Thursday, May 03, 2012

Michael Kruger’s Criteria for Canonicity

Yesterday I mentioned that Kruger had outlined the criteria for canonicity, the ways in which “God has created the proper epistemic environment wherein the belief in the New Testament canon can be reliably formed”. This epistemic environment includes three components (From pages 91-93):

·         Providential exposure. In order for the church to be able to recognize the books of the canon, it must first be providentially exposed to these books. The church cannot recognize a book that it does not have.

·         Attributes of canonicity. These attributes are basically characteristics that distinguish canonical books from all other books. There are three attributes of canonicity: (1) divine qualities (canonical books bear the “marks” of divinity), (2) corporate reception (canonical books are recognized by the church as a whole), and (3) apostolic origins (canonical books are the result of the redemptive-historical activity of the apostles).

·         Internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. In order for believers to rightly recognize these attributes of canonicity, the Holy Spirit works to overcome the noetic effects of sin and produces belief that these books are from God.

Now I’d like to fill in some of the flesh on these outlines.

Providential Exposure to the Books of the Canon
A question was brought up the other day about the “lost” letter from Paul to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 5:9). Kruger says, “to state the obvious, the church cannot respond (positively or negatively) to a book of which it has no knowledge. Christ’s promise that his sheep will respond to his voice pertains only to the books that have had their voice actually heard by the sheep (John 10:27, pgs 94-95).

Books must be known to be corporately recognized (see “Corporate Reception” below), and so Kruger notes that “the self-authenticating model we are putting forth here can only be used to evaluate books that God has allowed the collective church to be exposed to” (95). Regarding the “lost” books, he says, “it seems best to refer to these lost apostolic writings as ‘inspired books’ or even perhaps as ‘Scripture’”, creating a kind of distinction between “canon” and “scripture”. However, “this distinction is only applicable to the narrow foundational and redemptive-historical period of the apostles and driven by their God-given function as caretakers and founders of the church”:

During this unique apostolic phase, canonicity was a subset of Scripture—all canonical books were Scripture, but not necessarily all scriptural books were canonical.

Given this distinction, the term canon may be used for books before they are corporately recognized (e.g., John ten minutes after it was written), but not for books that were never corporately recognized (e.g., lost letters of Paul). Such terminological distinctions, of course, are inevitably retrospective in nature. John was really canon when the ink was still wet on the autograph, but the church would have realized this only at a later point, after being exposed to John and recognizing it as canonical. The church could then look back, as we do, and realize that a canon really did exist in the first century even though at the time the church was not yet fully aware of it. Likewise, Paul’s other Corinthian letter was not canon in the first century, but this would not have been known at the time by the limited groups acquainted with it. Only later, when it was lost or forgotten, would it become clear that it was not canonical.

Therefore, canonical books, as we have defined them here, cannot be lost … (96-97).

Attributes of Canonicity and the Holy Spirit: 1. Divine Qualities
“John Murray reasons, ‘if … Scripture is divine in its origin, character, and authority, it must bear the marks [“indicia”] or evidences of that divinity’” (98) Kruger continues to cite him later, “‘If the heavens declare the glory of God and therefore bear witness to their divine creator, the Scripture as God’s handiwork must also bear the imprints of his authorship’” (99).

“As the Westminster Confession of Faith notes, these divine qualities are considered to be objective means ‘whereby [Scripture] doth abundantly evidence itself to be the word of God’” (98).

There are, of course, some critical models of canonicity which do not allow for God, and thus, they would not accept this aspect of Kruger’s argument as evidence. But for those who do believe in God, for those who have “prior theological convictions” about what Scripture is, - if God is speaking, then one could not expect otherwise than that he created an “ear to hear” what he is saying. That’s the point of this section.

On the other hand, it may be asked, if God is reliably speaking, “how is it that so many people do not receive” what he is saying?

The answer is that, because of the noetic effects of sin, the effects of sin on the mind (Rom. 3:10-18), one cannot recognize [the divine imprint] without the testimonium spiritus sancti internum, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (Calvin’s Institutes, 1.7.4-5; 3:1.1-3; 3.2.15, 33-36). The Holy Spirit not only is operative within the canonical books themselves (providing the “marks” of divinity noted above), but also must be operative within those who receive them. The testimonium is not a private revelation of the Spirit or new information given to the believer – as if the list of canonical books were whispered in our ears – but it is a work of the Spirit that overcomes the noetic effects of sin and produces the belief that the Scriptures are the word of God. The reson some refuse to believe the Scriptures is not that there is any defect or lack of evidence in the Scriptures (the indicia are clear and objective) but that those without the Spirit do not accept the things from God (1 Cor 2:10-14, pgs 99-100).

