Book Review: The Question of Canon

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

Michael J. Kruger

(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013, 256pp.)

The Question of Canon (QC) is the latest book by Dr. Michael J. Kruger, President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Like Dr. Kruger’s previous book Canon Revisited (CR), QC is essential reading for pastors and theological students.

In the Introduction, Kruger sets forth the focus of the book. Unlike CR which demonstrated the criteria used in specifying which books are considered canonical, QC deals with the very “existence” of canon. According to Kruger, while the validity of the canon’s boundaries is still an area of concern, the attention has shifted to the validity of the canon’s very existence. The question now is, why is there a New Testament at all?”(17) He introduces two approaches to the question of canon, the extrinsic model and the intrinsic model. The extrinsic model assumes that “the idea of canon was, to some degree, imposed upon the Christian faith” (18). The preferred model and that which is defended in the remainder of the book, is the “intrinsic model.” He explains, “This model suggests that the idea of canon is not something imposed from the outside but develops more organically from within the early Christian religion itself” (21). He ends the Introduction by stating the purpose for the book: it is not to prove the intrinsic model but to show the problems with the five tenets employed by the extrinsic model. The five tenets are: one, there is a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon; two, there was nothing in earliest Christianity that might have led to a canon; three, early Christians were averse to written documents; four, the NT authors were unaware of their own authority; and five, the NT books were first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century (23-24). The five tenets are each dealt with in subsequent chapters by Kruger and in each instance, he shows the problematic nature of the extrinsic model.

The first chapter is concerned with the definition of canon. Kruger says there are three ways to look at the definition. In the first place, the exclusive definition describes canon as a fixed, final and closed list of books. Secondly, the functional definition of the canon refers to “the entire process by which the formation of the church’s sacred writings took place” (34, quoting Brevard Childs). This means that the term canon can be used as soon as a book is regarded as Scripture (35). Thirdly, the ontological definition focuses on what the canon is “in and of itself, namely the authoritative books that God gave his corporate church” (40). Kruger highlights the benefits of definitions one and two, but also indicates the shortcomings. Kruger favors the third definition and argues persuasively for its adoption.

In chapter 2, the origins of canon are discussed. He asks the question as to the theological matrix of first-century Christianity and whether or not there was a favorable climate to the growth of a new revelational deposit (48). In the remainder of chapter 2 he answers in the affirmative. Firstly, the eschatological nature of the early Christianity argues for the growth of such a deposit. First-century Christians viewed the OT as incomplete; the promises were to find fulfillment and they did so in the coming of the Lord Jesus. Secondly, the concept of covenant in early Christianity argues for the growth of such a deposit. The people of God have always been a people of the book. The Old Covenant was accompanied by written texts; so was the New Covenant. Kruger highlights some of the similarities between the written texts of the Old and New Covenants; a very helpful section for those committed to covenant theology. Thirdly, the role of the apostles in early Christianity argues for the growth of such a deposit. The apostles were invested with the authority of Christ himself, and as a result, they were his “authorized agents to deliver and transmit the new message of redemption” (77).

In chapter 3, the writing of canon is discussed. He quotes several scholars who argue that early Christians were so inclined to an “oral” form of religion, that they would have been hesitant to “place value on written documents” (79). Kruger deals with the three arguments proffered by such proponents. First, the argument from the socio-historical background: early Christianity was an oral culture. He shows that orality and textuality are not mutually exclusive. He then proves that early Christianity was in fact textual in nature. Secondly, the argument from testimony: early Christians expressly stated their aversion to writing. Kruger discusses Papias and Paul and shows that this second objection does not stand muster. Thirdly, the argument from eschatology: early Christians expected the imminent return of Christ. Kruger shows that this objection is also without foundation: even if the early Christians expected an imminent return, it does not necessarily inhibit literary production.

In chapter 4, the authors of canon are discussed. Those who challenge the question of canon assert that the apostles did not have an awareness of their role in the revelational process. Kruger states the thesis of chapter 4, “the New Testament authors, generally speaking, demonstrate awareness that their writings passed down authentic apostolic tradition and therefore bore supreme authority in the life of the church” (121). He then briefly discusses key passages in the Pauline letters, the Gospels, and other New Testament writings. He demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the NT authors had a conscious awareness of their role in the revelational process. He ends the chapter by stating, “Thus, the existence of a new covenantal deposit of books was not due simply to Marcion’s heresies or to later church politics [theories propounded in the extrinsic model], but to the intentional activities of the New Testament writers themselves” (154).

