Book Review: Canon Revisited by Michael J. Kruger

Kruger, Michael Kruger J. Canon Revisted: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

How can a Christian know that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are the right ones? Do believers have sufficient warrant to affirm the twenty-seven books of the New Testament or are they simply received in blind faith? These are not merely academic questions; these are questions that confront every Christian. Can Christians ever know with certainty that the books of the New Testament are the books God intends the church to have? This is the problem of canon, and these are questions that Dr. Michael Kruger addresses in Canon Revisited.

     The problem of canon cannot be ignored. After all, Bible-believing Christians confess the authority and sufficiency of the Bible for faith and life. But that belief is based on the conviction that Christians have the right books. Thus, the problem of canon is foundational. As Kruger suggests, unless the question of canon is answered, it “could become the single thread that unravels the entire garment of the Christian faith” (16).

     Critics are aware of the challenge this presents to historic Christianity. After all, “There can be no New Testament theology if there is no such thing as a New Testament in the first place” (16). Kruger mentions three factors contributing to the ongoing interest of critics in the New Testament canon. First, critics raise doubts about the authorship and date of various New Testament books. It is argued that many books are forgeries – written by later authors purporting to be an apostle. This, of course, is a challenge to the canonical status of the books in question. If the books are forgeries written much later than previously thought, why should they be authoritative for Christians? Why should they have canonical status? Are they really substantially different from other Christian texts dating back to the time of the early church?

     This brings up the second factor. In recent decades, several apocryphal books have been discovered, raising another challenge to the concept of canon. This has led critical scholars to suggest that there are additional Gospels and Scriptural texts that Christians need to factor into their faith.  

     A third factor is the enduring influence of a book written by Walter Bauer. The book is Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, and the thesis of the book is that early Christianity was, from the beginning, a diverse movement. There was no “Christianity” in the early church, only “Christianities,” and each group had its own supporting texts. According to Bauer, what we know today as Christian orthodoxy are the beliefs of those who had the power to enforce their views in the church. In other words, the New Testament canon is the result of the fight for power in the early church. “Thus,” Kruger writes, “the books of the New Testament canon are simply the books of the ‘winners’ of the early church power struggles, but do not necessarily represent ‘original’ Christianity and should not be considered normative for Christians” (19).  

     Critics distil these considerations down to one fundamental challenge to canon. Given the supposed forgeries of New Testament books, the presence of apocryphal literature, and the diversity of the early church, Christians cannot know with any real certainty if the books of the New Testament are the right ones. Kruger calls this the de jure objection to canon. There are many de facto objections to canon which in one way or another argue that Christian belief in canon is wrong because it is false. On the other hand, the de jure objection “argues not so much that Christian belief in canon is false, but that Christians have no rational basis for thinking they could ever know such a thing in the first place” (20). Christians must take the canon on blind faith because it’s impossible to know for sure that the books of the New Testament are the correct ones. In short, Christian belief in canon is irrational.

     Kruger’s distinction between de facto objections and the de jure objection clarifies the purpose of the book. The book does not attempt to objectively prove to skeptics that Christians are right about canon. Instead, it contains a persuasive response to the de jure objection to canon. Therefore, Kruger offers an account of a Christian’s knowledge of canon, arguing that Christians do indeed have intellectual warrant for affirming the New Testament canon (21).

 Part 1: Determining the Canonical Model

The book is comprised of two parts. Part one surveys canonical models which attempt to account for canon is authenticated. Chapters 1-2 review “community-determined” and “historically-determined” models, noting their strengths and weaknesses. Community-determined models, in some sense, argue that canonicity is established by people, whether individually or corporately (29). In other words, books are authenticated by the “reception or recognition of individuals or the church” (23). Therefore, canonicity is not something intrinsic to certain books but is a status imposed by an individual or group. Forms of the historically-determined model include the “historical-critical,” the “Roman Catholic,” the “canonical-criticism,” and the “existential/neoorthodox.” These groups rightly recognize that community reception is important. However, historically-determined models absolutizes the reception of canon so that it is authenticated only when it is received by the Christian community – whether individually or corporately.

