February 2008 Issue
of the Bible
by David S. Dockery
The ultimate concern in a discussion
of the Bible is its authority. This article will treat the authority
of the Bible and its rightful role to command obedience. The Bible's
authority in contemporary challenges, as well as in ethics and
decision making, will be noted. The importance of personal and
corporate application will conclude the discussion.
Biblical Authority: Its
A view of the Bible that affirms its divine inspiration and
total truthfulness is of little value if it is not accompanied
by an enthusiastic commitment to the Bible's complete and absolute
authority. An approach to the subject of biblical authority must
begin with God Himself, for in God all authority is finally located.
God is His own authority. There is nothing outside Him on which
His authority is established. When God made His promise to Abraham,
He pledged His own name because nothing or no one was greater
by whom He could swear (Hebrews 6:13). God's authority is the
authority of who and what God is. Who God is has been made known
in His self-manifestation, since God can be known only in His
self-revelation. The key to God's authority is His revelation.
In this manner, revelation and authority are seen as two sides
of the same reality. God thus declares His authority in His revelation,
and He alone is the ultimate source of authority for all other
Authority is the right or power to command obedience or belief.
God's sovereign, universal, and eternal reign over the entire
universe evidences His authority (Exodus 15:18; Job 26:12; Isaiah
50:2). He establishes His purposes in time and does all things
according to His will (Daniel 4:34-35; Ephesians 1:11). All authority
on earth and in heaven comes from God alone. His providential
direction over the events of history demonstrates His authority.
Men and women are creatures of the self-revealing, eternal
God. Since He has created humankind, life's meaning is found in
dependence on and relationship with Him. God exercises authority
over His creation; and God's people respond to His authority in
obedience and worship, as well as in confession and repentance.
God's authority is communicated in the church and its tradition,
in human reason, in conscience and experience, in nature and history,
in Christ and the Bible. Of course, God has ultimately revealed
Himself in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-3).
God reveals Himself in all of the ways mentioned above; yet the
Bible is the primary means of God's authoritative self-disclosure
for people today.
The Bible pictures Jesus' authority in terms of acting for
God the Father. Jesus exercises all the rightful authority of
God. He forgives sin (Mark 2:5-8), casts out demons (Mark 1:27),
teaches with authority (Matthew 5:21-48; 7:28-29), and raises
the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 11:38-44). As the obedient Son of
God, He follows the Word of God revealed in the Scriptures and
acknowledges and appeals to the Scriptures' authority (Matthew
4:1-11; John 10:33-36). Jesus' death and resurrection provided
victory over sin, evil, and death (Colossians 2:15; 1 John 3:8).
Thus, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him
Jesus' authority is exercised over the church (Ephesians 1:20-23)
and is uniquely expressed through His personal ambassadors, the
apostles (Mark 3:14; John 17:18; Acts 1:1-8; 2 Corinthians 5:20;
Galatians 1:1-2:9). In this way the apostles serve as the foundation
of the church (Ephesians 2:20-3:5). In fulfillment of Christ's
promises (John 14:26; 16:13), the apostles' authority has been
placed permanently in their writings.
Thus, the Spirit of God has inspired the prophetic-apostolic
writings, and the Scriptures become the recognized authority to
communicate God's truth, which is to be taught, believed, and
obeyed. The Bible, then, is the Book of God's truth. Because the
Bible is completely truthful, it must be wholly trustworthy in
its affirmations. Because it is truthful and trustworthy, it is
our final authority in all things that pertain to life and godliness.1
Biblical Authority: Guidelines
We must recognize that God's truth is revealed not through
our human capacities but through the Holy Spirit's illumination
(1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Jesus claimed: If you continue in My
word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and
the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).
To live in accord with the truth of Scripture and obey its
authority, it is necessary to handle the Word of God correctly
(2 Timothy 2:15). Care must be taken to interpret the Scriptures
faithfully. Let us suggest some practical guidelines.
1 We must be
careful not to interpret the Scriptures by our experiences or
cultural norms, though, of course, we cannot deny our experiential
or cultural presuppositions. Instead, we need to interpret our
experience and culture by the Bible. If we allow the Scriptures
to be interpreted by our experience, our experience will become
the higher authority.
