Rethinking Canon: Michael J. Kruger’s “Self-Authenticating Canon”

As mentioned in my previous post, I will be appearing at University of Toronto on Monday as part of a series led by their Seminar for Culture and Religion in Antiquity. The title of the paper is, "What Do We Mean by ‘The Bible’? Re-imagining Canon for the Twenty-first Century." My interest in the canon has been developing over the last year through writing Secret Scriptures Revealed, reading several of Lee Martin McDonald’s books on canon (and working with Lee for last year’s York Christian Apocrypha Symposium), and in the development of the latest iteration of my class The History of the Bible.

This year the students were required to read two books on canon, McDonald’s The Origin of the Bible: A Guide for the Perplexed (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2011) and Michael J. Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), and prepare a paper comparing the authors’ positions on the formation of the Bible. I wanted the students to be acquainted with two perspectives on canon formation: one historical-critical, one theological. This is a strategy I often use in my courses, so that students come away from the classes with more than just the general scholarly consensus found in their textbooks. Using Kruger also reflects my work on apologetic responses to the recent increase of interest in Christian Apocrypha (see, e.g., “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium,” SBL Forum, 2008 and a number of Apocryphicity posts under the category "Anti-CA Apologetic"). In surveying that material, I was concerned about how the writers try to discourage others from reading apocryphal texts and, in the course of their work, often obscure the texts contents, in part because of deficiencies in their knowledge of the field. Reading apologetics can be frustrating, but there is much to be learned from exposure to other perspectives.

McDonald’s approach in The Origin of the Bible is typically historical-critical. Drawing on his previous work in the field, he surveys all of the evidence on canon formation—both for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament—and carefully determines what we can learn from this evidence. What is surprising at times is how many of the components of the narrative of canon formation have been challenged in recent scholarship—including, that Marcion valued only the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters (apparently he valued more, including the Gospel of Matthew), that the Jewish canon was settled at the “Synod of Yavneh” in 90 CE (there was no “synod” and several texts continued to be debated for a few more centuries), that the Muratorian Fragment is a witness to the developing New Testament canon in late-second-century Rome (more likely it is from fourth-century), and that the canon was essentially closed with Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter in 367 (it wasn’t; much variety continued). Though scholarly rigorous, McDonald is not entirely dispassionate in his presentation. As a former pastor he is very interested in how Christians put scholarly discussion on canon into operation; it is encouraging to read his calls for open discussion of the canon, even if this means removing problematic texts (Ephesians, due to its support of slavery) and adding others (the Gospel of Thomas, for its witness to authentic teachings of Jesus).

Kruger’s Canon Revisited begins as a direct challenge to the suggestion of opening the canon. In response to arguments from historical-critical scholarship that certain texts of the New Testament are pseudepigraphical and that some apocryphal texts should be included in the canon, Kruger writes with the express goal of showing that, “the Christian religion provides sufficient grounds for thinking that Christians can know which books belong in the canon and which do not” (p. 21). After surveying a variety of scholarly and theological approaches to canon formation, he discounts all theories that allow for human agency in the selection of texts. Instead, he believes the New Testament texts contain divine qualities—beauty, efficacy, harmony—that ensured their selection by the church, helped of course by the activity of the Holy Spirit (God, he says, “not the church, determined what would be inspired and what would not,” p.46). He calls this the “self-authenticating canon” (p. 58).

As a historical-critical scholar myself, I find Kruger’s perspective problematic. My training prevents me from considering supernatural explanations for historical events. But even if I try to put myself in the believer’s shoes, I find it difficult to imagine that the Holy Spirit would act so capriciously. If God wanted humans to have an unambiguous, closed 27-book canon, then why do we have such variety? Greek churches did not include Revelation until the tenth century, Armenian Bible manuscripts include the Repose of John (a section from the apocryphal Acts of John), and the Ethiopic Bible today also includes additional texts. Kruger does have an explanation for this, but one that I find quite troubling. Kruger believes any divergences from the 27-book canon result from “spiritual forces" that oppose the church, adding that “people often resist the Spirit by their sin and disobedience," and "not all groups who claim to be the ''church' are really part of it” (p. 199). To drive the point home, Kruger cites the modern example of Mormonism: “The distinction between the true  church and the false church reminds us that not every community’s reception of books holds the same weight. For instance, even though Mormons claim to be followers of Christ, we would not accept their canon (composed of the twenty-seven New Testament books plus the Book of Mormon) because they are not part of the true church” (p. 104 n. 49). This viewpoint spills over into the reception of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Along with his belief that New Testament writers did not consider any of the Apocrypha as scripture (though it seems they did) and that Jews did not adopt the Apocrypha as scripture (but some did! He calls these “minority opinions”), he says that the Roman Catholic Church include the Apocrypha in their Old Testament because “the Spirit’s witness was widely obscured by the church’s sin and rebellion” (p. 200-201 n. 11). Essentially, if your canon is different from Kruger’s canon, then you are not a member of the “true church.”