In chapter 5, the date of the canon is addressed. The proponents of the extrinsic model point specifically to statements made by Irenaeus. Kruger explains, “The reason for this focus on the end of the second century is not hard to find. It is at this point that the major figure Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, offers some of the clearest and most comprehensive statements on the canon to date” (156-157). Kruger discusses the particular statements of Irenaeus and then looks at other key evidence, contemporaries of Irenaeus. Here, Kruger appeals to the Muratorian fragment, Theophilus of Antioch, and Clement of Alexandria. Kruger states,

 Thus, we see a clear pattern emerging. At the end of the second century, it appears that Irenaeus is not alone. According to the Muratorian fragment, Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria (not to mention Tatian) – influential and geographically diverse sources at the end of the second century – there was a core collection of scriptural books in place that the church fathers themselves did not view as newly established. (169)

He then cites from Justin Martyr, the apostolic fathers, and the NT documents themselves to show that predecessors to Irenaeus recognized canonical Scriptures, early in the second century and even in the middle to late first century. In the conclusion to chapter 5, Kruger reminds the reader, “One should also not forget that the evidence above is not just from a single church father, but from a variety of sources spread over a number of different regions. While any individual piece of evidence might be contested or questioned, it is the extent of the evidence that proves to be the compelling factor” (203).

Kruger ends with a helpful conclusion that summarizes the preceding chapters very well. He rehearses the five tenets that were given in the introduction and discussed in chapters 1-5. He gives in brief compass a helpful summary of why these tenets of the extrinsic model are problematic.

The church is indebted to Dr. Kruger. Pastors especially should avail themselves of both QC and CR (in that order in my opinion) as the question of canon “is at the very center of how biblical authority is established.” (CR, 16) The church will continue to be challenged concerning their sacred writings and it is certainly the responsibility of those pastors who serve on the front lines to be able to give a defense to whoever asks, whether questions come from the atheist professor at the local university, or the eight year old in Sunday School.

(This review was published in the 2015 Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies and used with permission. For more information about the Journal, go to Reformed Baptist Academic Press at www.rbap.net.)

Book Review: Canon Revisited

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books

Michael J. Kruger

(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012, 362pp.)

Dr. Michael J. Kruger currently serves as President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. His book Canon Revisited (CR) is an excellent work that deserves attention by all Reformed Baptist pastors and theological students. The average reading layman in one of our churches would also richly benefit from this work.

In the Introduction, Kruger highlights the necessity for his work on the canon. The issue he addresses in the book is how the Christian can know that the twenty-seven books that comprise the New Testament are in fact the right books. He rightly understands what is at stake in the discussion of canon: “The question of the canon, therefore, is at the very center of how biblical authority is established” (16). He alerts the reader to several factors that produce continued interest in the question of canon, and then indicates the strategy of the book. Kruger does not attempt to “prove” the truth of the canon that would be persuasive to the skeptic (21). Rather, the focus of the book is accounting for the knowledge of the canon that the church possesses (21). In my estimation, Kruger ably accomplishes his goal and provides a great deal of data that both encourages the reader and enables the reader to engage those who question the canon.

In Part I, Kruger surveys the different approaches to the question of canon in the history of the church. He rightly identifies that a study of canon occurs in a larger context. As he points out in the Introduction,

In particular, too little attention has been given to understanding overarching canonical models that often determine one’s definition of canon in the first place. A canonical model is just a way of describing a particular canonical system, if you will, which includes the broader methodological, epistemological, and yes, even theological frameworks for how canon is understood, and, most importantly, how canon is authenticated. (28)

In chapters 1 and 2, Kruger offers a description and evaluation of the community determined model and the historically determined model. He gives a general description of the community determined approaches to the canon “as something that is, in some sense, established or constituted by the people–either individually or corporately–who have received these books as Scripture” (29-30). Canonicity is not something inherent in the books, but rather it is something imposed on the books by the community. This position leads to the idea that the church determined, rather than recognized, the canonical books. The historically determined models “deny that the Christian community’s reception of the canon is definitive in establishing its authority and instead seek to establish it by critically investigating the historical merits of each of the canonical books.” (67)

Kruger includes the community and history models in his preferred model, but he points out the limits of each if considered in isolation from other considerations.

