A review of Catholic Apologist Gary Michuta’s examination of Luther and the Apocrypha (Part 2)
A few days ago, I posted Part 1 of my review of Catholic apologist Gary Michuta’s presentation of Martin Luther from his new book, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger (Michigan: Grotto Press, 2007). Mr. Michuta presented around twenty pages of argumentation on Luther’s involvment with the deletion of the Apocrypha from Protestant Bibles. In part one, we saw that Gary equated Luther with “the Marcionites, Ebionites, and Gnostics before him.” Michuta also argued that Luther originally accepted the Apocrypha, but then in debate with Johann Eck, was forced to deny the canonicity of 2 Maccabees in order to deny purgatory. I demonstrated that during this debate, Luther still held to the belief in purgatory, so whatever his motivations were in denying 2 Maccabees, it was not because he presupposed Purgatory was untrue. Gary also presented flimsy evidence that only a year before this debate, Luther accepted the canonicity of the Apocrypha. Luther quoted from the Apocrypha throughout his career, and simply because he did this previous to his debate with Eck does not mean that he considered it canonical Scripture. Mr. Michuta attributes Luther’s attitude toward the Apocrypha as the result of “theological convictions” and personal “tradition” that makes the Word of God void. While Luther indeed had “theological convictions,” Mr. Michuta ignored an entire host of information on the historical reasoning Luther had toward the Apocrypha. Rather than present a balanced picture of a man’s theology and historical opinion, Michuta put forth a Luther that fit with his theory on the deletion of the Apocrypha from Protestant Bibles. I’d like to continue by taking a closer look at Luther’s opinion on 2 Maccabees and his German Bible.
Luther’s View of 2 Maccabees
Since Michuta spent time on Luther’s problem with 2 Maccabees, I would have to question why Mr. Michuta would not actually search out Luther’s opinion on 2 Maccabees and present at least some sort of qualifier in his book. He notes that Luther “appealed to the rabbinical Jewish canon” and “to the authority of Jerome” in his debate with Eck (pp. 250-251) about the non-canonicity of 2 Maccabees, as if this was done as a smoke-screen. Michuta quotes a secondary source explaining that Luther realized at this point he was setting up Jerome as an “infallible Pope.” Rather, I would argue Luther shows something quite different: a familiarity with Jerome, the Jewish canon, and the questionable content of 2 Maccabees.
In 1521, Luther expressed these concerns quite succinctly in regard to the spurious nature of using 2 Maccabees as a prooftext for Purgatory:
“But their use of the passage in II Macc. 12[:43], which tells how Judas Maceabeus sent money to Jerusalem for prayers to be offered for those who fell in battle, proves nothing, for that book is not among the books of Holy Scripture, and, as St. Jerome says, it is not found in a Hebrew version, the language in which all the books of the Old Testament are written. In other respects, too, this book deserves little authority, for it contradicts the first Book of Maccabees in its description of King Antiochus, and contains many other fables which destroy its credibility. But even were the book authoritative, it would still be necessary in the case of so important an article that at least one passage out of the chief books [of the Bible] should support it, in order that every word might be established through the mouth of two or three witnesses. It must give rise to suspicion that in order to substantiate this doctrine no more than one passage could be discovered in the entire Bible; moreover this passage is in the least important and most despised book. Especially since so much depends on this doctrine which is so important that, indeed, the papacy and the whole hierarchy are all but built upon it, and derive all their wealth and honor from it. Surely, the majority of the priests would starve to death if there were no purgatory. Well, they should not offer such vague and feeble grounds for our faith!” [LW 32:96]
Here is Luther’s synopsis of 2 Maccabees. Note his reasoning for rejecting the book, and then compare it with Michuta’s understanding of Luther:
Preface to the Second Book of Maccabees (1534)
This book is called, and is supposed to be, the second book of Maccabees, as the title indicates. Yet this cannot be true, because it reports several incidents that happened before those reported in the first book, and it does not proceed any further than Judas Maccabaeus, that is, chapter 7 of the first book. It would be better to call this the first instead of the second book, unless one were to call it simply a second book and not the second book of Maccabees; another or different, certainly, but not second. But we include it anyway, for the sake of the good story of the seven Maccabean martyrs and their mother, and other things as well. It appears, however, that the book has no single author, but was pieced together out of many books. It also presents a knotty problem in chapter 14[:41–46] where Razis commits suicide, something which also troubles St. Augustine and the ancient fathers. Such an example is good for nothing and should not be praised, even though it may be tolerated and perhaps explained. So also in chapter 1 this book describes the death of Antiochus quite differently than does First Maccabees [6:1–16]. To sum up: just as it is proper for the first book to be included among the sacred Scriptures,* so it is proper that this second book should be thrown out, even though it contains some good things. However the whole thing is left and referred to the pious reader to judge and to decide.[LW 35:352-353]
*Luther comented on 1 Maccabees, “This is another book not to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Yet its words and speech adhere to the same style as the other books of sacred Scripture. This book would not have been unworthy of a place among them, because it is very necessary and helpful for an understanding of chapter 11 of the prophet Daniel.”
