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Book Review: The Question of Canon by Michael Kruger

Kruger, Michael J. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.


In The Question of Canon, Michael J. Kruger authors a much needed recalibration of the modern study of New Testament canon. Kruger, president and professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, is also the author of Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Heresy of Orthodoxy. He demonstrates in the text a command of the literature in the field and deep comprehension of the methodological issues involved. The book successfully offers a theological and historical “challenge to the status quo” without attempting to topple or disregard the existing research on canon.

Summary      

The primary thesis of the work is that canonical studies have begun to overstate the results of the historical-critical method. By emphasizing that canon is a construction of the church which develops historically, the literature on the topic has begun to sound as if canon is a secondary product rather than an historical companion of the community of faith. A further conclusion now developing is that canon may be an unintended or even unnecessary product. Kruger calls this an extrinsic model of canon and seeks “not to deny the truth of the extrinsic model in its entirety, but to offer a well-intended corrective to its assessment and interpretation of some of the historical evidence” (20). Drawing strongly from the work of Bervard Childs, Kruger argues for an intrinsic model that sees canon developing “organically from within the early Christian religion itself” (21). The correction offered by this model is developed along five tenets, each receiving its own chapter.

First, the concept of canon in recent studies is challenged as being too narrowly defined and limited to the completed product seen after the fourth century (though Kruger points out that in this limited view canon is still up for debate at least as far as the Council of Trent). Instead, Kruger adds two more layers to the definition of canon. First, the functional definition of canon acknowledges that before any list could recognize these documents as authoritative, the texts must have been used authoritatively. Second, the ontological definition of canon acknowledges that the texts which would be canon in the fourth century already are canon the moment after their authorship. Kruger recognizes that this definition will not sit well with some historical-critical scholars, but responds that the discussion of the canon is inherently theological and requires consideration of theological concerns (41).

The second chapter challenges the theological assertion that nothing within Christianity should have prompted such an entity as the canon. First, Kruger draws from the work of N.T. Wright and others to argue that the eschatological nature of early Christianity would have prompted Christian writing. “The Jews of this period viewed the story of the Old Testament books as incomplete. When the Old Testament story of Israel was viewed as a whole, it was not viewed as something finished but as something that was waiting to be finished” (50). Second, Kruger argues that the covenantal nature of Judaism and Christianity led naturally to writing texts. Third, given the early appreciation of the authority of the Apostles as that of Christ himself, if a document did exist that bore the testimony of such an authoritative figure, it would of necessity be viewed as authoritative and sacred.

The third chapter discusses the claim that first century Christians and all ancient peoples had an aversion to written texts. Kruger’s main conclusion is that this sentiment is vastly overstated, especially when applied to the discussion of canon. Ironically, the modern scholar learns of alleged ancient views against written texts from the authors of written texts! He further asserts that the claim against textuality in the ancient community stands against the evidence of a Hebrew canon, the literary and rhetorical skill of the authors evidenced in the texts, and the intertextual dialogue of the texts with each other and other texts. Kruger does not dispute the oral character of ancient culture, but nuances the claim by stating, “Orality and textuality are not mutually exclusive” (86-87). Considerable ancient testimony is then offered to vindicate this claim.

In the fourth chapter, Kruger discusses the issue of authorial intent. He again draws from the work of N.T. Wright among others to assert that the apostolic authors understood themselves to have “a unique vocation” (121), and that while they could not possibly have anticipated the final form of the Christian Scriptures, they certainly wrote with intentional, apostolic authority. Kruger analyzes relevant passages in Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and even the technically anonymous Gospels to demonstrate the authority claims of the text.

Finally, the fifth concern of the book is to whether any of these canonical texts were considered Scripture prior to the end of the second century. Focusing on Irenaeus, Kruger argues that the early church fathers believed that the message of salvation was “handed down to us in the Scriptures” (Haer 3.1.1). While some elements of the canon remained in dispute at this time, “We should not use the lack of agreement over the edges of canon as evidence for the lack of the existence of a canon” (163). This functional reality is apparent in the patristic writings. Clement cites the canonical books sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings (168).

Assessment & Recommendation

What Kruger accomplishes is not the overthrow of the extrinsic model of canon, but rather the supplementation of a more nuanced understanding of the subject. This book is a powerful corrective to the tendency toward overstatement in canonical studies. As a result, I can fully recommend that the work be read alongside other research in the field. Any minister or researcher who finds the world of canonical studies dauntingly cynical toward Christian faith and textuality will be refreshed by Kruger’s approach and conclusions.

What is lacking in Kruger’s book, mostly because it is outside the purview of his project, is a strong assessment of the theological implications of his conclusions. More work should be done to assess how this understanding of canon alters exegetical methods, especially the historical-critical method. If the canon is an ontological and functional reality in addition to being an extrinsic construction, then any rendition of the historical-critical method that dismisses this characteristic of the canon must make room for a canonically-rooted method of exegesis. Likewise, theologians may now be freer to live in the text without having to apologize to exegetes and historians for their theological conclusions. In particular, I am curious how this corrected canonical model will affect Gospel studies. A more theological understanding of canon would drive studies in the Gospels beyond the synoptic problem, questions of Johannine schools, or Q and the other hypothetical source documents. Instead, this new assessment begs the question: what sort of Christ requires four Gospels?