Michael J. Kruger – Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament (Crossway, 2012)

The evangelical church is the group that gives Scripture the most authority, and for this reason it is the group that stands to lose the most by getting the canon wrong. As an evangelical, I feel uneasy about how wide the margins of error on this issue seem to be. So, it was with great anticipation that I waited for the release of Canon Revisited, which sets out to prove that Christians can know that they have the right twenty-seven books in the New Testament canon.

The book is incredibly well researched – it has close to a thousand different citations in less than three hundred pages, drawing heavily on both theology and history. It begins by critiquing the competing models for determining canon, grouping them under three categories: (i) canon as community determined, (ii) canon as historically determined and (iii) canon as self-authenticating.

For the community determined models, a book is canonical because it has been received as such. This includes those coming from historical criticism who say that the Church invented the Bible centuries later; Roman Catholicism, which sees the Church authenticating Scripture; and an existential view that sees books ‘becoming’ canonical through the individual’s experience of them.

Historically determined models see the origins of the canonical books as their defining feature. The ‘canon-within-the-canon’ model affirms only those parts of Scripture which are historically verifiable while the ‘criteria-of-canonicity’ establishes Scripture through historical investigation into whether a book meets certain criteria (e.g. apostolicity, antiquity, orthodoxy, usage by the early church), a view held by many evangelicals (probably including myself).

While Kruger has numerous reasons for rejecting these models, the fundamental one is that they all place people as the arbiter over the canon, thus making them the ultimate authority rather than God. But in the self-authenticating model that he defends, the canon proves itself and imposes itself on the Church (rather than the Church choosing it). Rather than people deciding which writings to recognise as God’s word, God decides which people will recognise his word. He does this through giving the Holy Spirit, which attests to the truth of Scripture. Kruger draws this principle out of Jesus words, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27). He writes,
Put simply, canonical books are received by those who have the Holy Spirit in them. When people’s eyes are opened, they are struck by the divine qualities – beauty, harmony, efficacy – and recognise and embrace Scripture for what it is, the word of God. They realise that the voice of Scripture is the voice of the Shepherd.’ (p. 101)

However, Kruger does not want to separate the canon from his historical context, so he adds two additional attributes (drawn more from tradition than the Bible itself). These are emergence out of the ‘redemptive epoch’ of the apostles and providential acceptance by the Church. Put simply, Kruger would deny that a defence of Scripture can be mounted from a secular perspective; belief comes by the Spirit, whose work is seen in (i) the attributes of Scripture, (ii) the reception of Scripture and (iii) the writers of Scripture (see Figure 1).

The chapters on the corporate reception of canon are the strongest and the best reason for reading this book. Kruger makes a very clear case from history that the church, from its earliest stages, had a belief that some apostolic writings had authority equivalent to that of the Old Testament – this was not a later development. He argues this from the apostolic fathers, clues within the New Testament and, most impressively, from the manuscripts themselves.

While I got a lot out of the book, I did not find the overall argument compelling. Kruger does not hold himself to the same critical standards he uses when considering alternative views and many times his arguments came across as fallacious (e.g. canon is ‘the inevitable result of covenant‘) or simply silly (e.g. the unity of Bible is proven by its seven-part structure, seven being representative of completeness).

The most clear defeater to Kruger’s view is the disagreement between regenerate Christians in a Spirit-led church on the canon. If, as he claims, ‘the church’s reception of these books is a natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture’ (p. 106) the church’s reception should be perfectly consistent. But this is not what we find. The early church, which quickly and consistently settled on the core of the canon, for centuries regarded some books as disputed (as Kruger plainly shows). Even today, the Syrian Orthodox Church has only twenty-two books in its canon, the Roman Catholic Church recognises the deuterocanonical books, and some Protestants (following the likes of Martin Luther) continue to be unsure about certain New Testament books. Are none of these Jesus’ sheep? Kruger acknowledges this problem but simply responds that, ‘we should not expect to find perfect unity among the church, but…we should expect to find a corporate or covenantal unity – which is precisely what we do find’ (p. 108). But surely perfect unity (or something far closer to it) is what we should expect if the Spirit authenticates Scripture the way Kruger claims he does.

Rather, the unity that we do find is with regard to the ‘core’ of the New Testament. This is most compatible with the criteria-of-canonicity, which has varying degrees of certainty on the individual books. And it may not be such a problem to have some doubts about the canon. If the early church, two decades separated from the facts, could find space for ambiguity, then surely we who are separated by two millennia can allow for it. The ‘core’ books were and are secure, and the Christian faith is clearly established sufficiently within them. This is not to question to orthodoxy of those books outside the core, but recognises that a fallible church may, at times, need to be corrected.