It is difficult to know what Mr Femi Aribisala intends to achieve with his provocative article on the above subject matter in the Vanguard Newspaper of Sunday, October 9, 2016. While this may be a cause of concern and worry to the teeming population of believers in the pews, Mr Aribisala’s article ought not to cause any agitation among believers.
Nonetheless, it is likely that Mr Aribisala has only tried to raise a question that could then enable him learn more while others might benefit from it. The article surely presents him as a non-specialist theologian who mistakenly found some information that he could not rightly process and therefore turned it to the public who might be left rather confused.
The article suggests that the Bible is not infallible because it is selective, that is the compilers of the Bible were selective in the materials they allowed to remain within the canon of the Bible. He also argues that there was double-mindedness in the Church especially because while it accepted the Book of Enoch until AD 363 it later dropped it at the Council of Laodicea. Aribisala argues that the decision of the Church could not have been infallible because the apocryphal books which are included in the ‘current Catholic Bible’ are ‘not in the Protestant Bible’. Furthermore, he states that because the Bible makes statements that appear inconsistent with scientific claims the position of the Bible therefore cannot be said to be infallible. In the overall he confuses the position of the Church with the status of the Bible as the inspired word of God.
These points cannot in anyway invalidate the scriptures as the authentic word of God to His people. The writer of this article has joined the bandwagon of so-called ‘modern people’ who have become critical of the Bible as though it is a scientific book that must be read as such. The assumption that the Bible should be read (in the words of Benjamin Jowett) ‘like any other book’ aided the application of the various rational procedures and questions to the erstwhile divinely given book. ‘Instead of taking scripture as a divinely-given book which is beyond human reason, critics thus assume that it can be treated for the purposes of study, as if it were a human creation.’
The eighteenth century Enlightenment opened the door to the modern age of reason and biblical criticism that later gave birth to the likes of F C Baur and David Strauss who are believed to be the fathers of modern biblical criticism. In spite of their efforts, to which neo-orthodox theologians of the likes of Karl Barth have responded, it is evident that to read the Bible in the way Femi Aribisala and the others have done is grossly mistaken.
The sixty-six books that form the unity of the Bible were handed down as the authentic Scriptures of the Church. As C.H. Dodd rightly notes, ‘These writings have their being, as they had their origin, within the life of a community which traces its decent from Abraham and Moses, from prophets and apostles, and plays its part in the history of our own time; and the Scriptures not only recall its past, but serve the needs of its day-to-day existence in the present.’ But as the Church faced the dangers of extravagances and eccentricities of beliefs, it had to set out its own life and beliefs, guided by the Rule of Faith and the Canon of Scripture.
It was important therefore that it had to select what it believed to be consistent with the faith that had been handed down from the early fathers of the faith. The Canonization of Scripture therefore needed to involve a process of selection, as the Church examined the various materials to ensure that they not only had messages but such as could be said to have been inspired with continual relevance to the generations of the people of faith. This process was guided by a number of factors which included the nature of the content of the book and its consistency with the salvific message of the Bible with Christ as its hermeneutical key.
The word ‘canon’ when applied to scripture implies two things. It first means ‘a rule’ which can mean that Scripture is the church’s measuring line or yardstick when it reflects on its life and commitments’. It also means ‘a list’, “as something fixed and established, by which one can orientate oneself”. The second meaning concerns the recognition which the early church gave to the books that form the Bible, and this seems to define the first meaning of scripture as authoritative. Although the act of canonisation does not give authority, it defines or restricts it, since there were other writings that were not canonized. The value attributed to the Bible indicates that its authority is ultimately the authority attributed to God; hence it is called Holy Scriptures.
The early church adopted the Hebrew Bible because Jesus had set his seal of authority on these writings, and they are largely perceived to reflect authentic revelation of God’s will and purpose. ‘They also followed him in assuming that the scriptures they inherited were not merely human witness to the nature of faith, but spoke with God’s authority’. Following this, the writings were revered as authoritative, and since the authors were also believed to have been ‘inspired’, it became customary to refer to the entire writings as the ‘word of God. However, Christ came to be seen as the centre of scripture, the climax of divine revelation and also the true ‘Word of God’, a terminology that the Johannine gospel bequeathed to Christian theology.
