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The Authority of Scripture

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

I once had a student in one of my philosophy classes that I could tell didn’t seem to particularly care for me. There were clearly felt negative feelings coming from her. When she responded to a question I asked, or when I called on her, she tended to answer with an angry tone in her voice. This went on for a few weeks until I had had my fill of her “attitude,” as it is referred to in the U.S.

Finally, after class one day I confronted her about her negative manner in class discussion and asked her what the problem was. She replied that she knew there was tension between us, but that I reminded her of her father. When I asked in what way, she said her father was an authoritative, dogmatic, never wrong, know it all, and I came across the same way in class. She told me that she couldn’t help but have her guard up and respond to me in class as she did. She admitted that because of her dysfunctional relationship with her authoritarian father, that she generally had trouble relating to any authority figure who she felt was trying to control her behaviour and her thought. And, in my class (it was a logic class), she felt that I was trying control or force her thinking into my mould, into my pattern. Or, at least, that was her interpretation of what I was trying to do in my teaching.

Unfortunately, teachers by definition are “authority” figures. If they were not authorities to some degree in their academic areas, they would not deserve to be teachers. And, unfortunately, part of what it means to be a student is to be willing to submit to a teacher’s authority. This is an unavoidable situation in education, perhaps.

There is something about human nature that seems to bring the individual ego into conflict with authority figures. Most of us struggle with authority, resisting it to gain control over our thoughts, behaviour, and feelings.

The people of central Europe have just emerged from a political structure that was decidedly authoritarian. Values, political attitudes, social structures, human destinies, were determined by an authoritarian State whose intention was to control and closely regulate the social and civil life of its citizens. Perhaps you agree that such close regulation of the political and social order goes against a central human desire for personal autonomy and freedom. The celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall was a testimony to this desire.

Yet, in spite of our resistance to totalitarian and authoritarian control over our lives, it is equally true that most of us also desire at least some level of authority in society and government. Indeed, we experience on the deepest human level the need for some sort of authority in our lives. Living in chaos is not particularly attractive. We justifiably seek authoritative views in research as well as when we need guides to responsible behaviour in our personal lives. Most of us are not total anarchists regarding authoritative input into our lives. But still, it is equally true that most of us struggle with authority from time to time and resist allowing it to gain too much control over our thoughts, behaviour, and feelings.

Knowledge about almost everything is definitely influenced by appeals to authority. Scholarship in academic life is very much a matter of quoting, citing, referring to, authorities in the field or area that one is writing in. One’s argument on this or that subject is strengthened, given more credibility, and justified by appeals to proper authorities. The shelves in my office are full of books that I constantly take down and look through the pages until I find a comment that clarifies, reiterates, or adds a new dimension to some argument or thesis that I am developing in an article or lecture that I may be writing. When speakers come to my university, I readily go to hear what they have to say when I consider them authoritative representatives of some point of view.

Yet, there is still something about the human spirit that rebels against an over dependence upon authorities for the content of our thought. Too many authorities—parents, teachers, friends, specialists, and government, etc.—have turned out to be wrong and have simply given us bad advice and led us astray from what we later came to see as the truth about things. Authority can also be brutally oppressive and take away our basic human need to be in control of our lives and destinies. There are times when we want to be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls.

Our existential dilemma is that we need authority in our lives and we wisely must be wary of it. This brings us to the AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE – the authority of the Christian Bible. Why should we even be concerned in the first place? What is nature of this authority? What justification can be given for it that warrants our submission to it?

Why should we be concerned with the question of the authority of Scripture?

In attempting to answer this question, let’s note claims made in the Bible regarding the identity of Jesus Christ.

In the 11th Chapter of the gospel of John, we read the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus is talking to Martha, a sister of Lazarus. In this interchange, Jesus says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world.” And, in Acts 16, we find the episode in which the apostle Paul and his companion Silas are being held captives in a Philippian prison. They are praying out loud and singing hymns, when suddenly an earthquake shakes open the doors of the prison. The prison jailer is terrified out his wits at this situation because he knows if the prisoners escape, he will be killed. Paul tells him not to be alarmed, that no one has escaped. The jailer had previously heard that these men were preaching a way of salvation, so he throws himself at their feet and cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas reply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” At still another point, Jesus asks the 12 disciples if they are going to abandon him like some of his other followers have. Peter responds by asking, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68-69). And again, in John 14:6, Jesus authoritatively makes a claim that is the ultimate affront to religious relativism. Jesus proclaims: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And in Luke, Chapter 22, the Jewish court of elders and priests ask Jesus, “Are you then the Son of God?” And Jesus replies, “You are right in saying that I am.”

These statements are as dogmatic and exclusive as one will find in religious literature. In an almost arrogant manner they do not leave other options open regarding matters of salvation, eternal life, and truth.

Any attempt to offer a middle position between the claims of Christ in Scripture and non-belief in such claims is not a logical option in biblical teaching. If the biblical view of God, human beings, and salvation is correct, then other views are not viable. Consequently, Theistic Humanism cannot be a reasonable middle ground, claiming that humans have the capacity to keep moral law sufficiently to achieve acceptance by God in some sort of future salvation. This position is probably the most popular and dominant religious view in the world. The New Testament definitely rejects this middle ground for salvation.

