On the Orthodox Old Testament Canon

Apocrypha in the 1611 KJV

Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Bishop Auxentius of Photiki

As regards the canon of the Old Testament and the apocryphal, or deuterocanonical, texts, we cannot deal with our subject as easily as…the canon of the New Testament. Here, a comparative perspective is quintessential. We might characterize the Eastern Orthodox position on the Apocrypha as lying somewhere between the stance of the Protestants and that of the Roman Catholics, which represent the extremes of a spectrum of opinion ranging from acceptance to rejection of the texts.

Excepting Psalm 151 and III Maccabees, the Roman Catholic Church accepts the Septuagint text of the Old Testament. Despite Saint Jerome’s characterization of the Apocrypha as mere ecclesiastical books, the Augustinian notion of the full canonicity of the books prevailed. Partially in response to the Protestant Reformation, and its rationalistic reassessment of the value of the deuterocanonical books, the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545-1563), in its fourth session, endowed the canon of the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha, with dogmatic authority.

To describe the Protestant position as one which rejects the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament Canon is admittedly artificial. Lacking a criterion of conciliar ratification such as the pronouncements of Trent, it is difficult to pinpoint an official Protestant determination. Moreover, there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a “Protestant” determination, simply because Protestantism is a fairly inaccurate term used to cover a broad range of theological tradition and creeds. However, we shall, for the sake of comparison (by which to elucidate the Orthodox view of the Old Testament Scripture), define as the Protestant stance the view presented by a number of historically significant Reformed bodies.

Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) translation of the Bible (1534) grouped the Apocrypha at the end of the Old Testament; they were good for reading, but not equal to Holy Writ. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1563) of the Church of England directed that the deuterocanonical texts were not to be used to establish doctrine. The King James Bible of 1611 printed the Apocrypha as separate texts between the Old and New Testaments. And the Westminster Confession of 1647 rejected the Apocrypha as writings of men only. Granted that modern Protestant theologians have varying opinions on the disputed books, our tentative, if admittedly contrived, view of the Protestant treatment of the Apocrypha marks one pole of the spectrum of attitudes.

It would be indeed unwise if we were to see the Orthodox attitude toward the Apocrypha as a kind of midpoint along our spectrum. In this sense, we would abuse our conceptual construct. The Orthodox position is one which which corresponds, in part, with both the Roman Catholic and Protestant views, neither representing one or the other faithfully, nor providing a distinct alternative to either. On the one hand, as in Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox accept the decrees of the Church Councils as authoritatively binding. On the other hand, they see these decrees as efficacious only when they are accepted by the universal Church and brought to full maturity by their compatibility with spiritual life and experience, with what is “Orthodox”. About this we will have much more to write. Suffice it to say that this principle (the marriage of practice and authority, indeed of praxis and theoria) accounts for the fact that, today (as was so vividly apparent at the unfortunate Pan-Orthodox Synod of Rhodes in 1961), Greek theological thinkers fully accept the Apocrypha, while some contemporary Russian theologians express reservations about them. Yet the unity of the two Churches prevails. It is not that two attitudes prevail in the one Church, but that the two attitudes define and constitute the position of the One Church. This is always the way we must speak of the Church, in these times of trial, when Her unity is paradoxical, internal, and not subject to cold, rational analyses. (Scripture and Tradition pp. 20-22)