Canon Revisited: Establishing The Origins and Authority of The NT Books

August 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

9781433505003

While there are many books out there (and more to be published) that deal with new problems, this book is not one of them. In fact, this book may deal with the oldest problem of all. That issue, “at the very center of how biblical authority is established” is the problem of canon (16).

Working through the problem in a way that is simultaneously creative and orthodox, Michael Kruger is “concerned with the narrow question of whether Christians have a rational basis (i.e. intellectually sufficient grounds) for affirming that only these twenty-seven books rightfully belong in the New Testament canon” (20). This is issue of inherent rationality of belief in the New Testament canon is the de jure objection. Instead of focusing on the de facto objection (the belief in a New Testament canon is false), Kruger aims to provide sufficient grounds for Christians to think that they can in fact “know which books belong in the canon and which do not” (21).

Overview

In order to accomplish this goal, Kruger uses part 1 of the book to cover the various canonical models before turning to historical evidence for what belongs in the New Testament canon. Of the models Kruger examines, the first cluster holds that the canon is determined by the community of believers (chapter 1, where Brevard Childs and Karl Barth figure prominently among others), the second that the canon is historically determined (chapter 2), and the third that the canon is self-authenticating (chapter 3). The latter is the model of choice for Kruger and one he explains in detail in part 2 of the book.

Chapters 4 and 5 in part 2 detail the divine qualities and apostolic origins of the canon. The final three chapters focus in on the corporate reception of the canon of the New Testament. First, in chapter 6 Kruger explains the emergence of a canonical core. Then, in chapter 7 he gets into the manuscript discussion before closing out the book with a discussion of problem books and canonical boundaries in chapter 8.

Throughout all of this, Kruger is working within a kind of triperpsectival framework, though Frame himself is only mentioned in passing. As he sets the stage back in chapter 3, “the proper epistemic environment wherein belief in the New Testament canon can be reliably formed” (94) includes three component parts (parenthetical triperspectivalism is mine):

  • Providential exposure (the church is exposed to certain writings, i.e. a certain situation occurs)
  • Attributes of canonicity (the writings the church are exposed to have divine qualities, apostolic origins, and are generally well received across the church as a whole, i.e. they have certain normative qualities)
  • Internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit produces the belief that these books are in fact of divine origin, i.e. an existential revelation occurs)

These parts work together and are not mutually exclusive. Typical of a triperspectival emphasis, Kruger points out that these parts are “mutually reinforcing” and that “if a book is examined that has one of these attributes, then that implies that the book also has the other two” (115). The self-authenticating model of the canon is both “self-supporting” and “self-correcting” and as Kruger summarizes:

The core strength of the self-authenticating model of canon, then, is the fact that it is three-dimensional. In contrast, the other models above tend to be one-dimensional and seek to authenticate canon by appealing to only a single attribute (116)

In short, it would seem that Kruger’s self-authenticating model takes on the strengths of the other models, but moves beyond them. It is able to first, adequately explain how apparent disagreements between NT books do not undermine those books’ canonicity. Second, it is able to work through the fact that some books were not written by apostles. Last, it is able to navigate disagreements within the early church and beyond concerning the status of certain books.

Strengths/Weaknesses

All of this taken together makes Kruger’s proposal very strong. Using the triperspectival framework definitely helps, but Kruger clearly knows his way around the scholarly literature and this book surely represents the culmination of years of research. Even with all that, Kruger writes in a very clear and readable style and is able to move arcane discussions into the footnotes. This is part of why I classify it as a Bible School read with seminary footnotes. Really anybody who has significant questions about the canon of the New Testament could take and read Kruger’s book.

Another strength is Kruger’s insistence that canon is a theological issue at its core (21-22, scattered throughout). This is just another way of bringing up the issue of presuppositions. Kruger helps to establish that there is no theological neutrality when it comes to the discussion and is very forthcoming with his own vantage point. In his initial survey of the the other models in chapters 1 and 2, he also points out the different theologies of canon at play. In the end, whether or not one agree with Kruger’s conclusions on the canon, it is at least a strength of the book to acknowledge and argue for theologically self-conscious canoncial models.

A weakness of the book, though it is by design, is that it is not aimed at proving the “truth of the canon to the skeptic in a manner that would be persuasive to him” (21). In other words, this book is something you might pass along to a Christian friend struggling with trusting that we have the right books in the canon, or as a textbook in a Bible school or seminary classroom. In this sense, it is not so much a real weakness with the work itself, but just an audience limitation that needs to be kept in mind before recommending the book.

Though I highlighted the triperspectival dimension of the book above, I just wanted to reiterate how that strengthens the overall proposal. Or rather, let me let Kruger explain “one of the key implications” of the model:

It helps us recognize that canon is a complex and multidimensional concept that cannot be artificially flattened out. Canon has an ecclesiological dimension, a historical dimension, and an aesthetic/internal dimension. It is when a single aspect of canon is absolutized at the expense of the others that distortions inevitably arise. When these three aspects are kept in their proper balance, we can begin to see the controversial issues more clearly (293).

Conclusion

As I said a while back, this was one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year. Part of this is the triperspectival approach, but even that is in the background throughout the book. Kruger’s work helped to answer questions I have had brought to me over the past six months about the canon of the New Testament, and this is now my go-to book for that subject. I would hope that it gets the scholarly attention that it deserves and that it is widely read among evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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