In chapter 3, Kruger deals with the canon as self-authenticated model. After describing what is and what is not involved in the concept of a self-authenticating model, he then discusses the components of it which include providential exposure of the New Testament books and the attributes of canonicity and the Holy Spirit. The attributes of canonicity that Kruger highlights are the divine qualities intrinsic in the canonical books, corporate reception of the books, and the apostolic origins of the books. He draws some implications and ends the chapter by considering some “potential defeaters” of the self-authenticating model. These potential defeaters are: first, the challenge to divine qualities (i.e., apparent disagreements and/or contradictions between Testament books); second, the challenge to apostolic origins (i.e., a number of New Testament books were not written by apostles); third, the challenge to corporate reception (i.e., there was widespread disagreement in the early church that lasted well into the fourth century and beyond). The remainder of the book explains and defends the self-authenticating model and highlights various inconsistent methods along the way.

In Part 2, chapter 4, Kruger begins his explanation and defense with a consideration of the divine qualities of the canon. He writes: “Of all the attributes of canonicity, the divine qualities of Scripture are the least discussed in modern canonical studies. Most scholars prefer to devote their energies to the corporate reception of the books, or perhaps to their apostolic origins, but attention is rarely given to their divine qualities.” (125)

The gist of the argument is simple: What qualities does the Bible possess which indicate its divine origin and how are these qualities considered with reference to the question of “which books are in the canon?” Appealing to WCF 1:5 (so too 2nd LCF 1:5), Kruger highlights these qualities, such as the beauty and excellency of Scripture, the power and efficacy of Scripture, and the unity and harmony of Scripture. The chapter reinforces the notion that ought to be obvious: one’s theological convictions will certainly factor in to the way one approaches the question of canon.

In chapter 5, Kruger turns his attention to the issue of the apostolic origins of the canon. The chapter is not only excellent in terms of the overarching discussion of canon, but it is a good primer on covenant theology. He sets forth three helpful categories for his discussion: the structural framework for canon is covenant; the rationale for canon is redemption; and the agents of canon are the apostles. Building on the work of Meredith G. Kline’s Structure of Biblical Authority and others, Kruger effectively proves that “the historical-theological matrix of the first century made it the ideal environment out of which a new scriptural deposit could emerge” (193).

In chapters 6-8, Kruger treats the corporate reception of the canon. He considers the emergence of a canonical core in chapter 6, the issue of manuscripts and Christian book production in chapter 7, and problem books and canonical boundaries in chapter 8. His survey of both the biblical data and the apostolic fathers in chapter 6 is extremely helpful in showing that “a number of New Testament writings, largely by virtue of their apostolic connections, were recognized and received as authoritative from a very early time, so that by the middle of the second century there appears to be a “core” of New Testament canon widely recognized by early Christians.” (231)

His discussion of manuscripts and Christian book production in chapter 7 is fascinating. His treatment of 2 Timothy 4:13 is most interesting when he concludes that “one of the most compelling possibilities” is that the notebooks Paul wanted Timothy to deliver to him, “contained (among other things) copies of Paul’s own letters” (253, emphasis his). The chapter furtherer strengthens his conclusion concerning the reception of the canonical books early on in the church. He effectively handles the problem books and canonical boundaries in chapter 8.

The book ends with a very helpful conclusion that summarizes the entire argument. As well, Kruger draws some very helpful implications as a result of the study. In the first place, he notes that there is a great deal of common ground between the various canonical models. He notes: “Canon has an ecclesiological dimension, a historical dimension, and an aesthetic/internal dimension. It is when a single aspect of canon is absolutized at the expense of the others that distortions inevitably arise.” (293)

Secondly, “the decisive issue in canonical studies is one’s ontology of canon” (293). He writes that “the canon is, at its core, a theological issue” (294). He admits that this tenet is unlikely to be welcomed by the broader world of critical scholarship, but as he argues in the book, it is inevitable that one’s theology will affect one’s study of canonicity. The final implication necessarily follows, “Christians have intellectually sufficient grounds for claiming that they know which books belong in the New Testament” (295).

