My Review of “Gospel Writing” by Francis Watson

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

June 9, 2014

I just received the latest issue of the Westminster Theological Journal which contains my review of Francis Watson’s latest volume, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013).

This volume is an impressive piece of work, covering a wide range of issues related to Gospel origins.  As can be expected with any book, I agreed with some parts, disagreed with others, and am still pondering a few things.

In particular, I was interested in Watson’s view of canon.  Without diving into the details of the book, his canonical model is quite similar to the “Canonical Criticism” approach I outline in my book Canon Revisited (p. 48-59).  Generally speaking, this was the view made popular by the works of Brevard Childs, Old Testament scholar from Yale.  The Canonical Criticism approach highlights the role of reception in the canonical process, in effect making it the definitive factor in what determines canonicity.

While my overall perspective on Watson’s volume is relatively positive, I mention my concerns about his canonical model in the conclusion to my review:

While Watson is correct to remind us of the important role of reception in the canonical process, his approach effectively argues that canonicity, in some sense, is reception.  But, making reception the determinative factor of canonicity runs into some serious difficulties. For one, this was not the view of the church fathers themselves. They believed there was something distinctive about the nature of the canonical gospels that set them apart from apocryphal ones, namely that these were the ones handed down by the apostles (e.g., Irenaeus, Haer. 3.1.1). Whether or not they were correct about the historical origins of these gospels is beside the point; the fact remains that the historical origins of these gospels, and not just their reception, was a substantive factor in their canonical status. Put differently, the attitude of early Christians suggests that they saw the process of reception not as something that creates canonicity, but the means by which it is recognized.

But, equating canonicity with reception creates an additional challenge. It runs the risk of putting the very concept of canon in jeopardy. If canon has nothing to do with the nature or character of the books themselves, then why should we have any concern about the extent of the canon at all? Indeed, why would we even need a canon if there are no meaningful differences between these various books?  Inherent in the idea of canon, at least according to early Christians, is that some books are “Scripture” and others are not. The act of reception is not sufficient to make a book Scripture.  A book is (or is not) Scripture regardless of human approbation. To suggest otherwise is to make the church an authority over (and a creator of) Scripture.

In the end, Watson has given us a stimulating, well-researched, and, in many ways, ground-breaking volume on the origins of the fourfold gospel. Despite the critical points of concern noted above, this volume is one of the most significant studies on this subject in the last fifty years and will certainly need to be consulted in any future discussions of gospel origins.

To read the whole review, you will have to get the latest issue of WTJ.

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