The Belgic Confession, Article VI

We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal, viz.: the third and fourth 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 Susannah, of Bell 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 having such 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.

This article of our Confession is probably of little real concern to most Reformed believers today. In many, if not most, instances there is but slight acquaintance with the very term “apocryphal books,” and, I find, almost no acquaintance whatsoever with the books themselves that are designated by this term. There was a time when these books were printed in both the Dutch and the English versions of the Bible. But today that is no longer the case. And therefore it is quite understandable that people know little or nothing of these books. Nor is this any great reason for alarm. For in the actual life of the church today the apocryphal books and their relation to the canonical books present no vital question, except in regard to our continuing controversy with Rome, which attributes to the books in question a place in the canon. And, of course, it was that very controversy with Rome concerning the Scriptures that occasioned, in Reformation times, the official confessional statement that is found in our Confessio Belgica.

Necessity, therefore, also compels us to deal with this article.

But other reasons may be found for treating the article than the mere fact that it has its place in our creed. First of all, the subject is rather interesting to anyone who has a healthy curiosity concerning things Reformed. In fact, I would advise our readers to get a paperback edition of the apocryphal books. Some of them not only make interesting reading, but the reading of these books is also worthwhile merely in order to see for yourself how different they are from the canonical books. Besides, even our Confession ascribes a certain value to, the books; and of some of them more than others this is certainly true. In the second place, this article serves to illustrate once again the altogether unique place that the Scriptures, that is, the canonical books, have in the Reformed view. In fact, it may safely be maintained that on no other basis than that of a strict and well-defined doctrine of infallible inspiration can the fundamental distinction between the canonical and the apocryphal writings be made. The whole basis of this article is that there is an essential difference between the two.

The Name and Meaning of “Apocryphal Books.”

The term apocryphal means that which is “hidden, obscure.” The term is used either with respect to the origin and source of a thing—in this case, certain writings—or with respect to the contents and meaning thereof. It can also denote that which is withdrawn from public view and use. To a certain extent all three of these aspects of the term may be applied to the books in question, although not with equal force to all of them. It is, for example, not true that the origin of these books is completely hidden and obscure. Nor is it true, for example, of the first book of the Maccabees that its contents are hidden and obscure: it gives us a fairly accurate history of some of the events of the period between Malachi and Christ. Nevertheless, the term has come to be used of certain religious writings in distinction from the canonical books. And it is applied especially to the writings mentioned in this article, namely, the Old Testament apocryphal books. There are also New Testament apocrypha. But in ecclesiastical usage these are not meant by the general term “apocryphal books.” In Protestant churches the term denotes the books here mentioned, which are not considered canonical, but which are officially held by the Roman Catholic Church to be canonical.

It is in this connection, of course, that we are confronted by the essential difference between the canonical and the apocryphal books. It may be true that Article VI does not touch on this matter directly; but if you read Article VI in the context of all the rest our Confession has to say about Holy Scripture, this is very clear. And that essential difference is a difference of origin. For what is it that makes a canonical book indeed canonical? The fact that it is infallibly inspired by the Holy Ghost, is therefore the very Word of God, bespeaks divine authority. And “we distinguish these sacred books,” that is, the books of which we confessed in the previous article that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God, “from the apocryphal . . .” The apocryphal books, therefore, are not of divine origin. They are not inspired by the Holy Ghost. They are simply the productions of weak, sinful men.

This is the fundamental point which determines the whole question of the value of the apocryphal books as treated in Article VI.

The History of the Apocryphal Books

The question arises in this connection: how did it ever happen that these writings, if they are not canonical, were included with the canonical books by anyone?

And in order to answer this question we should go back to the early history of the Christian era.

None of these writings was included in the Hebrew canon, which was closed long before the new dispensation. However, for some unknown reason these writings were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Hence, when the early Christians, many of whom did not know the Hebrew language, used the Old Testament Scriptures, they used them in this Septuagint translation, and thus automatically came into contact with the books that we now call the apocryphal books. And because Greek was the universal language of the day, the Septuagint was very widely used. This explains how the use and recognition of the? apocryphal books grew in the early church of the new dispensation. They more and more took for granted that what was included in the Septuagint belonged to the Old Testament canon and was all divinely inspired. Some of the fathers referred to these writings along with the canonical books. Others made a clear distinction. Some of the outstanding scholars of that early period insisted on a sharp distinction between the apocryphal writings and the genuine books of the Hebrew canon. But practice overcame principle. And after the Septuagint, including the apocryphal writings, was long used in the church, it became virtually impossible to root it out. When the Scriptures were translated into Latin, the apocryphal books were again included. And thus the Church of Rome found itself with this inheritance of the apocryphal books.

