Published on April 27, 2017 by Todd Scacewater

IVP, 2013 | 256 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance


About the Author

Michael J. Kruger is the President and the Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.  



The understanding of the New Testament canon is an unsettled issue. The question used to be more about which books were canonical, but in the last fifty years the question has shifted to what canon actually is and when it came into existence. The “extrinsic” model of canonical creation has become dominant. It says that the church created the canon when it fixed the boundaries of the canonical books in the fourth and fifth centuries. Another model would be the “intrinsic” model, which views the canon as arising organically from within the early Christian religion. These two models are not necessarily mutually exclusive; elements of both may be true. We should also keep in mind that these models are historical models and do not require any theological commitments. This book will explore five central tenets of the extrinsic model and suggest that each tenet is problematic as currently held, although not completely deficient. The result is that our understanding of canon should continue to shift as we better understand the central questions surrounding the nature of canon.


Table of Contents  

Chapter 1- The Definition of Canon: Must We Make a Sharp Distinction Between the Definitions of Canon and Scripture?
Chapter 2- The Origins of Canon: Was There Really nothing in Early Christianity that May Have Led to a Canon?
Chapter 3- The Writing of Canon: Were Early Christians Averse to Written Documents?
Chapter 4- The Authors of Canon:  Were the New Testament Authors Unaware of Their Own Authority?
Chapter 5- The Date of Canon: Were the New Testament Books First Regarded as Scripture at the End of the Second Century?  



Chapter 1: The Definition of Canon: Must We Make a Sharp Distinction Between the Definitions of Canon and Scripture?

To properly understand the nature of canon, we must first define it. Two competing definitions of canon have arisen in academic circles. The first might be called the “exclusive” definition. A. C. Sundberg in 1968 proposed that “Scripture” and “canon” are distinguishable, and on this basis we cannot speak of the idea of canon until the fourth century or later. This definition has been supported widely and has become the most prominent definition of canon.

But there are a few concerns with this definition. First, distinguishing between Scripture and canon is difficult—would not Christians have distinguished between Scripture and non-Scripture, and therefore had a working canon based on what the deemed to be Scripture? Second, what does it mean that the canon was “closed” by the fourth century? There has actually never been a time when the boundaries of the New Testament were closed in the way this definition requires. Indeed, the earliest official act of a church to declare a canon (defined in this way) is the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Third, nothing happened in the fourth century that made Scriptures more authoritative or “canonical” than they already were in the second to fourth centuries. Other definitions also deserve a voice.  

A second dominant definition is the “functional” definition, laid out first by A. von Harnack and Theodore Zahn and picked up more recently by Brevard Childs. This definition holds that canon encompasses the entire process by which the formation of the church’s sacred writings took place, including the collection and use of Scripture. Thus, there is no real separation between Scripture and canon.

Positively, this definition recognizes that Christians did possess an authoritative corpus of books long before the fourth century. Negatively, though, this definition struggles to account for books that were sacred to some communities but not others (Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, etc.). More difficult is that this definition fails to account for the ontology of the canon (its “being,” what makes canon “canon”). In fact, both of these definitions define canon in relation to its use by the church so that the church’s reception makes a book canon.

A third definition of canon might be the ontological definition, that a book is canonical if it was written by God authoritatively for his church. Thus, books were canonical from the moment they were written, even if they were not recognized as such until the second to fourth centuries. One might object that this is a theological definition, but what precludes us from viewing canon and Scripture in the way Christians have for two millennia? The historical-critical view is just as theological, just from the opposite perspective.

If we take this definition, we might think of canon as involving stages of creation by God, recognition by the church, and consensus regarding specific books by the church. If we consider stages of canon rather than a fixed date for its creation, then all three definitions have a place. The ontological definition relates to the creation of Scripture and canon; the functional definition relates to the church’s recognition of Scripture as canon; the exclusive definition relates to the consensus by the church about specific books that are authoritative.


Chapter 2- The Origins of Canon: Was There Really nothing in Early Christianity that May Have Led to a Canon?

Many scholars (e.g., Harry Gamble, C. F. Evans, James Barr) have suggested the earliest Christians could not have conceived of the creation or more Scriptures to be added on to their existing canon. They claim there was nothing inherent within early Christianity to predispose them to creating a New Testament canon. But there are actually a few reasons to believe that they were predisposed to it, and reason to explain why it happened.

First, Second Temple Jews considered themselves to still be in exile (Bar 2:7–10; 2 Macc 2:5–18; 4Q504 2–5; T. Mos. 4:8–9). They were awaiting God’s promise to return to them and redeem them. They also viewed the story of the Old Testament books incomplete. These two facts lead us to consider the following. First, if the Old Testament was incomplete, it needed a conclusion, which would require new revelation. Second, in the Old Testament, new revelation generally followed redemptive events. Third, the Old Testament says that eschatological acts of redemption will be accompanied by new revelation (Deut 18:18; Isa 2:2–3; 11:1; 61:1–2). So when early Christians recognized the redemption that Christ brought, they naturally would have expected new divine revelation to accompany it.

A second reason to believe they were predisposed to receive a New Testament canon is the close connection between written documents and covenant. Covenants in the ancient Near East were written as documents, often with a line cursing anyone who would alter the document. Many scholars have recognized that Deuteronomy and the Decalogue are both written in the form of covenant treaties. Thus, early Christians who recognized that they were now in a “new” covenant would expect new written documents explaining that covenantal relationship.

The New Testament does bear features of explaining and solidifying that covenantal relationship as written documents. This includes the inscriptional curse. . .

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The Question Of Canon: Challenging The Status Quo In The New Testament Debate

IVP, 2013 | 256 pages

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