• Caleb Harrelson

The Question of Canon: A Book Review



*(Note: This paper was written for my History of the Bible class for Dr. Timothy Paul Jones at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for my MDiv in Apologetics & Philosophy degree. If you would like to download the Word version click below:

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A Book Review of the Question of Canon by Dr. Michael J. Kruger

Michael J. Kruger is the president of Reformed Theological Seminary (North Carolina) and professor of New Testament and early Christianity. Kruger has authored twelve books and his main area of focus in his writings is on the New Testament canon. In Kruger’s book, The Question of Canon, he puts forth the argument that the New Testament canon was not a late development, but it naturally developed and was recognized within early Christianity.


Summary Kruger presents the thesis that “the makeup of first-century Christianity created a favorable environment for the growth of a new written revelational deposit” (21). He argues that this should be understand as the “intrinsic” model of the New Testament canon This thesis is in response to the five tenets of the “extrinsic model” that suggests that the canon was formed late as a result of “ecclesiastical activity, external to the biblical literature itself, which was subsequently imposed on the writings” (18-19). He wrote this book to those in the “field of biblical studies” (25) to challenge the five tenets of the consensus view, the extrinsic model, that the New Testament was a late development and how that view should be modified (25). The first chapter deals with clarifying terms and their historical usage and answering the first tenet of the extrinsic model, that “we must make a sharp distinction between scripture and canon” (23). It is argued that this definition will only allow for the recognition of a canon with an official list and thus it’s too limited. Kruger explains how “we should not rule out other definitions” and then breaks down the rise of popular views that the “terms Scripture and canon” should be separated

(29). It is explained how separating scripture from the canon is a key component of the extrinsic model because this view holds that a book cannot be canonical unless it is a part of a “list from which nothing can be added or taken away” (29). While tracing the history of the extrinsic view, Kruger fairly acknowledges some of its merits alongside its weaknesses. For example, he mentions that while the extrinsic definition rightly acknowledges the official acts of the church, it is not enough because if people are assuming “absolute uniformity of practice, across all of Christendom, then, on those terms, there was still not even a canon in the fourth century.” Thus the “scripture” and “canon” distinction, as part of the extrinsic model, is a point that Bart Ehrman likes to capitalize on his book, Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman mentions how Athanasius’ Easter letter containing all twenty-seven New Testament books is the “first surviving instance of anyone affirming out set of books as the New Testament.” Ehrman demonstrates that he embraces the scripture-canon separation when he says that in the fourth century the New Testament books weren’t “considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves had first been produced.”[1] All throughout the first chapter Kruger shows that this view of scripture and canon and its formation is not the only viable one. He also defines the functional and ontological canon. The functional canon is an acknowledgment of when the early Christian community “regarded” certain books as “scripture” (35). Kruger argues this view of the canon also contributes to the intrinsic model, yet it still has some weaknesses (36). Finally, the “ontological definition” of the canon is described by Kruger as that which “bear[s] authority by virtue of what they are, books given by God” (42).

Chapter two deals with the second tenet of the extrinsic model, that “there was nothing in early Christianity that would have naturally led to the development of a canon” (47). Kruger quickly answers this claim by unpacking how the early church was grounded in the Old Testament predication that “the messianic age would be marked by a new revelational message from God” (57). He also explains how early Christianity had a “tight relationship between covenants and written texts” (77) and an understanding the apostles would “transmit” Jesus’ message through “documents” that were considered “authoritative right from the beginning” (77). Thus, he lays out the case for how the early environment of Christianity would have naturally brought forth a New Testament canon.