2 We must be
cautious, not dogmatic, in our interpretations where the Scriptures
are not conclusive. Often we are guilty of saying more than the
Bible says in such areas as dress, appearance, or cultural practices
(Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:10-13). Where the Bible speaks, we
should speak; where it is silent, we must take care that our response
is consistent with the general teachings in Scripture.
3 We must avoid
rationalizing the Bible so as to undercut its authority. Although
Scripture is time- and culture-related, we must be cautious before
dismissing a scriptural teaching as culture-bound. Anytime we
allow current philosophical or scientific theories to become the
standard by which Scripture is interpreted, we may fall into the
trap of usurping Scripture's authority.
4 At the same
time, we must recognize that we are separated from the prophets
and apostles by time and culture. Meanings of words and practices
change from generation to generation. We should carefully seek
to determine whether a passage is figurative rather than literal.
Recent examples from our own culture may prove helpful. Not long
ago if something was said to be cool, it meant that it was cold
in temperature. Now something said to be cool is considered good
or enjoyable. The same can be said for the word hot. It is also
possible that a word can take on an opposite meaning. A previous
generation described an event as bad when it was distasteful.
The present generation describes something very good as very "bad."
So the use of lion in 1 Peter 5:8 can refer to Satan, and it can
refer to Christ in Revelation 5:5. Paul exhorted the Philippian
church to beware of the "dogs" (Philippians 3:2). He
does not mean a pack of angry animals but a group of false teachers.
These examples point to Bible students' need to take word usage
and cultural practices into account when interpreting Scripture.
5 Scripture can
possibly have a fuller (plenary) meaning beyond its literal meaning.
Yet in our attempt to find the spiritual truths in a passage,
we must not read a spiritual meaning into a passage. Fuller meanings
must always be extensions of the primary historical meaning and
consistent with the Bible's canonical or overall message. A good
general principle is to attempt to interpret the Bible in light
of its primary historical meaning. This meaning is found by diligently
examining the context of a passage, the customs of the time, and
the meanings of words and phrases. Only when we understand Scripture's
meaning can we rightly live under its authority.
6 We need to
remember that the purpose of biblical interpretation is to bring
about Christlikeness in our lives so we will be equipped for service
in Christ's church (2 Timothy 3:17). Biblical authority means
putting God's Word into practice (Psalm 119:59-60). We must not
limit biblical interpretation to one particular method or technique,
but we must employ every legitimate means to understand the Bible's
message. The benefit of interpretation is hearing and obeying
the Word of God receiving what the Lord says and prayerfully
putting it into practice. Biblical authority begins with a willing
acceptance of truth. A right response to scriptural authority
is characterized by truth, obedience, praise, and thanksgiving.2
Biblical Authority: Contemporary
Challenges to biblical authority often arise when we apply
biblical teachings to our 21st century context. The question we
bring to the Bible shifts from, "What did the Scriptures
mean to those to whom it was first given?" to "What
do the Scriptures mean to us?" The biblical context and our
context are sometimes embedded in different cultures and worldviews.
I. Howard Marshall asks, "How is meaning found when what
is common sense in one culture is not common sense in another?"
Paul's command to obey one's master in all things (Colossians
3:22- 23) is addressed to a culture of involuntary slavery. Our
economic system differs greatly from that world. Today, employees
are often partners in their work with employers.
Does this kind of relationship call for loyalty or obedience?
If we say that for today the biblical command means that we should
give appropriate respect and loyalty to employers rather than
unconditional obedience, are we diluting it or expressing the
essential meaning in terms appropriate for contemporary working
conditions?3 Cultural differences challenge
us to hear God's Word clearly.
A missionary has related an account of telling the Joseph story
(Genesis 37-50) to a group of Europeans and to a group of Third
World people. The Europeans heard the story of Joseph as a man
who remained faithful to God no matter what happened to him. The
Third World group, on the other hand, pointed to Joseph as a man
who, no matter how far he traveled, never forgot his family.
