Apologetics, Bibliology, Book Review

“Canon Revisited” by Michael J. Kruger — A Book Review

In Canon Revisited, Kruger defends the view that Christians have intellectually sufficient grounds for affirming that the 27 books rightfully belong to the canon of the New Testament (p. 20). Kruger responds to the de jure objection to the NT canon, which argues that Christians have no rational basis to know which books are part of the canon. For Kruger, the self-authenticating canon does not rely on something external for authentication (unlike other canonical views). God has created the proper epistemic environment—providence, attributes of canonicity, and internal testimony of the Holy Spirit—that serves as a reliable basis for a belief in the canon. Thus, Christians have more than adequate grounds for their belief of the NT canon.

In the first three chapters, Kruger surveys a taxonomy of canonical models: 1) canon determined by the community (ch. 1); 2) determined by history (ch. 2); and 3) self-authenticating (ch. 3). In the last five chapters, Kruger defends the self-authenticating canon by exploring the divine qualities of the canon (ch. 4), its apostolic origins (ch. 5), and the historical process by which each of the twenty-seven NT books was recognized as canonical Scripture (chs. 6–8). In chapter 6, Kruger discusses the “core” NT books, followed by manuscript evidence (ch. 7), and an analysis of the disputed books (ch. 8).

Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 362 pp. d—d

Synopsis

In Part 1 (chs. 1–3), Kruger surveys three major views on determining the canonical model. In chapter 1, Kruger examines the “community-determined” canon. First, the historical-critical model argues that the books of the NT were chosen by the early Christians (Bauer, Barr). Kruger points out that demonstrating human involvement does not necessarily indicate sole human involvement. Second, the Roman Catholic model denies the ultimate authority of Scripture, claiming that the church has higher authority over Scripture since the church caused the canon. For Rome, an external infallible authority must exist to determine which books are part of the canon. Kruger argues that if an external authority exists, then who authenticates the external authority? Regarding the church causing the canon, Kruger points out that a canon had already existed before the church (i.e., the Old Testament). Also, the apostolic teaching—the substance of the New Testament—formed the church, not the other way around. Third, the canonical-criticism model argues that the canon consists of the final form settled by the Christian community. Kruger asks,

What is significant about the fourth-century that gives it permanent normative status? Why should that particular community be the point where the shape of the canon is ‘frozen’?

Canon Revisited, p. 54

Lastly, the neo-orthodox model places the locus of authority on the individual who engages with and experiences Scripture. The problem in this model is that it makes the canon ever changing, since it depends on the existential experience of individuals.

In chapter 2, Kruger evaluates two major views that determine canonicity by historical investigation. While the conclusions of these two views take opposite extremes, their methodology is the same: canon is authenticated by a historical investigation into the NT books. First, the canon-within-the-canon model investigates which parts of the NT teach the “historical Jesus” or the “real message of Jesus” through form or redaction criticism. The problem with this model is that it places Scripture under an external standard. Thus, many choose and select as authoritative only the parts they prefer. The results are highly subjective, producing a Jesus after the image of the historian (p. 72). The second view, criteria-of-canonicity model, is common among conservative evangelicals (e.g., R. C. Sproul), where canonicity is determined by meeting the criteria that define a book as canonical: apostolicity, orthodoxy, usage, etc. The assumption of this model is that determining the canon can be approached in the neutral grounds of history. While Kruger finds historical evidence for apostolicity of the NT books to be persuasive, many skeptics do not; historical investigation is never religiously neutral. Though this model takes divine origins of the canon seriously and carefully presents historical evidence of the NT books’ apostolicity, it falls into the same methodology as the canon-within-the-canon model, namely, canonicity is determined by an external standard. In reality, the criteria were placed by the church to explain the books in the canon, but not the criteria used to determine the canon.

