Michael J. Kruger. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013. 256 pp. $24.00.
Dr. Michael Kruger, President and NT professor at Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte, is a leading expert in Christian origins, early Christianity, and the development of the NT canon. In The Question of Canon, Kruger focuses on the question of why we have a New Testament canon at all (which comparatively has received very little attention) rather than the overworked questions of when and how these twenty-seven books came to be regarded as canon. The status quo, the dominant view in regards to why we have a canon that is challenged in this book, is what Kruger calls the extrinsic model – that the New Testament canon is “a later ecclesiastical development imposed on books originally written for another purpose” (7). The alternative that Kruger proposes and defends in this book is what he calls an intrinsic model – “that the idea of canon is not something imposed from the outside but develops more organically from within the early Christian religion itself. The earliest Christian communities had certain characteristics and also held a number of theological beliefs that, especially when taken in tandem, would have made a new collection of sacred books (what we would call a ‘canon’) a more natural development” (21).
The goal of The Question of Canon is not to prove the intrinsic model, but to demonstrate that the extrinsic model is problematic and thereby raise serious questions about its viability, paving the way for scholarly consideration of and further research with the intrinsic model. Each chapter addresses one of the five major tenets of the extrinsic model. Chapter 1 addresses the first – that we must make a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon. While acknowledging the strengths of the exclusive definition of canon (e.g. it rightly expresses the canon’s fluid boundaries prior to the fourth century), Kruger points out that “on those terms we still do not have a closed canon” (32 emphasis original) and that “the abrupt change in terminology gives the impression that these books bore some lesser status prior to this point; it communicates that Christians only had Scripture and not a canon” (33 emphasis original). Kruger then defines and gives strengths and weaknesses of the functional definition of canon (whereby canon is determined by function instead of presence in a closed list) before proposing the ontological definition as best: “The ontological definition focuses on what the canon is in and of itself, namely the authoritative books that God gave his corporate church…Books do not become canonical – they are canonical because they are the books God has given as a permanent guide for his church” (4o emphasis original). Kruger finally demonstrates the strength of all three definitions of canon being used together in an integrative and multidimensional approach.
Chapter 2 addresses the tenet that “there was nothing in early Christianity that would have naturally led to the development of a canon” (47). Again, Kruger first notes what is correct about the observations of this tenet. He then expounds upon three facets of Judaism/early Christianity that would have naturally led to the development of a new canon of Scripture. First is the eschatological nature of early Christianity. Second Temple Jews regarded the Old Testament story as incomplete; therefore, for those who became convinced that the story was completed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, it would have seemed natural for another body of writing to complete the story. Second is the close connection between covenant and written texts. And third is the role of the apostles as authoritative representatives of Christ. Though the apostles’ message was initially delivered orally, textualization would have occurred naturally as their mission expanded and as they began to die out.
In Chapter 3 Kruger deals with the tenet that “early Christians had an aversion to written texts” (80) by examining the three major arguments that have been used to support this belief. The first is the argument from sociocultural background – that early Christianity was an oral culture. While acknowledging the low literacy rate of among early Christians, Kruger argues that “the lack of literacy does not necessarily mean the lack of textuality (86 emphasis original) and demonstrates that early Christianity had a culture of textuality. The second argument examined is that from testimony – that early Christians expressly stated their aversion to writing. Here Kruger looks at the two examples most commonly cited in defense of this argument, Papias (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4) and Paul (2 Cor. 3:6), and demonstrates that they are in fact not expressing aversion towards the written word at all. And finally, Kruger addresses the argument from eschatology – that early Christians expecte4d the imminent return of Christ and would thereby have seen no need for a new corpus of books. Kruger dismantles this argument by showing that 1) there is no indication that the early Christians widely believed that Jesus must return in their lifetime (114), and 2) as can be seen from Paul as well as the Qumran community, the expectation of Jesus’s (imminent) return did not inhibit literary production.
In Chapter 4 Kruger tackles the tenet that the NT authors were unaware of their own authority. He surveys the Pauline epistles, the gospels, and then the other NT writings to demonstrate that “there are a number of instances where the New Testament authors are quite aware of their own authority. Indeed, they expressly understood their writings to be apostolic in nature – that is, they were consciously passing down the authrotative apostolic message” (153). And finally, in Chapter 5, Kruger takes on the tenet that the NT books were first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century. By surveying the writings of Irenaeus, some of his contemporaries, and some of his predecessors, Kruger contends that “while the evidence is limited, there are still indications that books were received as Scripture prior to the lifetime of Irenaeus. Such evidence indicates that the origin of a new corpus of scriptural books should not be conceived of as a ‘big bang’ type of event, extrinsically imposed on the church, but as something that grew gradually over time with roots that extend further back into the history of the church than previously allowed” (158).
The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate is a fantastic book that deserves a wide readership, from the interested layperson all the way up to the New Testament scholar, and everyone in between. Kruger doesn’t make any earth-shattering claims in this book, but I think that’s actually what makes it strong. Had he set out to prove the intrinsic model in such a short book, perhaps there would have been hasty, weak, or sweeping arguments. But instead, this book is balanced and fair. Over and over again, before critiquing an aspect of the extrinsic model, Kruger first points out its strengths and what it got right. This is beneficial and potentially eye-opening for conservative evangelical lay readers since there can be a tendency, perhaps due to reactionary and apologetic zeal, to outright reject all the claims of the extrinsic model. Thinking laypeople and pastors would benefit much from reading this book because of how common questions about the New Testament canon are, both from non-Christians as well as Christians (perhaps due in part to the popularity of books like The DaVinci Code and Bart Ehrman’s trade books). It would also be a good book for bible college and seminary students to read. And finally, for doctoral students and NT scholars, this book would hopefully help those who hold to an extrinsic model see some of its weaknesses and to consider the intrinsic model, and give those who already do hold to an intrinsic model fodder for further research.
Thanks to IVP Academic for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review!