Review of “Canon Revisited” by Michael Kruger

I recently finished reading “Canon Revisited” by Michael Kruger.  The author answers the question, “How can Christians have confidence that the 27 books of the New Testament are the correct ones?”

Michael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is professor of New Testament and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary, and the author of a number of articles and books on early Christianity.

He discusses three models of canonicity:

1)   Historically determined model: Do the books have apostolic origins?

2)   Community determined model: What decisions did early church leaders make, regarding which NT books are canonical?

3)   Self-authenticating model:  Summed up in Jesus’ words, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Kruger offers his reasons for advocating the third model.  He says that God has provided “the proper epistemic environment in which belief in the canon could be reliably formed.”  This environment has three parts:

1)   Providential exposure: the books which God has inspired as Scripture will be available for Christians to examine.

2)   Attributes of canonicity: Divine qualities, corporate reception, and and apostolic origins.

3)   Internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The author says that the ‘attributes of canonicity’ are mutually reinforcing.

He concludes by stating that the question of canonicity (that is, which books ought to be included in the Bible) is, at its core, a theological one.  His book does not attempt to convince skeptics that the Bible is the Word of God.  Rather, he writes for Christian believers, giving them reasons from the Scriptures themselves, as well as evidence from history, that our Bible contains the books which He intended to be included.

How do we account for the fact that not all Christians agree on the precise limits of the canon?  Kruger reminds us that because we are sinners, we will not all hear God’s voice in His Word with the same fidelity.  This is to be expected.  Having established that, however, the author reminds the reader that the Church has had remarkably broad agreement on the limits of the Canon through the centuries.

I found the book to be an absorbing discussion of the various points of view of the canon and its formation.  I appreciated the fact that the author did not treat the subject from a purely historical standpoint.  Rather, he shows the reader the various theological reasons why Christians believe that our canon is from the Lord, while at the same time including a discussion of events of early church history which were involved in the process of canonization.

What is the evidence from history that we have the correct books in our Protestant canon?  Kruger does go into some detail to answer the question, but reminds the reader that historical evidence cannot have more authority than the Scriptures themselves.  Ultimately, our highest source of authority must be the Bible, not evidence for the Bible.  Is this circular reasoning?  Kruger admits that the reasoning may appear circular, but because of the nature of the topic, some circularity is unavoidable.  But circular reasoning in and of itself need not disqualify an idea from being considered true.  We may ask, “Is logic true?”  To answer the question, one must use logic.  The question cannot be answered without assuming the answer to be ‘yes’ in the first place.  Similarly, when discussing questions regarding the nature and authority of Scripture, Christians sometimes go to Scripture passages to support their conclusions.

I read a similar book a few years ago by F. F. Bruce, called “The Canon of Scripture.”  Bruce took a more historical and evidentialist approach to establishing the Canon.  It made sense to me then (and still does to a large extent).  But I do see now, having read Kruger, that external evidence that the Bible is God’s Word cannot have greater authority than the Scriptures themselves.   Bruce’s book was also a snoozer, compared to Kruger’s impassioned style.  Suffice to say that Kruger is not saying that we should not look at evidence outside the Scriptures to establish the Canon, but that our ultimate authority must be the Scriptures themselves.  Jesus’ words in John 10:27 are cited by Kruger numerous times, too many to count, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

Kruger spends a lot of ink discussing the Roman Catholic view of the Canon.  Catholics believe that Protestants have no firm basis for establishing the limits of the Canon, because they do not accept Rome’s authority to tell us what books are in the Canon.  Kruger points out that Rome asks us to accept its authority because it is the Roman Catholic Church.  In other words, Rome’s authority is self-authenticating.  Yet Catholics criticize Protestants for claiming that the Scriptures are self-authenticating.   Kruger asks us to recall that the first Christians had a canon even before the New Testament was written.  Their canon was the Old Testament, which “seemed to have existed just fine before the founding of the Church.”  So the first Christians had no trouble recognizing the books of the Old Testament as Scripture, without an external authority such as Rome giving its imprimatur.  This was only possible because the Old Testament books were self-authenticating.

