Belgic Confession, Article VI

We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal, viz.: the third book of Esdras, the books of Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Syrach, Baruch, the appendix to the book of Esther, the song of the three Children in the Furnace, the history of Susamrah, of Be1 and the Dragon, the prayer of Manasses, and the two books of the Maccabees. All of which the Church may read and take instruction from, so far as they agree with the canonical books; but they are far from haying power and efficacy, as that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith, or of the Christian religion; much less detract from the authority of the other sacred books.”

Article VI, The Belgic Confession

The question of the place of the apocryphal books in the canon hardly concerns us any more. Many, perhaps, are unaware of their existence and most certainly have no knowledge of their contents. Yet, this question marks a significant difference between the Church of Rome and Protestantism. For this reason it is worth our while to consider the matter. After all there are principles involved in the whole question, viz.: those principles pertaining to the canonicity of sacred writings and the, sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the only rule of faith and life.

The term apocryphal is derived from the Greek and means, “that which is hidden, obscure, dark, or concealed.” In the Christian church the term was used to refer to “that which is excluded from public use in the church.” Augustine, for example, used the word to describe certain spurious writings which claimed to be part of the canon but whose origin was obscure and whose content was of dubious value. In Reformation times the term was applied to the writings specifically listed in this article. These are not forged or spurious documents, nor is the origin of them unknown, since they appeared towards the close of the Old Testament period and in the early part of the history of the New. The contents, however, are considered far inferior to that of the canonical books. It is in this latter sense that our Confession employs the term apocryphal.

There was apparently no unanimity among the ancient church fathers on the question. Some of them quote from these books in their theological writings and ascribe them a place of honor along .with the canonical books of the Old Testament. This may be explained from the fact that while these books were not included in the Hebrew Canon and were never accepted by the Jews, they do appear in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament which had been prepared in Alexandria ca. 200 B.C. Others of the fathers, notably Athanasius, sharply distinguished between the books of the Hebrew Canon and the apocryphal books which might be read for the edification of the people but which possessed no divine authority. Throughout the Middle Ages the apocrypha were read in the churches and judged to be divinely inspired. Rome’s decision at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was vague, but the Vatican Council of 1870 ended all uncertainty within the Church of Rome by declaring the apocryphal books divine and canonical.

The position taken by Article VI was expressed early in the Reformation. In Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible these books appear after Malachi as books not to be accorded canonical dignity, but which may be read with profit. Calvin was in complete agreement with this stand. Calvin argued that these were rightly designated, apocryphal, since they contained only private opinion and were not part of God’s special revelation to, His people. Later this issue was rather sharply debated at the great Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). Many still favored the age-old custom of permitting the reading of these books in public worship. Especially Gomarus (usually on the “right side” of issues!) insisted that they should be eliminated from the official Dutch translation of the Scriptures. The Synod, however, decided to include these books in small print after the canonical writings with the warning: “because they are not canonical, they are not to be read publicly in the congregation.” It seems strange that this Synod which adopted the official version of our Confession did not strike from Article VI the words, “all of which the church may read and take instruction from. . .”

In, spite of this statement, the creed is clear enough. While the apocryphal books may be read and we may take: instruction from them, this is qualified by the statement: “so far as they agree with the canonical books. . .” Still more, the Confession goes on to assert “that they are far from having such power and efficacy, so that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith, or of the Christian religion; much less detract from the authority of the other sacred books.”

The position of our creed is that the apocryphal books are not divinely inspired and therefore do not belong within the Canon of the holy and divine Scriptures. This position rests upon solid ground. It is a fact (and; this was the chief objection raised by the Reformers) that the Old Testament Church to whom “were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2) never included them among the canonical writings. By divine guidance the saints of the old dispensation refused to accept these books as inspired Scripture. This is why, too, Jesus and His apostles never refer to these or quote from them. Then, too, it is immediately evident upon reading them that the lofty language of the Scriptures is not present. Consider the following passage chosen at random: “They threw Daniel into the lions’ den, and he was there for six days: There were seven lions in the den, and every day they had been given two human bodies and two sheep; but these were not given to them now, so that they might devour Daniel. Now the prophet Habakkuk was in Judea. He had boiled pottage and had broken bread into a bowl, and was going into the field to take it to the reapers. But the angel of the Lord said to Habakkuk, ‘Take the dinner which you have: to Babylon, to Daniel, in the lions’ den.’ Habakkuk said, ‘Sir, I have never seen Babylon, and I know nothing about the den.’ Then the angel of the Lord took him by the crown of his head, and lifted him !by his hair and set him down in Babylon, right over the den, with the rushing sound of the wind itself. Then Habakkuk shouted, ‘Daniel, Daniel! Take the dinner which God has sent you.’ And Daniel said, ‘Thou hast remembered me, O God, and hast not forsaken those who love thee.’ So Daniel arose and ate. And the angel of the Lord immediately returned Habakkuk to his own place.” (The Apocrypha, Bel And The Dragon verses 31-37, Revised Standard Version.) Another passage which illustrates this point goes as follows: “This, then, is how matters turned out with Nicanor. And from that time the city has been in the possession of the Hebrews. So I too will here end my story. If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do. For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end.” (II Maccabees 15:37-39)

Even more serious than the above is the fact that these writings contain teachings contrary to the doctrine of the Scriptures. In Jesus Syrach alms and prayers are presented as meritorious works. In II Maccabees 12:39-45 we read of a certain Judas who paid for prayers for the dead in order to effect their atonement. This was called a “sin offering.” Tobit teaches an unbiblical conception of angels and demons and mentions with approval certain magical practices as is evident from the following passage: “Now as they proceeded on their way they came at evening to the Tigris river and camped there. Then the young man went down to the river to wash himself. A fish leaped up from the river and would have swallowed the young man; and the angel (his traveling companion, R.D.) said to the young man, ‘Catch the fish.’ So the young man seized the fish and threw it up on the sand. Then the angel said to him, ‘Cut upon the fish and take the heart and liver and gall and put them safely away.’ So the young man did as the angel told him; and they roasted and ate the fish. And they both continued on their way until they came near to Ecbatana. Then the young man said to the angel, ‘Brother Azarias, of what use is the liver and heart and gall of the fish?’ He replied, ‘As for the heart and liver, if a demon or evil spirit gives trouble to anyone, you make a smoke from these before the man or woman, and that person will never be troubled again. And as for the gall, anoint with it a man who has white films in his eyes, and he will be cured.'” (Tobit 6:1-8)

Finally, there is the fact that some of these apocryphal writers openly disclaim divine inspiration. This is stated in the prologue to Jesus Syrach and repeatedly mentioned by the writer of First and Second Maccabees. On these grounds the Reformed Churches refuse to receive these as “holy and divine Scriptures.” They may not be used to confirm a point of faith or to detract from the authority of the other sacred books. We may read them only in so far as they agree with the rest of Scripture. Their value is very limited. Perhaps it is best that we ignore them completely. One thing is sure, we believe: “that those Holy Scriptures (the sixty-six books of the Canon of Holy Writ, R.D.) fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein.” (Art. VII)