The Date of Canon
When were NT books first regarded as Scripture? If you ask a modern scholar, chances are they will look to Irenaeus at the end of the second century as the beginning, due to his very clear and common statements amounting to the NT being Scripture. Some would even hold him as the “creator” of the canon as we have it today.
Kruger first recognizes the positives to this attitude. It is true that our information is less abundant and clear before Irenaeus, but must we then conclude that Irenaeus acted out of character with the early Christians and their beliefs by considering the NT documents as Scripture?
Kruger’s argument here is fairly simple: he surveys a number of writings from both Irenaeus’s contemporaries and his predecessors, to see whether they shared his view on the Scriptural status of the NT documents. Considering the majority of this chapter is Kruger introducing, investigating and quoting from a substantial number of documents, I will not survey his argument. Instead, I will list the authors and/or documents he refers to below and then give my concluding thoughts on The Question of Canon as a whole.
Contemporaries of Irenaeus: The Muratorian Fragment (ca. 180); Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 177); and Clement of Alexandria (ca. 198).
Predecessors to Irenaeus: Justin Martyr (ca. 150-160); the apostolic fathers: Papias (ca. 125), The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130), Ignatius (ca. 110), Polycarp (ca. 110), 1 Clement (ca. 96); and the New Testament, particularly 2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Timothy 5:18.
Now, Kruger does not cite these as proofs that the NT canon was settled this early; they do not serve that function. However, they do show that individual NT documents were treasured highly and even believed to be Scripture. They also don’t prove the opposite: that NT documents weren’t considered as Scripture. So it would be incorrect to conclude that Irenaeus acted out of character by listing the NT documents as Scripture. In fact, Kruger argues that in light of these documents it is more likely to see the solidifying of the NT canon as a natural outgrowth of the earliest church and their attitudes towards the NT texts. This can be seen even within the NT itself in the case of later texts that were aware of earlier ones, such as 2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Timothy 5:18.
So canonical/Scriptural status was not imposed on some documents (leaving out others) by Irenaeus or anyone else. Rather, the canon “began more like a seed that was present in the soil of the church from the very beginning, growing gradually and consistently over time” (p203).
The Question of Canon: Conclusion
The Question of Canon nicely fills a gap in books on the NT canon. Many are concerned with which books, but ignore (or aren’t aware of) the larger question of why a canon at all? I think this latter question is very important for Christians to consider, and The Question of Canon is a very highly recommended book in that regard. This question will bear fruit in our theology of the canon, in our apologetic defense of the canon, in our concern for Sola Scriptura, and in our personal appreciation and love for God’s Word. I certainly gained a better ‘big picture’ view of the NT canon through this book and have already tried to implement some of Kruger’s insights into my Theology class.
Kruger is theologically conservative, but I don’t see that really colouring his conclusions unfairly. He certainly is very careful not to let his argumentation run away with itself, and he presses the issues that are worth pressing, but is able to avoid engaging with unrelated matters. Basically, he stays on the topic at hand and doesn’t overreach with his arguments, and this results in a better book.
While I wish every believer considered Kruger’s arguments, Kruger has aimed this book more towards the scholarly end of the spectrum to the degree that I couldn’t easily recommend it to every believer. His aim is to affect modern canonical scholarship, and for that I am grateful. The consensus needs to be challenged, and Kruger does so with academic rigour. He is clearly wide read, and his footnotes are thorough. However, by nature this kind of a book will leave some readers outside looking in. For a Christian uninterested or unable to engage with the scholarship in this book, I would encourage them to listen to these lectures on the canon by Kruger, in which he addresses some similar issues. I find Kruger to be an extremely clear communicator so these lectures may help someone dip their feet into the issues.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to turn off any potential reader to The Question of Canon. As just mentioned, Kruger is a skilled communicator, and this book is no exception. Footnotes can be skipped with the heart of the book still received. I believe every Christian will benefit from deep thinking on these sorts of questions, so I wouldn’t want to turn anyone away.
All in all, I highly recommend The Question of Canon as a well written and an important work in understanding, defending, and appreciating the New Testament canon.
Many thanks to IVP UK for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.