Can the New Testament Canon be Defended? Derek Thomas Interviews Michael Kruger

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Derek Thomas: I often tell my students when lecturing on the doctrine of Scripture that the toughest questions to answer relate to the canon. With recent criticisms of the canon by Bart Ehrman and others, what made you take on this task of defending it as vociferously as you do in this book?

Michael Kruger: One of main reasons I have focused my research on the area of canon is because it is such a significant area of vulnerability for biblical Christianity.  That is not to say we lack reasons for believing in the canon (I think we have very good reasons), rather it is simply to say that the average believer is not aware of those reasons and therefore is unable to articulate them. This makes Christians particularly vulnerable to the challenges of modern-critical scholars (e.g., Bart Ehrman) who seem bent on destroying the integrity of the canon. 

Put simply, when it comes to canon issues I think Christians, generally speaking, are in a bit of an epistemological crisis. They believe something but are not aware of the foundations for that belief.  For these reasons, my book Canon Revisited is a different sort of book on canon than some might expect. I am not directly addressing the question of whether the canon is true--the book is not designed to somehow prove the truth of the canon to the skeptic.  Rather, I am addressing the question of whether Christians have sufficient grounds for knowing whether it is true.  

[DT] How do you answer the charge that the canon is a human production? Is the answer essentially different from the charge that the content of the canon is also of human origin?

[MK] The assumption of modern critical scholarship is that the canon is merely a human creation--it is something that early Christians put together to serve their own needs and purposes. For this reason, scholars have devoted all their energies toward finding a natural explanation for the canon's existence (e.g., Marcion, Montanism).  This is very similar to the belief of many critical scholars that the content of these books is also just a human production.  They view the entire biblical enterprise (the content of these books, and the number of these books) as purely arbitrary. 

In response, we simply need to point out that these assumptions of modern scholars are simply that - assumptions. They are entirely unproven. How do critical scholars know that the canon was an entirely human construct?  How do they know that God had no hand in it?  For someone to rule out divine intervention would require them to either know the mind and actions of God or to know that God doesn't exist.  But, the critical scholar has no basis for knowing either of these things. Thus, it is clear that these naturalistic assumptions are more the starting point of critical scholarship, not its conclusion. 

[DT] What are the most crucial issues related to a conservative/reformed defense of the canon today?

[MK] I think one of the critical weaknesses in modern canonical studies is that Christians often have no theology of canon.  We have a lot of historical facts--anyone who has read the fine works of Metzger and Bruce will have plenty of patristic data to work with.  But, a pile of historical facts is not sufficient to authenticate these books.  We need a framework for understanding what the canon is, how God gave it, and what means God gave for believers to identify these books.  And those issues are inevitably derived from our theological beliefs.  Thus, the canon is ultimately a theological issue.  This does not mean that historical data play no role (it plays a very significant role), but that historical data is not self-interpreting.  When it comes to the canon question, theology and history need to be dialogical partners, not adversaries. 

[DT] Given that Jesus places his imprimatur on the Old Testament canon, the argument for its completion seems a relatively easy one. Does the argument for the New Testament canon largely rest on an argument of providential overruling? 

[MK] Our belief that we have the right 27 books is certainly founded on the fact that God providentially worked in the early church.  But, our answer to the question of how we know we have the right books can go further than just saying "God's providence."  I argue in Canon Revisited that God has provided a reliable means by which God's people can recognize his books (through the help of the Holy Spirit).  Part of that means is the fact that God's books bear divine qualities; they have attributes that reflect God's power and character. Historically speaking, Christians have always believed there is something inherently different about these books due to the fact that they are inspired by God. We do not believe that they are just ordinary books that God simply chooses to use (a la Barth), but that they are qualitatively different--they are living and active, shaper than a double-edged sword, dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow (Heb 4:12).  For this reason, the Reformers believed that God's people could rightly recognize these books and distinguish them from others.  Thus we could say, in a sense, that these books chose themselves. 

[DT] You seem to be critical of some of our Reformed heroes (Hodge, Warfield) in their attempts to defend the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, arguing instead for the "self-authenticating" nature of the canon. How do we defend this argument against the charge of circularity ("the canon is canon because it says it is")?

