Biblical Authority

by Robert J. Young, D.Min.
©, 2001, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
Note: This essay was prepared in conjunction with a lecture delivered at the 1996 Pan American Lectures in Quito, Ecuador. You may access that lecture at PAL96lect.htm.

In western civilization, and more especially in the United States, we have a cultural problem with authority. We are in an authority crisis. Questions are being raised in virtually every realm of life--marital, parental, business, political, academic, even ecclesiastical. Not only are particular, traditional sources of authority being questioned, the very nature of authority is being challenged. Who has power to request and require submission?

The problem is compounded when one compares the written word of God, the Bible, with the living word of God, Jesus Christ. For many in today's world, Jesus Christ as Word of God has authority, while the Bible as the Word of God does not have authority. Only by respecting the written word do we portray an authentic Jesus. The connection of these two words from God--written and living--is at the heart of all evangelism.

This truth demands the affirmation that all evangelism must begin in the central fact that the gospel is truth from God. This truth is also described in Scripture as God's testimony and God's mystery. Paul's message comes from God because the Word of God originates with God. This must be true of the written word, both Old Testament and New Testament.

All true evangelism must begin with these facts in mind. We have not invented our message. We do not come with our own human speculations. We are bearers of God's word, trustees of God's gospel, and stewards of God's revealed grace. Our work is not unlike that of the Jesus who taught as one with authority. As the Word, he possessed authority. The authority we possess resides in the word which we declare, and is not of ourselves.

Understanding the nature of this authority means our delivery of the word must be compatible with the message we bring from God. This is not to be measured in eloquence or superior wisdom, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not a justification for proclaiming a gospel without content, style, or form. This is not a renunciation of doctrinal substance or rational argument, but is a denunciation of the wisdom and rhetoric of world as that which stands behind the gospel of truth, the word of God. Luke reminds us that at Thessalonica Paul taught, reasoned, declared and persuaded (Acts 17:4). This was not by Paul's power (1 Cor. 2:1-5), but by God's power (Eph. 3:19-21).

We have no liberty to invite people to come to Christ by closing, stifling or suspending their minds. Since God made us rational beings, he expects us to use our minds. The gospel is truth from God committed to our trust, and our responsibility is to present it as clearly, coherently, cogently as possible, while we trust that the power is from God and not from us.

This brief introduction raises the question, What is the nature of Biblical authority? Views of biblical authority have undergone major shifts throughout church history. Whereas Christians in the first century were virtually unanimous in viewing Scripture as the primary source of revelation and authority, the church soon ascribed some religious authority to tradition. By the fourth century, tradition was viewed as of equal authority with Scripture, and when the medieval church claimed power as the sole interpreter of Scripture, whatever authority resided in the biblical text was mediated through the church, in essence giving the church supreme authority.

The Reformation rejected this ecclesial authority, arguing that all authority derives from the Bible (sola scriptura). The Catholic church responded with increased emphasis on the authority of the church and its traditions.

The Enlightenment served to define religious authority in another way. A focus upon human reason and experience was initially coupled with a continuing emphasis on Scripture so that religious authority was located in Scripture and its interpretation through supreme, unerring reason. By the nineteenth century, liberal Protestant scholarship had located authority almost exclusively in human reason and experience. The Bible was normative only as it was consistent with human reason and experience.

In summary, this brings us to three important questions of authority. In this essay, only brief answers can be supplied as a beginning point for further study and discussion. Biblical authority is ultimately tied to our understanding of the nature of the Bible and biblical inspiration. If Bible is authoritative, it is primarily because of its divine inspiration, because God is its source. Questions such as, "What is divine inspiration? How does it function? What does it mean to say the Bible is of divine origin?" must be studied. From this foundation, three things arise. First, Why inspiration? What is the purpose of inspiration? Among the many answers that might be given, a basic response must be to communicate truth about God. That Scripture is to reveal God is reflected in the fact that it is revelation. Second, How inspiration? What is the method of inspiration? This thorny question will not be immediately resolved to the satisfaction of all, but a biblical beginning point may be found in 2 Pet 1:20-21. Third, What is the result of inspiration? That inspiration results in an inspired, authoritative, normative text must be tested and proved.

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Last updated February 21, 2001.