There are several important facts concerning this phase of the history, however, that should be remembered.

In the first place, by the time the Septuagint came into being the Hebrew canon was closed, and the Hebrew canon never included the apocryphal books. These writings, in fact, belong to the period of the Four Hundred Years between the two testaments. In the second place, these books do not have the sanction of the New Testament, that is, of Christ and’ His apostles. They are never quoted in the New Testament—a fact that is striking because the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are frequently taken from the very Septuagint version in which the apocryphal books are found. In the third place, there never has been unanimity of opinion in the church concerning these books. The ancient fathers were by no means agreed. And during the Middle Ages there was not agreement. In fact, even at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent there was not complete agreement as to the status of these writings. And, in the fourth place, if appeal is made to, the decrees of the Council of Hippo, it should be remembered that even though the Council of Hippo included the apocryphal books among the canonical writings, we do not appeal to the Council of Hippo with respect to the Old Testament canon, which was long closed, but only with respect to the fixing of the New Testament canon.

But the wide acceptance of the apocryphal books in the Romish Church gave rise to the conflict with Rome on this score in Reformation times. From the outset the Reformation rejected the apocryphal books as spurious. Not immediately, however, were these writings removed from the various versions of the Bible even among Protestants. In fact, the famous Synod of Dordrecht, the same synod which revised and adopted the Confession, was faced by a problem in this regard. When the Synod ordered the preparation of an authorized translation of the Scriptures, it also decided to include the apocryphal books in the now famous “Staten Bijbel.” However, it ordered that these books should be clearly distinguished from the canonical books, and that they therefore should be printed in smaller print, should have a place after the New Testament, and should be preceded by a “warning to the readers.” It was clearly the purpose of the Synod to work toward the elimination of the apocryphal books in the usage of the church.

And what the Synod of Dordrecht intended has also happened. Today these books are no longer printed in our Bible, either in the Dutch or in the English. As far as the English Bible is concerned, they were eliminated by both the British and Foreign Bible Society and by the American Bible Society in the early nineteenth century.

Why Do We Reject the Apocryphal Books?

This article does not mention any specific reasons why the apocryphal books are rejected, except that by implication it teaches that they are not inspired.

We may briefly mention several related reasons. In the first place, these books never constituted part of the Hebrew canon, and were never recognized by the Jewish church, the custodian of the Old Testament Scriptures. In the second place, these books are nowhere recognized by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. In the third place, these writings are obviously spurious. Some of them are full of discrepancies. Some contain teachings which are in conflict with Scripture. Some are clearly fabrications. And some even disclaim inspiration for themselves. Anyone who reads the apocryphal books can immediately detect the difference.

The Value and Use of the Apocryphal Books

These books are not canonical, that is, they cannot and do not serve as a norm, a rule, for faith and life. In other words, as far as their authority is concerned, the apocryphal books are not different from any other human writings.

This means, as our Confession clearly maintains, that their relation to the canonical books is strictly subordinate and dependent. The church may read and take instruction from them “so far as they agree with the canonical books.” This means nothing else than that the apocryphal books, like any other writings, must be put to the test of Holy Scripture. That which agrees with Holy Scripture must be accepted, not because it has value in itself, but simply because it measures up to the standard of the Word of God. That which is in conflict with Scripture must be rejected because it does not measure up to the sole norm for doctrine and practice. In the second place, this means that the authority of the apocryphal books is not such that any point of Christian doctrine may be confirmed by their testimony. This also implies that only error can be maintained by an appeal to these books. And, in the third place, in case of conflict between these and the canonical books, the authority of the canonical books stands, and the apocrypha cannot detract from that authority.

The use of the apocrypha is therefore strictly optional in the church: they may be read. And, without treating in detail the contents of the various books mentioned, we may add that the most useful of these books is undoubtedly the First Book of the Maccabees, which sheds much historical light on the intertestamentary period. The use of the canonical books, however, is strictly mandatory: they must be read.