[MK] Like most Reformed folks, I am a big fan of Hodge and Warfield.  And I think they are absolutely right to focus on apostolicity as a key part of how we know which books are canonical.  My only critique of them in the book was that (a) they tended to rely on "neutral" historical investigations in some problematic ways, and (b) they did not give sufficient attention to the self-authenticating nature of these books. 

Although some have conceived of a self-authenticating canon as circular, it is decidedly not. To say the canon is self-authenticating is not to say we should believe the canon simply because it claims to be the word of God. The claims of the Scriptures are important, but that is not what self-authenticating is referring to. Rather, to say the canon is self-authenticating is to say that these books objectively bear qualities that show them to be divinely-produced books. It is analogous to our belief that natural revelation (the created world) exhibits qualities that show it is divinely-produced.  Do we not believe that "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps 16:1; cf. Rom 1:20)? In the same manner, why would we not believe that God's special revelation also bears evidence of his handiwork?  There is nothing circular about that.  

[DT] How crucial is the issue of the dating of individual books to the issue of the canon? For instance, does the continued disagreement over the dating of Revelation (late 60s or early 90s?) contribute to doubts over canon?

[MK] Dating plays a crucial role in identifying canonical books for this simple reason: all canonical books are apostolic in origin. They are the product of the redemptive-historical activity of the apostles. Thus, no book could be canonical that was written outside of the time period in which the apostles could have presided over the transmission of their tradition.  Indeed, this is the very reason the Shepherd of Hermas was rejected by the Muratorian fragment, our earliest canonical list.  The continued debate over the date of Revelation, however, is not a problem because either position has Revelation written by the apostle John himself.  Thus, it would still be an apostolic book. 

[DT] To what extent does postmodernity's deconstruction of history - i.e. that we cannot be sure of anything in the past - add to the problem of the canon?

[MK] The postmodern challenge is precisely the challenge my book is designed to address.  The postmodern objection to the Christian canon (and all religion for that matter) is not what we might think.  We assume that postmoderns object to the canon on the grounds that the canon is false (what we might call a de facto objection).  But, that is actually more of a modernist objection. In contrast, the postmodernist objects to the belief in canon on the grounds that there is no basis for knowing, regardless of whether it is true or false (what we might call the de jure objection). In other words, when it comes to the Christian belief in canon, the big complaint of the postmodernist is "How could you ever really know such a thing?  Given all the disagreements and chaos in early Christianity, it would be arrogant to claim your books are the right ones."  Thus, the postmodern concern has to do with the grounds for our belief in canon.  This postmodern question, I believe, is the biggest question for Christians today, and that is why I decided to focus on it in my book. 

[DT] Have you ever had doubts about the canon of the New Testament? If so, how were they resolved?

[MK] Sure, like anyone I have had my own doubts and struggles. Some may not know this, but I was actually a student of Bart Ehrman's during my undergraduate years at UNC-Chapel Hill. When I took his introduction to the New Testament class I found myself facing many questions that I could not answer. But, I resolved to find those answers. It was actually my exposure to Ehrman that led to my keen interest in early Christian history, particularly the history of the NT text and canon. 

[DT] I once heard a sermon that bore the title, "The authorship of 2 Peter." Is this something that you would recommend preachers do in the pulpit?

[MK] It depends. I think that we spend far too little time explaining from the pulpit why we believe and can trust the Scriptures.  We assume that our congregations are sufficiently informed about such things and that their beliefs are secure. But, of course, this is not the case.  Even solid believers struggle over these issues and I think pastors ought to consider how they can regularly encourage their flocks on these matters. Now, that does not mean that we turn our pulpits into lecterns and abandon the preaching of the Word.  The preaching of the Word is still the central means of grace.  Moreover, people's belief in the authority and truth of the Word can actually be enhanced through solid expositional preaching. For this reason, I would have concerns if the entire pulpit time was spent only on historical data about the authorship of 2 Peter. That said, I still think there are times when pastors need to hit these issues more head on. Our people need this sort of instruction and we should looks for ways to give it to them. 

Michael J. Kruger, professor of New Testament and academic dean at RTS-Charlotte, has just published a book on the canon of the New Testament (Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books [Crossway, 2012]).