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Getting into the NT

24 October 2014

John Court considers the reason for a New Testament canon

The Question of Canon: Challenging the status quo in the New Testament debate
Michael J. Kruger
Apollos £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT912 )

THE question of the canon frequently concerns which books, whether 27 or more or fewer, should be included. Then it often becomes a question when or how such a collection came to be assembled.

Nevertheless, Michael Kruger says, "the story of the canon is perhaps most fundamentally about the why. Why did Christians have a canon at all?" Is it a natural consequence of the kind of faith of the earliest Christians, or was it imposed by a later decision of the Church in the second or third centuries of the Christian Era? To put it bluntly, is the canon intrinsic or extrinsic to Christian faith?

The "idea that the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later artificial development that is out of sync with Christi- anity's original purpose, is a central framework that dominates much of modern canonical (and biblical) studies".

This is the extrinsic model that Kruger seeks to challenge in this book, at least as regards its monopoly position. "Our goal is not to deny the truth of the extrinsic model in its entirety, but to offer a well-intended corrective to its assessment and interpretation of some of the historical evidence."

Kruger identifies five tenets of the extrinsic model, and discusses them in turn in the five chapters of his book, suggesting where they are problematic.

First, there is a sharp distinction between the definitions of scripture and canon. But should canon only be used of a final, closed list of books? Second, there is nothing within early Christianity which might have led to a canon. Nevertheless, a New Israel requires new scriptures in a renewal of a covenant relationship.

The third tenet states that early Christians relied on oral tradition and were averse to written documents. But evidence of some early Christian writing suggests that oral and written modes of communication were not mutually exclusive.

Fourth, New Testament writings have the character of occasional documents rather than authoritative texts by authors conscious of writing scripture. There are, however, indications of apostolic authority, particularly in transmitting the words of Christ.

The final tenet states that New Testament books were first re- garded as canon at the end of the second century. Yet, although the influence of St Irenaeus was formative, there are earlier indications, as with St Justin Martyr, of the recognition of texts with scriptural authority.

This book tackles such declared assumptions head on, and writes crisply and straightforwardly about the larger evangelical picture. An extensive bibliography includes some work of Francis Watson, but sadly, is too early to refer to Watson's rich and comprehensive study (Gospel Writing: A canonical perspective) reviewed in these columns last year (Books, 6 September).

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