Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books

by Michael J. Kruger


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Exploring the history of the New Testament text from a theological perspective, Michael Kruger helps Christians understand the facts behind their faith and the legitimacy of the New Testament Scriptures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433505003
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 04/11/2012
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Michael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a leading scholar on the origins and development of the New Testament canon. He blogs regularly at

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The Church's Book

Canon as Community Determined

The decision[s] to collect a group of chosen books and form a "Scripture," are all human decisions.


In 1979, Brevard Childs was able to say that "much of the present confusion over the problem of canon turns on the failure to reach an agreement regarding the terminology." Unfortunately, the situation has not changed much since that time. Canonical studies still finds itself so mired in ongoing discussions and disagreements about canonical semantics — what canon "is" and how that should affect our historical reconstructions — that there appears to be no end in sight. And while the issue of terminology is certainly an important and necessary one to address in any study of the canon, the indefatigable focus upon it has unfortunately prevented even larger (and arguably more vital) questions from being addressed. In particular, too little attention has been given to understanding overarching canonical models that often determine one's definition of canon in the first place. A canonical model is just a way of describing a particular canonical system, if you will, which includes the broader methodological, epistemological, and, yes, even theological frameworks for how canon is understood, and, most importantly, how canon is authenticated. Everyone who studies the origins of the canon has such a system, or process, (whether clearly thought out or not) by which he or she distinguishes a canonical book from a noncanonical book. Thus, a canonical model is not to be equated simply with one's historical conclusions about when and how these books became authoritative, but instead it describes the broader methodological approach that led to those conclusions. It is not just about the date of canonicity (or even its definition), but the grounds of canonicity — how does one go about determining which book, or which set of books, belongs in the canon? A canonical model, then, is one's canonical "worldview." Once the issue of canonical models is put on the table, then the scholarly obsession with topics like the definition and date of canon proves to be somewhat myopic. It is not that these topics are unimportant (they are critical), but it is simply that they are derivative. They stem from other prior and broader commitments.

Before us, then, is not simply a choice between historical positions on the New Testament canon (e.g., a late date or early date), but a choice between canonical models (one overarching system or another). It is the purpose of the chapters in this section to categorize and describe these various models — a canonical "taxonomy" if you will — and then offer a brief critique and response. Then, the final chapter in this section will briefly outline the canonical model being advocated in this volume, allowing it to be seen against the backdrop of all the other approaches already reviewed. This model will provide the methodological and theological infrastructure for the entire volume and will guide us as we delve deeper into the origins of the New Testament canon.

Before we begin our survey, we need to recognize from the outset how notoriously difficult it is to categorize scholars (and their approaches) into various camps. Not only are there countless variables to consider, but each scholar has his own distinctive nuances and often has aspects of his approach that could legitimately be placed into multiple categories. Moreover, approaches could be categorized on the basis of varying criteria: definition of canon, date of canon, function of canon, and so forth. With such complexities in mind, some caveats are in order: (1) We will be categorizing the various models not on the basis of date or definition of canon (as is commonly done), but in regard to the method of authenticating canon. In other words, on what grounds does one consider a book to be canonical? Or, put differently, on what basis does one know that a book belongs (or does not belong) in the New Testament? (2) If we categorize models on this basis, then it is possible that some scholars who are grouped into the same overall model (on the basis of how they authenticate books) may still have differences in other areas (such as definition and date of the canon). Although there is typically a correlation between these things, it is not always uniform or predictable. In order to avoid confusion, the basis of categorization must be kept in mind. (3) The description of these models cannot (and will not) be exhaustive and thus will inevitably be vulnerable to charges of generalizing. Nevertheless, we shall do our best here to summarize the large sweep of approaches to canonical studies, recognizing that while a broad road map cannot capture every detail, it still remains a very helpful (and necessary) enterprise if we hope to understand the overall landscape through which we all must eventually navigate.

