William Whitaker on Augustine’s View of the Apocrypha

In history by Paul J. Barth1 Comment

We allow that the council of Carthage, and Gelasius with his seventy bishops, and Innocent, and Augustine, and Isidore call these books canonical. But the question is, in what sense they called them canonical. Now, we deny that their meaning was to make these books, of which we now speak, of equal authority with those which are canonical in the strict sense; and the truth of this we will prove from antiquity, from Augustine, and from the papists themselves.

For, in the first place, if it had been decreed by any public judgment of the whole Church, or defined in a general council, that these books were to be referred to the true and genuine canon of the sacred books, then those who lived in the Church after the passing of that sentence and law would by no means have dissented from it, or determined otherwise. But they did dissent, and that in great numbers; and amongst them some of those whom the Church of Rome acknowledges as her own children.

Therefore, there was no such judgment of the Church publicly received.

Secondly, Augustine, in that same place, plainly indicates that he did not consider those books of equal authority with the rest. For he distinguishes all the books into two classes; some which were received by all the churches, and some which were not. Then he lays down and prescribes two rules: one, that the books which all the churches receive should be preferred to those which some do not receive; the other, that those books which are received by the greater and more noble churches should be preferred to those which are taken into the canon by churches fewer in number and of less authority. It will be best to listen to Augustine himself, whose words are these (Lib. 11. c. 8. de Doct. Christ.): “Now, with respect to the canonical scriptures, let him follow the authority of the greater number of catholic churches; amongst which those indeed are to be found which merited to possess the chairs of the apostles, and to receive epistles from them. He will hold this, therefore, as a rule in dealing with the canonical scriptures, to prefer those which are received by all catholic churches to those which only some receive. But, with respect to those which are not received by all, he will prefer such as the more and more dignified churches receive, to such as are held by fewer churches, or churches of less authority.” Then follows immediately, ” Now the whole canon of scripture, in which we say that this consideration hath place,” &c.

Hence, then, I draw an easy and ready answer. We, with Jerome and many other fathers, deny these books to be canonical. Augustine, with some others, calls them canonical. Do, then, these fathers differ so widely in opinion? By no means. For Jerome takes this word “canonical” in one sense, while Augustine, Innocent, and the fathers of Carthage understand it in another. Jerome calls only those books canonical, which the church always held for canonical; the rest he banishes from the canon, denies to be canonical, and calls apocryphal. But Augustine calls those canonical which, although they had not the same perfect and certain authority as the rest, were wont to be read in the church for the edification of the people. Augustine, therefore, takes this name in a larger sense than Jerome. But, that Augustine was not so minded as to judge the authority of all these books to be equal, is manifest from the circumstance that he admonishes the student of theology to place a certain difference between the several books, to distinguish them into classes, and to prefer some to others. If his judgment of them all was the same, as the papists contend, such an admonition and direction must appear entirely superfluous. Would Augustine, if he held all the books to have an equal right to canonicity, have made such a distribution of the books? Would he have preferred some to others? Would he not have said that they were all to be received alike? But now, Augustine does prefer some to others, and prescribes to all such a rule for judging as we have seen. Therefore Augustine did not think that they were all of the same account, credit, and authority; and, consequently, is in open opposition to the papists. All this is manifest. It makes to the same purpose, that this same Augustine (de Civit. Dei, Lib. xvn. c. 20.) concedes, that less reliance should be placed upon whatever is not found in the canon of the Jews. Whence it may be collected that, when Augustine observed that some books were not received by all, or the greatest and most noble churches, his remark is to be understood of those books which are not contained in the Hebrew canon: and such are those which our churches exclude from the sacred canon.

