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Formulary Friday: Approaching the Apocrypha

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Posted by The Rev'd Robert Evans, 22 Apr 2016

Robert Evans explores the teaching of Article VI on the Apocrypha.

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

There is an ‘apocryphal’ tale of a speaker at an evangelical conference, who asked their audience to turn to 1 Maccabees. Everyone looked puzzled as they searched the contents pages of their NIVs and ESVs in vain. Witnesses vary but the unspoken question was clearly, ‘why on earth are we reading the Apocrypha?’ I suspect few of us lose sleep over this question but it is nonetheless a valid one. Many of our Bibles – and indeed our lectionaries – contain the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament. What should we make of this?

The question was just as valid when the Articles came to be written. In his German translation if 1534, Martin Luther was one of the first to distinguish textually between the canonical and deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament. Nonetheless, the same distinction was made by the Council of Trent in 1563. Both the Geneva Bible and the Authorised version contained the apocrypha and readings from these books can be found in Prayer Book lectionaries. In 1646, however, the very first chapter of Westminster Confession of took a dimmer view:

‘The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings’

The Apocrypha seem to have been treated to increasing mistrust by seventeenth-century non-conformists.

It is significant, therefore, that the 39 Articles (re-issued in 1662) have such a high view of them. Article 6 gives us one good reason and one bad reason to read the Apocrypha. Both reasons concern the catholic authority of the early church. Modern scholars have offered other reasons for reading the Apocrypha, largely historical, since it explains the evolution of Judaism between Malachi and the New Testament period. While valid, these are not the reasons offered by the Articles.

The good reason is to read them for example of life and instruction of manners. The Apocrypha are filled with godly examples for the Christian believer, whether Judas Maccabeus’ courage or Susanna’s chastity. The reformers put this into practice not only in the Prayer Book and lectionary but in the homilies. For example, the Homily on Prayer points out from the life of Judith that ‘the prayer of the humble and meeke hath alwayes pleased [God] (Judith 9.11)’. (Luther also used Judith as an example of godly petition in his Handbook on prayer for Peter the Barber). A prayer from the apocryphal Daniel, the Benedicite, can be found in Morning Prayer.

Article 6 reminds us, however, that Jerome and the church fathers understood that the Apocrypha were different from the canonical books. Jerome made the distinction on two things. Firstly, the Hebrew language and antiquity of the canonical books, secondly, the absence of authoritative quotations from the Greek Old Testament books in the New Testament. Some modern scholars point out that the New Testament does not refer to many of the historical books either, but this neglects their first-century designation as ‘former prophets’, which was surely included in Jesus’ use of ‘the law and the prophets’.

For this reason, the reformers felt that although the Apocrypha may be read as exemplary texts, yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine. Many of the Apocrypha say things about God with which we can wholeheartedly agree, but these can all be found elsewhere in both Old and New Testaments. For example, 2 Macc. 7.28 says, ‘I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed’ (NRSV). This is a wonderful affirmation of the doctrine of creation out of nothing (sadly denied by many modern theologians). But it says nothing that cannot be found in Is. 40-55 or Rom. 4.17. By contrast, the Apocrypha contain some doctrines that the New Testament excludes. The most famous example is Judas’ prayers for the souls of his fallen comrades in 2 Macc. 12.42-9, which finds no justification in the New Testament. Similarly, Sirach 3.30 and Tobit 4.10 lend almsgiving a salvific efficacy, which goes against the New Testament Gospel of justification by faith alone (for which see Article 11).

The Apocrypha can have no doctrinal place in a catholic church but can offer many helpful and godly examples. Their authors are not so different from great theologians of the past, who also made mistakes and got things wrong. Thus the Geneva Bible calls the Apocrypha ‘books proceeding from godly men’. As we read other godly writings from the past, we cannot let them compete with the pristine authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. But we can give their authors respect as godly fellow-travellers and forefathers, from whom we might be able to learn.

The Rev'd Robert Evans is a doctoral student at Cambridge University, and a Curate at Christ Church, Cambridge.

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