On the Canon

Stephen Nichols (SN): Today we have a very special guest: Dr. Michael Kruger. He is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. Kruger, welcome.

Michael Kruger (MK): Thanks, Steve. Great to be here.

SN: I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you about a very important topic. You’ve given a lot of attention and energy to the topic of the canon.

MK: Yes.

SN: So, let’s talk about the canon. Now, let’s get one thing straight. We’re talking about canon with one n in the middle. Is that right?

MK: That’s right. Canon, not cannon that would blow somebody up. This is a standard or list or rule.

SN: Okay, so we’ve got that established. This is canon with one n. What do we need to know about the canon in the early church?

MK: Well, there’s a lot to say there, Steve. I think most people probably labor with a number of misconceptions about the canon, and so one of the things I try to do is to help people undo those misconceptions. Probably the largest misconception out there is this idea that canon is a late imposition on books written for another purpose. In other words, people think these books were written with no intention of being authoritative documents; they were written sort of as occasional texts that only later—centuries later—Christians began to realize, “Wow, these are really great books and maybe we should consider these Scripture. Tell you what, let’s have a canon and put these in it,” something like that. So, the first thing, I think, that people need to understand is that these books were not just written as texts that had bearing only a certain situation or people; that Paul, for example, as an Apostle, wrote with conscious authority. Even in the first century, he understood himself as writing books to govern and guide the church. And this is an important thing that I think people miss.

SN: We find Peter speaking of the writings of Paul—and I always find this helpful because I get stumped by Paul sometimes; it’s helpful to know, well, Peter was stumped by Paul—and he’ll say, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).

MK: Yes, absolutely. And that shows you that even in the first century how in that text, somewhere in the 60s, people were already viewing Apostolic books as scriptural books. So, you didn’t have to wait for the third or fourth century for this idea that you ought to have books that are regarded as Scripture in the New Testament.

SN: Now, as you look at the essence of the New Testament, we see a general consensus around the Gospels, we see a general consensus around Paul, but there were some sort of fuzzy boundaries there in those early centuries. What were some of the issues that were going on?

MK: What I like to help people understand is that by the early second century or middle second century there was really a wide and unified consensus on what we might call the core of the New Testament canon. The core of the New Testament canon would include things like the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, books like 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and so on. So, about twenty-two out of the twenty-seven would have been pretty well established. What that means, then, is that for the books that were under discussion, if you will, there was maybe a little bit more disagreement about them were the small ones. So, this would have been books like 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, James, books like that.

SN: Was Philemon ever an issue?

MK: Philemon wasn’t really ever an issue. Philemon was just not talked about very much and often just no one mentioned it. So, for example, Irenaeus, a second-century church father, when he mentions all of Paul’s letters except Philemon, that doesn’t mean he rejects Philemon; it just means that Philemon is such a little book that he may not get around to saying much about it. I imagine that is still true in the modern day.

SN: Then there were other books that we do not have in our twenty-seven books of the New Testament.

MK: Correct.

SN: So, what were some of those?

MK: In the second century there were books in circulation that people sometimes used that they were kind of hanging on the edges. An example of this is the Shepherd of Hermas, which was a popular book in early Christianity, or 1 Clement, which was a letter that some valued. And then you have what we call apocryphal gospels, gospels that are outside the canon such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter. We know people read them now and then but they never had much popularity and they never really were true contenders for the canon.

SN: In fact, we find some very early church fathers outright rejecting these gospels as false gospels.

MK: Yes, despite the claims of many modern scholars that these were popular and widely received, the fact of the matter is that when they were mentioned, which isn’t very often, they were condemned quite directly. So, there was never really a chance that they would be in the canon.

SN: Well, Dr. Kruger, thank you for being with us. I’ve been enjoying our conversation. Maybe we’ll have to have another conversation about the cannon with two n’s sometime. That would be just as explosive.

MK: That would be fun.

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