In a footnote, Kruger notes that there has been confusion on this point. “For this reason the term testimony has been confusing and led some to think that the Spirit is telling us some new revelation. Aquinas uses the more helpful “inward instigation” of the Holy Spirit, and refers the reader to Plantinga’s discussion in Warranted Christian Belief, pgs 249 ff.

[Steve Hays goes into quite a bit of detail about God having embedded himself in the world and in his Word, in this article of his: Why I Believe: A Positive Apologetic.]

Attributes of Canonicity and the Holy Spirit: 2. Corporate Reception
“In all of this discussion, we would be mistaken to think of the recognition of the canon as happening only on a personal and individualistic level (which is perhaps partly why it has seemed subjective to some)” (103).

Kruger says “there are good biblical reasons to think that the testimonium would result in a corporate, or covenantal, reception of God’s word”. This would not – and did not – lead to absolute unity regarding the canon. But throughout the ages, he says, there likely would be – and there has been – “predominant” unity. And he gives three reasons why we should expect that this should be so:

1. God’s redemptive pattern has not simply to redeem individuals, but to redeem a people, a church for himself. And when God, by his redemptive activity, creates covenant community, then he gives them covenant documents that testify to that redemption.

2. “If we affirm the efficacy of the testimonium on an individual level, why should we be less willing to affirm its efficacy on the corporate-covenantal level?” That is, God is not the author of confusion. We should expect that, if he is adequately leading the individuals in his community then the community as a whole ought to be moving in the right direction. (This works in reverse, too).

3. Quoting Stonehouse, “although the church lacks infallibility, its confession with regard to the Scriptures represents not mere opinion but an evaluation which is valid as derived from, and corresponding with, the testimony of the Scriptures to their own character. The basic fact of canonicity remains, then, the testimony which the Scriptures bear to their own authority. But the historian of the canon must recognize the further fact that the intrinsic authority established itself in the history of the church through the government of its divine head”. That would be Christ leading the church. More on this “evaluation” later.

“The role of the church is like a thermometer, not a thermostat. Both instruments provide information about the temperature in the room – but one determines it and one reflects it.”

Attributes of Canonicity and the Holy Spirit: 3. Apostolic Origins
“In regard to the establishment of the new covenant, the message of redemption in Jesus Christ was entrusted to the apostles of Christ, to whom he gave his full authority and power”. So the apostles are “the link between the redemptive events themselves [Christ’s life, death, and resurrection] and the subsequent announcement of those events. … Thus, the New Testament canon is not so much a collection of writings by apostles, but a collection of apostolic writings – writings that bear the message of the apostles and derive from the foundational apostolic era” (109).

The books of the New Testament, thus, are “not only about Christ’s redemptive work in history … but that these books are the product of Christ’s redemptive work in history – that they are the outworking of the authority Christ gave to his apostles to lay down the permanent foundation for the church” (110).  

Roman Catholics link apostolic succession with canonicity (see, for example, then Fr Joseph Ratzinger’s 1962 article Primacy, Episcopacy, and Successio Apostolica, in the recently reprinted God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, and Office, but the writings of the Apostles came during the first century, and the concept of apostolic succession came during the second century. It’s important to state clearly here that, once a foundation is set and fixed, then anything built on top of it is no longer foundation. This is, of course a metaphor, but it is an adequate one here to say that, while the Apostolic writings (the New Testament) were “foundational”, it has largely been agreed that the concepts of “monarchical bishop” and “apostolic succession” were second century developments and not a foundational part of the church.

* * *

These, then, are the criteria that Kruger lays out as criteria for canonicity for the New Testament books, according to what he calls “the self-authenticating model”. This is a positive statement of his views; he provides greater detail into all these elements, and responds to objections, in other parts of the book. 


  1. John what happened to the NT Canon thread that you started on CA? I was going to post there today but the thread has apparently disappeared.

  2. Evidently I said too many bad things about the Catholic Church, and they closed my account.

    Feel free to post comments here.