Posts tagged ‘Lutheran’

Common Question: What’s the Deal with the Apocrypha?

Apocrypha 166 books. That’s how many books are in the Good Book.  At least, that’s what I had always been taught.  But then, a Roman Catholic friend of mine in high school claimed there was more to the Bible than the 66 books I had read since I was a little boy.  There were actually 73 books, he explained.  And these additional books had strange names like “Maccabees” and “Judith” and “Tobit” and even “Bel and the Dragon.” As he showed me these books, I was flummoxed.  “Why hadn’t I ever heard of these books?” I asked myself.

These mysterious books to which I was introduced in high school are widely known as the “Apocrypha,” a Greek adjective meaning “hidden.”  And though many Christians do not regularly read these books, they are indeed a part of the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture.  In fact, one of the questions I often receive as a pastor is, “Why do Roman Catholics have ‘extra’ books in their Bible?”

Because the Apocrypha is a source of a lot of confusion, I thought it would be worth it to offer a brief history of these books along with an analysis of them from a Lutheran Christian perspective.

The books of the Apocrypha were written between the close of the Old Testament in 430 BC and the beginning of the New Testament.  These books include historical accounts, supplements to famous Old Testament books such as Daniel and Esther, and wisdom books akin to the Proverbs.

From the beginning, these books were never fully embraced by the Church as inspired Scripture. Paul Maier, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, explains:

The Apocrypha … were not included in the final canon of the Hebrew Bible, which was debated by rabbis at Jamnia (near Jerusalem) in AD 93. Thus they were also not included among the very 39 books that comprise the Old Testament in Christian Bibles today …

Early on … churchmen such as Origen of Alexandria noted a difference between the Apocrypha and the Hebrew Scriptures.  Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome also drew a line of separation between the two, using the term Apocrypha for the first time in reference to these writings.  To be sure, Jerome included them in his Latin translation if the Bible, the Vulgate, but advised that the Apocrypha should be read for edification, not for supporting church dogma.[1]

Jerome’s warning against using the Apocrypha as a basis for Christian doctrine is especially important. His doctrinal concern is perhaps best illustrated by 2 Maccabees 12:44-45 when the Jewish liberator Judas Maccabeus prays for some who have died, seeking to make atonement for the sins they committed while they were still alive.  From these verses, the Roman Catholic Church derives its doctrine of Purgatory, a place where deceased believers undergo a final purification from sin that readies them for the bliss of heaven.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the doctrine of Purgatory thusly:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death the undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect.[2]

This teaching runs contrary both to the broad teaching of canonical Scripture, which declares that a person enters either paradise or hell immediately upon death (e.g., Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43), and to the gospel, because it adds to Christ’s perfectly purifying work on the cross our own work of purification in Purgatory by which we may “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” By adding our achievements to Christ’s achievement, the doctrine of Purgatory belittles and undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.  Thus, the universal Church does not treat the Apocrypha as divinely inspired.

Interestingly, the Apocrypha was not even fully embraced by the Roman Catholic Church until the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent in 1546.  In this session, it was declared:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, 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 contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.[3]

With this decree, the Roman Catholic Church effectively erased the distinction between ancient books that should be read for private edification and inspired books that should be appealed to for Christian doctrine – a distinction that Jerome, the very one who translated the Latin Vulgate, which Rome was here declaring to be its official translation, had made!  Thus, Rome took Jerome’s translation, but disregarded his distinction. And the Church has been the worse for it over the years.

All of this is not to say that the Apocrypha should be altogether disregarded. Maier notes that “Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Augustine” cited heartily from the Apocrypha.  These books give us much valuable historical insight into this time period and chronicle for us the origins of the religious parties we meet in the New Testament, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Thus, the Apocrypha is worth our time and study.  We need to know about these books.  Indeed, Martin Luther superscribed the books of the Apocrypha like this: “Books that are not be regarded as the equal of Holy Scripture but are nonetheless profitable and good to read.”[4]

If you’re looking for a good book, then, pick up the Apocrypha.  If you’re looking for a divinely inspired book, however – that book still has only 66 books.

__________________________

[1] Paul Maier, “Foreword,” The Apocrypha:  The Lutheran Edition with Notes (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2012), xv-xvi.

[2] See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), §1030-1031.

[3] The Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (April 1546).

[4] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1512, n. 20.