     Chapter 2 evaluates the historically-determined models. These models attempt to establish canonicity on the basis of the reliability and origins of a book. Historical investigation establishes the status of a book or portions of a book if investigation can show that the book contains authentic teaching of Jesus and the apostles. The canon-within-the canon model is typically wed with higher-critical presuppositions. This model attempts to uncover the remnants of authentic Jesus-teaching that remains within the canon. The criteria-of-canonicity model, which is adopted by many evangelicals, tries to prove which books are canonical on the basis of established criteria (apostolicity, date, orthodoxy, etc.).

     The primary challenge Kruger raises against both models is that they try to “authenticate canon on the basis of something external to it” (289). Both appeal to an authority outside the canon in order to establish the canon. In the end, human judgment has the final say on which books are in and which books are out. While both models have legitimate insights into the formation of canon, they end up subjecting the canon to an external authority, effectively subjecting Scripture to the judgment of fallible man. Furthermore, both models fail to take into consideration the ontology of canon. That is, they do not adequately reckon with what the canon is.

     Chapter 3 explains the self-authenticating model. Rather than seeking to establish the canonical status of the New Testament on the basis of authority external to the canon, the self-authenticating model “ground[s] the canon in the only place it could be grounded, its own authority” (89). Canonical books – books given by God to his people – are inherently authoritative, and thus are self-authenticating. But what exactly does this mean? A potential misunderstanding would be to think that the canonical model suggests that New Testament books are canonical simply because the Bible says so. However, that’s not the argument. The self-authenticating model, says Kruger, “refer[s] to the way the canon itself provides the necessary direction and guidance about how it is to be authenticated.” Furthermore, “to say that canon is self-authenticating is simply to recognize that one cannot authenticate the canon without appealing to the canon. The New Testament canon speaks for itself. It sets the terms for its own validation and investigation” (91). In other words, the self-authenticating model applies Scripture to the question of canon.

     When we look to Scripture for direction on which books belong in the canon, Scripture “testifies to the fact that God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein belief in the New Testament canon can be reliably formed” (94). This environment includes three elements: (1) Providential exposure of the books to the church; (2) Attributes of canonicity; (3) The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit whereby believers – individually and corporately – are enabled to recognize the divine qualities of Scripture and believe the books of the New Testament are God’s books.

     Because God provides the necessary “epistemic environment” for knowing which books belong in the canon, Christians have sufficient warrant for affirming the New Testament canon. Believers can justifiably believe they have the right books because God has given apostolic books to the church, which are confirmed by their divine qualities and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

     A strength of the self-authenticating model is that it does not absolutize one definition of canon. Another helpful point made in the book is that the self-authenticating model is able to bring together varying definitions of canon to make sense of the historical development of canon. Kruger explains three potential definitions of canon. (1) The “exclusive” definition describes canon in terms of its reception. (2) The “functional” definition looks for when books were used as Scripture. (3) The “ontological” definition understands the books as divinely given and thus canonical the moment the ink dried. The self-authenticating model affirms all three of these definitions without absolutizing one over the others. If the canon is given by God (ontological definition), it was inevitable that those books would be used as Scripture by Christians (functional definition), and because they divine books which functioned as Scripture in the church, it was inevitable that over time those books would be corporately recognized by the church (exclusive definition). This allows us to affirm that the church had a canon of books very early while also recognizing that “the story of canon is indeed a process” (119).

 Part 2: Exploring and Defending the Canonical Model

Part 2 explores the attributes of canon and defends them against potential defeaters.

     The first attribute of canon, its divine qualities, is frequently ignored in canonical studies. This is largely due to the “naturalization of canon” in modern studies – trying to understand the origins and formation of the New Testament canon from a purely historical perspective while denying or ignoring the intrinsic character of Scripture. Kruger returns to the ancient path of understanding canon by considering the internal qualities of canonical books. Following the Westminster Confession of Faith, three categories of divine qualities are explained: beauty and excellency, power and efficacy, and the unity and harmony of Scripture. The books of the New Testament witness to their divine origins because they bear the beauty and perfection of God (127), they exhibit divine power, and together they display a remarkable unity in doctrine, redemptive-history, and covenantal and canonical structure.

