Canon Revisited (Book Review)

Canon RevisitedIntroduction

Michael J. Kruger, professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, has produced a volume entitled Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. The book divides into two parts. In part number one Kruger spends the first two chapters interacting with the prevailing models of Canonicity in the Christian tradition. Then, in the third chapter, he proposes one of his own. In the second part of his book, Kruger takes five chapters to further treat his model and defend it against possible defeat. The book is well-researched and his arguments are clear.

The author’s philosophy of apologetics falls squarely within the camp of Reformed epistemology. His presuppositionalism is best suited to handle de jure objections. In other words, Kruger’s interest lies not in the defense of the New Testament canon, per se, but in the defense of a Christian’s knowledge of it. His primary concern is to display that the Christian community has sufficient intellectual grounds to maintain its belief that the 27 books of the New Testament are the direct result of divine providence.

Summary

Given Kruger’s orientation as a Reformed Epistemologist his sole purpose in writing this book was to prove that Christians have an adequate basis for their knowledge in the New Testament canon. He asserts that the church can know which books are canonical because God has provided the proper epistemic environment wherein belief in these books can be reliably formed (23). This formative environment, says Kruger, has three main components. The first component is that of providential exposure. God provided the church with accessibility to the books of the canon. That was not a happenstance. The second component of this situation is that canonical books are self-authenticating. The 27 books of the New Testament bore distinct and inherent qualities that simply no other books possessed. These attributes are apostolic origins, divine qualities, and a corporate reception. And the last component of this epistemic environment is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God frees sinful people from the noetic effects of their fallen condition to recognize canonical material. These three components together, says Kruger, created the environment in which proper knowledge of the canon occurred.

Kruger’s second component of this epistemic environment deals with the attributes of canonicity and he spends the bulk of his time here. What features must a book possess if it is to be regarded as from God? Again, Kruger makes a case that it must be apostolic, bear divine qualities, and enjoy a corporate reception. Two of these three (apostolicity and corporate reception) are reconstructions by Kruger of the prevailing models he critiqued in the first part of the book. They are community-determined and historically-determined models of canonicity. To boil it down, both are answers to the question: who determines the contents of the canon? The first model would say that the church does and the latter would declare that historians do (or at least they can verify it). These answers, to Kruger, are simply unacceptable. For they ultimately erect some standard that exists outside of the canon itself, which should never be. Kruger insists that these approaches “overlook the unique nature of the canon. The canon, as God’s Word, is not just true, but the criterion of truth. It is an ultimate authority.” (91) So as an ultimate authority it must, at some basic level, self authenticate its own nature. Therefore, with this in view, Kruger reconstructs community-determined models to be what he terms ‘corporate reception.’ The community did not determine the canon, says Kruger, they received the canon. In fact, the author likes to say, the canon – by its very nature – imposed itself upon the church. And likewise, Kruger recognizes historically-determined models in his admission that one of the attributes of canonicity is indeed apostolic origins. But, his caveat would be that this should not ever stand alone on historical evidences. His strong bent for presuppositionalism does not allow for the opinion that evidence can be evaluated free of bias. So we see that Kruger is attempting not only to build upon the field of existing canonical studies, but to address what he deems to be the missing piece: considerations informed by a presuppositional apologetic .

Part two of his book is spent exploring and defending his self-authenticating model, which again is summed up in his attributes of canonicity (apostolic origins, divine qualities, and a corporate reception).  He anticipates the objections and poses possible defeaters of each canonical attribute. For the attribute of apostolic origins, Kruger anticipates historical-critical scholars would simply deny apostolicity and claim rather pseudonymity based upon supposed stylistic discrepancies. However, Kruger quickly reminds his readers that much of modern scholarship is founded upon enlightenment assumptions that are already hostile to historic Christianity (291). Why, Kruger asks, should we accept enlightenment based methodologies to theologically Christian ones? And then against the attribute of divine qualities – which asserts harmony among its parts – skeptics might take their cues from Walter Bauer and F. C. Baur and deny that any such unity existed until the orthodox party commandeered a canon. To this Kruger argues that the church had the Old Testament canon, a core of New Testament books, and the rule of faith guiding it. And he further argues, from 1 Corinthians 2:14, that those in the early church who were without the Spirit were simply not in a position to determine such things (291). And finally, against the last attribute, namely corporate reception, Kruger anticipates the objection that this was not unanimous. However, he argues again, that absolute agreement was not necessary given the effects of the fall. And he would add that church disagreement is largely overplayed (287). To prove this Kruger devotes the last three chapters of his book to substantiate this claim. There is historical validity for a core canon functioning as early as the middle of the second century (ch. 6). There also have been canonical books found within the same manuscript documents (ch. 7). And evidence of the so-called questionable books was indeed not that questionable at all (ch. 8). So if the potential defeaters fail, as Kruger claims they do, Christians can confidently stand by this self-authenticating model of canonicity as defined in his book, which is this: The New Testament canon is the collection of apostolic writings that is regarded as Scripture by the corporate church (120). All this is to say, again, that Christian belief in the canon is on sufficient grounds. The Christian church says Kruger, has good reason to believe that the 27 books of the New Testament are exclusive and form a body of literature that has been provided by God for the building up of his church.

