Book Review: Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger
Recent attempts to discuss biblical canon have been reserved to certain types of questions. For apologists, the discussions center around defending these books versus those books. Why Jude and not 1st Enoch? Why Esther and not Ben Sira? Unfortunately, in attempting to defend this position, the discussion quickly centers around sociological and historical issues external to the text itself. Thus, when asked why these books are in the canon, an apologist will often answer that we accept them because they were accepted by the early, orthodox church; because they were the most frequently transmitted books across spectrum of the ancient church; because the early church agreed that they were authentic witnesses of the apostolic teaching, etc. Whereas this may provide a sufficient historical and sociological answer to the question, it appeals to external authority to determine the nature of the canon, whether that authority by a community which received the text or historical criteria.
In the recent book, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, Michael J. Kruger approaches the question of canon through a different method than typically presented in recent evangelical work. He clarifies at the onset that he does not intend to “‘prove’ the truth of the canon to the skeptic,” nor “merely to explore how a Christian…comes to believe that the canon is from God.”1 Instead, he intends to discuss “whether the Christian religion provides sufficient grounds for thinking that Christians can know which books belong in the canon and which do not.”2 Notice the epistemological nature of this question.
Kruger addresses the issue from a Christian worldview, and shows that a neutral objectivity does not exist in addressing such questions, for the questions themselves are theological at their root. He approvingly quotes Kevin Vanhoozer that “history alone cannot answer the question of what the canon finally is; theology alone can do that.”3 Whereas traditional discussions of canon have attempted to relegate theological questions to secondary status, Kruger attempts to ask the traditional questions of canon through a theological lens that he believes will provide a more thorough picture of the grounds for which Christians believe these books to be Scripture.
Kruger addresses the issue in two sections. The first section explains and critiques three models of understanding the canon; the community-determined canon, the historically determined canon and the self-authenticated canon. The second section explains and defends what Kruger sees as the best model; the self-authenticated canon. Within his defense of the latter view, each of the traditional topics are discussed, such as the historical origins of the books, their acceptance within the Christian community, etc.
Kruger’s explanation and discussion of the differing views are fair and the critiques incisive. If one were merely seeking answers to the historical and sociological questions of canon, then this work would be a fine resource. This book does more than present uninterpreted evidence.
Against the community-determined and historically determined models, the book argues that the self-authenticated model best comports with a theological understanding of Scripture. Kruger distinguishes this model against the other models in its grounding. Other models, whether historical or communal, ground themselves in something outside of Scripture, such as community acceptance or the rule of faith. Kruger’s proposed model grounds itself in itself. If we presuppose the ultimate authority of Scripture, grounding the authority and shape of the canon outside of Scripture makes the text subservient to something else. In response to this problem, Kruger asks, “if the canon bears the authority of God, to what other standard could it appeal to justify itself?”4 This perspective is not new, but a restatement of the Reformers’ perspective.5 The New Testament bears evidence in itself of its divine nature, which justifies its internal claims to authority.
This perspective does not reject evidences, but places them within a biblically grounded perspective. The self-authenticated model continues to study the apostolic witness, history of transmission, reception, etc. but does so through a theology of canon that arise from within the text itself.6 Thus, God’s authority in revelation does not find justification in an external authority, but in itself. Does this perspective require circular reasoning? Yes, but not vicious circularity. Since God is the ultimate authority, one must appeal to that authority in order to justify revelation from that authority.7 From within the self-authenticated model, Kruger proposes that Scripture itself speaks to its divine qualities, corporate reception and apostolic origins. All of these aspects of Scripture are revealed to the reader through the work of the Holy Spirit in the reading of the text to authenticate the witness of the text.
The second section of the book defends this model and shows how the traditional evidences for canonical authority make proper sense from within the self-authenticated model. The book refers to and uses the Reformed Epistemology of Alvin Plantinga. Apologists familiar with Plantinga’s Warrant series will see a connection between the insights therein and Kruger’s discussion of canon.8 The second section adequately deals with the de jure objections against the self-authenticated model that, if successful, would serve as undercutting beliefs. Kruger demonstrates that no de jure objections stand, and concludes that believers are warranted in holding to a self-authenticated model of canonical authority.
The greatest criticism against the book would be its sole focus on the New Testament. The Reformers did not limit their arguments on the canon of Scripture to the New Testament, and neither should those of us who learn from Kruger’s work. Although he does allude to other work being done in the Old Testament, and to the difficulties of Old Testament canonical work, he does not flesh out the implications of his arguments on Old Testament canonical studies. For instance, if the recent argument of Seitz concerning a “grammar” of the Law and Prophets that shapes both the canon of the Old Testament and the New Testament are correct, then these insights fit well into the self-authenticated model.9 According to Seitz, it was the prophetic and messianic witness in the Law and the Prophets that shaped both the acceptance of the Writings and provided a standard for the reception of the New Testament. The New Testament gives the fulfillment and continuation of the prophetic and messianic voice in the Old Testament. The New Testament was not accepted due to its adherence to a rule of faith, but the internal grammar of Scripture itself in the Law and Prophets continues in the prophetic witness of the New Testament.
In conclusion, this book immediately deserves a place among the necessary works for any apologist to own. The nature and character of the work are extremely important for modern discussions, and particularly relevant to apologetic discussions of canon. It is highly recommended, and I am thankful to Michael Kruger for his efforts in writing it.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary loves studying Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular. He and his family live in Southeast Asia where he strives to live for the One to whom the Old Testament points.
1. Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, Kindle ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012), loc 377.
2. Ibid., loc 387.
3. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 146.
4. Kruger, loc 2458.
5. Kruger quotes Calvin on this point, “God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word…Scripture is indeed self-authenticated.”
6. For a good discussion of evidences within a Christian perspective, see John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994.
7. This review does not allow time to discuss this point, but Kruger does a fine job. Also, in terms of understanding circular reason in presuppositions, see Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004.
8. This reviewer, as does Plantinga, would make note that these insights come from a Reformed traditions stretching back to Bavinck and Calvin before him, even to Augustine and the early church.
9. See Christopher Seitz, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets and The Character of Christian Scripture.