The various canonical models will be divided into two large categories, community determined and historically determined. This chapter will cover the first of these. As a general description, community-determined approaches view the canon as something that is, in some sense, established or constituted by the people — either individually or corporately — who have received these books as Scripture. Canonicity is viewed not as something inherent to any set of books, but as "something officially or authoritatively imposed upon certain literature." Thus, a "canon" does not exist until there is some sort of response from the community. Simply put, it is the result of actions and/or experiences of Christians. Specific examples of the community-determined model, as will be seen below, can vary quite widely. Some view the canon as somewhat of a historical accident (the historical-critical model); some view it as the result of the inspired declarations of the church (the Roman Catholic model); and others view it as an "event" that takes place when the Spirit works through these books and impacts individuals (the existential/neoorthodox model). But all share this in common: when asked how one knows which books are canonical, they all find the answer in the response of the Christian community.

I. Historical-Critical Model

A. Description

Since the rise of historical criticism during the period of the Enlightenment, scholars have argued that the idea of a canon, with its particular boundaries, is simply (or largely) the product of human activities within the church during the early centuries of Christianity. As the historical investigations of canon throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continued to reveal the disputes and controversies over books within the early church, the "human" element in the canonical process continued to be emphasized and placed at the forefront of scholarly discussions. James Barr epitomizes this approach: "The decision[s] to collect a group of chosen books and form a 'Scripture,' are all human decisions."

Since the canon is viewed as merely the product of normal human processes — a trend that Webster calls the "naturalization" of canon — scholars have subsequently sought to explain the existence of the canon on the basis of specific historical phenomena. Harnack famously laid the impetus for the New Testament canon at the feet of Marcion, arguing that the canon is a "creative act" of the church in response to his heretical teachings. Others have suggested that the canon is simply a sociocultural concept that reflects the relationship between a religious society and its texts. Thus, canon is just a social phenomenon that arises when a community desires to express its identity. As Kelsey notes, canon is the church's "self-description." From this perspective, to say a text is canonical is not so much to speak of the text at all, but to speak about the function of the text within a particular religious community. And still others have understood canon as a political construct, an ideological instrument, created to wield power and control. One cannot understand canon without understanding what it was designed to combat, suppress, or refute. This approach is most aptly seen in the work of Walter Bauer and his modern adherents. Bauer argues that there was no "orthodoxy" or "heresy" within earliest Christianity, but rather there were various "Christianities," each competing for dominance. Thus, says Bauer, the New Testament canon we possess is nothing more than the books chosen by the eventual theological winners — a historical accident, so to speak.

Regardless of the particular version of the historical-critical approach one may hold, all versions share a core belief that the canon is a fundamentally human construct that can be adequately accounted for in purely natural terms. How then does one know which book should be in the canon? For the historical-critical approach this is the wrong question to ask. The issue is not about which books should be in the canon, but simply which books are in the canon. Since the canon is an entirely human creation, all we can do is simply describe what happened in history. The canon has no metaphysical or intrinsic qualities that need to be accounted for — "canon" is not something that describes the quality of a book, but is something that is done to books. Hugo Lundhaug embodies such an approach: "Canonical status is not an intrinsic quality of a text, but a status bestowed upon it by a community of interpreters." Thus, often the real concern for adherents of the historical-critical model is not to declare which books are the "right" ones, but to make sure that no one else declares which books are the "right" ones. Such distinctions, argues Helmut Koester, are simply the result of "deep-seated prejudices." No book should be privileged over another. All books are equal.

Consequently, as the historical-critical model continues to redefine canon and push it further into the realm of church history — more the result of human than of divine activity — the critical question ceases to be about the boundaries of the canon (which books), but now is about the very legitimacy of the canon itself (should there be one at all). H. Y. Gamble declares, "It ought not to be assumed that the existence of the NT is a necessary or self-explanatory fact. Nothing dictated that there should be a NT at all." James Barr makes a similar claim: "Jesus in his teaching is nowhere portrayed as commanding or even sanctioning the production of a ... written New Testament. ... The idea of a Christian faith governed by Christian written holy Scriptures was not an essential part of the foundation plan of Christianity." Thus, we see again that the historical-critical model rejects any intrinsic value to these texts and places the impetus for canon entirely within the realm of later church decisions.

