Dr. Michael Kruger is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC, has a Ph. D. from the University of Edinburgh, and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He specializes in the study of the origins of the New Testament. Dr. Kruger’s book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of New Testament Books was published this last month, and he has co-authored a 2010 book titled The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity and a forthcoming book titled The Early Text of the New Testament. Recently he started blogging and has an ongoing series called “10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon” that you can find here. He was kind enough to answer the following 10 questions of mine about the New Testament canon:
…redemption and canon go together. The latter follows naturally from the former.
- What is the canon of Scripture?
There has been a long and extensive debate between scholars about the best way to define the term “canon.” I cover this topic rather extensively in my recent article in the Tyndale Bulletin. But, for our purposes here, the canon can be defined simply as “the collection of scriptural books that God has given his corporate church.”
- Why is there a canon of Scripture?
God’s revelational deposits are typically designed to announce and apply his great redemptive activities. Thus, when God accomplished his great redemptive work in Christ Jesus, he gave the canonical books as a permanent and abiding means by which that redemption could be announced to the world and applied to the hearts of his people. Thus, redemption and canon go together. The latter follows naturally from the former.
- Who decided what books made up the canon of Scripture?
Well, simply put, God decided what books make up the canon of Scripture! The canon always consists of the books God gave his church, no more, no less. Of course, I realize that this question is really asking about what role humans (i.e., the church) played in the development of the canon. The church played a very important role. There role was to recognize, receive, and submit to the books that God had given. And we see the church doing this from a very early time period. They reached a general consensus around all these books by the time of the 4th century.
- Roughly, how much time did it take for all 27 books of the New Testament to be included in the canon?
Although a final consensus on all the books was not achieved until about the fourth century, that is not the whole story. In fact, to only discuss the final consensus is to leave out an important fact, namely that the “core” of the NT canon had been in place, and functioning as Scripture, by the beginning of the second century. The “core” canon consisted of the 4 gospels, Paul’s epistles, and a few other books like 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Since there was a core canon from very early in the life of the church, then that means that (a) all of the so-called disagreements were only over a handful of books, and (b) the theological trajectory of early Christianity was already decided long before the fourth century.
…the “core” of the NT canon had been in place, and functioning as Scripture, by the beginning of the second century.
- Do the books that were “accepted” later have less value then books accepted earlier? In other words, should we spend more time in Matthew or Galatians over that of 2 Peter and Jude?
The books that were accepted later are as fully inspired, and fully scriptural, as all the other books of the NT. The “delay” in the consensus around these books largely has to do with their small size. Books like Jude, James, 2 & 3 John were simply not used as often as other books, and therefore the knowledge of these books was not as widespread in the earliest stages of the church. Thus, it took longer for a full consensus to be reached regarding them.
- How would it help a Christian man working a “regular job” or a Christian mom working at home with kids to have an understanding of the formation of the canon?
It all goes back to the authority of Scripture. Every believer needs to have a level of assurance about the authority of God’s word so that they can (a) faithfully live their lives in obedience to Him, and (b) confidently share their faith with non-Christians. A core part of establishing the authority of God’s word is to be able to answer objections and questions about where the Bible came from. In fact, this is one of the most common questions that non-Christians ask about the Bible. Every Christian, even those with a “regular job,” will need to have at least some answer to that question.
- Will there ever be additions to the canon? If so, why? If not, why not?
One of the most common questions I get is, “If we found a lost epistle of Paul in the sand today, would we add it to the canon?” That is a difficult question, but I come out on the “no” side of that debate. I argue in my book, Canon Revisited, that we have good reasons to think that God would providentially preserve those books that he intended to be part of the church’s foundational documents. Thus, if a book was lost, and therefore not providentially preserved, it is reasonable to conclude that God did not intend for it to be part of the church’s canon. Even if we found an epistle of Paul, it makes little sense to add a book to the canon now when that book was clearly never part of the foundational documents of the church.
- With the recent discussion on the canon and the nature of the gospels brought up by scholars like Bart Ehrman or even in pop culture phenomenon like The DaVinci Code, what two or three main misconceptions do you think people have about the canon?
There are many misconceptions about canon. So many, in fact, that I have started a new blog series on my website on this very topic (I just completed misconception #4). I think the most common misconception is that early Christianity was wildly diverse with no clear theological or doctrinal direction, and therefore no sense of which books were Scripture. People have this idea that the development of the canon was sort of like an ancient writing contest—if you wrote something good enough it may have a chance of getting in! But, things were not quite this way. Sure, there was some diversity and disagreement, but, as a whole, there was a remarkable amount of uniformity from a very early time period.
- In what way does understanding the formation of the canon give particular glory to God and adorn his gospel?
Studying the origins of the canon can be very encouraging spiritually. It reminds us that God very much desires a relationship with his people; i.e., he desires to speak with them. And it reminds us that God has not left that speaking to chance. By his providential hand, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, God has made sure that his people hear his voice.
- What is the best lecture online and the best book to read to get started in understanding the NT canon?