The Catholicity of the Apocrypha [Commentary on Browne: Article VI (2)]

Article VI plainly states that “the Church doth read [the Apocryphal books] for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” This could be taken to mean simply that people ought to read the Apocrypha on their own. However, a cursory glance at any Prayer Book lectionary reveals that on many days these books are to be read as part of the lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer during the week (and occasionally, in Prayer Books after 1662, for Sunday services).

Given how clearly the Article endorses this practice, one would expect Anglicans to have no issue with it. Sadly, as Browne observes, “This is one of those customs of the Church of England which has been most exposed to censure, from those who dissent from her, and from some even of her own children.” Uneasiness with the Apocrypha is still common among professing Anglicans today, especially those from “lower” church backgrounds such as nondenominational evangelicals or Baptists (as opposed to émigrés from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). It is worthwhile, then, to give special attention to Browne’s arguments in defense of reading the Apocryphal books in church services.

First, there is no force to the objection that the Apocrypha should not be read in church because they are merely human, uninspired writings. As Browne points out, “If we would exclude all human compositions from the Church, we must exclude homilies, sermons, metrical psalms and hymns, — nay, prayers, whether written or extempore, except such as are taken out of Scripture itself.” By the same token, it proves too much to say the Apocrypha are “not free from faults, [for] no more is any human composition, and…on this principle we must still rather exclude sermons, psalms, hymns, and even liturgies.”

Second, the Apocrypha occupy what would otherwise be a gap “between the return from captivity and the birth of Christ”:

The historical books of the Apocrypha, therefore, supply a most important link in the history of the Jewish people. Without them we should be ignorant of the fulfilment of many of the old Testament prophecies, especially those in the book of Daniel; and we should know nothing of several customs and circumstances alluded to in the new Testament, and essential to its understanding.

Third, reading the Apocrypha during public worship conforms with the practice of the early church:

It appears that from very early times they were read in most Churches, at least in the West; as in very many were also read the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, — not that they were esteemed Canonical, but as of high antiquity and value, and useful for instruction to the people.

Fourth, the reading of the Apocrypha in church has historically been affirmed in the wider Protestant tradition. Article 6 of the Belgic Confession reads as follows:

The church may certainly read these [Apocryphal] books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books. But they do not have such power and virtue that one could confirm from their testimony any point of faith or of the Christian religion. Much less can they detract from the authority of the other holy books.[1]

It should be remembered that the Belgic Confession, as one of the Three Forms of Unity (alongside the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt), is considered representative of historic continental Calvinist thought. Moreover, such respect for the Apocrypha is in keeping with the general approbation they enjoyed among the Reformers. To mention just a couple of examples, Martin Luther maintained that the Apocrypha are “books…not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.”[2] Ulrich Zwingli “took the position that the Apocrypha were truly part of the Bible, what he called ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘church’ books, which were to be read but not preached from. In his 1529 preface to the Zurich Bible, Zwingli called them ‘holy books.’”[3]

We find, then, that Protestant denigration of the Apocrypha has historically been an aberration confined largely to Puritans and Presbyterians:

The Puritan movement was one of the few groups of Protestantism that were decisively against the Apocrypha and were known to sometimes remove it from Bibles they encountered. Another group with similar attitudes were the Presbyterians who objected to the Book of Common Prayer because of the readings it contained from the Apocrypha. They were generally against giving the Apocrypha much respect.[4]

In this vein, the Westminster Confession flatly declares that “the books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of 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.”[5] Yet the first edition of the Geneva Bible, an English translation much loved by Puritans, affirmed the value of the Apocrypha in its preface, though it stopped short of approving them to be read in church:

These books that follow in order after the Prophets unto the New Testament, are called Apocrypha, that is, books which were not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church, neither yet served to prove any point of Christian religion, save inasmuch as they had the consent of the other Scriptures called Canonical to confirm the same, or rather whereon they were grounded: but as books proceeding from godly men were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of the history, and for the instruction of godly manners.[6]

Even the Westminster Confession does not rule out any value in the Apocrypha simply by virtue of identifying them as merely human writings, as noted by David Briones, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary:

The Westminster Confession especially relegates the Apocrypha’s usefulness to that of any “other human writings.” But that shouldn’t be taken as negatively as it sounds. In what ways are “other human writings” made use of by the church of God? There are plenty of writings that inform our understanding of history and theology and, at the risk of sounding heretical, spirituality or piety. Can the same be said of the Apocrypha? Can it benefit Protestants historically, theologically, and even spiritually? I think so.[7]

Thus there are sound reasons and ample historic precedent for all Protestants to honor and privately read the Apocrypha, with further support existing for reading the Apocrypha as part of public worship. In light of the evidence presented above, it is to be hoped that a truly catholic reception of these books—one that honors them rightly, yet without according them undue canonical status—will ever more prevail, over against the unwarranted contempt and disregard they have endured in recent centuries.

Notes

  1. The Belgic Confession, Christian Reformed Church in North America, 29, https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/BelgicConfession.pdf. The Second Helvetic Confession, while it does not endorse the practice, recognizes that the Apocrypha have historically been read in churches: “Certain books of the Old Testament were by the ancient authors called apocryphal, and by the others ecclesiastical; in as much as some would have them read in the churches, but not advanced as an authority from which the faith is to be established,” ch. I, par. 9, https://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm, italics original.
  2. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia; Fortress Press, 1955‒1986), 35:232, quoted in Matthew J. Korpman, “The Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha,” in Gerbern S. Oegema, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 78.
  3. Korpman, “Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha,” 76.
  4. Korpman, “Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha,” 76.
  5. The Westminster Confession, ch. I, sec. 3, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-westminster-confession/#1.
  6. Hywel Clifford, “Apocrypha/Deutero-Canon,” in Companion to the Old Testament: Introduction, Interpretation, Application, eds. Hywel Clifford et al. (London: SCM Press, 2016), 180, quoted in Korpman, “Protestant Reception of the Apocrypha,” 77. See also Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Story of the Apocrypha (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 5‒6.
  7. David Briones, “What Is the Apocrypha? Listening to Four Centuries of Silence,” Desiring God, 5 November 2019, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-the-apocrypha.

 


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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