Book Plunge: The Question of Canon

What do I think about Michael Kruger’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

In our day and age, there is much debate about the topic of biblical canon. For those who don’t know, that means how is it that we got the list of books that we have today in our NT? One of the latest volumes discussing this question is Michael Kruger’s “The Question of Canon.”

Now this is pretty much a book about formation to be sure. You won’t find in here a list of the history of the debates as to what books should or should not be in the canon nor will you find information on when this canon was finally ratified. (Though let me give a quick hint. It was not at the Council of Nicea.)

Kruger’s work in this book is largely critiquing the extrinsic model of the canon. This is the idea that there was no idea in the early church at the time of the writing of the NT canon to form a list of books that would be authoritative and it was largely the work of Marcion that led the church to think “Yeah. We need to establish a rule of faith.”

Kruger does admit that the extrinsic model is the most popular one and admits that several aspects of it are in fact true. It is certainly not the case that, for instance, when the Gospel of John was written, it started glowing and the church knew “Ah! That’s one of the books in the canon!” Of course there was dispute over a few books, but the extrinsic view of canon and Kruger’s own intrinsic view must explain the same data and see which explanation has the greatest explanatory scope.

It’s refreshing to hear on page 22 that Kruger writes that his model is historical in nature. In fact, one need not believe in inspiration in order to hold to Kruger’s position. I suspect an atheist could read this and disagree that there is any truth to Christianity and still say “Yes, I can see how they arrived at the canon anyway and that does seem fair and accurate.”

Kruger’s book is certainly rich in scholarship starting with the definition of canon. From there we move on to the origins and the realization that in a Gospel such as Matthew, Matthew would have seen himself as presenting a continuation of Israel’s story. There will be more on this later, but a quote said in the book is that New Israel would need New Scriptures. We could say a new covenant would need a new testimony to it.

The next question is if the early Christians were adverse to writing. Now I think Kruger might be too skeptical of oral tradition, but I also think those of us who highly value oral tradition should not be too skeptical of written tradition. Christianity, like Judaism before it, was a religion of the book. This is in great contrast to a religion like Mithraism which has left us to this date, zero texts to it.

In fact, we have a great clue in this due to how many manuscripts we have of the NT in relation to other works of antiquity. Churches also had readers who had the assigned job of reading the text and a liturgical reading would often be composed just for a church. Epistles were highly prized and passed around and as is shown in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, the passages would be quoted by the fathers and the assumption would be that these were well known. When a father recommended reading the epistles of Paul, it would be assumed the church had those epistles.

He also explains the Papias quote about a living voice. Papias is not saying he doesn’t care about written testimony, but he is saying he would prefer to talk to an eyewitness or someone who knew an eyewitness. Most of us would prefer the same today! Would you rather read a book about something like the Kennedy assassination or would you prefer to hear about it from someone who was there?

So what about the writers themselves? Did they know they were writing Scripture? Kruger abundantly thinks they did. In fact, he even quotes Armin Baum in saying the historical books are anonymous to match the kind of writing of the historical books of the Old Testament, a fascinating idea to consider!

Kruger throughout this chapter will quote from several books of the NT to show that the writers did see themselves as passing on the commands of the Lord and continuing the story of Israel. If they considered themselves doing that, it is quite likely they knew they were passing on new Scriptures.

Finally, we get to the dating of canonization. When did this happen? Here Kruger goes through the early church fathers and shows that they were quoting books that were seen as authoritative in their time and there is no hint that they were producing something innovative. It is as if they were speaking in terms their audience would already recognize.

Kruger’s book is an excellent question on the topic, though it must be read for what it is. You will not find information about what books should be in the canon as much as you will find how books were recognized to be in the canon and early Christian attitudes to canonicity.

I also want to thank IVP for providing me a copy of this book for review purposes.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Note — fans of this blog and the Deeper Waters Podcast will be pleased to know that IVP is working on getting in touch with Dr. Kruger to talk about coming on the Deeper Waters Podcast to discuss this book.