The Protestant problem of Sola Scriptura and the canonicity of the Apocrypha.

When the Protestant Reformation happened, the newly formed movement championed the idea, still triumphant today, that the sole authority of Christians and the Church was the bible. But which bible? And who picked these books? Because there used to be more than 66.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola scriptura and sola fide),  but this was not generally accepted among his followers.

He disliked them so much, he made sure they were put last in the German-language Luther Bible. And to this day, in the Luther Bible, they still are! In addition, Luther moved the books that later became the Deuterocanonicals into a section he called the Apocrypha. That is right, we call books the apocrypha because the man who wanted to kick the book of James out of the bible called them that.

Martin Luther failed to remove any books. But someone did.

So when did the protestant church remove the apocrypha? The apocrypha was in every King James Bible until 1666. That was 55 years where it was published with the apocrypha. It was removed as a political decision made the nonconformists and other anti-catholic forces who helped pass a law that forbade the reading of the apocrypha. In 1826, the  British and Foreign Bible Society decided they also would not print the apocrypha. So for many years, some versions of the bible in english had it, and some did not. It depended on how much the publishers hated catholics. 

Hmm. So much for not altering a holy bible.

It seems strange for protestants to do that, given their belief in sola scriptura. Let’s look at the issue of Sola Scriptura.

Up until Martin Luther, the “authority” of the church, in a temporal sense, had lain with the church. I think most Christians would agree that God is the true authority of the church , but when people squabble over doctrine and ethics, they have to turn to more temporal sources.

It would be a revision of history to claim that the early Christians had “the bible” as their authority.

The early Christians were largely Jewish and even when it spread to gentiles, they turned to Hebrew sources as their scriptures. However, these were not the books of the old testament. They read all the books of the Septuagint, which included the books Luther called the apocrypha.

Paul explicitly quotes the book of Enoch, and it seems obvious that one does not quote a book as a spiritual authority  if that book does not have great value.

I find it interesting that churches that want to “be like the early church and Paul” do not devour the same books that the early church did– by this I mean they ignore the apocrypha.

It is important to note that Paul did not offer his own translations of the Hebrew bible into Greek. He quoted, word for word, the Septuagint. The early church always used the Septuagint, and the Septuagint is used to this day by the Greek orthodox church. It has always included the apocrypha. The early Christians would have been conversant with the apocrypha.  For example, Origen was known to have quoted the apocryphal books and actually calls the book of Sirach scripture. To give an actual citation,   in his homily #12 on Genesis Origin writes, “For hear what the Scripture says: ‘Prick the eye and it will bring forth a tear; prick the heart and it brings forth understanding.’”  This is a quotation from the Deuterocanonical book of Sirach, chapter 22, verse 19.

But they did not just read the OT/apocrypha. Soon they would be circulating letters from Paul. But very popular amongst early Christians were books like the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and other works.

The scriptures themselves point to how early Christians based their community.

In acts it is written “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. “

The early Christians greatest source of teaching were the oral words of the apostles about Jesus.

The important thing to note about being a follower of Jesus is not to look at church history. But to look at Jesus.

Jesus left his oral teachings in the hands of the apostles. And he imparted the holy spirit 50 days after his ascension to heaven.

What seems obvious, is that Jesus had, literally, a purely pentecostal view of the church. He did not leave a sacred canon of specific books. That does not mean that the church should not have created a canon. Or that god did not guide the process. But it begs the question..when there are contradictory canons, and the church took 400 years to close the canon…what are we to think about “sola scriptura” and the idea that the 66 books of the bible are like 66 puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly?

Jesus left his core teachings in oral form. And he imparted his spirit. Orthodoxy, if you chose that path, would say that the spirit led Paul to write certain letters and the 4 communities to write the 4 gospels. The reason for writing the four gospels should be pretty obvious The original apostles were going to die. They needed a written record.

The early church quickly adopted the four gospels. They also circulated the letters of Paul However, in a 2nd century church, you were more likely to hear a reading from mark and didache than mark and revelation.

In the 2nd century, the authority of the church was 1) the Hebrew bible including the apocrypha 2) the christian writings circulating (but there was no consensus as to which had authority.) 3) the apostles themselves and later their hand picked followers who became “bishops” or leaders.

The shepherd of Hermas, an early Christian text, states, “obey your bishop as the lord.” As a protestant that really gets under my skin. And I am sure Paul would not have liked it either. But it points to the reality that very, very early on, the church has turned to the leaders as their source of authority. The bible was not the authority. The church and the circulating writings were both in play. There was no “bible” there was no canon.

So what led to the rise of the canon or codifying of the bible?

Interesting, it was a charismatic Bishop named Marcion.

Marcion was a spirit-filled prophet. He had quite a following and a radical theology. His orthodox detractors had a big problem with him because Marcion was sincere; Marcion was not a hypocrite. He lived a simple life, was humble, kind, Christ-like. He also taught ideas that virtually all modern Christians reject, like the idea that the god of the Old testament was different from the God of the new testament. His wandering bands of female prophets gained popularity.

Marcion created the first canon. His canon was simply the book of Luke and some letters of Paul.

It was at this point, in reaction to Marcion, that bishops began to realize the urgent need to codify a specific set of books. More than once in church history, a lone bishop had suggested various books as candidates for a canon. But now the whole church took it seriously.

One of the earliest suggested canons was by Origen. It was similar to the current canon but did not include  James, 2nd Peter, and the 2nd and 3rd epistles of John. Origen also included the shepherd of Hermas.


It was in 367, over 334 years after the death of Jesus, bishop athanasius put out a list. Athanasius also included the Book of Baruch, as well as the Letter of Jeremiah, in his Old Testament canon. However, from this canon, he omitted the book of Esther. By 383, under the direction of St. Augustine (who was a favorite of Martin Luther) and with the writing of the Vulgate bible in Latin (rather than in Greek) we finally had the current biblical canon (with the apocrypha, of course)

So, when people champion the 66 books of the bible as their sole authority. I just think about the early church. And I wonder..who were the christians who got to decide to remove the apocrypha?




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One Response to The Protestant problem of Sola Scriptura and the canonicity of the Apocrypha.

  1. Jonathan says:

    Interesting stuff Pete. I learned some new things. I agree with much of what you said here. Especially the idea that the earliest Christians were not primarily guided by a bible, but rather by the Holy Spirit and oral tradition. Although, as I think you mentioned, the early writings of Paul seem to quickly have begun circulating among the churches and were viewed as holding scriptural authority quite early on. But yeah, sola scripture doesn’t work very well. I actually don’t think there even is such a thing – I mean many of the denominations who claim sola scriptura actually have competing claims about biblical doctrines as they are viewed within their own TRADITION. So much for only scripture guiding their thinking.

    However, I don’t think the case can so easily be made that the early Christians regarded the Apocrypha on equal level with the other 39 books of the OT. From what I have heard Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Hilary of Potier, Origen, Jerome and other influential scholars and leaders of the church in the first few centuries, did not regard the Apocrypha on equal level with the rest of the OT. And while the Septuagint included these books in its collection (although as a separate and distinct section than the tanakh), the Old Testament canon as established by early rabbinical Judaism, or possibly even earlier, did not include the Apocrypha in its canon.

    Also, although Paul’s or Jude’s quotations or references to the Apocrypha should make us ponder and consider its validity, I don’t think that necessitates it as having been regarded by them as inspired scripture. Paul quoted from Greek poets and philosophers as well.

    Anyway, very nice article – perhaps protestants shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the apocrypha, but I still believe reasons exist for why it perhaps shouldn’t be considered on equal footing with the rest of the Old Testament.

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