“Canon Revisited” ought to cause Christians to ask themselves why they believe the Bible to be the Word of God.  Kruger gives his answer by repeatedly reminding us of the words of Christ in John 10:27, My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”  The whole book is an expanded application of Jesus’ words to the question of canon.  Reading Kruger’s book was time well spent.

About John Stebbe

John Stebbe is a music teacher from Indianapolis. He has taught music in public schools in and around Indy since 1987. John has a bachelor's degree in music education from Ball State University, and a master's degree in history from Butler University. John is a jazz pianist. John has played piano with various groups over the years, most recently with Jaden Street Jazz and the JoySwing big band. He was raised as a Lutheran, spent some years as a Presbyterian, and is now happy to be Lutheran again. He plays guitar at church, as well as piano now and then. He lives with his wife Diane, who is also a musician and public school music teacher.
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2 Responses to Review of “Canon Revisited” by Michael Kruger

  1. Hi. Very interesting post! Bruce’s book in particular is on my reading list. I stumbled on your blog through the “Roman Catholicism” tag, and thought I could shed a little more light on the Catholic view of the canon and authority.

    “Rome’s authority is self-authenticating” : I do hope he didn’t state it like that. The Catholic view is actually the historical view: that the early Fathers of the Church hashed out over the first few generations of Christianity, through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what books should be in the canon and what books shouldn’t. But for any authoritative pronouncement, Christians looked to the ecumenical councils of the Church. Which is in fact what happened. It’s not so much a “Catholic” thing as a “Christian” thing — it was the Christian Church that did this, when the Church was One and Apostolic. Whether Scripture is “self-authenticating” is a moot point: the New Testament canon was authenticated, by the leaders of the Christian Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, many centuries before Protestants came along. Whether Protestants could have put together a canon on their own without any form of binding teaching authority is an interesting question. Given their inability to agree with each other on many other issues of doctrine, I have some doubts. ;) Luther himself wanted to reject the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw.”

    (As far as the authority of the Catholic Church: We believe that Christ invested His Apostles with authority [Matthew 10:1,5-8; 16:17-19; 18:18; John 20:21–23, etc.] and promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth [John 16:13] — that He established His Church and intended it to have binding authority in matters of doctrine and discipline [which is what “binding and loosing” actually means]. And we believe, as the earliest Church did, that this authority didn’t pass away with the passing of the Apostles, but was continued to their successors, the bishops, through apostolic succession. So we believe the bishops of the Church have the authority to make such pronouncements, especially in union with each other in council. We believe the authority of the Church is Christ’s own authority, exercised through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The problem with saying that Scripture is “self-authenticating,” in the Catholic view, is not that we doubt the authority of Scripture or of the Holy Spirit — it was, after all, the Holy Spirit who guided the Church Fathers to the canon of Scripture in the first place — but that in the Protestant view, such authority is subjected to individual interpretation.)

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  2. John Stebbe says:

    Joseph wrote:

    Hi. Very interesting post! Bruce’s book in particular is on my reading list. I stumbled on your blog through the “Roman Catholicism” tag, and thought I could shed a little more light on the Catholic view of the canon and authority.

    John here: Joseph, nice to make your acquaintance. Yes, I welcome your comments.

    Joseph wrote:

    “Rome’s authority is self-authenticating” : I do hope he didn’t state it like that.

    John here: Yes, that’s how Kruger put it. The relevant pages are 46-48. Kruger asks, how does Rome establish its own infallible authority? He sees three options:

    1) Rome’s authority is derived from the Scriptures. Kruger rejects this reasoning, for two reasons: its circularity, and the lack of Scriptural support for an infallible church.

    2) External evidence from the history of the church. Kruger rejects this option because church history is not itself infallible, which would be required to establish an infallible church.

    3) The church’s authority is self-authenticating. Kruger writes that Kreeft takes this view, arguing that “the church is infallible because she is faithful.” Kruger replies with a question: who decided that faithfulness is the standard for deeming something to be infallible?