     The divine qualities of Scripture have been challenged by critics. They point to apparent disagreements/contradictions between New Testament books. The defeater is essentially this: Since the books of the New Testament are inconsistent with one another, how can they possibly display the quality of unity and harmony? This objection is articulated by supporters of the Bauer thesis of diversity preceding unity in the early church. Thus, the canon as we know it is was established by the theological winners. But there’s a self-defeating contradiction in the defeater itself. Kruger points it out:

If the current form of the canon includes the preferred books of the theological winners and thereby represents a loss of great diversity, how, at the same time, can one claim that the Bible is composed of contradictory theological camps?...One cannot argue that the canon is the “invention” of the proto-orthodox designed to suppress the opposition and then turn around and argue that the canon is a cacophony of diverse theological viewpoints that stand in opposition (146).

 Therefore, the defeater lacks compelling force. Furthermore, the self-authenticating model affirms the presence of diversity in the New Testament; however, this is not a conflicting or contradictory diversity. Apparent contradictions can be explained and harmonized (i.e., Paul and James’ teaching on justification).

     The second attribute of canon is apostolic origins. This chapter examines the apostolic origins of the New Testament books which “reminds us that their authority – indeed their very existence – does not depend on the actions of the later church but is rooted in the foundational role played by the apostles as ‘ministers of the New Covenant” (161). Therefore, when the church later recognized these books, they did not become canonical; they already were by virtue of their apostolic origins.

     With the concept of covenant forming the structural framework for canon, and redemption accomplished through Christ being the rationale for further revelation, the apostles were God’s ordained agents to deliver New Testament revelation. Kruger writes, “God established the apostolic office to be the guardian, preserver, and transmitter of the message of redemption” (174). The New Testament books, therefore, are the “written expression of the authoritative, foundational, and eyewitness tradition delivered by the apostles of Jesus Christ” (181).

     The potential defeater to the apostolic origins is that several of the New Testament books are forgeries. If that is true, one cannot maintain that all books in the canon are apostolic. Kruger responds with four considerations: (1) Outside of critical circles, scholars have made persuasive arguments for the apostolic origins of the New Testament books; (2) Biblical criticism is based on non-Christian presuppositions, so it is not surprising when critical scholars challenge the historic Christian position on apostolic origins; (3) The attribute of apostolic origins is supported by the other attributes of divine qualities and corporate reception; (4) Methods used to prove that some books are forgeries are problematic.

     Chapters 6-8 explore the third attribute, the corporate reception of the canon. The role the church plays is not to establish the authority of the canon; rather, the church corporately recognizes which books are canonical. The church is enabled to do so by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit on a corporate level. Therefore, the church’s recognition of books provides further warrant for Christians to believe they have the right books. This warrant is based not on an infallible church; it is based on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit which was promised to the church by the Lord Jesus Christ.

     A potential defeater to corporate reception is the “canonical-diversity defeater” (196). If New Testament books are indeed from God, and the Holy Spirit imposes these books on the church, then why was there so much disagreement over them? Kruger argues that the defeater only works if it can be proven that the mere existence of disagreement over some canonical books conflicts with the self-authenticating model. However, this model has reasons to expect some disagreement over books in the historical development of canon. Reasons Kruger gives are: (1) False teachers and teaching; (2) Spiritual forces opposed to the church; (3) Peoples’ sinful resistance to God’s word; (4) The presence of heretical groups claiming to be the true church. Furthermore, Kruger shows that the level of disagreement over canonical books is often exaggerated by critics.

    In conclusion, Christians have an intellectually sufficient basis for believing the books that make up the New Testament are the right ones. Christians can give an account for the existence of canon from the standpoint of a theological and Christian worldview. God has given his books to the church. These apostolic books display divine qualities and thus are recognized and received by the corporate church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.