Apocrypha: Anglicans reading a fuzzy-edged Bible

In my previous post on the sixth of the 39 Articles, I said I would come to the question of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon. The article says this about the books, clearly feeling a need to root such a departure from tradition in a traditional teacher of the church.

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:
The Third Book of Esdras, The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Tobias, The Book of Judith, The rest of the Book of Esther, The Book of Wisdom, Jesus the Son of Sirach, Baruch the Prophet, The Song of the Three Children, The Story of Susanna, Of Bel and the Dragon, The Prayer of Manasses, The First Book of Maccabees, The Second Book of Maccabees

KJV-Contents-PageThe first two of these are universally regarded as apocrypha in the Western Church, the rest had been (and in the Roman Catholic Church still are) received as Scripture. Most seem to have been Greek texts, although Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) has an extant Hebrew original. Greek Esther is less a set of additions to the Hebrew book (as the article has it) and more a second edition which writes God into the story. The Song of the Three, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon are additions to the book of Daniel.

The arguments for omitting them were and are, in my view, weak. They owe something to the classical Renaissance tradition of ad fontes – back to the sources – than they do to any overtly theological argument. I suspect, as well, that it was a way of removing (some) scriptural support for prayer for the dead – get rid of 2 Maccabees, for example, and you lose a significant prop for that.

But it is interesting to reflect on what sense, exactly, the Anglican Reformation does get rid of these books. Compare, for example, the wording of the article with the wording of the Westminster Confession:

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.

By contrast, we need to understand that Anglican “the Church doth read” in context. Down the centuries the articles were regularly published as part of the Prayer Book, and therefore together with the lectionary setting out the pattern of readings through the year. Even when they were separately published, the lectionary was in any case prescribed by law to be followed in every church.

Reading the whole of Scripture according to the lectionary at Morning and Evening prayer was the legally enforceable discipline of the Church for its clergy (and encouraged for the laity). These readings were to be followed in every cathedral and parish church, every day of the year. And the lectionary includes virtually all of the apocryphal / deuterocanonical material as the first reading, towards the end of the year, following on in course from the undisputed books of the Old Testament. In terms of the liturgy, clergy and congregations were required to read and hear these books in prayer and worship indistinguishably from the ways in which they read and heard those of “whose authority [there] was never any doubt in the Church”.

Lectionaries of the last century, under evangelical pressure, coming from inter-evangelical and inter-denominational co-operation, alliances and shared Bible publishing ventures, have slowly departed from this pattern, until now all the apocryphal readings are optional, and given Hebrew Bible alternatives. Historically, this is an undoubted departure from the position of the Anglican Reformers (and in my view a serious mistake), and whenever conservative evangelicals today (as some do) claim that they and not catholics or liberals represent the true historic faith of the Church of England, they should be more aware that on this particular point of practice, it is they who have seriously departed from their heritage (however good they think their reasons may be).

The authority of the undisputed books seems to belong to the doctrinal arguments and theological debates of scholars and learned people. The spiritual, ethical and formational reading of scripture in devotional and liturgical contexts makes equal use of both the undisputed books of the Hebrew Canon and the disputed books of the Greek canon.

What this effectively does is create a fuzzy edge to the Anglican Bible. There is a category of books whose character and authority is sufficiently doubtful that no doctrinal argument should rest on those books. Yet the character and authority of these books are sufficiently hallowed by traditional and liturgical use that they should continue to be read in public (and private) prayer, and can used by God (and presumably the preacher) to shape the character and life of the worshipper.

There is probably no better illustration of Anglicanism as a via media than this fuzzy-edged canon of Scripture.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

4 Replies to “Apocrypha: Anglicans reading a fuzzy-edged Bible”

  1. Your affection for the 16th century is noted, but is it consistent? When did you last read The Homilies?
    When did you last conduct a service of Commination?
    Or the Churching of Women?
    Do you read out the Athanasian Creed regularly?
    The Anglican Canon of Scriptures isn’t fuzzy at all. Some Anglican Canons of Cathedrals are a different matter.

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