The Apocryphal Lessons

Dear Theophilus,

I, too, have some difficulties about reading the Apocrypha in Morning and Evening Prayer, in light of our affirmation that the enscripturated word of God, because inspired, cannot err. I do see the Apocrypha as part of the Bible, but not with verbal, plenary inspiration, and therefore (as the Thirty-Nine Articles confess) not canonical for establishing doctrine, though canonical as given by God for moral edification. Being among the books used to teach catechumens for baptism, along with the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocrypha do have a certain standing; nevertheless, they lack the authority of the Old Testament’s inspired and inerrant books, whose full canonicity our Lord affirms in referring to all the blood from Abel to Zechariah (Luke 11.51).

Still, notwithstanding claims that they are rejected by the Pharisees, the Apocrypha remain in use among them, not least for Hanukkah, when the Maccabees are appointed by their prayer books. The Church of England’s two Books of Homilies quote the Apocryphal books, and the Apocrypha appear not only in the King James Bible but also in that of Geneva; likewise the Luther Bible and the Reina-Valera Bible both include the Apocrypha. What St Jerome calls Apocrypha can also be called Anagignoskomena (ἀναγιγνωσκόμενα, ‘things that are read’). That they are good and useful is unexceptionable. John Bunyan, in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, tells us how God strengthened him against the temptation to despair of his salvation, with these words: Look at the generations of old and see: did any ever trust in God, and were confounded?

At which I was greatly encouraged in my soul […] So coming home, I presently went to my Bible, to see if I could find that saying, not doubting but to find it presently […] Thus I continued above a year, and could not find the place; but at last, casting my eye upon the Apocrypha books, I found it in Ecclesiasticus, chap. ii. 10. This, at the first, did somewhat daunt me; because it was not in those texts that we call holy and canonical; yet, as this sentence was the sum and substance of many of the promises, it was my duty to take the comfort of it; and I bless God for that word, for it was of good to me. That word doth still ofttimes shine before my face.

Keep in mind that the liturgy does show a certain reserve in not calling the Apocrypha the word of the Lord, saying only, ‘Here endeth the first (or the second) lesson.’ The Reformers did, in fact, when revising the Prayer Book in 1552, remove from the prayers anything attested to by the Apocrypha alone, since of those things we could not be certain. In the context of the year’s end, however, especially when the Collect is ‘Stir up’ &c., we may remember that these books come only after the most authoritative, from which we have heard the rest of the year, and by which we have defined our canonical obedience. We can, then, be edified by these apocryphal books, knowing that many of the catholic and orthodox have even held them to be among the Scriptures, not imposing upon them absolute demands of inerrancy. Since the Apocrypha do prefigure or anticipate Christ enough that the New Testament alludes to them as one might allude to Scripture, we can in this time of the year hold them together with the New Testament, seeing Christ as the fulfilment of all the messianic hopes that the Apocrypha express: and so we can still sing Te Deum and Magnificat in response, not troubling ourselves for the fact that the Apocrypha do not establish Christian doctrine. Far from being books of straw, the Apocrypha, rightly received, are blessed guidance for the Christian life, if only we will establish our thoughts on Christ himself and judge according to the truth, in which I remain,

Yours in Christ,
Lue-Yee Tsang

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