    Joseph wrote:

    The Catholic view is actually the historical view: that the early Fathers of the Church hashed out over the first few generations of Christianity, through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what books should be in the canon and what books shouldn’t.

    John here: I don’t think Kruger would take issue with that, and I don’t either, so far as it goes. But I think you would also agree that these church fathers, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance, did not simply wait for some sort of charismatic ‘word of knowledge’ from above to resolve the issues at hand, but instead searched the Scriptures for answers to their questions.

    Joseph wrote:

    But for any authoritative pronouncement, Christians looked to the ecumenical councils of the Church. Which is in fact what happened. It’s not so much a “Catholic” thing as a “Christian” thing — it was the Christian Church that did this, when the Church was One and Apostolic.

    John here:

    It’s not difficult to find quotes from early church fathers who claimed that the Scriptures had priority over any other teaching authority, including councils. And I am not aware of any ecumenical council which established the canon of Scripture authoritatively, until Trent. So the early church must have had some other method of discerning the canon, since no ecumenical council until Trent attempted to establish the canon.

    Joseph wrote:

    Whether Scripture is “self-authenticating” is a moot point: the New Testament canon was authenticated, by the leaders of the Christian Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, many centuries before Protestants came along.

    John here:

    Certainly the early church did recognize the books which the Holy Spirit had inspired as Scripture, and did so without any ecumenical council’s approval.

    Joseph wrote:

    Whether Protestants could have put together a canon on their own without any form of binding teaching authority is an interesting question. Given their inability to agree with each other on many other issues of doctrine, I have some doubts. ;) Luther himself wanted to reject the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw.”

    John here: We could speculate about all sorts of historical possibilities, but I think it’s better to focus on what did actually happen. The Jews of Jesus’ day did have a functioning canon (the Old Testament), even though the Roman Catholic Church did not yet exist to authorize it. Jesus could quote Scripture to the Pharisees regarding one issue or another, and it’s telling that the Pharisees never replied, “How do you know that verse is really Scripture?” Somehow, Scripture’s authority must have made its presence known, long before the RCC existed to tell us what books were in or out.

    Joseph wrote:

    (As far as the authority of the Catholic Church: We believe that Christ invested His Apostles with authority [Matthew 10:1,5-8; 16:17-19; 18:18; John 20:21–23, etc.] and promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth [John 16:13] — that He established His Church and intended it to have binding authority in matters of doctrine and discipline [which is what “binding and loosing” actually means].

    John here: The Apostles had authority from Christ, certainly, but I don’t see that it gets us to the place where all Christians today must submit themselves to Rome. Any authority the Church has must be rooted in Scripture. Why else would Luke tell us that the Bereans were of more noble character because they checked out Paul’s teachings with what the Scriptures taught (Acts 17:11)?

    Joseph wrote,

    And we believe, as the earliest Church did, that this authority didn’t pass away with the passing of the Apostles, but was continued to their successors, the bishops, through apostolic succession.

    John here:

    The practice of apostolic succession is no guarantee of orthodoxy. Look at all the splinter Catholic groups which believe in apostolic succession.

    Joseph wrote:

    So we believe the bishops of the Church have the authority to make such pronouncements, *especially* in union with each other in council.

    John here:

    Then why don’t the bishops agree with each other all the time? Unam Sanctum told us in 1302 that there is no salvation outside Rome. Then Vatican II tells us that Muslims are included in the plan of salvation.

    Joseph wrote:

    We believe the authority of the Church is Christ’s own authority, exercised through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    John here:

    We agree that the Holy Spirit has inspired an infallible Bible. What is the rationale for an infallible church or Pope?

    Joseph wrote:

    The problem with saying that Scripture is “self-authenticating,” in the Catholic view, is not that we doubt the authority of Scripture or of the Holy Spirit — it was, after all, the Holy Spirit who guided the Church Fathers to the canon of Scripture in the first place — but that in the Protestant view, such authority is subjected to individual interpretation.

    John here: If there’s not supposed to be individual interpretation in the RCC, then why is there a Byzantine Rite branch of the church, in full communion with Rome, but with married priests and different liturgy?

    Joseph, again, thanks for your comments.

    John

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