In chapter 3, Kruger introduces his preferred model: canon as self-authenticating. Kruger argues that the Scripture itself contains internal marks of divinity and provides the grounds for considering external data (apostolicity and testimony of the church). Unlike the previous models, the external data are not “neutral tests” to determine the canon; rather, they are warranted and interpreted by Scripture (p. 90). For Kruger, to validate ultimate authority by appealing to another authority already invalidates its ultimate authority. Thus, ultimate authorities are their own standard of authentication. God provided the proper epistemic environment to form belief in the NT canon through providential exposure, attributes of canonicity, and internal testimony of the Spirit. In order for the community to recognize the canonical books, they must first be exposed to it; the church cannot recognize a book that does not exist. Kruger’s three mutually reinforcing attributes of canonicity are divine qualities, corporate reception, and apostolic origins. Unlike the previous models, the role of the church is like a thermometer, not the thermostat. The canon determines itself, but the church reflects it.

Part 2 of Canon Revisited focuses on exploring and defending Kruger’s self-authenticating model. Chapter 4 discusses the divine qualities of the canon. First, the Scriptures have spiritual beauty and excellency (internal qualities), leading to its acceptance by the Christian community. Second, the efficacy and power of the Scriptures are evident, not only in what it says, but also in what it does. It brings wisdom, gives joy, provides light, gives understanding, exposes sin, leads to blessing, etc. (Pss 1:1–3; 119; 2 Tim 3:16; Neh 8:8–12; 2 Ki 22:11–13; Heb 4:12–13; Acts 2:34–37). Scripture is not shaped by the Christian community; rather, it is the means of shaping the Christian community. Lastly, the canonical Scriptures have unity and harmony in their doctrine, redemptive-history, and structure. The Old Testament provides the initial doctrinal foundation for the NT books. The NT completes the redemptive-historical story of the OT, demonstrating that the Bible is indeed one book.

The focus of chapter 5 is on the apostolic origins of the canon. Kruger argues that the New Testament is not canonical because the church received them, but the church receives them because they are already canonical based on apostolic authority (p. 161). A structure for canon was already in place through the concept of covenant in the Old Testament. Following the OT pattern, the New Testament canon functions as a covenantal document; it is formed by written texts that testify to the terms of the new covenant. The apostles are the ministers of this new covenant (cf. 2 Cor 3:6) and the authoritative messengers from God who lay the foundations of the new covenant (cf. 2 Cor 13:10; Jer 31:28). Following the OT pattern, this new canon is needed because it completes the story of redemption from the OT (cf. Deut 18:18; Luke 24:46–47). The apostolic teachings were written down in texts in order to be preached and taught to later generations. These were written during the apostolic age by an apostle or someone who got his information directly from an apostle. A self-awareness among biblical writers that the texts being written are authoritative are suggested by several NT passages, including Mark 1:1; John 21:24; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 7:12; 14:37–38; 1 John 1:1–5; Rev 1:1–3.

Chapters 6–8 concentrate on the third attribute of canonicity, namely, the corporate reception of the canon. Kruger argues that the internal witness of the Spirit was efficacious both at the individual level and the corporate level, leading the church community to recognize the books God has given. Kruger anticipates two objections: (1) why did it take so long to recognize the NT books? and (2) why was there so much disagreement on them? In chapter 6, Kruger responds to these objections. First, the self-authenticating model actually expects disagreements and provides explanations for it. The NT warns about false teachers, spiritual forces opposing the church, and people sinfully resisting the Spirit. Furthermore, not all groups that claim to be the “church” are part of it (Matt 7:21-23; John 2:23-25; 1 John 2:19). Second, the delay in the canonical process is expected for books given in various times and locations. Third, Kruger demonstrates that the extent of the disagreements is not as vast as critics claim, with the emergence of “core” collection of NT books in the second century. There are early references to canonical books within Scripture (2 Pet 3:16; 1 Tim 5:18) and public reading of the letters as Scripture (Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; 2 Cor 10:9). Furthermore, the testimony from the church fathers, citing Paul and the Gospels, demonstrates a wide recognition of core NT documents.

In chapter 7, Kruger further demonstrates that the disagreements on the canon are not as significant as commonly viewed, through the evidence found in the NT manuscripts from the second and third centuries. The quantity of canonical manuscripts from this period greatly outnumbers the manuscripts of non-canonical books with a four to one ratio. The Gospel of Thomas receives the greatest number of manuscripts with only three copies. Although manuscripts were sometimes combined together into codices, no non-canonical gospels are found within the same codex as the canonical gospels. P72, the only manuscript that includes a number of noncanonical works, is a combination of codices patched together with different page numbers and scribal hands. Thus, even at the earliest stage, canonical NT books were already being grouped together and designed to be read as Scripture. 

