Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing The Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 368 pp. $30.00.
In his latest book, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of New Testament Books, Michael Kruger wants to know whether or not Christians have “intellectually sufficient grounds” (20) for accepting the current 27 books of the New Testament as inspired Scripture. More specifically, Kruger, associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, seeks to answer the objection that Christians “have no rational basis for thinking they could ever know such a thing in the first place” (20). In light of the confusion surrounding the origins of the canon in the early church, the argument goes, it appears unlikely that Christians can truly know (i.e. have intellectually justified belief about) what books belong in the New Testament. Kruger, however, argues cogently and persuasively that such an objection cannot withstand the weight of historical evidence, theological argument, or the testimony of Scripture itself.
Accordingly, Kruger does not attempt to “prove” the validity of the canon in a way that would be acceptable to a determined skeptic, nor does he investigate how a Christian may initially come to believe that the canon is from God. “Instead,” Kruger affirms, “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). Methodologically, then, Kruger does not build his argument solely on historical explanations for how the canon was formed. As a properly Christian defense, Kruger takes into account other important categories related to the issue of canon. Theology, epistemology, revelation, and the doctrine of God—along with matters of history—are all considered.
Determining a Canonical Model
Kruger’s work proceeds by first examining and appraising methods that have been traditionally used to determine the contours of the New Testament canon. Here, he considers “community-determined” models that argue for the validity of the canon on the basis of the church’s recognition and acceptance of specific books. Second, Kruger investigates the “historically-determined” model by which the canonicity of particular books is determined by their faithfulness to the apostolic tradition. Yet both models, while contributing useful resources for determining the New Testament canon, ultimately founder on the charge of inadequacy. Consequently, Kruger proposes a third approach—the “self-authenticating” model—that takes into account not only historical and community related evidence, but other essential criteria such as God’s providence, the self-attesting attributes of the Scriptures themselves, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Unlike the other two models, the “self-authenticating” model bears the unique advantage of using both objective and subjective aspects of canonicity while avoiding reliance on the external authority of human judgment as final arbitrator. Kruger rightly argues:
What is needed, then, is a canonical model that does not ground the New Testament canon in an external authority, but 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? (89)
Since God’s authority resides in the Bible, it is essential when building a case for New Testament canonicity to examine the very content of the Scriptures. Kruger continues, “In essence, to say that the canon is self-authenticating is simply to recognize that one cannot authenticate the canon without appealing to the canon” (91). Appropriately, a significant portion of Kruger’s book is dedicated to examining many of the divine qualities of the Scripture—its beauty, structural (i.e., covenantal) unity, and spiritual efficacy—while also drawing clues from the New Testament as to how the canon developed. These inquiries into the nature of the self-attesting Scriptures are well reasoned, thoroughly edifying, and sure to strengthen the faith of Christian readers.
The Question of Circularity
Kruger is aware, however, that such an approach may provoke suggestions that he is making a circular argument—that by judging the canonicity of the New Testament on the New Testament documents themselves he assumes what he attempts to prove. In fact, Kruger does not wholly deny the circularity of the self-authenticating model. He concedes some circularity, but it does not ultimately undermine his method for two reasons: (1) We are not asking whether or not we have knowledge of the canon, but how we can account for that knowledge; and (2) The kind of circularity involved in accounting for our knowledge of the canon is inherent in authenticating foundational authorities (92).
To helpfully illustrate this latter point, Kruger considers how we establish the reliability of sense perception. How does we know that we accurately perceive the cup on the table? We may examine the cup more closely, or perhaps ask a friend about the cup. In either case, as we gather evidence to bolster our belief that this sense perception is reliable, we assume the reliability of our sense perception in order to gather that very evidence. Kruger aptly observes, quoting William Alson, “There is no escape from epistemic circularity in the assessment of our fundamental sources of belief.” Thus, Kruger continues, “when it comes to authenticating the canon, we are not so much proving the Scripture as we are using the Scripture. Or, even better, we are applying Scripture to the question of which books belong in the New Testament” (93).
The Historical Nature of Canonicity
Kruger’s approach, however, does not mistakenly jettison external evidences for the New Testament canon. Indeed, Kruger takes time to survey a multitude of extrabibilcal texts that provide insight into the formation of the New Testament canon. Early church documents (e.g., the Didache) and the testimony of the church fathers are carefully inspected and assessed to establish that the reception of a New Testament “core” canon occurred quite early in church history. Kruger also appeals to the nature of the New Testament manuscripts and the character of Christian book production in the early centuries—a field of inquiry only recently employed to help determine the shape of canon development—to further confirm the validity of our New Testament canon as it stands at 27 books (see chapter 9).
Nevertheless, Kruger carefully avoids suggesting that agreement on these 27 books was unanimous or that the process was easy. The strength of Kruger’s model lies in its ability to account for such “canonical diversity” in the early church. Since Kruger’s approach does not rely entirely on one method of canonical investigation, he can offer an explanation that navigates between naturalistic historicism and ahistorical fideism. He concludes:
The development of the canon was not a simple affair, but a complex and often confusing process. Although there was a “core” New Testament canon by the end of the second century, there was ongoing debate and disagreement over the remaining books for centuries. Even so, such “canonical diversity” should not be overplayed. We should expect that there would have been some level of disagreement throughout the recognition process—that is inevitable if God delivered the books in the real world of history (287, emphasis added).
Despite the fact that some debate and disagreement surrounded the formation of the New Testament canon, there was, as Kruger ably demonstrates through extensive research, careful argument, and straightforward prose, a widespread consensus among the early church concerning what books did belong in the New Testament. This consensus has been affirmed and reaffirmed throughout history by the general testimony of the church, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, and the self-authenticating Scriptures themselves. Thus, to answer Kruger’s original query: Christians can adequately account for their knowledge of the New Testament canon. In his kindness, God has not only given the church his Word; he has also provided an epistemic environment in which his people can know—with glorious confidence—that they indeed have it.
Derek Brown (PhD candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a small business owner, managing editor of the Journal of Family Ministry, and occasional blogger at fromthestudy.com. He and his wife, Amy, are members at 9th and O Baptist Church and reside in Louisville, Kentucky, with their son, Colton.