Review: Canon Revisited: Establishing The Origins And Authority Of The New Testament Books

by Jul 24, 2013Books, ChurchLife, Mission, Theology5 comments

Canon Revisited: Establishing The Origins And Authority Of The New Testament BooksCanon Revisited: Establishing The Origins And Authority Of The New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For many years I have felt that canon was my Achilles’ Heel as a Protestant (wannabe) theologian. I felt the sting of the charge that I am a “fideist”—someone who chooses his authority arbitrarily, with no sound evidence to back it up. And I felt that sting because it’s one thing to make the Bible your authority and another to prove to a skeptic, even a “Christian” one, that these 66 books and no others are divinely authoritative. Where does the Bible itself ever present the final list of canonical books?

Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited has shod my feet with armor; now my heel feels much safer! His work is truly a tour de force, and I don’t toss out French appellations easily. What Kruger does is simple: he takes the theological and epistemological insights of presuppositionalism, an apologetic methodology which resolutely presses back to the Bible, and applies them to the question of canon.

You can hear the presuppositionalism in some of his opening words describing his work:

This volume is not attempting somehow to “prove” the truth of the canon to the skeptic in a manner that would be persuasive to him. Our goal here is not to find some neutral common ground from which we can demonstrate to the biblical critic that these books are divinely given…. The issue that concerns us here is not about our having knowledge of the canon (or proving the truth of canon) but accounting for our knowledge of canon. (21)

Kruger is eager to let the Bible speak in its own defense:

Most prior studies of the canon have provided precious little by way of the theology of canon and have focused almost exclusively on historical questions…. The theology of canon is viewed not as an “epilogue” to be addressed only after the formal investigation of the historical evidence is complete, but instead as the paradigm through which the historical evidene is to be investigated in the first place. (24)

I won’t go into great detail, but I’ll note that Kruger helpfully describes three major Christian models for understanding canon:

  1. The canon as community determined—this would include the Catholic model in which the church validates and therefore stands over Scripture, but it would also include the neo-orthodox model in which people experience God’s authority individually and existentially through encounters with the Bible.
  2. The canon as historically determined—this would be both the liberal Protestant model and the evidentialist model. We know what the books of the Bible are because they’re the books that became the Bible, historically speaking (liberal Protestants) or because of all the objective evidence to which we can point for proving that they belong there (evidentialists).
  3. The canon as self-authenticating—this is the model Kruger propounds. And what a great title for this chapter: “My sheep hear my voice.” Kruger points out that the previous two models (and all those contained within those two broad categories) “share one core characteristic. They all ground the authority of the canon in something outside the canon itself.” (88) Can you hear the presuppositional argument? “What is needed, then, is a canonical model that…seeks to ground the canon in the only place it could be grounded, its own authority. After all, if the canon bears the very authority of God, to what other standard could it appeal to justify itself? Even when God swore oaths, ‘he swore by himself’ (Heb. 6:13).

But Kruger isn’t a fideist:

We shall argue that when it comes to the question of canon, the Scriptures themselves provide grounds for considering external data: the apostolicity of books, the testimony of the church, and so forth. Of course, this external evidence is not to be used as an independent and neutral ‘test’ to determine what counts as canonical; rather it should always be seen as something warranted by Scripture and interpreted by Scripture. (90)

One more quote, striking at the essence of presuppositionalism:

How do we offer an account of how we know that an ultimate authority is, in fact, the ultimate authority? If we try to validate an ultimate authority by appealing to some other authority, then we have just shown that it is not really the ultimate authority. Thus, for ultimate authorities to be ultimate authorities, they have to be the standard for their own authentication. You cannot account for them without using them. (91)

Right: if God speaks, what are you going to do, run His claims through the NPOV community at Wikipedia? Are they neutral?

Kruger spends the rest of the book exploring three scripturally justified “attributes” of canonicity which allow the Bible to speak on its own behalf: 1) its divine qualities, 2) its apostolic origins, and 3) the corporate reception of the church.

This is an excellent book, a must-read. Kruger adeptly uses the Bible, stays up with current discussions, and brings in historical theology. My copy is absolutely filled with neon highlights. Kruger has performed a very important service for the church of Jesus Christ.

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  1. Don Johnson

    Mark, on the “three models”, it seems to me that some KJO arguments are based in this approach, the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, therefore the Bible that was “received” by the church is the true Bible, etc.

    Kruger has an excellent blog, Canon Fodder, that I am, alas, way behind in reading his articles.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Mark L Ward Jr

    That’s a really interesting comment, which means I’ll have to mull it over… My initial reaction is positive, and I know you’re not allowed to cogitate in blog comments, but it’s my blog and I’ll cogitate if I want to.

    Agreed on the blog recommendation—love that blog, and his series of “Ten Things Every Christian Should Memorize about the Canon” would be a good precis for those who can’t read the book.

  3. Tim Miller

    Mark, did you catch the perspectival triad? Canon as community = existential. Canon as history = situational. Canon as self-authenticating = normative.

  4. Mark L Ward Jr

    I can’t believe I missed a triad! =) And in this book it shouldn’t be surprising, because Frame’s thought has clearly made an impact on Kruger. But I think in this case I’d rather see the triad in Kruger’s three “attributes of canonicity”: 1) its divine qualities (normative), 2) its apostolic origins (situational), 3) its corporate reception (existential).

    How does that sound, Tim?

    • Tim Miller

      Yes, actually that is better. I tend to find that an overemphasis (or improper emphasis) in any of the categories leads to the errors he presents above. My identification of each of the triads was not intended to give credence to the aberrant views contained within those categories. I am looking forward to getting time to read this book. It is staring at me from my shelf.


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