Review in the Record of the Free Church of Scotland (April 2014)
This volume by the Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, is sub-titled ‘Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate’. The status quo roughly is that the canon of the New Testament was a creation of the church in the fourth century, or a short time before then, and that certain writings from the first century or thereabouts were selected for inclusion while other valid writings were omitted.
The author discusses some evidences that show the first-century church could have known about the canon as we have it. This involves (1) a consideration of the possible expectations of Second Temple Judaism for further divine revelation, (2) of indications in the Old Testament that additional divine words would be given, (3) the new covenant relationship with God included specific written texts from him, and (4) the role of Christ’s chosen apostles in providing or endorsing written scripture.
The question of a canon of written scripture has also to face the claim that the main means of communication in the early church was oral, which has led some scholars to assume that it would have opposed written texts, especially since some of them have decided that the canon is composed of inferior writings in contrast to the classic works of the period. Moreover, most early Christians, it is said, were unlettered, preferred the direct encounter with a spoken word, and expected Jesus to return imminently, so why would they have wanted a canon?
Kruger points out that the barrier between unlettered Christians and a written text is drawn from modern situations in which educated people find it hard to imagine that a merely oral society could appreciate written texts. This was not the case in the first century in which it was common for many illiterate persons to become familiar with written texts that they heard read in public gatherings – these texts could be government decrees, philosophical opinions, as well as other forms. And the New Testament itself contains several references to the public reading of scripture. Indeed it can be argued that they were written in order that they could be read orally to Christian gatherings. And to this can be added that the early church insisted on retaining the Old Testament scriptures, which would be a strange thing to do if they were averse to writings.
Did the early church expect Jesus to return within its lifetime, and did that expectation affect their ideas about written scripture? If it did, then since he did not come, surely it would assume that he was not telling the truth about his return. Yet there is no evidence that such a possibility caused a crisis of faith, which indicates that the apostolic church did not believe that he must return during that period, merely that he could. The fact is that New Testament books were written during the first century, and were accepted as truthful by subsequent generations of believers even although Jesus did not return in the first century, which indicates that neither the first century church nor subsequent generations believed that he taught he would definitely return at such an early date.
Another issue dealt with by the author is whether or not the New Testament authors were aware that they were writing scripture. He shows that they were conscious that they were writing with divine authority and that they regarded their writings as divine provisions for those to whom they wrote, which is the same as saying they were on the level of scripture. So while they would not have known how many books would be in the New Testament they did know that their writings were authoritative in the church.
Kruger gives a chapter to discussing whether or not the canon was only closed by the end of the second century. He looks at the writings of Irenaeus who around that time refers to most New Testament books as recognised scripture. Of course, if he recognised them, the assumption is that others before him also recognised them because he does not indicate that he was the first to do so. Kruger then notices the way that Theophilus of Antioch argues in a work dated around the year 177 that the Gospels were as inspired as the Old Testament. Kruger also works back through the writings of Justin Martyr, Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement and others to show that they were aware to a degree of some of the books that make up the New Testament canon. More importantly, the New Testament itself refers to Paul’s writings as scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). This survey, according to Kruger, points to the real possibility that the church by the end of the first century already recognised which books were scripture and which were not.
Of course, many Christians accept the New Testament as Holy Scripture intuitively, an evidence of the divine illumination given to them by the Holy Spirit. Such may not want to read a scholarly book like this, although I do not see why not. In some places I felt I was in the company of a master detective as he analysed and dismissed the alleged evidence against the existence of an early canon. While this book did not add to my already-existing recognition of and delight in the New Testament canon it did strengthen my conviction that God not only inspired its production but supervised its acceptance throughout the early church. I would recommend it to any who have been troubled by the claim that the canon is merely a creation of the church a long time after the apostles left this world.