Athanasius Contra Michuta #1

Recently I engaged in a brief conversation with a Catholic Answers participant. The apocrypha, the canon, and the view of Athanasius came up. He stated,

Neither Jerome (see Michuta, p. 148-152, and chapter 4), nor Athanasius, are clear opponents of the Deuterocanon. Both of them, especially Athanasius, cited books of the Deuterocanon as Scripture, a detail that supports the pro-Deuterocanon position.

-snip-

I’m also glad you think Michuta’s book is the best on the subject so far. I would agree, no doubt for different reasons than you, but all the same.

He’s referring to Roman Catholic apologist Gary Michuta’s book, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007). As to my opinion that this is the best book on the apocrypha thus far, here is what I actually said. I was actually criticizing an argument put forth by Mr. Michuta. In regard to Gary’s book, I find it a worthy effort from a Roman Catholic layman. That is, he attempted to cover information in detail (whereas most of his fellow apologists provide only a few pages). Other than that, I’ve written various articles negatively critiquing the information from the book. Those articles are on my own blog and here on aomin. I have no personal gripe against Gary. The few interactions we’ve had have been cordial. I disagree with the perspective expressed in his book, not him personally.

The comments from my opponent about Athanasius and his reliance on Mr. Michuta’s book are worth looking at. The page references cited above (148-152, chapter 4) are in regard to Jerome. Michuta treats Athanasius in chapter 3, pp. 107-113. The argument from my Catholic Answers friend is that Athanasius is not a clear opponent of the apocrypha because he cited passages from the apocrypha throughout his writings. Michuta though argues more forcefully. Michuta argues on page 113 we can be sure Athanasius accepted the apocrypha because he cited from them “in a manner commensurate with sacred scripture.” He further states “The best proof” is that Athanasius cites from the apocrypha just like he cites from non-disputed Biblical books. In fact, Michuta shows that Athanasius cites from both categories in the same writing, not distinguishing canon from apocrypha.

This may seem like a powerful argument at first glance. In fact, Roman Catholic apologists attempt this same line of argumentation on the Bible. Any allusion to an apocryphal book is said to be proof that the divine writers considered the apocrypha to be sacred scripture. This of course doesn’t logically follow. Jude quotes from Enoch, yet that book is not considered sacred scripture. Paul quoted Greek literature, yet we don’t consider that literature sacred scripture.

As a historical argument it also fails. Martin Luther clearly rejected the apocrypha but likewise quoted from it. He would quote passages from the Bible along with the apocrypha, sometimes in the same section. Simply because Luther rejected the divine canonicity of the apocrypha didn’t mean he thought it had no value. Luther says of the apocrypha, “These books are not held equal to the Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.”

A helpful historical insight from J. N. D. Kelly could equally apply to this argument:

Jerome’s conversion to ‘the Hebrew verity’ [i.e. in contrast to the LXX] carried with it an important corollary – his acceptance also of the Hebrew canon, or list of books properly belonging to the Old Testament. Since the early Church had read its Old Testament in Greek, it had taken over without question the so-called Alexandrian canon used in the Greek-speaking Jewish communities outside Palestine. This had included those books (Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Judith, etc.) which are variously described as deutero-canonical or as the Apocrypha. Around the end of the first century, however, official Judaism had formally excluded these, limiting the canon to the books which figure in English Bibles as the Old Testament proper. Since Origen’s time it had been recognised that there was a distinction between the Jewish canon and the list acknowledged by Christians, but most writers preferred to place the popular and widely used deutero-canonical books in a special category (e.g. calling them ‘ecclesiastical’) rather than to discard them. Jerome now takes a much firmer line. After enumerating the ‘twenty-two’ (or perhaps twenty-four) books recognised by the Jews, he decrees that any books outside this list must be reckoned ‘apocryphal’: ‘They are not in the canon.’ Elsewhere, while admitting that the Church reads books like Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus which are strictly uncanonical, he insists on their being used solely ‘for edifying the people, not for the corroboration of ecclesiastical’. This was the attitude which, with temporary concessions for tactical or other reasons, he was to maintain for the rest of his life – in theory at any rate, for in practice he continued to cite them as if they were Scripture. Again what chiefly moved him was the embarrassment he felt at having to argue with Jews on the basis of books which they rejected or even (e.g. the stories of Susanna, or of Bel and the Dragon) found frankly ridiculous. [J. N. D. Kelly, Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), pp. 160-161].

But what settles the actual view of Athanasius is exactly what Athanasius clearly says about the extent of the canon:

4. There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

5. Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

6. These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘You err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me Matthew 22:29; John 5:39.’

7. But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.

Athanasius says of the Old and New Testament: “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.” It simply doesn’t get any clearer.

Gary Michuta though holds this doesn’t clearly eliminate the apocrypha as part of the sacred canon:

A careful reading shows that Athanasius is not using the word “canon” in exactly the way a modern reader would expect. Yes, he states that Christian doctrine is taught by the canonized books alone, but he would seem to undercut that statement by confessing that his canonical list is in itself not completely accurate, that it is also necessary to add others to the list. These “necessary” books are not called canonical, but “they are read” and they can be used to teach Christian doctrine, especially to recent converts (p.109).

Is Athanasius undercutting his own clarity? Is he admitting his list is not completely accurate? As Dr. White has pointed out, a literal rendering of the Greek from Athanasius would be “but for the sake of greater accuracy I must needs as I write add this: there are other books outside of these, which are indeed not in the canon...” All that is being said is that there are other books outside the canon that are appointed to be read by new converts. Athanasius is not saying his canon was not all together accurate. He’s simply saying there are other books I need to tell you about and explain their role in the church.

Finally, back in 2008, Dr. White put together a video slide presentation addressing this very issue in response to Gary Michuta. The video covers most of the information listed above: