Here you have Part Eleven of my series on the canon of Scripture. You’ll want to begin HERE if you are new to the series, or if you’d just like to review. Are there 66 books in the Bible, as Protestants contend, or are there 73 as the Catholic Church maintains? Can Protestants say with certainty which books belong in their Bible, or must they concede that their 66 books are just a “fallible collection of infallible books”? Read on….
You lurch through the front door of your home and deposit the final armload of books on your dining room table. It has been an awful day, and the evening isn’t looking too good, either. The simple issue of “Which books make up the Apocrypha?” has mushroomed into an ugly question of “Which books belong in the canon of Holy Scripture”! Your pastor’s remark rang in your ears all the way home from church, reverberating with every slap of the windshield wipers. You have always admired Dr. R.C. Sproul, and now your pastor claims that Sproul believes that the Protestant canon is fallible? Fallible?? As in, possibly in error???
You grab a quick cup of coffee (it’s going to be a long night!) and seat yourself at the table. Where are those notes? You review what you discovered in the library this afternoon:
The earliest Bible manuscripts that we have date from the 4th century A.D. Some manuscripts down through the centuries contained only the New Testament, or are a collection of the Psalms, or a translation of this book or that book. But in every manuscript that contains the Old Testament books, the Apocryphal books are there, not separated or singled out from the other books, but mingled among them. This explains, of course, why Wycliffe (who translated the Bible into English over 100 years before Luther translated the Bible into German) included the Apocryphal books in his translation without separating them into a special section; he was just doing what every manuscript and translation had done for 1000 years.
Martin Luther started the ball rolling. He felt that some books simply did not measure up when compared to others and felt compelled to rank them according to his personal perception of their worth, citing also the fact that the “ancients” had their doubts about these books (although the “ancients” seem to have had their doubts about 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John as well, which apparently didn’t bother Luther…). While he did not actually delete any books from the Bible, he segregated many of them, telling readers of his German translation to go ahead and read those books if they wanted to – perhaps they could get something out of them, but he couldn’t. Fortunately, Luther added no books to the Bible, although he did allow himself the luxury of adding the word “alone” to Holy Scripture to strengthen his argument for justification by faith alone.
The Reformers included the Apocryphal books in their translations, placing them in a special section after the Old Testament books. Over the next 100 or so years there were many variations in content of the Apocryphal sections, so that it is hard to find two different translations with all the same Apocryphal books in them. Still, the Reformers felt compelled to include them, apparently because every Bible manuscript for 1100 years had included them.
Several editions of the King James Version of the Bible contained the Apocrypha (with three more books than in the Catholic Bible!), as did many Protestant Bible versions in Europe. In 1827 the Edinburgh Committee finally demanded that the funding for these be stopped on the grounds that the inclusion of the Apocrypha was obviously liable to give people the idea that those books were really Holy Scripture!
The poor New Testament fared no better than the Old. Many New Testament books after the Reformation were given exactly the same treatment as the Old Testament Apocrypha; they were placed in a special section after the New Testament books. Some versions demoted Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to an appendix; many Reformers thought 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John deserved to be added to that list. Some versions declare the segregated books to be flat-out Apocryphal. A few versions of the Protestant New Testament, including editions of Wycliffe’s famous translation, included the book of “Laodiceans” as a legitimate New Testament book. Again, confusion reigned.
John Calvin was very wrong in his belief that “These books, called Apocrypha, have always been distinguished from the writings which were without difficulty called Holy Scripture.” As you have verified, these books were never placed in a separate section of the Bible until Martin Luther came along. Average people down through the ages, from (at least) the fourth century to the fifteenth, apparently lived and died without realizing that the Apocryphal books were somehow any different from any other books they heard read to them in church.
Neither the Lutheran system of “what preaches Christ” as a standard for deciding which books should be considered “chief,” or the Calvinist system of “the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit which enables us to distinguish [the Apocrypha] from other ecclesiastical books” works in practice. After all, didn’t both Luther and Calvin err in their beliefs concerning the canonicity of various New Testament books, and didn’t they disagree with each other on this subject? If the “testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit” couldn’t lead Luther and Calvin, the twin suns of the Protestant Reformation, to the same conclusion concerning the New Testament, then no one can claim to know by using this system which books belong in the Bible and which don’t.
Tyndale’s “methinketh” was at least honest….
A remark made by Reformed theologian Philip Schaff, the 19th-century author of The History of the Christian Church, has been gnawing at you since you read it this afternoon in the library. Schaff noted the refusal of Luther and Zwingli to recognize the book of Revelation as inspired Scripture, and opined sagely:
Zwingli and Luther were both wrong in their unfavorable judgment of the Revelation of ‘the Son of Thunder’.
SAYS WHO??? How do we KNOW that Luther and Zwingli were wrong about Revelation, and Philip Schaff was right??? Do we base our certainty on the fact that everyone else in this day and age agrees with us? That no reputable Protestant theologian questions the 66-book canon? Do we just “know because we know”???
You are at your wits’ end. How do we KNOW which books belong in the Bible and which don’t??? Do we know? R.C. Sproul’s “fallible collection of infallible books” would imply that we don’t, but you just can’t accept that. The face of a coworker drifts through your mind. He once challenged you on why you didn’t accept ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ as Holy Scripture. “There are five Gospels!” he told you, “your Bible is one short!” Fortunately, good old Josh McDowell came to your rescue again. Following his lead, you explained to your coworker that in the years after the writing of the New Testament books there were many counterfeits circulating, and the early Christians sorted out what was what based on their knowledge of the teachings of the apostles.
Wait – that’s it!
What did the early Christians believe about the Apocryphal books? Oh, for heaven’s sake, why have you been wasting so much time on the Reformers? You need to begin at the beginning! The Reformers who came 1500 years after the time of Jesus were obviously in no position to determine which books were Holy Scripture and which weren’t – they proved that by utterly messing up their canons! No, you’ve got to find out what was in the Bible back when the first Christians read it.
You feel better than you have all day!
On the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas
Deo omnis gloria!