Such a canonical model inevitably has an impact on the date and definition of canon. If canon is something that is created and constituted by the community, and there is nothing inherent in these books to make them canonical, then a canon cannot exist before the community formally acts. Thus, it is not unusual for the historical-critical approach to have a fairly late date for canon and to insist on a strict semantic distinction between Scripture and canon. In this regard, appeal is often made to the work of A. C. Sundberg, who insists that we cannot speak of the idea of canon until at least the fourth century. Sundberg employs an exclusive definition of canon, arguing that it is a fixed, final, closed list of books, and therefore we cannot use the term canon to speak of any second- (or even third-) century historical realities. To do so would be "anachronistic." Although Scripture would have existed prior to this time period, Sundberg argues that we must reserve the term canon until the end of the entire process. Thus, simply marshaling evidence of a book's scriptural status in the early church — as is so often done in canonical studies — is not enough to consider it canonical. The book must be part of a list from which nothing can be added or taken away.

B. Evaluation

Limitations of space allow for only brief evaluations of each canonical model in this chapter (and the next). However, further responses will be offered throughout the rest of this volume as appropriate. In regard to the historical-critical model, only a few observations can be made here. On a positive note, it must be acknowledged that the historical-critical model is correct to remind us of the role of the Christian community in the formation of the New Testament canon. Indeed, the canon did not drop from the sky on golden tablets, fully formed and complete — it had a long (and sometimes complicated) historical development, and human beings played a role in that development. This important aspect of canon is occasionally forgotten by some approaches (as we shall see below).

That being said, however, the fundamental problem with the historical-critical model is not its affirmation that the church played a role, but rather its insistence that the church played the determinative and decisive role. Quickly swept aside are any claims that these books contain any intrinsic authority that might have been a factor in their reception. The canon is instead explained as merely the result of the "contingent" choices of the church. Such an approach provides us with a merely human canon stripped of any normative or revelational authority and thereby unable to function as God's word to his people. Thus, the historical-critical approach does not really construct a positive model of canon, per se, but rather deconstructs the canon entirely, leaving us with an empty shell of books.

Although most adherents of the historical-critical model would not likely view such a deconstruction as problematic, it does raise the question of how they establish that the canon is a solely human enterprise in the first place. How does one demonstrate this? One not only would have to rule out the possibility that these books bear intrinsic qualities that set them apart, but also would need to show that the reception of these books by the church was a purely human affair. Needless to say, such a naturalistic position would be difficult (if not impossible) to prove. Appeal could be made to evidence of human involvement in the selection of books, such as discussions and disagreements over books, diversity of early Christian book collections, the decisions of church councils, and so forth. But simply demonstrating some human involvement in the canonical process is not sufficient to demonstrate sole human involvement. The fact that proximate, human decisions played a role in the development of the canon does not rule out the possibility that ultimate, divine activity also played a role. The two are not mutually exclusive. It appears, then, that the insistence on a human-conditioned canon may not be something that can be readily proved — or even something that its adherents regularly try to prove — but is something often quietly assumed. It is less the conclusion of the historical-critical model and more its philosophical starting point.

C. Sundberg's Definition of Canon

Before we leave our discussion of the historical-critical model, it is important that we consider Sundberg's exclusive definition of the canon as a final, fixed, closed list. Although this definition is not the sole property of the historical-critical model, it is commonly employed by this model and therefore warrants a brief assessment and response here. We should acknowledge from the outset that much of the impetus behind Sundberg's definition is commendable. Certainly we would agree that the church's role in receiving these books is a critical aspect of canonicity and one that Sundberg's definition certainly captures. Moreover, we would agree that "Scripture" and "canon" are not synonymous in every way, and distinctions between them can be helpful at points (though the kind of distinctions and their severity need to be further clarified). However, there does not appear to be any compelling historical requirement to adopt this definition, despite the confident assertions of some that it creates historical anachronisms. On the contrary, a number of residual concerns about this definition raise questions about whether it is really the best way to capture the historical phenomenon of canon.