The canon as self-authenticating model he explains and defends provides a full-orbed treatment to the question of canon. As well, it provides a system of checks and balances which serves to protect the integrity of the canon. The book is well written, rigorously argued, stimulating and enjoyable to read, though it does demand careful attention by the reader. Above all, it honors the Scriptures as the God-breathed word. On a practical level, the Bible as the word of God is everything in Christianity. Questions concerning the Scriptures must be treated with care and precision. The question of canon is fundamental and an oft-recurring one. Kruger provides fodder for pastors who deal with questions concerning the canon of Scripture, whether those questions are asked by teenagers in the context of the local church, or atheists who are fundamentally opposed to the concept of canon at all. The self-authenticating model presented in CR will greatly assist the man of God in defending the word of God.

(This review was published in the 2014 Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies and used with permission. For more information about the Journal, go to Reformed Baptist Academic Press at www.rbap.net.)

Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine by J.V. Fesko

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is foundational to biblical Christianity.  The doctrine has been a constant target of heretics and was central to the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  A study of church history shows that the attack upon the doctrine did not cease after Paul wrote to the Galatians.  The church therefore has had to contend earnestly for the truth of justification and Dr. Fesko has provided the church with an excellent resource to aid her in the presentation, defense, and propagation of the doctrine.  The book is comprehensive in its scope and details the various aspects of the doctrine, namely the doctrine considered historically, exegetically, and theologically.

In chapter 1, Dr. Fesko sets forth justification in church history.  He deals with the patristic era (100-600) under the following subsections:  the Augustine-Pelagius debate, semi-Pelagianism and later Augustinianism.  He then treats the Middle Ages (600-1500) giving specific attention to Aquinas, Scotus, and broader theological developments.  The third section of the historical development is the Reformation and Post-Reformation era (1517-1700).  He ably handles Luther, Calvin, the counter-reformation, and post-reformation era.  The section on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries proved especially helpful as Fekso highlights some inconsistency in Jonathan Edwards.  He finishes the historical survey with the twentieth century to the present and deals specifically with Barth, Bultmann and Kasemann, and the New Perspective on Paul.

The second chapter deals with matters concerning prolegomena.  There is an area where I disagree with the author’s treatment.  He emphasizes that “Reformed theology has recognized that theological language about God is not univocal but ultimately analogical” (p.62).  On p.65 he rightly points out, “Because soteriology, and more specifically justification, is inextricably bound with Christology in the concrete reality of the incarnation.”  When comparing these two statements though, I wonder if we only know the “concrete reality of the incarnation” analogically?  This difference notwithstanding, Fesko competently shows that justification is not one “among many metaphors of our redemption” (p.91) but that it is “at the center of Paul’s thought” (p.92).

After a helpful discussion of the structure of redemptive history (chapter 3), Fesko then addresses specific theological issues relative to justification.  Chapter 4 is an excellent presentation and defense of the covenant of works.  After some introductory and definitional comments on covenant, Fesko sets forth an able treatment of covenant in Genesis 1-3 with appeals to other passages for support (i.e., Gen. 6:18; Hos. 6:7; Rom. 5:12-19).  As Fesko says later on in the book, “as we have seen throughout our study, one’s soteriology must begin with a consideration of protology” (p.401) and his treatment of Adam in the Garden is stimulating.  The first Adam was a type and under the covenant of works.  The last Adam was the antitype who fulfilled the covenant works and secured the redemption of His people.

Chapter 5 naturally leads to “Justification and the Work of Christ.”  Fesko shows how Christ completed the dominion mandate (1 Cor. 15:20-28) and through His obedience laid the foundation for justification.  Since the opponents of justification by faith alone have vigorously attacked the covenant of works and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, Fesko provides a welcomed antidote with which to combat the detractors.  His treatment of the active and passive obedience of Christ is both biblical and confessional and will stand the scrutiny of the gainsayers.