Luther’s German Bible And The Apocrypha
Though including the Apocrypha in his German translation, Michuta credits Luther with beginning “the process of eradicating the Deuterocanon” from the Bible (Michuta, 245). One has to consider the truth of this claim with Gary’s own admission that “nearly all Protestant bibles included the Deuterocanonical books, between the years 1526 to 1631, Protestant bibles with Deuterocanon were the rule and not the exception. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that the tide began to turn toward smaller bibles for Protestants“(p.245). It amazes me how Luther is credited for beginning this process, when in fact Protestant versions of the Bible continued including these disputed books for quite some time after Luther’s death in 1546.
Michuta states that Luther introduced “certain innovations into his translation that led eventually to smaller Protestant bibles” (p.246). Michuta correctly notes that in Luther’s Bible, the Apocrypha was published with the following qualifier: “Apocrypha- that is, books which are not held equal to the Holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read” (p.254). This is hardly an innovation. Many throughout history held this same exact qualifier on the Apocrypha. As William Webster has pointed out,
“During the Church age, certain books were designated canonical while others were called ecclesiastical, but all were grouped together without distinction. The ecclesiastical books were useful for reading and edification but were not authoritative for the establishing of doctrine. This position was held by both Athanasius and Cyril of Jerusalem, who used the Septuagint, but were careful to exclude the Apocryphal books from the status of canonical Scripture. This was also the practice of the Jews of Palestine. While rejecting Tobit and Judith as canonical, they still read them. This is seen from the statements of Josephus who used the Septuagint but excluded the Apocryphal books from canonical status.” [source]
Even some Protestant confessional documents included statements on the Apocrypha. The Belgic Confession states, “All of which the Church may read and take instruction from, so far as they agree with the canonical books.”
Michuta asks, “If no one had ever really considered these books Scripture, why bother to qualify them as not being equal to Scripture? Why not simply publish a bible without them and let it stand, as Trent had published its canon without comment?”(p. 255). The question is false. The argument is not an all or nothing. It’s quite obvious from the study of the canon that some held to the small Old Testament canon, and others to the larger. This situation is even seen among those Catholics gathered at Trent. As to why Luther didn’t publish a Bible completely devoid of the Apocrypha, this is best explained by Luther’s own words, and the way he did refer to these books as “profitable and good to read.” If Mr. Michuta were to take an afternoon and go through Luther’s Works, he would find this paradigm clearly at work in Luther’s writings.
Michuta states, “While Luther’s Protestant contemporaries quickly adopted his bold attitude toward the Deuterocanon, they soon abandoned his shaky rationalization for doing so” (pp. 255-256). I think if Mr. Michuta would actually read Luther’s Prefaces to the Apocrypha, he would find many similar arguments used. Perhaps Luther’s separation of the Apocrypha to the back of the Old Testament had an influence on subsequent Protestant Bibles. However, one must also consider Luther did the same to a few New Testament books as well, and I think Gary would be hard-pressed to produce many who followed this approach. In other words, Protestants didn’t simply blindly follow Luther. While many attempt to simply say Luther’s canon was the result of his subjective theology, it is usually the case those making this charge completely overlook Luther’s work as an historical theologian.
I’ve shown that the facts Mr. Michuta used to build his case about Luther suffers from serious flaws. That being said, it is indeed the case that Luther included the Apocrypha in his Bible, and also doubted the canonicity of these books, concluding they were not held equal to the Holy Scriptures, and yet are profitable and good to read. Luther formed his opinion previous to the Council of Trent. The New Catholic Encyclopedia has honestly pointed out,
“According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the Biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church (at the Council of Trent). Before that time there was some doubt about the canonicity of certain Biblical books, i.e., about their belonging to the canon.”
If the New Catholic Encyclopedia is correct, men like Erasmus, Cajetan, and Luther had every right within the Catholic system to engage in Biblical criticism and debate over the extent of the Canon. All expressed “some doubt.” Theirs was not a radical higher criticism. The books they questioned were books that had been questioned by previous generations. None were so extreme as to engage in Marcion-like canon-destruction. Catholics often tell me their theologians are allowed to have their own opinions on issues not yet infallibly defined. Luther, Cajetan, Erasmus, and a host of others thus were expressing the freedom the Roman Church allowed. I realize that Mr. Michuta holds Luther responsible for the loss of the Apocrypha (or at least played a part in it) in Protestant Bibles. However, to play by Roman Catholic rules, Luther was simply doing what many other did before him. Thus, to cite him as a perpetrator is truly unjustified. For Gary to be fair, he would have to similarly hold an entire historical tradition culpable, including the Jews, who had the oracles of God given to them (Romans 3:2). I’ll stick with the canon that God gave the Jews. Protestant Bibles may be smaller, but I would argue it’s not because of Luther, but rather because God gave specific books to His people, and the Apocryphal books were not among them.