Granted Kruger is writing for a particular audience, an audience of Christians who want the validation of the canon that he promises to deliver. He uses scholarship, but he is not working as a scholar, writing for scholars. Nevertheless, I am interested in his views because they enter into public consciousness. If theologians like Kruger are going to interact with scholarship (even if only to denigrate it), then scholars should interact with theologians. As critics of the recent Han On Nye debate on Creation have pointed out, Kruger and McDonald (or similar-minded writers) are not going to change their positions, but at least providing one forum for both perspectives allows readers to learn from their juxtaposition.

For more on Michael J. Kruger, go HERE to watch four lectures on canon delivered in 2012, and HERE for a discussion of Kruger’s views on Roman Catholic approaches to canon formation. Kruger has published a second book on canon: The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2013)

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5 Responses to Rethinking Canon: Michael J. Kruger’s “Self-Authenticating Canon”

  1. Fascinating post. Bringing contemporary historical study of canon formation into conversation with theology (especially non-academic theology) sounds like it could be fruitful. You might find Loren Johns’ brief essay on applying set theory to canon formation interesting: He raises some interesting theological questions based on interaction with canon history.

  2. Bavly Kost says:

    Excellent post! I think the issue is made from the fundamental aspects of western Christians who hold a more rigid understanding of canon. As you mention in your post professor there are churches who are in communion with each other and have completely different canons. The Armenian and Ethiopian churches is an excellent example of how both churches who have the same beliefs have different canons of scripture. I believe the question of canon is open as history shows it always has been open. Lets not forget that during the reformation Luther himself changed the canon as many western Christians forget this point. In the early church period you had individuals such as Origen and Athanasius who had different canons. There shouldn’t be a close minded approach to the canon.

  3. Judy Redman says:

    Tony, thanks for this post. As a minister of religion who is doing research in the area of early Christianity and with a particular interest in human memory – both individual and corporate, the issue you raise is one that often exercises my mind. 🙂

    Ever two years, I teach into a module on New Testament for our local lay preachers’ training for my denomination, and we have people from quite a broad range of theological perspectives. I talk about what we know about human memory and also the challenges of translation from one language to another and what that means about the nature of the texts of the gospels and how we might therefore authentically use them. I also talk about how we might understand the concept of divine inspiration as something other than ‘this was dictated word for word by God’. One of the members of our most conservative congregation came up to me after the sessions and said that she had been prepared to absolutely hate everything I said, but she had found it really, really helpful. This, of course, says something about her willingness to be open despite her misgivings, but it also says that you can present this material in ways that allow those with more conservative faith based perspectives to engage with it in a positive way.

    I will put these books on my list of things to read when I finish writing my thesis/dissertation.

    Incidentally, I have been using your “Secret Scriptures Revealed” as my light reading book – to read in waiting rooms etc, where it’s not possible to concentrate on heavy theological texts but where I want something a bit more engaging that two year old women’s magazines. I am really enjoying it, and finding it very interesting and I think that you’ve done a really good job of pitching it at the kind of audience you’re aiming for. Congratulations!

  4. Tony says:

    Thank you James, Bavly, and Judy. And thanks for the kind words about SSR, Judy.

  5. Geoff says:

    //Along with his belief that New Testament writers did not consider any of the Apocrypha as scripture (though it seems they did)//

    Not really. Unless the phrase “it is written” or something akin to that is used, you do not have confirmation that something is Scripture.

    //nd that Jews did not adopt the Apocrypha as scripture (but some did! He calls these “minority opinions”)//

    If you are referring to the Alexandrian canon, that’s not a real thing. From surveying all the data I can find, there is one comment recorded in the Talmud of one person referencing a book (I think Sirach) as Scripture. That’s it.

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