Book Review: Canon Revisited – Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, by Michael J. Kruger

What is the proper epistemological paradigm for determining the content of the New Testament canon? On what basis can a Christian confidently assert that the twenty-seven books – and only those books – that now comprise what we call the New Testament are divinely endowed with Scriptural authority? Michael J. Kruger, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, tackles this question in his book, Canon Revisited – Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

The book is divided into two parts. The first part surveys the various proposed models of canon, reviewing what Kruger considers to be their respective strengths and weaknesses. Chapters 1 and 2 review models of a “community-determined” and “historically-determined” canon. According to models belonging to the former category, canonicity is not an intrinsic quality of certain books. Rather, the criterion of canonicity is a books’ “reception or recognition of individuals or the church” (p. 23). Chapter 2 assesses the historically-determined models (in which Kruger places the historical-critical, Roman Catholic, canonical-criticism and existential/neo-orthodox models), according to which canonicity is determined on the basis of the origins and reliability of a book, as determined by historical investigation. Kruger also discusses the “canon-within-the-canon” model, which attempts to recover remnants of authentic apostolic teaching within the traditional canon. Kruger also notes the criteria-of-canonicity model, which attempts to demonstrate canonicity on the basis of objective criteria (such as apostolicity, orthodoxy, date, etc.). 

Kruger complains that the aforementioned models attempt to “authenticate canon on the basis of something external to it” (p. 289). Chapter 3 discusses the self-authenticating model which, in contradistinction to the community-determined and historically-determined model, attempts to “ground the canon in the only place it could be grounded, its own authority” (p. 89). Kruger asserts that this model “refer[s] to the way the canon itself provides the necessary direction and guidance about how it is to be authenticated,” (p. 91). Moreover, “to say that canon is self-authenticating is simply to recognize that one cannot authenticate the canon without appealing to the canon. The New Testament canon speaks for itself. It sets the terms for its own validation and investigation” (p. 91). Kruger argues that Scripture itself “testifies to the fact that God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein belief in the New Testament canon can be reliably formed” (p. 94). Kruger thus proposes to evaluate the canonicity of candidates for canonicity by three qualities: (1) providential exposure of the books to the Christian community (the church cannot receive a book as canonical that it does not have access to); (2) attributes of canonicity; and (3) the internal witness of the Holy Spirit by which believers perceive divine qualities associated with the canonical books.

The second part of the book examines the attributes of canon and evaluates potential defeaters of those attributes. The first attribute Kruger considers is what he calls “divine qualities” (chapter 4). Kruger appeals to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which defines those divine qualities – beauty and excellency; power and efficacy; and unity and harmony. The next attribute of canon discussed by Kruger is the apostolic origins of the New Testament books (chapter 5). Kruger argues that this “reminds us that their authority – indeed their very existence – does not depend on the actions of the later church but is rooted in the foundational role played by the apostles as ‘ministers of the New Covenant’” (p. 161). Indeed, “God established the apostolic office to be the guardian, preserver, and transmitter of the message of redemption” (p. 174). A third attribute of the canon is considered in chapters 6-8 – namely, the canon’s corporate reception by the church. This, argues Kruger, was made possible by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the recognition of the canonical books by the church is itself a justification for accepting these books as canonical. This is based not on the infallibility of the church (as in the Roman Catholic model) but rather on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.

I am afraid that the best overall assessment I can give of Kruger’s book is that it is epistemologically muddled. Kruger’s central thesis is that the canon of Scripture is self-authenticating. The most obvious objection here is that Kruger has engaged in a textbook case of circular reasoning. For example, while Kruger suggests that the canon itself “sets the terms for its own validation and investigation” (p. 91), it is unclear why he thinks that those terms of validation ought to be derived from the canonical books and not another set. Clearly, Kruger had to use some set of criteria to determine which books to extract his criteria from. Thus, Kruger’s entire approach is to beg the question in favor of the New Testament canon.

To the charge of circularity, Kruger replies that circular reasoning is inevitable, since “If we try to validate an ultimate authority by appealing to some other authority, then we have just shown that it is not really the ultimate authority,” (p. 91). He gives the example of providing a justification for the belief that one’s sensory perception is accurate. This raises the well-known regress problem in epistemology. However, as a classic foundationalist, I would argue that every belief must either itself be basic or otherwise ultimately trace its justification back to a basic belief – that is, a belief that does not depend on any other beliefs for its justification. Such basic beliefs have the property of being incorrigible – that is to say, they are not subject to being corrected, improved, or reformed. Clearly, sensory perception is an incorrigible belief. While one may lack robust epistemic certainty that one’s sensory perception offers a representation of the world that approximately corresponds to reality, one still possesses rational justification for such a belief. Indeed, alternative hypotheses, I would argue, have a prior probability that is significantly lower than that of the face-value interpretation that our experiences are caused by a real external world of physical objects.

Kruger complains that foundationalism “overlooks the unique nature of the canon,” since “[t]he canon, as God’s word, is not just true, but the criterion of truth. It is an ultimate authority” (p. 91). Unfortunately, Kruger is not clear precisely what he means by the phrase “ultimate authority,” nor how he justifies Scripture as being an ultimate authority. The truth of Scripture is not a proposition with which we have direct acquaintance in the manner that we have with the external world. Nor is it an analytically true proposition (such as the laws of logical or mathematical truths). It cannot therefore serve as its own justification. Furthermore, I am in agreement with Thomas Chalmers that “We have a right to sit in judgment over the credentials of heaven’s ambassador, but we have no right to sit in judgment over the information he gives us” (The Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation, 4th ed. 1817, p. 277).