The Bible holds the logical principle of Non-Contradiction. This principle claims that a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time. If Christ’s claim is true that he is God and that eternal life is only found in him, then this claim cannot equally be false. It cannot be said, “Well, it may be true for you, but not for me.” The statements in Scripture cited have the logical character that necessitates they are either true or false. Any middle ground between their truth and falsity will inevitably compromise the truth-value of the claim. Logically, biblical teaching that re-interprets the claims of the Bible in order to make them more acceptable violates the principle of Non-Contradiction. Biblical claims must be interpreted in the larger context of Scripture, but that context is not open to an infinite degree of qualification in order to make biblical teaching more appealing to the unbelieving person.

If what I have said is true, you and I are in the position of having to decide whether Jesus Christ is God, whether or not he is “The” Way, “The” Truth, “The” Life. Is it true that Jesus Christ “has the words of eternal life?” Why not Buddha? Or Mohammed? How do we believe that anyone at all, has “the words of eternal life?” Maybe there is no afterlife, no ultimate truth, no “meta-narrative,” and we had better spend our time making the best of things here instead of fantasizing about another type of existence. As the apostle Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”(I Cor. 15:32b).

Correctly responding to the claims of the Bible is not like deciding what is the best interpretation of a novel or what the best practical philosophy of life might be. The matters that the Bible addresses are cosmic in nature; they have to do with who and what we are as human beings; with the existence of the ultimate Creator of all things and what is, and can be, our relationship to him. The Bible speaks of our ultimate destiny, the very meaning of our human existence. If what the Bible says about them is true, it would be the greatest mistake imaginable not to accept them and to live in their truth.

However, this rationale for being concerned about the authority of biblical teaching should not be interpreted as a version of Blaise Pascal’s famous “wager.” Pascal argued that since one could not have definitive knowledge about the correct way to deal with the human situation, why not embrace a Christian view of things? If Christianity proves to be false, one has not really lost anything. But if one rejects it and it turns out to be true, then one has lost everything. If Christianity is true, then not to believe it would result in the loss of our true humanity, so why not believe it? I do not believe that one can truly accept the authority of Scripture as a “wager” or bet. Christian faith is not trusting that the claims of Christianity might be true, but that they are true.

Is Scripture merely a collection of human insights serving as existential wisdom to be appealed to like other kinds of literary works? II Timothy 2:24 says that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The claim here is that the content of Scripture, what God wants us to know through it, is literally “God breathed.” The very authority of the Bible for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness is to be found in God’s Spirit as the author, initiator, and the meaning of the biblical text. II Peter 1:20-21 reads “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

The Bible is held to present teaching regarding the revelation of God concerning the most important things that can be known about the nature of God, man, and what God would have us believe about him and ourselves – containing “the very words of eternal life.” The claim of Christianity is that God himself is the definitive ground and source of the message of salvation expressed in the Bible – he has “breathed out” this teaching in the written words of the Bible. The authority is the unquestionable authority that the source is the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God.

Christians say that the Bible is the infallible word of God, where is found how to please God and how to achieve salvation to eternal life in him. The Bible will not fail. The Christian claim is that the Qur’an will not give you this information, nor will the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, nor any other purported “scriptures” of the world religions. The Bible, with God as its author, has an infallible authority that no other religious document has.

Even those sympathetic with the concept of the authority of Scripture might say: “You argue that the Christian Bible is the authoritative source of the true understanding of human salvation and that it is authoritative because it has been inspired by God’s Spirit. And you say that Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit because the Bible says that it is.” There is a decided circularity we cannot escape all together, but it may be true that not all circles are vicious.

Let’s assume that God exists and intends to communicate with us about our human condition and our need for a saving relationship with him. Part of God’s motivation is that he loves us; an essential feature of God is that he is the embodiment of love itself — God is “love”. We have been created to have a relationship with God. The very being of a human being calls for a relationship with the creator, as if without this relationship we are not fully human. Yet, something about us keeps us at a distance from this relationship with God. Throughout history we have sensed this problem of distance and have developed philosophies to overcome it, none of which have succeeded. We sense being out of harmony, but it is not clear what the problem is. We suspect that it has to do with us, but no explanation quite tells the whole picture.

Is there some “ground”, some justification for this persistent sense of human existential uneasiness that we feel once we become seriously reflective about our life? Romans 2:20 says, “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Human beings have a “sense of divinity” that enables them to recognise something of the character of God in creation, though it is not sufficient for us to know the kind of information that is essential for a relationship with God.

If we need to have knowledge of important facts about the character of reality involving God, our selves, and our relationship to him; if we cannot arrive at the knowledge by observing the empirical world of experience or through intellectual reflection on that world, then certain assumptions seem justified. If God loves us and wants us to know what is necessary to receive that love, he would provide us with such knowledge. In John 17:17, Jesus asks God to do everything necessary to enable his disciples to have a relationship God. Jesus then says, “Your (God’s) word is truth.” Obviously, a key mode of such spiritual growth is the revelation of God contained in the Bible. It would be inconsistent of a loving God to require us to know and to act on certain information and yet not provide us with a basis for acquiring such knowledge.

In conclusion - I want to return to the opening tension I described regarding the mixed emotions we have regarding “authority.” We humans both resent having to submit to authority and yet paradoxically need to be able to submit to it. This tension can be resolved through acceptance of the authority of Scripture.

If the authority we choose to submit to enhances our humanity and individual personhood rather than causing us to compromise our selves; if by “losing” our lives, we actually “re-gained” them in a new way; if the authoritative guidance of Scripture could direct us to finding meaning, purpose, emotional and spiritual health, wholeness and the healing of our brokenness; if, in submission to God’s truth, we gained phenomenal insight into reality, actually gaining a level of control over our lives, would not submission to such authority be worth it?

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