Different cultural backgrounds prompted each response. Can
we say that one is more consistent with the authority of the biblical
story? Is the other one incorrect? Is it possible that both are
How can an ancient text speak to us authoritatively so that
our own cultural, temporal, and social meanings do not become
dominant over the historical meaning of the Bible? Certainly,
D. A. Carson is right when he says, "No human being living
in time and speaking any language can ever be entirely culture-free
In line with our divine-human (Christological) understanding
of Scripture, Harvie Conn has suggested six helpful clues on this
subject. From the divine perspective he offers three important
1 The beginning
point is a commitment to Scripture's total truthfulness. The only
proper control for our judgments remains the primary historical
meaning of the biblical text.
2 The cultural
patterns of the biblical time period do not simply provide God
with sermon illustrations. That culture becomes the providentially
controlled matrix from which His revelation comes to us (for example,
Exodus 3:12; Luke 22:19-20). That context is the place from which
the history of God's unfolding special revelation has been manifested.
From that cultural particularity come the universals that link
the faith of the biblical characters to ours.
3 The Holy Spirit,
who brought the first horizon of the text into being (2 Peter
1:20-21), must open our hearts and illumine our minds to open
the biblical text for our world. The Spirit does not become some
mechanical or magical answering service. Nor does the Spirit become
an intermediary between God and us; He is God who addresses us.
Conn also provides three helpful insights from the human perspective.
1 A distancing
must take place before we can hear the ancient biblical text for
our day. This might sound like just the opposite thing we want
to accomplish. But many biblical stories (such as the parables
of the prodigal son [Luke 15] or the repentant publican [Luke
18]) need to be distanced from our setting so the parables' "punch
lines" can be heard.
2 Our presuppositions
and worldview must be reshaped by the Bible. Our values and perspectives
must become more and more what God wants them to be. Our vantage
point must be shaped by creation, the fall, redemption, and consummation.
In this sense, our cultural and temporal distinctions can become
a help, not a hindrance, to understanding and responding to the
3 Holy Scripture
is presented in cultural forms that are different from ours. These
cultural forms often need to be restated and translated for our
day to speak to matters of our day.6
We can maintain our confession of biblical authority, recognizing
the divine-human aspects of the nature of Scripture and the interpretation
of Scripture. The Bible's truth is untainted by either the culture
from which it comes to us or the culture to which it goes. The
message of Scripture uses various cultures while simultaneously
and authoritatively standing in judgment over them.
Biblical Authority: Application
to Today's Issues
We have seen that the Bible is authoritative since it is God's
Word to men and women. Guidelines for interpretation enable us
to hear and respond to God's Word in our cultural settings. Yet
we need to ask: How do we apply these guidelines to such contemporary
issues as decision making and ethical practices?
We can recognize that some biblical teachings are specific
and universal commands that speak directly to people in all cultures.
Some general teachings have universal application. Some biblical
principles have implicit authority. Finally, some matters can
be addressed only by finding biblical guidelines that can be applied
to that issue or question. The following examples will help us
understand these guidelines.
1 Passages such
as prohibitions against stealing (Exodus 20:15; Ephesians 4:28)
are direct teachings that apply to all people in all times.
2 General teachings
on love or justice can be applied to various situations in different
settings. People in employee/employer relationships, family relationships,
or broader societal situations must seek to apply principles of
justice and/or love in these settings.
3 Teachings about
drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18) must be obeyed. Applications about
abstinence from alcoholic beverages are implied rather than being
direct teachings. Thus, the level of authority is different from
the previous examples.
4 Some contemporary
issues are not addressed specifically in Scripture. Where should
we work? Whom should we marry? What church should we join? We
must approach each of these matters by trying to apply biblical
The answer to these issues must be dealt with differently by
each of us under the Holy Spirit's guidance.
Understanding that various levels of authority are in the Bible
helps us understand that a commitment to biblical authority is
not out-of-date. The general teachings of Scripture reveal God's
will in a variety of ways. The direct, implied, and applied principles
of Scripture can cross the temporal, social, linguistic, and cultural
barriers. Thus, we can affirm the adequacy, sufficiency, and authority
of the Bible for modern men and women. The Bible can speak, at
various levels, to challenges and issues we face in our day.