Kruger insists on distinguishing “how a person (for the first time) comes to believe that the Scripture is true,” (p. 92) and how that belief is maintained. Kruger further indicates that his intention is not “to somehow ‘prove’ to the skeptic (in a way that would satisfy him) that these books are indeed from God” (p. 92). However, I would argue that the criteria of justification remain the same whether one is already a believer in a proposition or not. If an argument is not sufficiently sound to persuade a totally rational, fully-informed, person who does not already accept the proposition, then that same argument is unsound for all other people as well – including those who already accept the proposition as true.

Another critique I have of the book is Kruger’s vague appeal to divine qualities in the Biblical books which, he argues, provide a basis for believing them to be divinely inspired. The first example of a divine quality that Kruger discusses is “the beauty and excellence of Scripture” (pp. 127-130). In elaboration of this point, Kruger quotes the WCF, which notes that “the Scriptures stand out due to ‘the heavenliness of the matter … the majesty of the style … the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof.’” (p. 127). This, however, sounds suspiciously akin to the popular Muslim contention that the divine origins of the Qur’an are sufficiently demonstrated by its literary beauty and the majesty of its style. Without an objective set of criteria for assessing literary beauty, there is no way to distinguish between those two arguments. Furthermore, it is simply a non-sequitur that a work of literary excellence or majestic style is of divine origins. 

Kruger also appeals to “the power and efficacy of Scripture” (pp. 130-132). He notes that “The teachings of Scripture prove to bring wisdom (Ps. 119:98; 2 Tim. 3:16), give joy to the heart (Neh. 8:8–12; Ps. 119:111), provide ‘light’ to the dark paths of life (Ps. 119:105), give understanding to the mind (Ps. 119:144), give peace and comfort (Ps. 119:50), expose sin and guilt (2 Kings 22:11–13; Acts 2:34–37; Heb. 4:12–13), and lead to prosperity and blessing (Ps. 1:1–3)” (p. 130). Once again, I do not believe that the divine origin of Scripture follows from these features, though I would concede that the transformative power of the gospel provides some (though not by itself sufficient) evidence for the gospel’s veracity.

Finally, Kruger highlights the unity of the Biblical books as a third divine quality of Scripture, to which he devotes the longest discussion (pp. 133-158). He notes, “When one considers the vastness of the Scripture, the variety of authors, the diversity and complexity of topics, and different geographical locations, backgrounds, and time periods—combined with the fact that the canon was not assembled by a single individual or group who could have imposed such unity—it becomes all the more noteworthy that there is such remarkable theological harmony throughout these books” (p. 142). Kruger seems to overlook here that later Biblical authors frequently had access to the work of earlier Biblical authors, so doctrinal unity is to be expected — at the very least, it is not at all surprising. Several of Kruger’s arguments in this section are very strange indeed. For example, he writes that “the entire biblical canon (Hebrew and Greek), when viewed as a whole, contains seven sections [three in the Old Testament and four in the New]. Given the biblical usage of the number seven as representative of completeness or wholeness, a sevenfold canonical structure would speak to the overall unity of the biblical canon and provides further reason to think that the New Testament canon we possess is the proper conclusion to the original books of the Old Testament. In addition, it should be noted that in both the first book (Genesis) and the last book (Revelation) the number seven plays a significant role” (p. 155). This argument resembles Islamic arguments from mathematical miracles that supposedly demonstrate the divine origins of the Qur’an. These numerological ‘coincidences’ seem very far-fetched to me. As another example, Kruger writes, “Even within the New Testament itself, there are structural indicators that speak to its overall unity—what we might call cross-references between books that suggest that they belong together. For example, Lührmann, Trobisch, Ellis, Nienhuis, and others have noted that the order of the ‘pillars’ mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2:9—James, Peter, and John—corresponds with the order of these same authors in the Catholic Epistles” (pp. 156-157). Again, this argument appears to me to be seeing patterns where likely none exists.

Kruger claims that these divine qualities are perceived by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer. The problem with this argument is that many believers (myself included) do not have any conscious awareness of an internal witness to Christianity’s truth. Furthermore, people of other religious faiths (such as the Mormons) claim similar internal experience. Kruger does offer the following nuance: “the ground for our belief is the apprehension of the divine qualities of Scripture itself, not the testimonium or our experience with it. Thus, we need not be consciously aware of the work of the Spirit for the Spirit to be, in fact, working,” (p. 103). However, if the believer is unaware of the Holy Spirit working in them to allow them to recognize the divine qualities of Scripture, then this does not offer much help epistemologically any more than the statement that we acquire true beliefs by the firing of neurones in the brain.

In conclusion, while Kruger’s book has the superficial appearance of piety, which many readers will undoubtedly find appealing, it is an epistemological non-starter. Among the book’s many shortcomings (and there are others not discussed in this brief review), the book engages in blatant and unashamed circular reasoning – upon which the book’s central thesis is predicated. If this were the best epistemic justification of canon that Christianity had to offer, Christianity would be in serious trouble. We should count ourselves fortunate that it is not.

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