In Chapter three, Kruger answers the third tenet of the extrinsic model: the belief that early Christians were “averse to written documents” (23) and almost exclusively an “oral religion” (79). Kruger admits that while much of the early church was illiterate, that doesn’t mean that “absence of textuality.” He talks through the writings of early Christian leaders, like Paul and Papias, to demonstrate that Christianity was a “bookish religion” (118). Chapter four takes on the fourth tenet of the extrinsic model: the view that the New Testament authors didn’t write with any “intention” of their work being recognized as “Scripture” (119). Kruger cites several New Testaments verses to build his case that authors like Paul and Peter were very aware their writings “would have functionally been the same as Scripture” (153). Chapter five takes on the final tenet of the extrinsic model: that “scriptural status” was a much later development in Christendom (24) and “we should not expect to see them used as Scripture until a much later time in the life of the Church” (156). Kruger points out that many in the extrinsic camp point to Irenaeus in the late second century as the “innovator” and one who “imposed a new set of Scriptures” on the church and shifted them away from an oral focus (157). In response to this, Kruger list several key figures before Irenaeus and shows that “Christians began to view their books as Scripture much earlier than Irenaeus” (203). The Conclusion of the book is a good recap of every chapter and a reminder that the dominant extrinsic model cannot be the only model allowed to rule scholarship. He lays out how the key implication for his book is how “scholarly consideration should be given” to the intrinsic model (209). This makes sense, as Kruger consistently argued that the New Testament canon grew “naturally” out of the early Christian environment (210).

Critical Evaluation

Kruger’s book, The Question of Canon, supported his thesis and purpose well by showing how the New Testament canon naturally developed in early Christianity, his focus on how the apostles and ante-nice Church Fathers recognized the scriptures and the faulty assumptions of the extrinsic-only model. In relation to the natural and early development of the canon, it particularly answers Ehrman’s grand assumption about scripture: that it is “a very human book.”[2] As a result of Ehrman’s commitment to the extrinsic model, he also commits the same error of assuming that the canon and inspired status of the scriptures was “imposed” on them later for ecclesiastical purposes and thus that’s why we should view the Bible as any different from others books (47). It’s anachronistic to the historical facts to ignore everything that happened in Christianity before Athanasius “extrinsic” canon list in 367 A.D. Kruger succinctly pointed out how early Christians had an expectation of the Messiah bringing “new revelation,” that is the written form of the “new covenant” (77). Thus, with a little bit of historical work, Kruger demonstrates that proponents of the extrinsic model, like Erhman, will arrive at faulty conclusions when their “model” or “paradigm” is off (209). Ironically, Ehrman does admit that early Christians had a view of scripture was high, yet he ignores that in his final conclusion and instead emphasizes that most early Christians were like “simple peasants” and not capable of writing.[3] Kruger brings balance to those that would utilize widespread illiteracy against an intrinsic model and says that “it would be illegitimate to use widespread illiteracy as the basis for characterizing Christianity as “unliterary” and opposed to written texts” (88). In fact, in support of the textual and oral culture, it is pointed out that most of the New Testament is written early, between “the 50’s and the 90’s” (91). Furthermore, as mentioned above, it would have been completely natural for the early church to connect the New Testament with the Old Testament and treat apostolic writings differently. Kruger notes that there was a very close “relationship between the covenant and the written documentation of the covenant that Old Testament authors would frequently equate the two…” (61). Since the canon was not foisted upon the church at a later date, but there was a natural Old Testament expectation of it, we should also look carefully at Kruger’s interaction with how early various books were viewed as authoritative. The second helpful section in Kruger’s book that supports his thesis and refutes the extrinsic-only model is his section on the apostles and church leader’s recognition of the scriptures. For example, Kruger shows how the gospels were originally passed on without a name, anonymous, “in order to reflect the practice of the Old Testament historical books” (130). It should be noted, however, that church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Papias (middle of the second century) recognized who the authors of the gospels were (168, 183). What’s more, Kruger points out how “the term ευαγγεελιον is most noteworthy, for that term was not originally used among early Christians to refer to written texts, but rather was a reference to the authoritative message of the apostolic preaching” (131). Thus, when gospel writers like Mark start off his book with the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus,” we should understand clearly “that his account is to be understood as the embodiment of that foundational apostolic message (132). Ehrman, however, likes to argue that it was mainly responses to second century heretic Marcion that led to the formation of the canon.[4] Kruger dispels that myth he explains that Irenaeus view of scriptures “as something that dates back to the apostolic era, something the church has possessed long before his own time (and Marcion’s)” (160). Furthermore, it is noted that Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who knew the apostle John personally” and that’s why we should have extra weight to his view (160). However, Kruger also references church leaders before Irenaeus to show that the recognition of scripture was not merely a reaction to Marcion. It is noted that Justin Martyr talked about the apostles as “proclaimers of ‘the word of God” (176). Ehrman claims that “early Christian literature occasionally changed their texts to make them say what they were already thought to mean” like Marcion, yet Kruger shows how misleading that statement is when he quotes Papias discussing how he received information about the gospoels from one of the apostles, John the elder, and how Mark was sure “to leave nothing out that he heard or to include any falsehood among them’- a standard “integrity formula” reflective of Deuteronomy 4:2” (182-184). If this is the case, then it seems very unlikely that there was mischievous motivation for the early church to edit the text as Marcion did. Marcion had a low view of the Old Testament, whereas all of those who come from the apostolic succession have a high view of the Old Testament and of faithfully preserving the original message of the apostles. Thirdly, Kruger’s book effectively points out the faulty assumptions of the extrinsic model. Kruger’s consistent interaction with this model is important because popularizer like Erhman tells us that “the books we call the New Testament were not gathered together into one canon and considered scripture, finally and ultimately, until hundreds of years after the books themselves had first been produced.”[5] Kruger interacts with how this assumption that forces a distinction between “canon” and scripture” and the “impression that the canon is the result of a ‘great and meritorious act of the church.” While acknowledging some validity to that view, Kruger also rightly points out how “it does not give due appreciation to the fact that even by the second century most of the New Testament books were already seen as fully authoritative” (206). Additionally, Kruger concisely shows how the extrinsic model must assume that everything happening before Athanasius was unclear in regard to reception of the texts. Ehrman likes to point out how even his model, the extrinsic model, “didn’t settle the matter” because there were still debates about certain books.[6] In response, Kruger carefully walks the reader through understanding why there were disagreements, why they are not “unusual” and why we still have good reasons to believe that “there was a core collection of scriptural books in place from a very early time” (208). It is true that the extrinsic model forces a “predetermined framework” that causes people to dismiss the intrinsic model altogether. It assumes that “the authors of our New Testament books did not know that they were writing scripture” (120) and then ignores the truth that the apostles saw themselves as testifying of the “word of life”- which was “typically used throughout the New Testament to describe the authoritative apostolic message” (152). The rigid terms that the extrinsic model uses doesn’t allow for the apostles to describe scripture with words other than scriptures. Kruger points out this inconsistency when he says that “it matters not whether the New Testament authors specifically used the term ‘Scripture’ when speaking of their own books” because they said they are writing “ a command of the Lord” (153). This is essentially saying the same thing as ‘scripture,’ if not better.

