Kruger on the canon

Last year, Michael Kruger, president and New Testament prof at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, wrote a series of blog posts called “10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon.” Here is a list of the posts:

  1. The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
  2. Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
  3. The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
  4. New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
  5. Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
  6. In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
  7. Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
  8. Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
  9. The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
  10. Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books

None of the entries is very long. My favorites were 2, 7, and 8, and I found 10’s analysis of a document from Origen interesting if not totally convincing.

Kruger argues in the second post that Christians’ belief that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, that he brought a new covenant, and that the apostles spoke for him would logically propel them to think that the NT was the completion of the story. Here’s what he said about the new covenant:

2. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant.  We must remember that the Jews of the first century were covenantally oriented. N.T. Wright has observed that “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period.”[5]  And it is clear that the earliest Christians were also covenantally oriented, as they saw Jesus as ushering in a new covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28Mark 14:24; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22, 8:8).  What implications does this belief have on canon?  The answer lies in the very close connection between covenants and written texts.  It is well-established by now that the very concept of ‘covenant’ (or treaty) was drawn from the ancient near eastern world where a suzerain king would often make a treaty-covenant with his vassal king. And here is the key: when such covenants were made, they were accompanied by written documentation of that covenant.  It is not surprising then that when God made a treaty-covenant with Israel on Sinai, he gave them written documentation of the terms of that covenant.  Indeed, so close was the connection between the covenant and written texts, that Old Testament language would often equate the two—the written text was the covenant!

If this is the background of early Christian understanding of covenants, then the implications are easy to see. The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts.  Thus, if they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents to testify to the terms of that covenant.  In other words, this Old Testament covenantal background provides strong historical reason for thinking that early Christians would have had a predisposition towards written canonical documents and that such documents might have arisen naturally from the early Christian movement.  At a minimum, the covenantal context of early Christianity suggests that the emergence of a new corpus of scriptural books, after the announcement of a new covenant, could not be regarded as entirely unexpected.

This appears to find confirmation in 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul refers to himself and the other apostles as “ministers of the new covenant”—and Paul makes this declaration in a written text that bears his authority as a minister of the new covenant.  Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they understood Paul’s letter as, in some sense, a covenant document.

In the seventh post, Kruger writes that the Old Testament, the New Testament books long recognized as authoritative (“especially Paul’s major epistles and the four gospels”), and the rule of faith could determine orthodoxy. Here’s what he says about the rule of faith, with his footnotes appended below the quote:

c. The “rule of faith.”  The authoritative apostolic tradition in the first century came to be summarized and known by a number of names such as the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), or “the canon of truth”).  This summary was used as a key weapon in the early church’s battle against heresy by church fathers such as Dionysius of Corinth, Hipploytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.  The rule of faith was a particularly effective weapon because it was oral (in a mostly illiterate world), it was relatively brief (and therefore easily employed), and it was widespread (and thus available to a broad range of churches). The rule of faith did not contain new teachings or doctrines that were not found in the Scriptures, nor was it unduly separated from the Scriptures as if they were two entirely independent sources for orthodox teaching.  Instead, it was understood to be “a summary of Scripture’s own story line”[4] or “the principle and logic of Scripture itself.”[5]  Or, as Irenaeus put it, the rule is “the order and the connection of the Scriptures.”[6]

[5] John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 120.

[6]Haer 1.8.1.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor


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