We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal, 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 or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books. (Belgic Confession, Article 6)
Article 6 of the Belgic Confession deals with the Apocryphal (i.e. non-canonical) books, and so clearly and explicitly distinguishes them from the canonical books.
Many in our day might see any discussion of the Apocrypha as unnecessary, or even as a waste of time, but surely it is significant that the authors of both of the most prominent Reformed confessions of faith that were produced in the 16th and 17th centuries (i.e. the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith) saw fit to include explicit statements on this very subject.
The Background of the Apocrypha
The apocryphal books were so named because the origin and authorship of these books was unknown.1 (The word “apocrypha” means “hidden”.) They were rejected as being non-canonical by the ancient church.
The apocryphal books were included in the Septuagint (LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. The apocryphal books, however, were not included in the Hebrew Canon. When Jerome (347-420 A.D.) later translated the Septuagint into Latin, he then included the apocryphal books as well.
The apocryphal books later came to be accepted as canonical by both the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, the Council of Trent (1546) went so far as to declare that anyone who failed to receive the apocryphal books as holy and canonical “as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately condemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema” (i.e. accursed or condemned).
The Rejection of the Apocrypha
The Protestant Reformers, following the lead of the history of the early church, rejected the Apocryphal books, and made a clear distinction between them and the canonical books. The first part of this Article’s statement on the Canon says, “We distinguish those sacred books from the apocryphal . . . .” And for the sake of clarity the Confession lists both the canonical books (Article 4) as well as the apocryphal or non-canonical books (Article 6).
The reasons for the rejection of the Apocrypha are many. First, they were not considered to be a part of the Hebrew canon. Their origin was some time after the writing of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Not only that, but the apocryphal books were also not accepted as being canonical by the ancient church.
Not only was the authorship and origin of the apocryphal books in question, but their content was found to contain blatant historical inaccuracies and theological errors that contradicted the teachings of Scripture. Daniel R. Hyde notes:
“Finally, the basis for the doctrine of purgatory is supposedly found in the words of 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, which mentions prayer for the dead (v.44).”2
Seeing that the Roman Catholic church uses these non-canonical books to establish or support unbiblical doctrines and practices serves to show why this issue was found to be important enough to be included as one of the articles of faith in the Belgic Confession (as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith – 1.3).
The Use of the Apocrypha
Article 6 of the Belgic Confession, despite explicitly rejecting the apocryphal books as being non-canonical, nevertheless does not forbid or prohibit the church from using them. It goes on to state:
“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 or of the Christian religion; much less may they be used to detract from the authority of the other, that is, the sacred books.”
So, according to the Belgic Confession, we may read them and even”take instruction from” them, but only as they are found to be in agreement with the teachings of Scripture. No point of doctrine may be established or confirmed by them (e.g. purgatory), nor are we to view them as authoritative. Whenever their teachings are found to contradict those of Scripture, those teachings of the Apocrypha must be rejected.
Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states:
“The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” (1.3)
And so it is clear that we are to view the apocryphal books as not being inspired or canonical, but simply as any other merely human (and so fallible) writings. That means that we may certainly read them, and at times may even learn from them. But when all is said and done, they must be carefully weighed and judged according to the Scriptures themselves, which are our only inspired and authoritative rule for faith and practice.
2 Ibid, p.98