Sunday, March 18, 2007

Luther, the Church Fathers, and the Apocrypha

I've recently been talking to a kind Roman Catholic woman and noticed her repeating an often-told tale: the tale of how Martin Luther mutilated the Bible and removed books from it. It's a wonderful and widely-accepted tale; the problem is that it's not true.

Luther's Bible
Because Luther was fond of stating his opinion (fonder, possibly, than was wise, but I'm a blogger so who am I to find fault?), and because Luther was often forceful and hot-headed (again I feel a strange reluctance to criticize that bit of dust in his eye), people who want to find something with which to criticize Luther really have no shortage of material. It's easy to find people arguing that Luther really wanted to remove this, that, or the other book from the Bible. But the truest test of what a person wants is what they actually do, given the chance. When Luther actually published his translation of the Bible into German, it did contain the books now known either as Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical (depending on your preferences); they were included as sort of an appendix to the Old Testament. To argue that Luther removed books from the Bible is less than accurate; his translation included the books.

Still, the question of Luther and these books becomes more interesting when we look at the comment he placed in their preface in his translation of the Bible. Before we examine his comment on these books, it will help to review some comments of the early church which Luther seemed to have in mind, echoing their language as he does.

Jerome on the Canon of Scripture
Jerome, one of the fathers of the early church, is probably best known for his work on the standard translation of Scripture into Latin, a translation used by the western church for centuries afterward. In the so-called "helmeted prologue" to his early translation of Samuel and Kings, he lists the books of the Old Testament but his list does not include any of the books in question. He then makes this comment on books outside the list:
Whatever falls outside these must be set apart among the Apocrypha. Therefore Wisdom, which is commonly entitled Solomon's, with the book of Jesus the son of Sirach, Judith, Tobias and the 'Shepherd' are not in the canon. I have found the first book of Maccabees in Hebrew, the second is in Greek, as may be proved from the language itself.
Here Jerome lists the canon, and does not include Judith, Tobit, Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, and so forth in the canon.

But what did the separate division of "Apocrypha" mean for practical purposes? Jerome explains in his prologue to The Three Books of Solomon:
Therefore as the church indeed reads Judith, Tobit and the books of Maccabees, but does not receive them among the canonical books, so let it also read these two volumes (Wisdom and Sirach aka Ecclesiasticus - ed.) for the edification of the people but not for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas.
It is important to note that Jerome does not cite his own opinion here, but appeals to the practice of the church that these books are not received in the same way, or with the same status as the others, and are not suitable for establishing the authority of ecclesiastical dogmas. As you may already know, this becomes a topic of importance in church history, especially concerning Luther and which doctrines he contested, doctrines established on the authority of the books of Maccabees.

Athanasius on the Canon of Scripture
Athanasius, famed church father and defender of orthodoxy, was also patriarch of Alexandria and, as such, in charge of one certain function for the entire church catholic: sending a letter each year to announce the date of the following Resurrection celebration. The letters also tended to answer questions that had arisen during the year. In his 39th Festal Letter written to announce the date of the upcoming Resurrection celebration for AD 367, Athanasius wrote down the canon of Scripture, apparently in order to deal with people introducing other works as Scripture, and to make sure the limits were clearly set for which books were Scriptural. He lists the Old Testament canon with twenty-two books which is largely identical to the Protestant canon but lacks Esther and may contain some additional material of Jeremiah. He lists the New Testament canon with an identical list to that found in modern Bibles but in a different order. After concluding these two lists, his comments are worth quoting at length; emphasis added where I wish to call attention to certain portions:
These are the 'springs of salvation', so that one who is thirsty may be satisfied with the oracles which are in them. In these alone is the teaching of the true religion proclaimed as good news. Let no one add to these or take anything from them. For concerning these our Lord confounded the Sadducees when he said, ' You are wrong because you do not know the scriptures.' And he reproved the Jews, saying, 'You search the scriptures, because ... it is they that bear witness to me.'

For the sake of greater accuracy I must needs, as I write, add this: there are other books outside these, which are not indeed included in the canon, but have been appointed from the time of the fathers to be read to those who are recent converts to our company and wish to be instructed in the word of the true religion. These are the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith and Tobit, the so-called 'Teaching of the Apostles' and the 'Shepherd'. But while the former are included in the canon and the latter are read, no mention is to be made of the apocryphal works.
We should not assume that Athanasius and Jerome had the same status in mind in using "apocryphal". Jerome seems to have meant "outside the canon but permissible for reading in church". Athanasius also recognizes the category of books which are outside the canon but permissible for reading in church, but uses "apocryphal works" to mean things beyond that which are considered spurious and not approved for reading. It is worth noting that Athanasius does not list the books of Maccabees either among the canon of Scripture or among those useful to be read.