Excerpted from "Canon Revisited"
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Copyright © 2012 Michael J. Kruger.
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Table of Contents

Part 1 Determining the Canonical Model,
1 The Church's Book: Canon as Community Determined,
2 Tracing the Origins: Canon as Historically Determined,
3 My Sheep Hear My Voice: Canon as Self-Authenticating,
Part 2 Exploring and Defending the Canonical Model,
4 The Divine Qualities of the Canon,
5 The Apostolic Origins of the Canon,
6 The Corporate Reception of the Canon: The Emergence of a Canonical Core,
7 The Corporate Reception of the Canon: Manuscripts and Christian Book Production,
8 The Corporate Reception of the Canon: Problem Books and Canonical Boundaries,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This book fills a lacuna in evangelical scholarship. Rarely does academic specialization in canon studies converge with thorough commitment to biblical authority. In this work, close evaluation of the history of approaches to the canon is matched by a richly theological interpretation of what it means to call Scripture our ‘canon.’ Careful, accessible, and wise in his explorations, Michael Kruger has given us a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come.”
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California

“The Christian canon of Scripture is under fire now more than ever. Sadly, even as so much of this fire has been issuing from academic quarters, we are left with more smoke than light. Stepping into the gap with a fresh synthesis is Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited. Gracefully uniting theology and history, Kruger invokes the chief Reformed argument for canon and gives it fresh wings.”
—Nicholas Perrin, Dean, Wheaton College Graduate School

“Of all the recent books and articles on the canon of Scripture, this is the one I recommend most. It deals with the critical literature thoroughly and effectively while presenting a cogent alternative grounded in the teaching of Scripture itself. Michael Kruger develops the historic Reformed model of Scripture as self-authenticating and integrates it with a balanced appreciation for the history of the canon and the role of the community in recognizing it. This is the definitive work on the subject for our time.”
—John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary

“Michael Kruger has written the book on the canon of Scripture that has been much needed for a long time. His focus is not on the process, but on the vitally important question of how Christians can know that they have the right books in their canon of Scripture. The question is an excellent one and needs to be addressed honestly and competently. Kruger does just that. This excellent book goes a long way toward clearing up confusion and misguided theories. I highly recommend it.”
—Craig A. Evans, John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Baptist University

“Here, finally, is what so many pastors, seminary professors, and students have long been waiting for: a clear, well-informed, and scripturally faithful answer to the question of how Christians should account for the New Testament canon. Perhaps not since Ridderbos’s Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures has there appeared such a valuable single source on the New Testament canon that is both historically responsible and theologically satisfying (and this book improves on Ridderbos in many ways). Michael Kruger’s work will help readers get a handle on what may seem like a myriad of current approaches to canon, whether ecclesiastical or critical. This book will foster clearer thinking on the subject of the New Testament canon and will be a much referenced guide for a long time to come.”
—Charles E. Hill, John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“Michael Kruger has written an important and comprehensive treatment of the New Testament canon. As an advocate of the self-authenticating view, he goes to great lengths to argue his case, but he also delves deeply into the variety of historical and community-based positions. He provides an insightful treatment of epistemological grounds for belief, and debates the positions in a rigorous way not often found in such discussions. I am sure friend and foe alike will learn from this valuable volume.”
—Stanley E. Porter, President, Dean, and Professor of New Testament, McMaster Divinity College; author, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament

Canon Revisited is a well-written, carefully documented, and helpful examination of the many historical approaches that have been written to explain when and how the books of the New Testament were canonized. The author’s interest, however, is to move beyond the historical to the theological, concluding that the concepts of a self-authenticating canon and its corporate reception by the church are ultimately how we know that these twenty-seven books belong in the New Testament.”
—Arthur G. Patzia, Senior Professor of New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary; author, The Making of the New Testament

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