Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

20 September 2003

The Apocrypha

Since I was in my early teens I have occasionally wondered about those many writings from two or more millennia ago that are not part of the Bible as recognized by the Christian Church. I was especially fascinated by that collection of "borderline" books known by protestants as the Apocrypha and by Catholics as the deuterocanonical books. Why, I wondered, were these accepted by Catholics as part of the Old Testament and not by protestants? What criteria were used by the Reformers to reject and by their opponents to accept them? After reading them through, it was not immediately obvious to me that the canonical books of, say, Esther or Song of Songs were superior to the apocryphal books of I Maccabees or Ecclesiasticus. In fact, as I've written before, I rather like the Canticle of the Three Holy Children in chapter 3 of the long version of Daniel, which is often sung in the service of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Moreover, while the shorter Hebrew version of Esther deliberately avoids any reference to God, the extended Greek version not only adds such references but even includes some prayers, most notably Esther's prayer before entering the king's presence to request his protection of her people.

Augustine quotes from these books, along with the undisputed books of the Old Testament, without making a distinction between them. But Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate, distinguished between the narrower Hebrew canon and the additional books found in the Septuagint, preferring the former to the latter.

Of course, in effect, every ecclesiastical communion has defined the extent of the canon of Scripture, and fortunately the areas of agreement are much larger than the areas of disagreement. All agree on the books of the New Testament. And all agree on the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Old Testament. But the Roman Church includes the so-called deuterocanonicals, while the Orthodox Churches recognize even more books such as III and IV Esdras, the so-called supernumerary Psalm (sometimes called Psalm 151 in some English translations), the Prayer of Manasseh and III Maccabees. Moreover, the Russians and Greeks are not even in precise agreement with each other on which of these to include. The Russians seem to prefer the narrower Hebrew canon, judging from a Russian Bible in my personal library published by the Patriarchate of Moscow. (The additional books are included, but they are clearly marked as "noncanonical.")

So who is right? Who decides who is right and on what basis? Here the traditional protestant sola scriptura is no help to us. Do we Reformed Christians accept the narrower Hebrew canon because the Belgic Confession tells us to? I doubt it, because the Reformed confessions themselves admit that the church can err. Yet in so defining the canon we are at least ratifying an earlier decision of the church made prior to the schisms of the past millennium. How indeed do we know that the church was not in error at that time?

The Belgic Confession has this to say concerning the canonical books of the Bible:

And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them -- not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God (Article 5).

This seems to me rather neatly to sidestep the question of how we know the limits of the canon. The Spirit may indeed testify in our hearts, but as individuals or as a body? And if the latter, then are we not back to church authority? And if the former, then how do we account for disagreements? And how do we know that we, whether as individuals or as a body, are accurately (infallibly?) discerning the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts?

After all is said and done, however, I am not inclined to advocate wholesale acceptance of the Apocrypha as canonical, so I am probably closer to the Reformed tradition anyway, for whatever reason. Many of these books are much too hellenistic in their worldviews. The Book of Wisdom is distressingly platonic when it says: "a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind" (Wisdom 9:15). And 8:19-20 seems to presuppose the pre-existence of the soul before birth -- something obviously fitting in with a more platonic anthropology.

I suppose I take comfort in the fact that the various churches agree more than they disagree on the canon. Everyone reads Isaiah, whose divinely inspired status is evident to all. We all read and sing the 150 Psalms, something that unites church and synagogue in praising God, reciting his great deeds, and lamenting adversity. When all is said and done, I tend to take the approach of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which state:

And the other books (as Hierome [Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.

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