The Problem of Naturalistic Approaches to the Formation of the New Testament Canon

Due to the overwhelming number of positive reviews by Shane and others, I’ve finally picked up Michael J. Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books.  Since my focus is on OT (and therefore OT canonical questions), I wasn’t sure that I’d be interested in a book on NT canon.  The more I read, however, I realized that Kruger was proposing an approach that is not only relevant to OT canon studies, but essential to a Reformed articulation of the formation and authority of the entire canon of Scripture.

In what I’ve read so far, I’ve been especially impressed with Kruger’s boldness in insisting on the self-authenticating nature of the canon.  This is not very popular in this day and age and is especially unpopular in historical-critical circles committed historical naturalism.  With this in mind, I liked how he described the limits of historical-critical approaches to the canon.

First, Kruger defines these approaches:

Since the rise of historical criticism during the period of the Enlightenment, scholars have argued that the idea of a canon, with its particular boundaries, is simply (or largely) the product of human activities within the church during the early centuries of Christianity.  As the historical investigations of canon throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continued to reveal the disputes and controversies over books within the early church, the “human” element of the canonical process continued to be emphasized and placed at the forefront of scholarly discussions.

Pg. 30.

Then he evaluates them.  I appreciated his critique:

The historical–critical approach does not really construct a positive model of canon, per se, but rather deconstructs the canon entirely, leaving us with an empty shell of books.

Although most adherents of the historical–critical model would not likely view such a deconstruction as problematic, it does raise the question of how they establish that the canon is a solely human enterprise in the first place. How does one demonstrate this?  One not only would have to rule out the possibility that these books bear intrinsic qualities that set them apart, but also would need to show that the reception of these books by the church was a purely human affair.  Needless to say, such a naturalistic position would be difficult (if not impossible) to prove.  Appeal could be made to evidence of human involvement in the selection of books, such as discussions and disagreements over books, diversity of early Christian book collections, the decisions of church councils, and so forth. But simply demonstrating some human involvement in the canonical process is not sufficient to demonstrate sole human involvement. The fact that proximate, human decisions played a role in the development of the canon does not rule out the possibility that ultimate, divine activity also played a role.   The two are not mutually exclusive. It appears, then, that the insistence on a human–conditioned canon may not be something that can be readily proved – or even something that its adherents regularly try to prove – but is something often quietly assumed.   It is less the conclusion of the historical–critical model and more its philosophical starting point.

Pg. 35.

I firmly believe that one committed to naturalism and a supposedly neutral scientific approach to history will find Kruger’s definition completely unacceptable.  “How utterly circular and fideistic,” they must think.  And yet as Kruger notes, the problem is that many fail to realize that assumptions held by a purportedly neutral, historical-critical approach are also starting points held by faith.  Though they may think that empiricism has demonstrated this approach to be more likely than that of Christianity, that is nevertheless a debated point and it not the self-attesting assumption many believe it to be.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


2 comments on “The Problem of Naturalistic Approaches to the Formation of the New Testament Canon

  1. Daniel Sladek says:

    I wonder what book you would recommend on the OT canon?

    • Right now my favorite is Andrew Steinmann’s “The Oracles of God.” I read it a month or two ago and was really impressed. It is an historical study of canon, thus differing from Kruger’s approach a bit, but it was a really good study.


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