Editors: Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger
Bibliographic Info: 256 pp.
Publisher: Crossway, 2010.
Buy it at Amazon
Note: I read this book on my Kindle so any quotes I provide will not have the page numbers.
See Part I of the review.
This second part shall take a look at the second section of the book, entitled: Picking the Books: Tracing the Development of the New Testament Canon.
Before I start reviewing the first chapter I have to note something that increasingly becomes readily apparent in this book. I mentioned in the final paragraphs of the first part of this review that the authors claim that Bauer, Ehrman, etc, have a flawed historical methodology in that they are anti-supernaturalists. Well, the authors here also have a bias, theirs is just the opposite to Bauer-Ehrman. This section clearly shows their supernaturalist approach (which they fail to prove is the correct methodology to follow, which is strange considering they criticize Ehrman for not doing the same with his approach). Strangely enough, in the foreword to this book, Ian Howard Marshall states that even though the authors are evangelical Christians, they manage to approach this book without their Christian beliefs as a bias! Makes me wonder if he even read the book before writing the foreword!
This section of the book is peppered with quotes which betray the authors’ supernatural bias, e.g.,
Theologians have historically affirmed that the critical link between the covenant books and the covenant community is the work of the Holy Spirit …
The canon is a phenomenon that developed not so much because of formal church decisions (though the vital role of the church cannot be discounted), but because of something that was already inherent to these particular books—the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is just Christian apologetic, not a historical look at the issue. What strikes me as odd, assuming the authors are correct, is why did it take a few centuries for the New Testament canon to become fixed and accepted among the majority of churches? Why are there actually still churches today (albeit an almost negligible minority) that still hold to a 22 book NT canon instead of the usual 27 book canon? Should Christianity thus be viewed as a democratic type of religion in which the opinion of the majority is accepted?
Anyway, moving on, the second section of this book consists of three chapters. The first chapter tackles the meaning of canon in early Christianity. The thrust of this chapter is best summed up in the following quote:
Rather than being something that is formally “chosen” by the later generations of the church (and thus a primarily human construction), it seems instead that the books, in a manner of speaking, imposed themselves on the church through the powerful testimony of the Holy Spirit within them.
The authors do not believe that the concept of a “canon” led to the production of the NT canon, nor that the canon was merely the product of ecclesiastical maneuverings of later Christianity. Instead, they see the NT canon as being a natural and inevitable outcome of the church, furthermore, as something that the earliest Christians seemingly anticipated as occurring. Take the following quote for instance:
As soon as early Christians recognized that God’s redemptive acts in Jesus Christ were the beginnings of the new covenant – and they recognized this very early – then they naturally would have anticipated written documents to follow that testified to the terms of that covenant.
I would disagree that the earliest followers of Jesus, even when coming to the conclusion that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant with God, would anticipate written documents to testify to that, especially a new canon. Take the Apostle Paul for instance, he was convinced that the parousia of Christ was going to occur in his own lifetime as did all early Christians apparently. If they thought that the end of this age, and the start of the Messianic Kingdom, was literally around the corner, why would they anticipate a new canon of writings to go along with their newfound faith in Jesus?
The second chapter in this section attempts to look at the concept of canon, and the status of NT books, prior to AD 150. They specifically focus on the evidence in the NT itself and evidence from the apostolic fathers. They want to show that the concept of a NT canon existed well before AD 150. I don’t think they proved that, though I think they made a decent case for showing that Paul viewed his writings on the same par as Old Testament scripture. I would agree with N.T. Wright that in places throughout Paul’s genuine letters, he is conscious that he is writing authoritatively, in the name of Jesus Christ, through the Spirit of God. Yet, this does not mean Paul anticipated his letters would end up as Scripture and part of a later canon.
The authors point to 2 Peter as showing an early indication of the concept of a NT canon. While they seemingly accept genuine authorship of 2 Peter (and everything else in the NT it seems), they say that even if it was pseudonymous (and thus written c. 100), it still shows a very early acceptance of an emerging canon due to the author putting Paul’s writings (plural) on par with the authority of the OT. I think the authors are trying to prove too much from this passage though. It does witness to an early circulation of a Pauline corpus (which I have never really seen disputed by anyone). This is not surprising, though, considering that Paul was considered, by the churches he founded and wrote to at least, to have been commissioned by the resurrected Jesus to preach the gospel. Thus Paul was considered to be writing authoritatively, under the authority of none other than Jesus Christ himself, yet does this mean that the early Christians envisaged his collection of letters becoming part of a new canon? I think that is just unfounded speculation.
As I said earlier, with the imminent end of the world hanging just around the corner, why would the early Christians expect a new canon to emerge? Why would they even want one? They had Paul and the other apostles in person! Once the delay of the parousia became apparent, and Christianity became increasingly more institutionalized, I think that is when the concept of a new canon started to gain ground.
The authors then finish the chapter by examining the writings of the apostolic fathers for witness to the emerging idea of a NT canon before AD 150. But, again, all they find is the belief in the authority of certain (not all) NT writings. This, however, does not equate to the belief of a new canon being formed. Though I do personally believe that the concept of a new canon was starting to emerge in the first half of the second-century.
The third chapter in this section was better. They argue against the repetitive claim by Ehrman that in early Christianity all texts were equal and that any of them could have easily made it into the canon. For those who have studied the formation of the canon, you will probably know that Ehrman is kind of wrong on that. There were actually specific criteria used to adjudicate the canonicity of a text (e.g. the criterion of apostolicity, catholicity, with the overarching criterion being that of orthodoxy). Though, these criteria were used to justify a posteriori the high regard which a writing already enjoyed, not necessarily to determine a priori whether a writing was or was not authoritative.
Despite my agreeing with the authors in that Ehrman’s populist arguments can be incorrect or only present half the truth, I found their constant appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source behind the canon writings and formation to be as unhelpful as what Ehrman says. I mean, it seems that most of what Ehrman writes is with the intention of trying to tear down dogmatic and uncritical Christian views on the Bible, early Christianity, etc. He is, after all, trying to sell books and controversy sells! Yet, Kostenberger and Kruger are essentially doing the same thing by invoking God to uphold the traditional orthodox view of the same issues. In both cases the pendulum is swinging too far in both directions.
The chapter had this interesting summary:
The very books eventually affirmed by early Christians are those which the majority of modern scholars would agree derive from the apostolic time period; and those books rejected by early Christians are the ones the majority of modern scholars agree are late and secondary.
I guess the author’s have a pretty broad definition of what the “apostolic time period” is, because most scholars date certain books, 2 Peter for instance, to the early second-century (e.g. 2 Peter is dated by most scholars as being written sometime in AD 100-150).
The final words in this chapter of the book are:
The historical evidence suggests that under the guidance of God’s providential hand and through the work of the Holy Spirit, early Christians rightly recognized these twenty-seven books as the books that had been given to them as the final and authoritative deposit of the Christian faith.
I wish they had of tackled the question as to why there was differing canons floating about for a few centuries, and why even today not all Christian churches accept the same NT canon. I mean, if they are going to claim that the Holy Spirit is behind the formation of the NT canon, then why not tackle the problems with this theory?
I have a particular focus in my early Christian studies on the formation of the New Testament canon and so was surprised but delighted they had a third of the book devoted to the subject. While the authors did have some relevant points, I just wasn’t convinced at all by their presentation that the concept of a NT canon can be found as early on as they think.
Read Part III.