The Question of Canon

Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013. 256 pp. $24.00. Amazon |Barnes & Noble | Westminster Books

questionofcanonThe canon of the Christian bible is an oft-debated topic, with numerous voices vying for attention. When was the canon finalized? Which books didn’t make the cut? What characteristics were used to judge which book was worthy for entrance? These basic questions regarding the canon continue to be tossed to and fro, with various replies for each. In Michael J. Kruger’s The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate, the canon debate receives yet another contender. Kruger writes to address the “macro” questions of canon formation, yet hopes to produce a paradigm shift in canonical studies by challenging the long-accepted “extrinsic model” of canon formation (7). In so doing, Kruger provides a remarkable response to the question by proposing an “intrinsic” understanding of a canon of Scripture from the earliest moments of the Christian faith. Such a model argues for a “natural development within early Christianity” as opposed to a “later artificial development” (17). By arguing for such an understanding of canon formation, Kruger hopes to change the way we approach canonical studies. Whether he succeeds at this task of not, his challenge against the status quo is worthy of serious consideration.

Historical giants such as Adolf von Harnack and other critical voices argued for a reactionary canon formation, sealing a canon of Scripture to counter so-called heretical voices such as Marcion in the mid-second century. Such a reaction imposed a standard upon books of Scripture, with leaders of the church dictating what stays or what goes when it comes to the canon of Scripture. Kruger, while not denying the merits of the extrinsic model, argues for canon as a concept which naturally emerges from the text and is proven by its subsequent usage in the early church. The simple fact that one text is called “Scripture” and another one is not implies some sort of canonical idea. The concept of canon, while having a specific etymological function, also includes ontological facets as well. The formation of the canon is indeed a process, yet as Kruger consistently argues, the process is preceded by an ontological ideal. Scripture is canon because it is Scripture. Does this beg the question? Kruger argues that it does not but rather reveals the early Christian apprehension of some texts as Scripture and not others.

Kruger’s erudition shines throughout the text, but its Kruger’s engagement in chapters 2 and 3 where readers will find the most nourishment. Kruger ties the redemptive acts of God in the Old Testament to what Jesus accomplished in the New Testament in order to provide further evidence for an intrinsic model of canon formation. The covenantal revelation in Christ mirrors the covenantal revelation in the Old Testament, demanding a written law, so to speak, for the new covenant community. A “New Israel” required new scriptures (53). Kruger argues for a close connection between the idea of covenant and canonical texts. Texts confirm and point back to a covenant (61). Such a connection made it natural for New Testament writers to assume written documents in connection with the new covenant (62). This explains not only instances in the NT of apostolic authority being understood as scriptural, but early witnesses pointing to the foundation of the gospels and apostolic writings as definitive of the new covenant community. The mission of the apostles makes the writing and collection of authoritative books “a virtual inevitability” (76).

Additionally, Kruger helpfully dispels the myth of early Christian communities as exclusively reliant upon oral tradition. While orality was certainly a vital aspect of early proclamation, Christian communities inherited a textual foundation inherent in Jewish worship. Early Christians, both Jews and Gentiles but especially Jews, highly regarded the written word as evidenced throughout the New Testament and various second temple historical examples. Arguments for illiteracy among ancient peoples do not therefore lead to a devaluing of texts, as critical scholars contend. Early manuscript evidence, as well as early adoption of the codex, point to ancient Christians as a textual people. The authority of the text being read to worshipping Christians, as Kruger argues, points to a respect for written texts and an early understanding for an intrinsic idea of the canon (96). Kruger keenly demonstrates that the extrinsic model of canon formation (an idea of canon forced upon the text) simply denies the consistent evidence of early Christian practice and appreciation for authoritative texts.

What Kruger does for readers is to clear the smoke regarding canon formation. While not a full investigation of every facet of canon formation from differing perspectives, Kruger helps readers to question the current paradigm in canonical studies. Some may struggle with his definition of canon as ontological. Others may contend against his argument for the covenantal necessity of New Testament texts. Whether he definitively argues for these points–and I for one believes he does–Kruger’s task of raising “serious questions about [the] viability” of the extrinsic model succeeds (209). Though perhaps not a paradigm shift (as others have argued for similar aspects of canon formation), Kruger’s Question of Canon provides the coagulant to solidify the merits of the intrinsic model. While the extrinsic model accounts for numerous historical facts, it refuses to deal with the theological and ontological reality of Scripture and subsequently the early concept of canon within the Christian faith. Canon arose early and naturally within the first stages of Christianity as a “seedling sprouting from the soil” (210). With Question of Canon, Kruger has provided scholars of canon formation with an invaluable resource. Readers of the biblical text should value the early understanding of new covenant texts as pivotal and authoritative for the early Christian community. Students of theology will appreciate Kruger’s consistent argumentation and appreciation for numerous sources, whether critical or otherwise.  Teachers of biblical studies will admire Kruger’s grappling with differing viewpoints and ardent argumentation, providing a perspective worthy of serious discourse. Question of Canon should be an invaluable resource to anyone concerned with the question Kruger seeks to answer.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a free review copy in exchange for an honest review!


One thought on “The Question of Canon

  1. Pingback: View-Worthy: 7.29.14

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