Luther's Comments on the Apocrypha
Back to Luther. He did include the disputed books in his translation of the Bible. He placed them in a separate section, as mentioned, as an appendix to the Old Testament. That section was titled as follows:
The Apocrypha: Books which are not to be held equal to holy scripture, but are useful and good to read.

Questions of Authority
Luther's comment introducing the Apocrypha raises several questions of authority. After Jerome and Athanasius had recorded the comments reviewed above, various local or regional church councils recognized additional books. This recognition never occurred at a church-wide ecumenical council such as the famous council of Nicea which gave us much of our current Nicene Creed. The lack of an ecumenical council to discuss the canon is one reason why the Eastern churches and the Western churches still have somewhat different canons of Scripture to this day, the Eastern churches generally having additional Old Testament books not read in our Western churches. Was Luther right to return those books to their more ancient status in the church, a status which affirmed they were suitable for reading but not suitable for dogma? Or when Rome later accepted these books into the Western canon, did their status change as far as their suitability for establishing dogma? If a status change like that were made affecting the whole church, why was there no ecumenical council? Could the unequivocal opinion stated by Jerome and Athanasius be reversed without doing violence to the idea of a continuity of teaching from the earliest days of the church? If the church, as an ongoing concern, has its own authority, to what extent can it reverse the earlier opinion of the church? To what extent does a reversal of opinion in some quarters cause a legitimate question about credibility, permanence of decrees, and claims to fixed and objective standards? Is a return to the more ancient beliefs of the church ever wrong? If so, what happens to apostolic origins? If not, is church authority limited and circumscribed by what has gone before?

I'm not going to pretend to answer those questions. It's likely obvious enough where I stand. It's also likely obvious enough why there is tension over this issue between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic churches. For today, if I have shown that Luther did not actually mutilate the Bible, that will do. But, as is typical of Luther, he does raise some important questions, whether or not you agree with his answer.


Andrew said...

What about the books Luther removed / appendicised (call it what you will) from the New Testament?

Weekend Fisher said...

He didn't "remove" or "appendicize" anything at all from the NT. Luther's translation contained the same 27 books of the NT that you'd expect. He wasn't equally fond of all the NT books, but then again neither was the ancient church.

Andrew said...

Luther did the same sort of thing to 5 NT books as he did to the Apocrapha in the OT. ie not include them his numbered list of canon, put them in an appendix, and stated that they were of lesser value than the other books.

Andrew said...

Sorry, typo - he did it to FOUR New Testament books (Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation) not 5.

Weekend Fisher said...

He recognized the ancient category of "antilegomena" (books that were accepted with reservations by the ancient church) but he still considered them to be canonical (unlike the Apocrypha). Btw that's another quibble the Lutherans have with Rome, is that they treat the books that were accepted with reservations on the same level as the books which were accepted without reservations.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion!

Just because there wasnt an ecumenical council which decided the canon doesn't mean that it was open for discussion. The local councils which reversed the opinions of Athanasius and Jerome were ratified by the pope and thereby binding on all Christians until around 1054.

Now just because Jerome claims to be speaking for 'the Church' does not mean that he is. (See any statement by just about any Jesuit theologian for a perfect modern day illustration).

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Fiddler

I think you've fairly well repeated the common Roman Catholic stand on the issue. It assumes rather than discusses what I consider to be the next question: did the bishop of Rome have the authority to speak for the whole church without an ecumenical council? Which is another discussion.

You cast doubt on the truthfulness or accuracy of the words of Jerome. If he were an untrustworthy witness, or unacquainted with the canon of Scripture, or if we had no other people saying similar things, we might more doubt his word. But as Jerome is generally considered trustworthy, and familiar with the Christian writings, and as there are other early Christian sources which confirm that some books (e.g. Hebrews and James) were not held in the same esteem as (say) the books of Acts or Romans, I think we're on safe ground saying Jerome was correct in his reporting that there were some books not as well received in the church.

Take care & God bless

Unknown said...

What you fail to mention that in some later writings, Jerome actually goes back and calls some of the Apocryphal writings Scriptures. Also to suggest that just because Jerome and Athanasius did not consider certain books canonical, the churches in general did not do so is inaccurate. What you also fail to mention is that early Christians (even around 100 A.D.) were praying for the dead much before Jerome and Athanasius (who also did by the way)- and did not base this doctrine on 2 Maccabees alone, but the oral tradition of the Apostles.

Finally, Luther would certainly have discarded the above mentioned 4 NT books, if it were not for his theologian Philip Melancthon who reportedly dissuaded him from doing so. Also, for several years after Luther, Lutherans excluded the above mentioned books based on Luther's writings (which is what matters, not just one quote).

Therefore it would help for everyone to provide facts which are well balanced in order to have a good discussion. It irks me as an Evangelical, that Christians from either side will try to suppress certain facts in order to win an argument. We would not be having this discussion if the matter of the OT canon had been irrevocably determined by the church fathers and councils, which by implication means, those books were probably read on a similar level as Scripture