Second, throughout the history of the Christian church, and especially since the Reformation, there has been a consistent testimony that the deuterocanonical books are not inspired by God and therefore should be distinguished from the rest of the canon of Scripture. For example, the Puritan divines who composed the Westminster Confession of Faith said, “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (WCF 1.3). Likewise, article 6 of the Belgic Confession says, “We distinguish those sacred books [the Protestant canon] from the apocryphal” since “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.” Calvin also argued that by “admitting all the Books promiscuously into the Canon,” Roman Catholics have done this “against the consent of the primitive Church,” since these writings were “called by the Fathers not canonical but ecclesiastical books, which might indeed be read to the people, but were not entitled to establish doctrine.”
Indeed, it was not until the Council of Trent decreed in April 1546 that the Roman Catholic Church’s canon of the Old Testament should contain the Apocrypha—with the exception of the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras. This decree also condemned anyone who did not “accept these entire books, with all their parts, as they have customarily been read in the Roman Catholic Church and are found in the ancient editions of the Latin Vulgate, as sacred and canonical.” As Calvin famously said, “The spirit of Trent wished, by this decree, that Scripture should only signify to us whatever dreaming monks might choose.”
However, some have highlighted that a number of church fathers, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandra, and Cyprian, quoted regularly from the books of the Apocrypha and regarded them as inspired Scripture. Although these fathers did regard these books as Scripture, one contributing factor is that they did not read Hebrew, and therefore followed the Septuagint, which bound the books of the Apocrypha alongside the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, when Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to produce the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, he deliberately separated the Hebrew canon from the Apocrypha, placing several of the latter in an appendix with a prefatory explanation for why they were not part of the canon. Despite the concern of Jerome and subsequent copyists to preserve these distinctions, some throughout church history, especially during the medieval period, still regarded these books as inspired Scripture. Yet many others before the Reformation, including Justin Martyr, Gregory the Great, and John Wycliffe, maintained the distinction between these books and canonical books. The fact that pre-Reformation divines had given canonical status to books excluded from the Hebrew canon is a further testimony to the need of the medieval church for a Reformation ad fontes (back to the sources).
Protestants have also pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church uses the deuterocanonical books to support doctrinal and theological points, including the doctrines of purgatory and praying for the dead, that are affirmed nowhere in the traditional Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. In short, during the Reformation, debates over doctrine were integrally tied to the debates about which books were authoritative. Not only did the Protestants affirm that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority in faith and practice, but they were zealous to preserve the integrity of the canon, only recognizing the authority of those books affirmed throughout the history of the Christian church. While this reality should not deter us from reading the Apocrypha for insight about the background of the New Testament, it should caution us to ensure that our doctrine and practice is based on sola Scriptura.
This article draws heavily on the content in Bruce Metzger, “Preface” and “Introduction to the Apocrypha,” in Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1965), vii–xxiii.