Conclusion

Kruger’s book, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate, did an excellent job showing the reader how the makeup of the early church naturally led to the development of the New Testament canon. Kruger’s was careful to point out the valid points made by those who embrace the ‘extrinsic-only’ model, yet honest enough to point out the flaws that don’t add up in that model. His honest analysis is a good model for all Christians that seek to model objective and fair critiques of other positions. In a culture that is eager to bludgeon the other side quickly, Kruger serves as a wise example when he constantly says, “before offering a response, we will want to acknowledge that much of this description…is accurate” (85). It also serves as a helpful tool for readers that keep hearing the refrain that “the Bible was not always ‘there’ in early Christianity” (33). Throughout the entirety of the book, Kruger made it clear that “canon was like a seedling sprouting from the soil in early Christianity- although it was not fully a tree until the fourth century, it was there, in nuce, from the beginning” (210). I would recommend this book to every pastor, bible scholar, and Catholic that would be open to hearing a fair critique of the extrinsic model. You will find sound scholarship and your faith encouraged in the scriptures that have been given to us as the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).


Sources Cited outside of Kruger's The Question of Canon:

[1]Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 36. [2]Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 12. [3] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 33-35. [4] Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 33-35. [5]Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 36. [6]Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind who changed the Bible and Why. (New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), 36.


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