Here’s Part Eight of my series on the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, or the “Apocrypha” as Protestants call them. The series began here, and I strongly suggest that you begin at the beginning!
The popular Protestant authors almost never take up the question of the presence of the Apocrypha in all the early Protestant Bibles; from their point of view, the less said about that, the better! But when one of them does face this question, he will claim that those books were there for “historical reasons,” to “provide historical background….” This explanation is obviously tremendously weak. Why, for Heaven’s sake, include books IN YOUR BIBLE which are not Holy Scripture? Those books will provide the average reader with no meaningful “historical background” (read them and see what you think!) – they will merely serve to confuse him by blurring the line between God’s Word and these “other books” rubbing shoulders with the “real thing”! The Protestant “Edinburgh Committee,” which finally forced the removal of the Apocrypha from the KJV, said as much!
No, there is a concrete historical reason why the early Protestant Bible translators – Wycliffe, Luther, the translators of the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, all the early Protestant Bible translators – refused to exclude the Apocrypha! Can you figure it out before our hero does?
You now have to examine the attitude of the rest of the Reformers concerning the canon of Scripture. You check your watch to see how much time you have left. The library closes in an hour. For heaven’s sake, you’ve spent the whole afternoon here just trying to find out which books constitute the Apocrypha, and you’re really no closer to the answer than you were when you came in! You have learned, however, that Martin Luther placed books of both the Old and New Testament in “special sections” of his Bible. Based on his very subjective assessment of which books preached the Gospel (as he understood it), he rated some books as “more canonical” than others. According to his system, books like Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation just don’t make the grade. They are good books, he states, but not to be considered among the “chief books” of the Bible from which we take our doctrine. So Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation were banished to an “apocryphal” section in the back of New Testament, just as Luther placed the books that you are so worried about, the “Apocrypha,” in the back of the Old Testament while still considering them “useful and good to be read.” You have learned that the Reformers after Luther had a field day with the canon of Scripture, adding and subtracting books in a bewildering whirl of conflicting Bible versions.
So how did the other Reformers justify their innovations? How did they decide which books were really inspired Holy Scripture, and which failed the test? What was the test? Did they follow Luther’s obviously unworkable system of which books “preached Christ”?
Tyndale, the great English Bible translator of the 16th century, gave this explanation of why he rejected the rejection of the book of James:
Though [the Epistle of St. James] were refused in old time, and denied of many to be the Epistle of a very Apostle, and though also it lay not the foundation of the faith of Christ… methinketh it ought of right to be taken for Holy Scripture.
Methinketh??? So over and against Luther’s thundering objection that James was “really an epistle of straw” that contained “not a syllable about Christ,” we have Tyndale’s timorous “methinketh”???
The Dutch Arminian leader, Grotius, remarked on the book of James, saying:
Those who have rejected the Epistle of James… had reasons, but not good reasons, for they saw that it was opposed to their views….
You would certainly agree with that – “it was opposed to their views!” Removing the book of James (or segregating it in the back of the Bible) just because you don’t like what it says is terribly wrong. We conform our theology to Holy Scripture, not our canon of Scripture to our theology!!
The Frenchman John Calvin was another great leader of the Reformation, and you have read that he apparently had problems with 2 and 3 John, calling 1 John THE epistle of John.
Unlike Luther, Calvin insists that Hebrews is “without doubt among the Apostolic Epistles; nor do I doubt but that it was through a device of Satan that some have questioned its authority.” (Take that, Martin Luther!)
But you read that Martin Luther said that “A Christian soon smells from afar which is God’s and which is human teaching.” Hmm… so, one of these guys must have lost his sense of smell as far as the book of Hebrews goes….
Calvin, like Luther, put the Old Testament Apocrypha in a special section of his Bible, with this justification:
These books, called Apocrypha, have always been distinguished from the writings which were without difficulty called Holy Scripture. For the Church Fathers wished to avoid the danger of mixing profane books with those which were certainly brought forth by the Holy Spirit. That is why they made a list, which they called a canon. The word means that everything which belongs to it was a firm rule to which one should hold…. It is true that the Apocrypha is not to be despised, insofar as it contains good and useful teaching.
