Michael Kruger’s The Question of Canon (InterVarsity Press, 2013) is a measured, weighty reflection on the topic of canon – respectively, its definition, origins, writing, authors, and date. I highly recommend this book.
Several definitions of canon have been proposed int he last century. In 1968, Sundberg proposed what Kruger calls an “exclusive” definition of canon: canon is “a fixed, final and closed list of books” (p.29). Childs (among others) argued for what Kruger terms a “functional” definition: canon encompasses “the entire process by which the formation of the church’s sacred writings took place” (p.34; quoted from Brevard S. Childs The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction [London: SCM, 1984], p.25). Exclusive and functional… is there a third option?
Kruger wrote, “These definitions [i.e. exclusive and functional] do not incorporate what canon is in and of itself, apart from what it does in the church (functional) or how it is delineated by the church (exclusive)” (p.37-38). He continued: “If we only have the functional and exclusive definitions…. the church must act for there to be a canon. In this regard, the functional and exclusive definitions seem to confuse (or at least are prone to confuse) the church’s reception of the canon with that which makes a book canon” (p.38).
Definitions like the exclusive and functional presuppose a materialistic worldview. They enter the discussion with a reestablished principle that the church “created” or “formed” the canon. “If the canon is nothing in and of itself, then it must be the result of contingent (and to some extent, arbitrary) human processes” (Ibid.). This is the same error theological liberals make when approaching Biblical historicity, such as the Deluge. They approach the topic with the understanding that a worldwide flood could not have actually have taken place, and so historical data (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh) is interpreted to this end (i.e. begging the question). What should be only an inference (e.g. “The Epic of Gilgamesh was written prior to Genesis, so it is possible that Moses borrow from that work”) is give deductive weight and presented for a necessary conclusion (e.g. “The Epic of Gilgamesh, being written prior to Genesis, discredits the validity of ‘Noah and the Ark’ as literally recorded by Moses”). The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the historical data. Thus, it is apparent that presuppositions of unbelief have driven such conclusions. I see a parallel between that and popular definitions of canon. Kruger’s conclusion is helpful:
If the canonical books are what they are by virtue of the divine purpose for which they were given, and not by virtue of their use or acceptance by the community of faith, then, in principle, they can exist as such apart form that community. After all, aren’t God’s books still God’s books – and therefore still authoritative – prior to anyone using them or recognizing them? Surely, the existence of canon and the recognition of canon are two distinguishable phenomena.p.39
What definition is Kruger proposing, if not an exclusive or functional definition? He offers an “ontological” definition. “The ontological definition focuses on what the canon is in and of itself, namely the authoritative books that God gave his corporate church…. Books do not become canonical – they are canonical because they are the books God has given as a permanent guide for his church” (p.40). In a footnote, he reasoned: “If God really gave certain books to serve as a permanent guide for the church – as the ontological definition maintains – then there is nothing incoherent about arguing that those limits are already there in principle” (Ibid.). Kruger allows space for each definition of canon to contribute to the dialogue (p.46), but his point is remarkably clear: we need this third, ontological definition. “If canonicity is not merely something that happens to a book, then we can affirm a book is canonical when that book is produced” (p.41).