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 Source
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 lesser authorities.
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 (Matthew 28:18-20).
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 for Interpretation
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
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 legitimate understandings?4
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 about anything."5
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 guidelines.
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 biblical message.
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 principles.
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 of Scripture
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 today.7
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 worldwide missions.8
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. 197-209.
7 James Leo Garrett. Jr., Systematic Theology, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1990), pp. 181-82.
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.