Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Michael Kruger: 10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #1: The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books

One of the things that really stood out for me about Dan Wallace’s blog post on Protestant Ecclesiology was the sentence “it has been long noted that the weakest link in an evangelical bibliology is canonicity”. The reason this is a weak link is not because it’s really a weakness. Someone in Dr. Wallace’s position (a) should know better than this, and (b) should not be propagating this type of trash.

Regarding (a), “knowing better”, he should at least be familiar with the polemics of it. Oscar Cullmann was perhaps one of the leading New Testament scholars in the mid 20th century. Cullmann, a conservative Lutheran, stood his ground in the face of the tide of liberal “higher critical” scholarship, and he almost single-handedly laid the foundation for the current generation of New Testament scholars whose work IS respected in the “academic” world of New Testament scholarship.

More on that another time. But it was Cullmann who most forcefully demonstrated for me the pure bankruptcy of the Roman Catholic apologetic in the world. Cullmann had written and published the (till then) most extensive documentation of the life, death, and legend of the Apostle Peter. It is Cullmann’s work on Peter that stands the test of the back-and-forth of “Petrine scholarship”. Whether or not his is the best understanding is another story, but his is the “consensus” view, that (a) Peter (exegetically) is the “rock” of Matthew 16:18, but (b) there is no hint of “succession” in the New Testament.

When Cullmann’s work was published, do you think that Roman Catholic scholars actually addressed it? No, they did the Roman Apologetic “two-step”. Here it is in Cullmann’s own words:

In … most of the Catholic reviews of my book on St. Peter, one argument especially is brought forward: scripture, a collection of books, is not sufficient to actualize for us the divine revelation granted to the apostles (cited in “The Early Church”, London: SCM Press Ltd, © 1956, in the Foreword to the article “The Tradition”, pg 57).

 Roman Catholic apologetic never changes. This trashing of Scripture is the first step in the “two-step”. The second step is to say, “Only on the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was the “canon” “fixed”. Therefore, the Roman Catholic Church is what it says it is”.

And as for Dr. Wallace and (b), the real disappointment of this article is that he, a New Testament scholar of the highest order, should not be allowing himself to be used as a pawn in this kind of Bible-trashing trash.

As for an appropriate (and really, a stellar) response to Roman Catholic trashing of the New Testament canon, kudos to Michael Kruger, another New Testament scholar of the highest order, has drawn upon some of the best thinking that Protestantism has to offer, in order to help man-in-the-street Protestants (and pastors!) to understand how this complex process came about.

Dr Kruger has produced the first of his 10 Misconceptions about the New Testament Canon:

Indeed, one’s definition of canon drives one’s historical conclusions about canon–particularly regarding its date.  And precisely for this reason, there has always been a vigorous debate amongst scholars over what we mean by the term “canon.”  However, in recent years, that debate has taken an interesting turn.  One particular definition of canon has begun to emerge as the dominant one.  In fact, scholars have suggested that we must all use this definition lest the entire field of canonical studies be thrown into confusion and anachronism. And that definition is the one that says canon only exists when one has a closed, final, fixed list. You can have “Scripture” prior to this time, but not a “canon.”  This can be called the exclusive definition.

The impact of this new “consensus” has been profound on canonical studies:  If you cannot have a canon until books are in a closed, final list, then there could not be a canon until the fourth or even fifth century at the earliest.  Thus, this definition has been used to push the date of canon further and further back into the later centuries of the church. Remarkably, then, the date for canon has become later and later while the historical evidence hasn’t changed at all.

But, is the exclusive definition the best definition for canon?  And are we obligated to use it to the exclusion of all others?  Although this definition rightly captures the fact that the boundaries of the canon had fluid edges prior to the fourth century, I think it creates more problems than it solves.

The problems with this type of approach:

1. “it seems some degree of limitation and exclusion is already implied in the term ‘Scripture.’” 

2. “significant ambiguity remains on what, exactly, constitutes this closing.  If it is absolute uniformity of practice, across all of Christendom, then, on those terms, there was still not a canon even in the fourth century.  Indeed, on those terms we still do not have a canon even today!” Especially not if we consider Dr Wallace’s model, Orthodox ecclesiology.

3. “…arguably the most foundational problem for this definition… The abrupt change in terminology gives the impression that these books bore some lesser status prior to this point; it communicates that Christians only had Scripture and not a canon.  Or, as one scholar put it, prior to the fourth century Christian only had a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts [again, citing Dr Wallace’s “authority” on the canon, David Dungan and Eusebius].  But this is misleading at best.”

Dr Kruger provides much better Protestant approaches to the Canon issue: “Brevard Childs has highlighted what we might call the functional definition which suggests we have a canon as soon as a book is used as Scripture by early Christians.  On this definition, we would have a canon at least by the early second century.  And I have argued for a third definition in my forthcoming article for Tyndale Bulletin that would define canon as the books God gave his corporate church (what I call the ontological definition).  One might say this views canon from a divine perspective.  On this definition, we would have a “canon” as soon as these books were written.”

That is, when Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, it never didn’t have “apostolic authority”. It never didn’t carry the weight of Scripture. That is how the canon came about.


  1. Wonderful article on the cannon of Scripture! This subject was the first time I, at 16, unknowningly heard a Catholic Priest say that the Bible was given to us by the Roman Catholic church in Quito, Ecuador. My Dad, a Presbyterian Church USA pastor and seminary professor did not engage with anything to add or to disagree---
    I have enjoyed the greater education of the reformed position!

  2. Hi Rob, thanks for sharing your story and perspective about this.