How did we get our Bible? It begins with understanding the term canon. And in the canon debate, there is scholarly discussion searching for consensus for a working definition. Does canon mean books used by early Christians, books that functioned as Scripture, or those books included in a final closed list? These are some of the questions Michael Kruger explores in his book, “The Question of Canon”. In his first chapter of five, Kruger addresses “The Definition of Canon” in a helpful manner.
The Exclusive Definition of Canon
The definition of canon as a fixed final and closed list of books (the exclusive definition), a theory originally introduced by A.C. Sundberg in 1968. With this definition, canon doesn’t exist till at least the fourth century. He admits that Scripture existed prior, the term canon is reserved only for the completed process.
Positives: It recognizes the process before the fourth century and reinforces the important role played by the church. It keeps the church and canon together.
Concerns: This definition would not be shared by the church in the second century. In the history of the church there was never an “official” act that closed the canon, (maybe Trent in the sixteenth century), it communicates that the texts were lesser status prior.
The Functional Definition of Canon
Brevard Childs (and others) promoted an alternative definition, in which the canon is determined by the function of a book in the church and not whether it was regarded as part of a final, closed list. This view rejects separation between Scripture and canon, arguing they are “often identical”.
Positives: Captures the historical reality of the authoritative lists of books before the fourth century. Does not diminish the perceived authority of the books prior to the fourth century. Does not artificially inflate the role of church declarations.
Concerns: It struggles to account for books that were regarded as Scripture but never made it into the final closed canon (Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter). They are canon and then determined not to be canon? It does not incorporate what the canon is “in and of itself, apart from what it does in the church or how it is delineated by the church” (37)
The Ontological Definition of Canon
The ontological definition focuses on what the canon is in and of itself, namely the “authoritative books that God have his corporate church”, God’s view of the canon. (40) Books do not become canon that are canon because God has given them. In this view the canon is dated to the first century, even though later it would be recognized by the church. If canonicity is more than what happens to a book because the church says, then we are able to affirm canonicity at production. B.B. Warfield wrote, “The Canon of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book was given to any church by the apostles” (41) But isn’t this a theological definition and ignoring history? Kruger argues that canon should include all three, because together they paint a theological-historical reality. These definitions are not contradictory but complementary. “If canon is a multidimensional phenomenon, then perhaps it is best defined in a multidimensional fashion.” (46)