Chapter 8 discusses at length the debated canonical books to further argue that agreement in the canon is not as erratic as critics claim. Kruger dismantles the argument that the use of apocryphal gospels means that they were considered equal to the canonical books. Kruger cites the church fathers who, despite finding the non-canonical works beneficial, still distinguish them as inferior to the canonical books. Kruger also cites the affirming testimony of the church fathers on the canonicity of the ἀντιλεγομενα (James, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 & 3 John, and Revelation). Eusebius later categorizes them as distinct from non-canonical orthodox works like Shepherd of Hermas and 1 Clement and heretical books like the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter. Kruger opines that

The fact that the church was able to reach such unity in the midst of such diversity would indicate that more was in play that just the random flow of history…. the church reached unity on these books precisely because Christ himself was speaking in them.

Canon Revisited, p. 287

Analysis

Michael J. Kruger has not left a stone unturned in his defense of the self-authenticating model of canonicity. In Canon Revisited, Kruger dismantles the de jure objection that Christians have no rational basis to know which books are part of the canon, and by doing so, he bolsters the Christian’s belief in the 27 books of the New Testament. He has done this in four ways.

First, Kruger has clearly and fairly presented the other views on determining the canonical model. In evaluating them, he fairly points out areas of agreement, but he also does not back down in pointing out the inconsistencies of their arguments. For example, he demonstrates the inconsistency of the Catholic model. Rome chides sola scriptura, only to functionally affirm sola ecclesia. Kruger unashamedly points out the weaknesses of other views, including the criteria-of-the-canon view that many evangelicals hold. While Kruger agrees with the conclusion of the criteria-of-the-canon model, he finds it inadequate, because this model necessitates an external standard to measure truth itself—God’s very Word.

Second, Kruger uses internal evidence from the canonical Scripture itself to demonstrate its divine qualities. Based on Scripture passages, Kruger points out that the canonical Scripture itself has beauty, excellence, power, efficacy, unity, and harmony. Perhaps a demonstration of these qualities in each of the 27 books would strengthen Kruger’s argument. The more one studies each of these books (not just academically, but also devotionally), the more it becomes evident that these books do contain divine qualities.

Third, Kruger uses external evidence to demonstrate the soundness of the self-authenticating model of canonicity that he espouses. Kruger cites church father after church father, demonstrating the overwhelming consensus on the canonicity of the 27 books of the New Testament and the exclusion of non-canonical books. This consensus was accomplished across geographical boundaries within the second and third centuries. Christians agreed without any formal proclamation, official creed, or church council. As Kruger points out from John 10, sheep everywhere hear the voice of the Shepherd from these books.

Lastly, Kruger does not shy away from potential dissenters and objections to canonicity. He faces these objections head on. He dismantles the arguments of critics, including the inconsistencies within NT books, NT books not written by apostles, and the so-called wide disagreement in the early church on the canon that was not resolved until the fourth century. As Kruger defends and demonstrates each attribute of canonicity, he invites these objections and answers them. He demonstrates the unity and harmony of the NT books, the meaning of “apostolicity” and the role of the apostles in God’s revelation, and finally, he argues that the disagreement on the canon was not as widespread as critics claim.

Conclusion

Michael Kruger has contributed to the academy and served the church in Canon Revisited. The amount of research contributes to the discussion of canonicity, defending a rational basis for taking the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, and only these books, as canonical. For Kruger, divine providence, the three attributes of canonicity, form the internal testimony of the Spirit are the epistemic environment that serves as a reliable basis for a belief in the canon. The three attributes of canonicity are divine qualities, apostolic origins, and corporate reception. Kruger’s sound arguments with strong internal and external evidence bolster the Christian’s faith in the New Testament books. He does not shy away from objections, but he faces them with strong arguments from clear evidence. This work is a must-read to strengthen one’s faith in the Bible, to help someone struggling with the questions of canonicity, or to discuss with a critic who is willing to fairly evaluate evidence.

You can purchase a copy from Crossway here or from Amazon here.

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