A Brief History of the Apocrypha

November 06, 2019

by David E. Briones

Jesus and the New Testament authors never directly quote the Apocrypha. Neither do they introduce it with labels that would suggest inspiration, such as “as it is written” or “as the Scripture says.” Many echoes and allusions have been detected in the New Testament, but no direct quotes or obvious paraphrases appear in the New Testament.

Can it benefit Protestants historically, theologically, and even spiritually?

The same cannot be said of early church fathers. They frequently paraphrased portions of the Apocrypha and even call the writer of 2 Esdras “another of the prophets” (Epistle of Barnabas 12:1). During Origen’s day, the Apocrypha became a normal part of the liturgy in church. But by the time Augustine and Jerome came on the scene, two opposing views emerged on these writings. Augustine argued for the canonicity of the Apocrypha, drawing from it frequently in his writings. Jerome, however, pushed back and distinguished between canonical and ecclesiastical texts. Canonical texts informed faith and practice, but ecclesiastical texts were to be read in the church solely for edification, not to construct doctrine. Ultimately, the Council of Carthage (AD 397) sided with Augustine, but the two views remained in the church until the Reformation.

One of Jerome’s followers, Nicholas of Lyra, influenced a well-known Reformer: Martin Luther. Luther was forced to grapple with the status of the Apocrypha, especially in light of sola Scriptura and Rome’s use of the Apocrypha to support the saying of the Masses, prayers for the dead, and almsgiving as a meritorious act of penance. In his preface to the Apocrypha, Luther echoed Jerome’s distinction: “These are books that, though not esteemed like the Holy Scriptures, are still both useful and good to read.”

Calvin followed suit. He interacted with the Apocrypha in ways that would make some Protestants cringe. He was edified by it and cited it in support of already accepted doctrines. However (and this is really important), neither Calvin nor Luther ever used it as an independent, infallible, inspired source of doctrine.

But the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1546) did. Following Augustine, they ruled most of the books of the Apocrypha (excluding 1 and 2 Esdras, Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 and 4 Maccabees) to be canonical. Many Protestant confessions of faith pushed back against Trent. It’s worth quoting three that describe the nature of the Apocrypha:

Thirty-nine Articles (1571), article 6: “And the other Books (as 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.”

Belgic Confession (1561) 6: “The church may certainly read these 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.”

Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) 1.3: “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.”

In what ways are “other human writings” made use of by the church of God?

All three confessional statements follow Jerome rather than Augustine, but they do so in distinct ways. The Thirty-nine Articles, which is the confessional standard of the Church of England (Anglicans and Episcopalians), distinguish between canonical and ecclesiastical texts, as Jerome did. To this day, Anglicans and Episcopalians read sections of the Apocrypha from the lectionary, which are also found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Belgic and Westminster Confessions, like the Thirty-nine Articles, draw a sharp distinction between the Apocrypha and the Holy Scriptures, but, to my knowledge, no Presbyterian church today includes the Apocrypha in their liturgy.

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.


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