Kruger can be seen as a real expert on the history of the formation of the canon of the New Testament. He combines his great academic insight with a deep love for the Bible as the Word of God. This combination of academic quality and piety is a model for every biblical scholar. In 2013 a second book written by him was published on this subject. Quite a lot of New Testament scholars see the canon of the New Testament as a ecclesiastical product of the fourth century.
This view is not in accordance with the classical view on the canon. In his last book Kruger tackles the five most prevalent objections to the classic, Christian understanding of the emerging, self-authenticating collection of authoritative counterparts to the Old Testament. These five objections are: 1. We must make a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon; 2. There was nothing in earliest Christianity that might have led to a canon; 3. Early Christianity was averse of written documents; 4.The New Testament authors were unaware of their authority; 5. The New Testament books were first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century.
Kruger distinguishes three models for the canon of the New Testament: the exclusive, functional and ontological model. Each model has its merits, but the one model does not exclude the other. The exclusive model thinks that only from the fourth century we can speak of the canon of the New Testament. It is true that in the fourth century there came a universal consensus about the exact boundary of the canon, although we must stress that this consensus was just recognized. It was not the result of a somewhat arbitrary ecclesiastical decision.
Nevertheless, already form the second century there are quite a lot of data that point to the use of books of the New Testament as Scripture having the same authority as the Old Testament books. This is the functional model of canon. This model is based on the use of books as Scripture. Very important are here the witness of Irenaeus and the Muratorian fragment. The last list confirms the scriptural status of at least 21 and perhaps 22 books of the New Testament. Revelation, Hebrews, James and 1 and 2 Peter are not mentioned. Whether 3 John is included is not sure.
Kruger says that the functional model has many positive elements and provides a welcome balance to the exclusive definition of the New Testament canon. He states that also the functional model has its weaknesses. Some books that were not included in the final canon of the New Testament had at least almost the status of Scripture. Especially the Pastor of Hermas can be mentioned in this context.
A much more important weakness of the functional model – a weakness that it shares with the exclusive model – is that it fails to address the ontological status of the New Testament books. The books that finally found their way in the canon of the New Testament have an intrinsic quality not found in others. They are written by the apostles or their direct companions. That was the reason already in the Muratorian fragment the Pastor of Hermas was not regarded as Scripture, because it was written quite recently.
Although 1 Clements was written roughly in the same period as the last books of the New Testament, it was never regarded as Scripture, because its author clearly made a distinction between his own authority and the authority of the apostles. Kruger points to the importance to have a clear sight on the intrinsic quality of the New Testament books. In regard with the question of the canon he speaks of the ontological model. This model is quite often completely neglected, although it is finally the most important model.
For early Christianity the decisive criterion was the apostolic nature of a document. Pseudonymity was for them a definite reason not to recognize a document a Scripture. Kruger challenges ably the view that the early Christians were averse of written documents. Already from its very beginnings Christianity had a canon, namely the canon of the Old Testament.
The statement of Papias that an eyewitness must be preferred above a written testimony, he means that a direct testimony must be preferred above an indirect testimony. The gospels are eyewitness accounts in written form and have for the new generations the same value and status as the original oral eyewitness accounts.
Kruger denies that the apostles did not realize their own authority. The data point in a complete opposite direction. The apostles realized that their authority stood on the same level as the authority of the Old Testament prophets. Then we must not forget that all writers of the Old Testament were seen as prophets. The apostles knew that their authority was in a certain sense an extension of the authority of Jesus Christ.
It is no coincidence that beginnings of the written down of the New Testament documents corresponds with the rise of Christianity as a missionary movement in the fifties and sixties of the New Testament. The need of written eyewitness accounts, of what Jesus had said and had done, was more and more felt. Especially Paul wrote letters to congregations founded by his missionary work. The letters quite often written because of problems in the congregations were a form on extended personal and apostolic presence.
I would add that letters in Antiquity used to have a semi-public status. The writes knew that his letter was preserved, shared with others and used in other context. This means that although having a somewhat occasional nature the apostles knew already from the beginning that what they put down to writing had form that moment an apostolic authority.
Kruger rightly states the formation of the canon represented the working of forces that were already present in primitive Christianity and made some form of canon virtually inevitable. Following David Meade Kruger says that the apocalyptic nature of Christianity provided a strong inner reason for extension of Scripture. We see in all forms of apocalypticism in the period of the Second Temple that written documents were produced.
The fact, that written documents in the form of the book of the Old Testament were essential for Christianity from its very beginning, means that among early Christians there were literate people. This must have been especially true for spiritual leaders. In the second place we must realize that orality and textuality cannot be seen as opposites.
In the Ancient world an illiterate person could be intimately familiar with a written text. Texts were written to be performed orally. This is certainly true not only of the New Testament letters but of all New Testament documents. Kruger has done us a great service by giving us many arguments that ontological model of the canon – a model that is connected with apostolic authority and divine inspiration belongs to the very essence of the Christian religion.
Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the status quo in the New Testament Debate, Apollos, Nottingham 2013; ISBN 978-1-78359-1-004-9; pb. 256 pp., prijs £14,99.