Critical Evaluation

The strength of this book lies within the author’s ability to organize his material and draft lucid thoughts. He is big-picture thinker versus, let us say, a F.F. Bruce who seems to live in the details. The turgidity of Bruce’s book, The Canon of Scripture makes for an arduous trek indeed. Canon Revisited has a much more polished and accessible presentation. It does not bog the reader down, yet remains intellectual stimulating and even satisfying. It is a work of scholarship to be sure, but Kruger in my opinion makes good use of his footnotes. He does not omit important details, but lest he encumber the text with too many particulars he keeps it streamlined and drops it to the bottom of the page. Granted, Bruce’s scholarship is more historical based, whereas Kruger’s is more theological and lends itself to a more broad and conceptual treatment. At any rate, Kruger’s presentation skills are exceptional and cause his writing to emanate with a compelling force.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to this field of canonical studies is his presuppositional approach to apologetics. Typically Evangelical treatments of the validity of the canon deal with criteria-based historical investigations. However, Kruger did well to remind us that investigations are never truly neutral. Every scholar has his starting point and regardless of the data available to him his bias can (and will) cut straight across the grain of evidence. Therefore historical evidences really have no power to convince the convinced one way or the other. That is why Kruger deals only in with de jure objections. De facto objections are the language of another apologetic, language that ultimately fails to communicate according to Kruger. Instead of proof, he deals with grounds. I have never seen Canonical studies handled in such a manner. It was a shift of perspective to say the least. And I would have to say this deductive, presuppositional approach may be the best way of handling something that claims to be an ultimate authority. Inductive evidentialism simply cannot vouch for an ultimate authority without claiming the same status for itself. An ultimate authority somewhere along the line must self-authenticate and this is what Kruger leaves room for.

However, given the convincing force of his argument for presuppositionalism I thought it ironic that the last four chapters ‘lapsed’ into evidentialism. This to me shows that – no matter how much you think evidences are a thing of the enlightenment – you cannot seem to escape the intrinsic need for them. Chapters 5 through 8 would pretty much read like F.F. Bruce, Craig Evans, or any other evidentialist-styled author. I understand Kruger’s point though; even though evidences may be consulted they must not stand alone. I get that. But, why downplay an approach and then turn right around and devote 120 pages (Ch. 5-8) to the use of it?

The second weakness in the book was his proposed answers to the possible defeaters of canonical attributes. His answers were either a variety of evidences (that are ultimately weakened by his dim view of them) or a retreat to 1 Corinthians 2:14 (which claim that fallen humans cannot make such determinations given the effects of the fall). The first answer seems problematic because he is trying to ride a horse that he had already beaten half dead. The second seems problematic because how are you going to inform a fallen person that his objection fails because he is a fallen man and cannot understand the spiritual issues at hand? That is an answer for Christians; that is not a winsome or suitable answer for unbelievers. It may be true that they are fallen, but the consistency of that answer just seemed like an easy out for Kruger. This is not so much a weakness of Kruger’s as it is one of the presuppositional system he touts. It certainly has some compelling theory, but seems to run out of gas at the street level.

Conclusion

Given these considerations this remains a must read for anybody interested in the field of canonical studies. It certainly is an ingenious approach and I believe it will prove to be with us for many generations to come. This book forces us to take seriously the fact that the Christian community considers the Bible to be an ultimate authority and thus has to authenticate itself on some basic level. Kruger’s described epistemic environment was helpful, his reconstructions of the prevailing models clever, his mutually supportive self-authenticating model insightful, and the consequent implications absolutely scintillating. And then top this off with a clear and cogent presentation and you have the makings of an excellent book. Kruger’s treatment of the canon is the best book I have read this year. I initially read it on my Kindle, but there are certain books I must have on my shelf for the purposes of revisiting and Canon Revisited is certainly one of them.

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