In chapter 6, Fesko takes up “Justification in its Historical Context” and basically disposes with the historical revisionism of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright with their insistence on covenantal nomism in second temple Judaism.  Pertinent to this theme, Fesko sets forth a historically accurate and exegetically sound interpretation of Paul’s use of “works of the law.”  Fesko rejects the notion that justification was for Paul an ecclesiastical (or sociological) concern and sides with the Protestant reformers (and Paul) who defined justification as the answer to the question as to how a sinful man can stand before a holy God.

In chapter 7, Fesko highlights the nature of justification by faith alone.  Through methodical and thorough exegesis of relevant passages, Fesko demonstrates the accuracy of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s emphases concerning justification:  1) it is by faith alone, 2) it involves the remission of sins, and 3) it entails the imputation of righteousness.  There are certain things that happen in history that should not try and be improved upon, and one of those things is question and answer #33 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Fesko does not try and improve upon, but he ably demonstrates the exegetical foundation for the divine’s definition.

In chapter 8, Fekso takes on “Justification and the New Perspective on Paul” which should be of great benefit to Reformed Baptists.  N.T. Wright is embraced by a large number of evangelicals and reformed people alike.  I have personally heard people say, “I know he gets justification wrong, but he sure does a great job with the gospels.”  I believe as Reformed Baptists we should go with those who are good with the gospels AND get justification right.  Fesko’s book is a helpful antidote to the New Perspective on Paul and its “presbyterian” cousin, the Federal Vision.  Fesko’s point is well stated on pp.235-236, “Justification, therefore, is not about the vindication of the people of God before the world as Wright maintains.  Rather it is about the verdict that God passes upon the person who stands in his presence, the verdict of guilty or innocent.”  Amen and amen.

In chapters 9-11, Fesko treats justification relative to other doctrines in the ordo salutis.  Chapter 9 is an excellent treatment of “Justification and Imputation” where the author deals with all of the relevant texts.  The opponents of imputation (Wright) miss the doctrine in 2 Cor. 5:21 and neglect Rom. 5:17-19 in the discussion of imputation.  Fesko provides thorough exegesis which establishes the biblical foundation for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people.  In chapter 10, Fesko treats “Justification and Union with Christ” and shows the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed view with reference to the placement of union with Christ.  Fesko argues that union with Christ undergirds the entirety of the ordo salutis.  Chapter 11 is an able explanation of the connection between “Justification and Sanctification” with attention given to James 2:14-26 (p.291ff.).

Chapter 12 is intriguing as Fesko deals with “Justification and the Final Judgment.”  He shows that justification does not straddle over the already – not yet, but that “the one declaration of justification in the present is revealed in the future by means of the resurrection” (p.323).  He goes on to say,

“In other words, it is not that justification has two parts, present and future, but rather that it has two levels of publication, the resurrection according to the inner and outer man, or in terms of the ordo      salutis, justification and glorification.  When the believer is justified by faith alone, he is immediately  raised with Christ.”  (323)

The opponents of the biblical doctrine of forensic justification speak of “final justification” or “eschatological justification” which usually means there is a place for our works in the completion of our justification.  Fesko however, maintains “the unity of the parousia—resurrection—final judgment,” and thus “preserves the eschatological nature of justification and that the believer’s righteousness in the present is revealed by the resurrection on the last day” (331).

Chapters 13-15 take up the doctrine of justification relative to the church.  In chapter 13, Fesko explores justification from a pastoral perspective and how it relates to the corporate body, missions, pastoral counseling, and baptism.  I was in agreement with his section on baptism until of course he includes infants.  In explaining baptism relative to infants, Fesko writes,

“This means that when an infant is baptized, the grace exhibited in baptism becomes effectual to his salvation after his justification by faith alone, and his faith is further strengthened as he witnesses others who are baptized.”

It is unfortunate that he cannot have his faith strengthened by witnessing his own baptism.  Chapters 14 and 15 deal with justification and the Romans Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church respectively.  Both chapters are very helpful and further demonstrate the need for Protestants to have a biblical and confessional understanding of this great doctrine.

Dr. Fesko has done the church a great service with “Justification:  Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.”  The book has staying power as it deals with an on-going threat to the church of Christ.  Whether the opponents are the Judaizers, the Pelagians, the Roman Catholics, the New Perspective on Paul, or the Federal Vision, the net result is the same:  an attempt is made to distort the truth that in an act of God’s free grace, He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.  Dr. Fesko helps us to respond to the threat.