Let it be noted too, that in the council of Carthage, and in the epistle of pope Innocent, five books of Solomon are enumerated; whereas it is certain that only three are Solomon’s. So, indeed, Augustine himself once thought that the book of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus were Solomon’s, though he afterwards changed (but without correcting) that opinion. For in the same place of his City of God he thus speaks of those books: “Learned men have no doubt that they are not Solomon’s.” This was one error in Augustine. Another, and no less one, was supposing that the book of Wisdom was written by Jesus the son of Sirach (de Doct. Christ. Lib. n. c. 8.); which error he retracts, Retract. Lib. ii. c. 4. Yet he allegeth an excuse, which is neither unhandsome nor trifling, for attributing five books to Solomon; that “these books may be all called Solomon’s, from a certain likeness which they bear.” Hence, however, it appears that Augustine was in a great mistake when he thought, first, that these two books were written by Solomon, and then, that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach. Indeed, Augustine himself testifies that these books were by no means received in all churches (De Civit. Dei. Lib. xvii. c. 20.); where he says that these books were especially received as authoritative by the Western church. To this Western church Augustine and Innocent belonged. For the oriental church never allowed to these books such great authority. But the mistake of counting Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus amongst the books of Solomon, although it is a very gross one, was yet, as we read, entertained and received by many. For pope Marcellinus, in an epistle to Solomon, adduces a testimony from Ecclesiasticus, as from Solomon; and likewise pope Sixtus II. in an epistle to Gratus: which shews sufficiently that these persons must have thought that Solomon was the author of this book. I know, indeed, that these epistles were not really written by Marcellinus or Sixtus, but are falsely attributed to them: yet still, by whomsoever written, they indicate that this opinion was a common error.

Thirdly, the papists themselves understand and interpret Augustine and the rest in the same manner as we do. For so many persons after Augustine and after those councils would never have denied these books to be canonical, if they had not perceived the reasonableness of this interpretation. If then they blame our judgment, let them at least lend some credit to their own companions and masters. I will bring forward no man of light esteem, no mean or obscure doctor, but a distinguished cardinal,—that special pillar of the popish church, Cajetan, who assuredly excelled all our Jesuits in judgment, erudition, and authority. I will recite his words, because they are express and should always be in remembrance. Thus, therefore, writes Cajetan at the end of his commentary upon the History of the old Testament: “Here,” says he, “we close our commentaries on the historical books of the old Testament. For the rest (that is, Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees) are counted by St Jerome out of the canonical books, and are placed amongst the Apocrypha, along with Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, as is plain from the Prologus Galeatus. Nor be thou disturbed, like a raw scholar, if thou shouldest find any where, either in the sacred councils or the sacred doctors, these books reckoned as canonical. For the words as well of councils as of doctors are to be reduced to the correction of Jerome. Now, according to his judgment, in the epistle to the bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, these books (and any other like books in the canon of the bible) are not canonical, that is, not in the nature of a rule for confirming matters of faith. Yet, they may be called canonical, that is, in the nature of a rule for the edification of the faithful, as being received and authorised in the canon of the bible for that purpose. By the help of this distinction thou mayest see thy way clearly through that which Augustine says, and what is written in the provincial council of Carthage.

Thus far Cajetan; in whose words we should remark two things. First, that all the statements of councils and doctors are to be subjected to the correction of Jerome. But Jerome always placed these books in the apocrypha. Secondly, that they are called canonical by some councils and Fathers, and customarily received in the canon of the bible, because they propose a certain rule of morals. There are, therefore, two kinds of canonical books: for some contain the rule both of morals and of faith; and these are, and are called, truly and properly canonical: from others no rule, but only of morals, should be sought. And these, although they are improperly called canonical, are in truth apocryphal, because weak and unfit for the confirmation of faith. We may use, if we please, the same distinction which I perceive some papists themselves to have used, as Sixtus Senensis (Bibliothec, Lib. i.), and Stapleton (Princip. Fid. Doctrin. Lib. ix. c. 6), who call some books Proto-canonical, and others Deutero-canonical. The proto-canonical are those which are counted in the legitimate and genuine canon, i. e. of the Hebrews. These Jerome’s accurate judgment hath approved; these our churches acknowledge as truly canonical. The Deutero-canonical are they which, although they be sometimes called canonical in the sense just now explained, are yet in reality apocryphal, because they do not contain the combined rule of faith and morals. The papists are greatly incensed against their partner Cajetan, on account of this most solid sentence; and some even vituperate him. Canus says, that he was deceived by the novelties of Erasmus. Let us leave them to fight with their own men. This is certain, that there never was a papist of more learning and authority than Cajetan, whom the pope sent into Germany to oppose Luther. This testimony should be a weighty one against them. Let them shake it off as they best can: and yet they never can shake it off, since it is confirmed by solid reason.

Thus we have seen how weak their argument is. They have none better: for they have none other.

William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, pages 44-49.

See also Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.9.7. 


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