Book Review

"Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books" by Michael J. Kruger

John J. Bombaro
Michael J. Kruger
Wednesday, January 2nd 2013
Jan/Feb 2013

This is a massively important and timely book. We face an unexpected foe today that, unless reversed, will harm the evangelical gospel witness, perhaps even destroy that witness within the next generation or two. Admittedly, in pop culture, mass media, and the mainstream academy, the Bible (and therefore the gospel) seems to have lost all credibility. Since no one listens to Scripture or clergy because neither the Word nor the church seems to have any recognizable’let alone respected’authority, great have been the attacks against it. There are, in other words, attacks on the Christian canon of Scripture from without.

But a very present enemy from within evangelicalism is biblicism; in other words, fundamentalist theories and misuses of the Bible's content, purpose, and authority. Michael Kruger's Canon Revisited is a serious apologetic that is both a bulwark against attacks from without and an offensive measure over against naive and untenable doctrines of Scripture and canon formation arising from within American Christianity. As such, this book is required reading for all pastors and priests, church elders and clerics, as well as seminarians and learned laypersons. It is not so much a weapon of mass instruction against Roman Catholic or Dan Brown accounts of canon formation, as against Bible-belt biblicism that has become the whipping boy of cable TV talk show hosts.

Biblicism typically resorts to practical fideism in its phobic attack on the Bible. In the biblicist scheme, the canon "just is." Kruger says that not only will this not do, but it's also dishonest in addition to being impossible. The issue of canon formation is complex and sophisticated, but nonetheless imperative. Pollyanna positions have no place in the church and neither does prejudicial caricaturing. The discussion about canon necessarily includes contributions from historical-criticism and resources extrabiblical sources of authority, but both are substantially informed by the self-authenticating content and nature of Scripture.

Acknowledging the danger of categorization and reductionism, the author frames the discussion in terms of three frequently competing models of determining the canon: (1) the canon as community determined, (2) the canon as historically determined, and (3) the canon as self-authenticating. Kruger argues that these models, when competing, fail to adjudicate the evidence each offers in an honest spirit of liberal scholarship in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The issue is epistemological. Historical-criticism has, on the whole, operated with a perfunctory dismissal of the self-authentication model due to its worldview commitments. Meanwhile, evangelical biblicism has done virtually the same thing by denouncing higher-critical and even historically determined models as subversive of divine authorship. Ideological agendists may view these positions as antithetical, but within Kruger's tripartite model they most certainly are not. There is a manifest need for the legitimate findings of each for a truly viable and coherent account of canon formation and scriptural authority.

In fact, it must be acknowledged, explains the author, that the historical-critical model is correct to remind us of the role of the Christian community in the formation of the New Testament canon. When Jesus ascended, the New Testament didn't immediately descend. There was a process, a progression to canon formation; yet not one without precedence, even a divinely ordained and orchestrated precedence. In other words, Kruger describes the genuine warrant for Christian belief in the divine origin and authority of Scripture, notwithstanding the circular nature of using Scripture to evidence Scripture's origins and authority (after all, any clear-minded thinker will acknowledge that there is ultimately no escape for epistemic circularity when it comes to assessing fundamental sources of belief).

Whether the revelatory nature of Scripture is embraced or not, a consideration of its content in light of warranted belief should be concomitant with all scholarly pursuits of the canon's origins and authority. The content of New Testament Scripture is nothing other than the intrinsically authoritative gospel of Christ’the all-authoritative King's new covenant Word’hence biblical authority and the Reformation's sola scriptura affirmations.

While the historical-critical model of canonization largely ignores the internal record and self-presentation of Scripture's own canonical nature, Kruger argues that this is a biased and unscholarly exclusion. Central to his research, then, is Scripture's covenantal content and structure. Scripture itself sets the terms for how its own origins are to be investigated and explored with relation to canonicity. With extrabiblical parallels, the Old Testament shows us that God, by his redemptive activities, creates a covenant community. He then, writes Kruger, gives them documents that testify to that redemption and serve as a permanent, reliable, and holy transmittable record. As the author puts it: "It is not just the claim that these books are about Christ's redemptive work in history but it is the claim that these books are the product of Christ's redemptive work in history’that they are the outworking of the authority Christ gave to his apostles" (110). There are, therefore, three aspects to canon formation and recognition, rightly understood: (1) canon as reception (exclusive); (2) canon as use (functional); and (3) canon as divinely given (ontological).

The book is well ordered with two main parts ("Determining the Canonical Model" and "Exploring and Defending the Canonical Model"), subdivided into three and five chapters respectively, followed by a conclusion. Of special importance in Part 2 are the chapters on the apostolic origins of the canon (rooted, of course, in the oral tradition of the gospel), as well as so-called "problem" books and canonical boundaries.

Canon Revisited would have benefited from a more robust discussion and consideration of the place of liturgy as a vehicle of gospel preservation, transmission, and authority. The same could be said for other oral components woven into the New Testament (e.g., hymns, creeds, and so forth), as opposed to concentrating on gospel preaching. Other detracting features include the failure of Crossway editors to limit the endless, sometimes pedantic footnotes. Discerning readers will disapprove of some of his exegetical work. Additionally, the author's representation of the authority of the oral tradition comes off muted as he steers away from certain (arguably plausible) aspects of Roman Catholic pronouncements on canonicity. All told, Michael Kruger has performed a major service for contemporary Christianity with a book that needs wide distribution.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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