April 7, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – Christ and Culture

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we wrapped up our series, “Unresolved,” looking at how we, as Christians, are called to relate to our world.  This question of how a Christian interacts with the world is a longstanding quandry, and was perhaps most famously addressed in 1951, by Yale theology professor H. Richard Niebuhr in what would become the defining work of his career, Christ and Culture.  In this seminal work, Niebuhr outlines five ways in which Christianity has responded to culture, or the world:

  • Christ against culture.  Niebuhr summarizes this response as one which “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (45).[1]  Thus, this response to culture eschews most encounters with culture.  For instance, “political life is to be shunned…Military service is to be avoided because it involves participation in pagan religious rites and the swearing of an oath to Caesar” (54).  This way of thinking, then, takes a stance of deep suspicion and antagonism toward things of the world.
  • The Christ of culture.  People who adhere to this system of theologizing “feel no great tension between church and world, the social laws and the gospel, the workings of divine grace and human effort, the ethics of salvation and the ethics of social conservation or progress.  On the one hand they interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with His work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, electing from His teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about Him such points as seem to agree with what is best in civilization” (83).  Thus, this response is liberal and affectionate to the zeitgeist of a culture.
  • Christ above culture.   This, historically, has been a majority position in the Church, and posits that “the ‘world’ as culture [cannot] be simply regarded as the realm of godlessness; since it is at least founded on the ‘world’ as nature, and cannot exist save as it is upheld by the Creator and Governor of nature” (117-118).  In other words, though Christ is not opposed to culture inherently because He in some sense created it, He nevertheless reigns above it and is certainly grieved by the sin that has crept into it.  As Niebuhr writes, “The fundamental issue does not lie between Christ and the world, important as that issue is, but between God and man” (117), for man is sinful.
  • Christ and culture in paradox.  Like the response of Christ above culture, this view sees the fundamental issue as one between God and man:  “The issue lies between the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self.  On the one side are we with all of our activities, our states and our churches, our pagan and our Christian works; on the other side is God in Christ and Christ in God…It is not a question about Christians and pagans, but a question about God and man” (150).  How does Christ deal with men who are against Him?  By means of His law and His gospel.  Niebuhr says this is the position of great theological luminaries such as Augustine and Luther.
  • Christ the transformer of culture.  This response “is most closely akin to dualism [i.e., Christ and culture in paradox], but…what distinguishes conversionists from dualists is their more positive and hopeful attitude toward culture…[Conversionists have] a view of history that holds that to God all things are possible in a history that is fundamentally not a course of merely human events but always a dramatic interaction between God and men” (190-191, 194).

Although Niebuhr never explicitly endorses any of these five views, he offers no criticism of the fifth view.  Many scholars, then, believe that this is the view to which Niebuhr gives his tacit approval.

So which view is correct?  On the one hand, save the second response, all of these views have something valuable to offer to orthodox Christians.  On the other hand, to simple accept each view as equally valid quickly degenerates into an anachronistic and individualistic pluralism.  That is, accepting each view indiscriminately enables each individual Christians to respond anachronistically to different situations in their lives using whichever model they arbitrarily deem best at the time.  This will not do.  The question we must ask, then, is, “Which of these five views is normative for the other four?”  The Lutheran response would be, “Christ and culture in paradox.”  Why?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, this view understands the root of our problem, which is not culture per se, but us.  The reason there is even any discussion concerning how Christ relates to culture is because the people of culture are sinful and depraved, hostile to God.  Second, because this view is realistic about human sinfulness, it does not fall into self-righteousness, for it understands that “all of us are in the same boat,” as it were, and therefore encourages us to love our neighbor and serve in our respective vocations, just as Christ commands.  Thus, we, as Christians, in our life’s stations, are called to proclaim the  “gospel of faith in Christ working by love in the world of culture” (179).  This understanding, in turn, frees us up to decry the evil not only of culture, but of ourselves, as does the view of Christ against culture. Yet, it does not fall into separatism.  It allows us to herald the transcendent gospel as the solution to this world’s problems as does the view of Christ above culture.  Yet, it does not fall into dualism or even a soft Deism.  And it allows us to serve in our vocations for the good of our neighbors, transforming culture, as does the view of Christ the transformer of culture.  Yet, it still realizes that we, as culture is transformed, are by no means able or responsible for creating a utopian society.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the view that Christ and culture are in paradox is simply this:  it acknowledges and allows the tension between Christ and culture.  And it admits that we can never remove this tension or relegate it to a non-issue.  This, in turn, empowers us, as Christians, to engage our world thoughtfully and humbly, for we, like the rest of the world, are sinners, but we are also joyfully and freely redeemed by Christ.

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[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York:  Harper & Row, 1951).

February 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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