The canonisation of the New Testament involved discriminating ‘between those books seen to be authoritative and so part of the sacred tradition and those that were not’. Inspiration is argued to be a corollary rather than a criterion for canonicity, but apostolic authorship or connection, orthodoxy and catholicity are vital criteria for deciding the canon of the New Testament. The catholic (universal) acceptance of the writings is a very important factor that needs our emphasis in the present circumstance. The canonized books of scripture were recognized on the basis of a wide acceptance of the authority of the books not with any compulsion. This in itself is attributable to the divine act.
However, what gave the ‘documents their original recognition was a widely recognized acknowledgement of their contents. The whole church had heard the gospel in them. These criteria were necessary in order to separate the authentic from heretical teachings and the Marcion’s canon of the Bible. Thus the Bible was for the early church an inspired and trusted document with reliable content, where the will of God was revealed to God’s people and God’s world. The reliability of the book consists in the truth that it seeks to reveal. Just as the Bible bears witness to the acts of God in history, it became a reference and authoritative book for the church’s preaching and teaching, and so, a normative account of Christian origins.
Whilst acknowledging the differences in the nature and outlook of the Old and New Testaments, the Church was able to reconcile the importance of the Old Testament as preceding the New Testament while the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The incongruities that are often talked about actually illustrate the manner in which through trial and error men came to apprehend the truth.
The Scripture is the book that the Church recommends people to read in order to know God in His relation to man and the world, to worship Him intelligently, and to understand the aim and the obligations of human life under His rule. In other words, the Bible is the revelation of God. The combination of things new and old sets up a tension in the mind. But the tension gives depth.
Mr Aribisala’s question about the infallibility of the Bible is a wrong one not least because he defines infallibility in the light of the process of canonization of the Bible. This does not make the Bible infallible or otherwise. What is important is that the message of the Bible is infallible. It speaks the profound mystery about God to humanity and offers the authentic means of salvation to mankind. The climax of divine love and relationship shown in the Bible to mankind is God’s effort to tabernacle with man and save him from sin. This is the mystery that Mr Aribisala ought to celebrate rather than employ the awkward scientific method of reading the Bible, a method that brought neither salvation nor growth to the Church.
The agreed sixty-six books exclude the apocryphal, which in some quarters are referred to as Deutero-canonicals. The Thirty-Nine articles of faith of Protestant Anglicanism have helpfully demarcated the relationship between the sixty-six books and the apocryphal. In article VI the sixty-six books of the Bible contain ‘all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.’
While the Church may read the apocryphal as we also read other story books and learn from them, it does not apply them to establish any doctrine.
The Scripture therefore is true in all manners in establishing spiritual truth employing metaphor where necessary to make its point. Thus Mr Aribisala misunderstands his references to 1 Chronicles 16:30 and Psalm 96:10 that ‘The world also is firmly established, it shall not be moved.’ The movement these texts talk about is not the type that the geographer talks about the earth moving around the orbit. Indeed the world has been so firmly established that come day or night God’s order cannot change and His name will be glorified. As John Ellerton (1870) wrote, ‘The sun that bids us rest is waking our brethren ‘neath the western sky And hour by hour fresh lips are making thy wondrous doings heard on high.’
While the universe lasts the Lord is God. This is infallible. Thus the Bible is authoritative in its constant relevance to the world and the human life in general. It is only God’s Word that can be ever-so relevant. This is infallible in the truth it communicates and in the salvific implications that it has for mankind. The Bible remains God’s word and it is infallible.
The infallibility of the Bible cannot be questioned because the leadership of the Church misunderstood the scientific exploits of Nicolaus Copernicus (c.1500), Giordano Bruno and Galileo in the 1600s. That the Roman Catholic Pope apologized for the past mistakes of the Church is a remarkable action that cannot undermine the Scripture in anyway. It must not be forgotten that subsequent scientific advancement was aided by Christians.
The nature or grounds of canonicity is logically distinct from the history or recognition of canonicity. It is the inspiration that renders it authoritative and not the human acceptance or recognition of it. What is authoritative by virtue of God’s involvement is regardless of human agreement with it.
The problem with Mr Aribisala is that he asks the wrong questions, confusing the Church as synonymous with the Bible, and fails to understand the nature of the Bible as a living witness to the relationship between God and mankind, and as a witness to God’s saving plan for the world through Christ, the climax of divine revelation. It is therefore not a science textbook but a supernatural text that answers the questions that science cannot attempt.
The Ven. Dr Stephen Ayodeji Fagbemi General Secretary Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)