the first part of the book, Kruger examines three models of canon formation and judges the first two incomplete as commonly formulated and commends a third model which takes up into itself the salient points of the first two models.  The first model of canon formation which Kruger examines is the “canon as community determined” model in which the church is given the primary role in deciding which books belong in the NT canon (22-66).  Kruger examines and evaluates four forms of this model:  the historical-critical model, the Roman Catholic model, the canon-criticism model, and the existential-neo-orthodox model.  Kruger notes “though they vary to one degree or another, they all authenticate the canon by appealing to its reception by the Christian community (either corporately or individually)” (66).  At the end of the day, there is an important difference between the church recognizing and receiving the canon and the church determining the canon.

The second model Kruger examines is that which grounds the canon in historical determination (67-87).  Kruger deals with two forms of this model:  the canon-within-the-canon and the criteria-of-canonicity models.  Kruger sums things up, “Though these models can, at times, differ greatly with one another, they authenticate canon in a similar manner, namely, by engaging in a rigorous historical investigation of these books to see if they are authentic” (87).  The author continues to explain the shortfalls of this approach to canon formation:

Although they rightly recognize the importance of the historical dimension-canonical books are fundamentally connected to history-they so absolutize this dimension that other important areas are often minimized or ignored.  Most notably, these models tend to downplay the intrinsic characteristics of these books and the ecclesiastical reception of these books as factors in their authentication as canon.  As a result these models are often left with a canon that is so conditioned by historical investigations that its very dignity and authority are inevitably dependent upon these investigations.  The canon ceases to be the norm that guides our historical investigations, but becomes merely the product of our historical investigations  (87).

The third model, which Kruger advocates and further fleshes out in the second part of the book, is the “self-authentication” model (88-122).  Kruger notes the Reformers understood Scripture to authenticate itself.  Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2003:  1: 452) notes “In the church fathers and the scholastics…[Scripture] rested in itself, was trustworthy in and of itself…”  And so, Scripture must be “believed on its own account, not on account of something else.”  Additionally, Kruger notes that many understand self-authentication to be about the internal qualities of the books of the NT canon alone.  While not denying the truth of these insights, Kruger develops the notion of self-authentication further.  He notes

We shall argue that when it comes to the question of canon, the Scriptures themselves provide grounds for considering external data:  the apostolicity of books, the testimony of the church, and so forth. ..Thus for the purposes of this study, we shall be using the phrase self-authenticating in a broader fashion than was typical of the Reformers.  We are not using it to refer only to the fact that canonical books bear divine qualities (although they do), but are using it to refer to the way the canon itself provides the necessary direction and guidance about how it is to be authenticated.  In essence, to say that the canon is self-authenticating is simply to realize that one cannot authenticate the canon without appealing to the canon.  It sets the terms for its own validation and investigation.  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 (90-91).

Kruger concludes that God has “created the proper epistemic environment in which belief in the canon could be reliably formed” (290).  This environment includes three components:  providential exposure of the church to the books of the canon, the books themselves possessing attributes of canonicity, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit overcoming opposition to what is in the text.

In the second part of the book Kruger fleshes out how the self-authenticating model of canon formation takes up into itself the proper insights of the other two canon formation models.  He considers the divine qualities of the NT books themselves, the apostolic origins of the NT books, the emergence of a canonical core, the role of manuscripts and book production in the formation of the canon, and the question of problem books and canon boundaries.  There is a wealth of material here that I cannot do justice to in a brief review (“brief,” really?!).  It seems to this reader that the author leaves no stone unturned in reckoning with the details of canon formation.

At the end of the day, Kruger discusses three implications of the self-authenticating model of canon formation:  (1) “There is more common ground between competing canonical models than is often realized;” (2) “The decisive issue in canonical studies is one’s ontology of the canon;” and (3) “Christians have intellectually sufficient grounds for claiming that they know which books belong to the New Testament” (292-295).  What the New Testament is will guide and determine how it can be recognized.

Some years ago I gave a talk at a university about the reliability of the NT.  This book would have been a great boon to me in that context.  Inasmuch as I am not a specialist in NT studies, I would have benefitted from mastering the arguments of Canon Revisited.  This book is, it should be noted, not a stand-alone volume.  Dr. Kruger has authored other titles on the NT canon (including a volume co-edited with Charles Hill that has recently been published by Oxford University Press entitled The Early Text of the New Testament and a co-authored book with Andreas Köstenberger about the Bauer thesis, The Heresy of Orthodoxy) and he maintains a website, Canon Fodder, that can be found here:  http://michaeljkruger.com/.  You can obtain the book here.

1 Response

  1. I’m attending RTS Jackson, and this book was just added to our required texts for Doctrine of Scripture. I was already planning on reading it, but now I get school credit in the process! Thanks for the review, Jeff. I’m looking forward to this one.

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