Conclusion: The Supremacy
The Bible is to be seen as the ultimate standard of authority
for God's people. The Bible derives its authority from the self-revealing
and self-authenticating God. The Bible's authority can and does
communicate across cultural, geographical, and temporal differences
between the biblical world and our setting. Scripture is authoritative
as it is rightly and faithfully interpreted in its historical
setting. The Holy Spirit illumines our minds and hearts to understand
the biblical message. Likewise, the Spirit leads us to recognize
the authority of Scripture and to respond and obey its message
The Bible calls for an obedience to the authority of God revealed
in His Word, not in reaction to authority or in an authoritarian
sense but from a true freedom that belongs to the children of
God. We must avoid a concept of freedom that loses a sense of
oughtness and responsibility. Simultaneously, we must avoid a
swing toward authoritarianism so that our commitment to Scripture's
authority is misplaced in a church leader or in a societal trend.
Many people confuse a desire to obey Scripture's authority
with a personal insecurity that calls for a leader to tell them
constantly what to do or think. More troubling is that some leaders
encourage this confusion by commingling a commitment to biblical
authority with a type of authority associated with certain positions
of church leadership. What is needed more than ever is a clear-cut
distinction between human and divine authority so that the authority
of the Bible is not undercut or lost through a false equation
with human structures.
We demonstrate our concern for biblical authority not only
by careful biblical interpretation but also by repentance and
prayer. A commitment to the complete truthfulness and trustworthiness
of Scripture is important because it is the foundation that establishes
the full extent of Scripture's authority.
Living with a Holy Spirit-prompted desire to respond to the
message and authority of the Bible brings reproof and correction
(2 Timothy 3:16), which result in contrition, discipleship, and
enablement for worship and service (2 Timothy 3:17). It results
in training in righteousness that bears on Christian businesspeople
and the integrity of their practice. It bears on Christians, who
must speak to matters of injustice in society and in the church.
Biblical authority addresses families and their commitments to
one another. It speaks to preachers and teachers to handle carefully
the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).
The authority of the Bible calls on us to recognize God's desire
for unity (through variety) in the church (Ephesians. 4:1-16;
John 17; 1 Corinthians 12) and the need to love one another (John
13:34-35), even when we disagree over the interpretation of Scripture
itself. Thus, we need a renewed commitment to biblical authority
that enables us to relate to one another in love and humility,
bringing about true fellowship and community and resulting in
not only right doctrine but also right practice before a watching,
unbelieving world. We need a renewed commitment to biblical authority
that will transform our performance-oriented church meetings into
authentic worship and praise that will turn our church
programs into service that is pleasing to God. The Holy Spirit,
through the Scriptures, illumines our appreciation of grace and
motivates us toward faithful evangelism, social ministry, and
We confess that God has revealed Himself to us. His revelation
has been preserved for us in Holy Scripture by the Holy Spirit's
work of inspiration. We confess our belief in the divine inspiration,
total truthfulness, and complete authority of the Bible. Even
beyond this affirmation, with willing spirits and open minds and
hearts, we must dedicate ourselves anew to the authority of Holy
Scripture, assured that we can place our complete confidence in
God's truthful and reliable Word.
1 Bernard Ramm,
The Pattern of Authority (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company. 1957).
2 Oletta Wald, The Joy of Discovery (Minneapolis: Bible
Banner Press, 1956).
3 I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1982), p. 105.
4 Harvie M. Conn, "Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,"
Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie M. Conn (Grand Rapids:
Baker Books, 1988), pp.186-89, and Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart,
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 58-60.
5 D. A. Carson, Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The
Problem of Contextualization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers,
1984), p. 19.
6 Conn, "Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism," pp.
7 James Leo Garrett. Jr., Systematic Theology, Volume 1,
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1990),
8 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, "Authority," International
Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley,
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1979),
pp. 346-371, and D. A. Carson. "Recent Developments in the
Doctrine of Scripture," Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon,
ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House. 1986), pp. 46-48. Also see "Authority"
in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter
Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984). Much of this article has been
drawn from David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture (Nashville:
Broadman & Holman, 1995).
Reprinted with permission from the Union
University Bulletin, Volume IV, Issue 2, http://www.uu.edu/unionbulletin/pdfs/vol4-issue2.pdf.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University
in Jackson, Tennessee.
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