There’s that phrase again, “good and useful teaching,” like Luther’s “useful and good to be read.” But the question comes to mind: if the Old Testament Apocrypha “have always been distinguished from the writings which were without difficulty called Holy Scripture” as Calvin claims, where did Wycliffe get a hold of a manuscript that mingled the Apocrypha with the real books of the Old Testament? You’ve read that the Wycliffe Bible, in its Prologue to the Old Testament, notes that some books ‘shall be set among apocrypha, that is, without authority of belief,” but those books were not then separated out as they were in Luther’s Bible – they mingled with the books of Holy Scripture, just as they do in your great-aunt’s Catholic Bible! Something like that definitely gives the reader the impression that those books are Holy Scripture!
A little bell starts ringing in the back of your mind… a quote you read from a Protestant archbishop, John Whitgift. When it was suggested in 1589 that the Apocrypha be removed from English Bibles, Whitgift retorted:
Who ever separated the Apocrypha from the rest of the Bible from the beginning of Christianity to that day?
The archbishop was apparently laboring under the delusion that Bibles had always contained the Apocrypha “from the beginning of Christianity…!”
That’s very odd….
Calvin, in disputing the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture, cites the Catholic reasoning behind the decision to include seven Apocryphal books in Catholic Bibles:
They allege an old catalogue, which they call the Canon, and say that it originated in a decision of the Church. But I again ask, In what council was that Canon published? Here they must be dumb. Besides, I wish to know what they believe that Canon to be. For I see that the ancients are little agreed with regard to it.
Calvin utterly rejected the Catholic claim that the Church could definitively determine which books were Holy Scripture, writing:
Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends.
So, Calvin insists that the Apocryphal books “have always been distinguished from the writings which were without difficulty called Holy Scripture,” and yet at the same time “the ancients are little agreed” on which books constitute the canon! It’s hard to see how that worked out in practice….
According to Calvin, it’s OBVIOUS to real Christians which books are inspired Holy Scripture and which are the Apocrypha – it’s the witness of the Holy Spirit that makes all the difference.
As to their question – How can we be assured that this has sprung from God unless we have recourse to the decree of the church? – it is as if someone asked: Whence will we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste.
The French Confession of 1559 elaborates on Calvin’s method:
We know these books to be canonical, and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the church as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books.
At this point you are about ready to throw in the towel. So, the “testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit” is what we must rely on to distinguish inspired Scripture from man-made books. Just read a book like Tobit or Baruch or Hebrews or Revelation, and you’ll be able to distinguish Holy Scripture from the writings of men! It sounds great – it sounds really great! Except for one tiny problem:
Martin Luther, who according to this system proposed by Calvinists must either have been:
- Completely devoid of any leading by the Holy Spirit (after all, he questioned the authority of the book of Hebrews – an act which according to Calvin was occasioned “through a device of Satan!”)
- Deliberately disobedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit (not really what you’d like to think about the man who spearheaded the entire Reformation.)
- Hard of hearing as far as the promptings of the Holy Spirit were concerned in this instance.
None of those options appeal to you, and the third option has an aspect that is especially thorny – who is to say that it was Luther who was spiritually “hard of hearing” in this instance? Perhaps it was Calvin who wasn’t following the promptings of the Holy Spirit? How to judge rightly between all the different Reformers and all their different canons of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries? Doesn’t every single argument put forward in favor of this particular canon or that particular canon simply boil down to subjective opinion? Down to “this book is Scripture because I say it is”??? After all, Zwingli declared the book of Revelation to be noncanonical after he had a quotation from it used against him in a dispute! What better way to win your argument than declaring objectionable texts to be noncanonical?!
And where does that leave you and your original question? How many books are there in the Apocrypha? Where did they come from? Why were they ever included in the Bible at all?
On the memorial of St. Agnes
Deo omnis gloria!