The Definition of Canon
Did the concept of a NT canon only begin to exist in the fourth century? Many would agree with this assessment, but Kruger here wants to show that the answer hangs on how one defines canon. Kruger gives three possible definitions, but instead of arguing for one’s superiority over the others, he shows that each offers something valuable to our understanding of canon. These three definitions are the exclusive definition, the functional, and the ontological.
The exclusive definition represents for many scholars the only definition. According to this view, the canon must be a final closed list of Scriptural books that cannot be adjusted in any way, therefore the canon appeared in the fourth century. In Kruger’s characteristic levelheadedness and fairness, he notes that there are a number of strengths to this definition, primarily that it captures the finality of canon and the important role that the church played. However,
Kruger shows that there are several weaknesses also. First, would early Christians have agreed with this definition and seen such a distinction between Scripture and canon? Second, what is the closing of the canon and when did it happen? According to Kruger, “there was never a time when the boundaries of the New Testament were closed in the way the exclusive definition would require” (p32). Even today, differences exist, for example the Roman Catholic and Protestant canons. Third, the exclusive definition places too much emphasis on what happened in the fourth century, breaking the continuity with the role of Scripture within the church at any point previously. Did these books suddenly take on a radically new role in the fourth century that they previously did not? Of course not, so the exclusive model implies too great a distinction.
Beginning with the functional definition, Kruger posits two additional definitions of the canon. According to this model, as soon as a book is considered Scripture, it is considered canonical. Christians have always considered some books as Scripture, so conversely other books are not Scripture. This also pushes back the date of the canon to the second century. The strength to this model is that it recognizes that early Christians did consider themselves as possessing authoritative books, even if the “edges [of the canon] were not entirely solidified” (p36).
Despite its strength, there are also weaknesses to this model. First, what of books that were considered Scriptural by some Christians but never made it into our New Testament, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and a few others? Would it be a mistake to call these books canonical? Early Christians had different functional canons, and that is even the case today. Second, both the exclusive and functional definitions focus only on what the church did (exclusive), what the canon does (functional), and neither accounts for what the canon is in itself.
This leads to the ontological definition. According to this definition, “it is the existence of the canonical books that is determinative, not their function or reception” (p40). With this model, a book is canonical the moment it is written. While this may seem like evangelical special pleading, even unbelieving scholars can recognize this definition since it reflects how the earliest Christians would have treated the books, which would have led to their functional use in the church eventually its exclusive delineation.
Kruger recommends that seeing the canon through these three lenses actually enhances our view, rather than confusing it. Recognizing each of these definitions allows us to see it in stages, not as a singular date that must be determined.
As far as my thoughts, I suspect I will have little to disagree with in this book. Kruger is very careful to not foist oversimplifications on a complex matter, and for that I am grateful. I found these three definitions as very complimentary and eye-opening. While others will not use the same titles as Kruger, and many may not recognize each of the three, I think it will be helpful to adopt his models so that I can see where someone else is coming from. For example, if an unbeliever challenges the canon based on its late date, I realize they are drawing on the exclusive model, well, exclusively. Apologetically, this model can be readily adopted and used in defense of our faith. However, these definitions are even even helpful for our own understanding of church history, as they are not just modern concepts, but actually reflect how Christians treated Scripture.
Of course, one must buy and read the book to see Kruger’s support for each of his definitions, so I hope this post will encourage you to actually read the book, not skip it. On that note, here’s a link to the book!
So what do you think, do these models make sense and help us understand the canon better?