THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CANONICAL AND APOCRYPHAL BOOKS
We distinguish those sacred books from the apocrypha, viz.: the third and fourth books of Esdras, the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Sirach, Baruch, the Appendix to the book of Esther, the Song of the Three Children in the Furnace, the History of Susannah, of Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, 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 that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books.
Most of the subject of this article was addressed, implicitly, back in article IV. There, the canon was delineated in a positive sense, i.e. by expressly listing what books were to be considered sacred. Here, the canon is again delineated, but this time in a negative sense, i.e. by expressly listing those books whose sacred status was debated.
The position taken by the Reformers regarding the Apocrypha–expressed here in this confession–was one of nuanced and qualified acceptance. These books were not to be shunned or rejected, but neither were they to be uncritically accepted or revered. To the extent that these works agreed with the identified canon, they were to be considered beneficial and even instructive. Yet to the extent that they deviated from the identified canon, they were to be recognized as fallible and un-inspired.
The two main points made are:
- The Apocrypha is not to be used as the foundation for particular points of Christian doctrine. The chief example of this relates to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. The text that may seem to point to something like this idea is found in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, which is then used to interpret (or reinterpret) other canonical verses. The confession rejects this kind of doctrinal maneuver. These books should not be used to formulate points of doctrine that are not expressly found already in the canon.
- Nothing in the Apocrypha can be used to deny or refute doctrine that is expressly formulated from the canon. If there is a point of disagreement, the error lies in these works, and not vice versa.
These are simple points, but they carried a lot of weight in the debates swirling during the time the confession was penned. For that matter, this article provides us with an important framework still today. Just because a widely affirmed, spiritual, or elegant piece of writing proposes a particular belief does not mean that it is authentic or reliable. And whenever a widely affirmed, spiritual, or elegant piece of writing contradicts something found in the canon, we err grievously if we reinterpret or reject Scripture in light of this.
True Christian doctrine is grounded in the inspired Word. The parameters of orthodoxy are tied to the scope of the canon. Other works, beneficial and instructive though they may be, are to be seen as just that: other works, and not the living, active, and infallible Word of God.