The Authority of the Bible

Jacob Smith
Friday, January 1st 2010
Jan/Feb 2010

The world seems to be screaming the same question Pilate posed to Christ in the Gospel of John: "What is truth?" And naturally, people seem to be looking for the answer to that question in all the wrong places. When confronted with the content of the Bible and its authority as the answer to the question of truth, most people recoil and like Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's great opera Porgy and Bess scream, "It ain't necessarily so!" This is especially true in a society where feelings and emotions possess as much influence, if not more, than objective facts. People, when confronted with biblical authority, are either outraged or they glare at you with indifference and throw back the old cultural defeater, "How can an ancient and frankly offensive book be in any way authoritative over me, especially if I don't make it authoritative?" The great battle facing the church today, from within–as the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have recently demonstrated–and without, is one of epistemology: What is and where can one find truth? Therefore, the great question facing the church today is: How does the Bible, as believed by Bible Protestants, still speak authoritatively to a world that does not recognize its authority?

Before we answer that question, let's explore two significant reasons why the world does not recognize the authority of the Bible. The first reason is, as the Bible illustrates, that humankind loves darkness; we love sin. Humanity is born in darkness and, left to its own devices, blinded by sin is exactly where it stays. The blind and dark state of humanity is illustrated clearly in John's Gospel when Jesus tells Nicodemus, "And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to light lest his deeds should be exposed" (John 3:19-20). On this passage, the nineteenth-century Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle writes, "The darkness in this sentence means moral darkness and mental darkness, sin, ignorance, superstition, and irreligion. Men cannot come to Christ and receive His Gospel without parting with all this, and they love it too well to part with it."

One of the countless demonstrations of humankind's sinful blindness to the authority of the Bible is the idea that humanity improves over the course of each generation. In the words of renowned Christian apologist Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, "A common failing of men in every era is their naive belief that their own time constitutes a qualitatively different situation from all others, thereby rendering the biblical Word something irrelevant for them." Joss Whedon, the creator of successful television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, provides an example of our tragic blindness. Upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Whedon argued that the world is "evolving" and that what the world really needs, in order to break down the systems that have shackled and held it back from reaching its full potential, is education.

Often it is argued that sin is becoming less of an issue as people become more self-actualized. We reduce sin to simply bad behavior, the characteristics of an uncivilized society that can be overcome with time and education, as opposed to the desperate state humanity finds itself unable to surmount through its own willpower. Many would argue that what the Bible authoritatively offers–a need for saving and for redemption–is simply an archaic crutch that represses people and prevents them from discovering their full potential, the savior within. Mired in darkness, a darkness that we love, we believe that we are our own saviors, that we can overcome sin through our own actions. We trust in our own ability to cure our sin, to get better, to move upward along some sort of moralistic scale. This belief strips the Bible of its authority and according to the Bible is to sit in darkness.

A second reason the world does not recognize the authority of the Bible is that in many churches the Bible has become nothing more than an instruction manual. This reason finds its roots in the darkness of the first: the tragic notion that humanity is somehow free to make itself better. I have heard sermons delivered from the pulpit that "BIBLE" is an acronym for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth." For many Christians, the Bible serves as simply the authoritative handbook for everything in life, from dating that honors God to raising happy kids. Tragically, many sermons given in churches that affirm the authority of the Bible revolve around, for instance, fourteen crucial steps to being a person of integrity. The church enables and promotes entire industries selling study Bibles for every subculture on the planet; and it has turned the Bible into a leadership manual in which we are encouraged to mine every figure of the Old Testament as a model for leadership, following Jesus as our CEO.

Sadly, the church wants to be so helpful in people's day-to-day lives that it has grown increasingly pragmatic in its approach to almost everything. In so doing, it has relinquished the authority of Scripture in order to make the Bible more didactic. It has turned the Bible into merely another self-help book to join the stacks weighing down our shelves with ought-to goading and guilt. (The next time you visit your local bookstore, take a look at the Christian section. It bears a striking resemblance to the nearby self-improvement aisle.) This is extremely telling of the way the world views the Bible and its authority. Unfortunately, in part due to the church, the world sees the Bible, like Jesus, at best as one of many great teachers. It is nothing more than a helpful book in a sea of other helpful books. The thought goes, however, even among self-help books, that the Bible languishes–when it comes to managing money or dreams, there are hundreds of other books more specific, cocksure, and engaging.

By focusing on application and didacticism, the church has actually helped lessen the authority of the Bible in the eyes of people. The Bible does speak to finances (and it does have a lot to say about sex, oftentimes even too scandalous for your local evangelical megachurch). Yet, when churches focus on "fixing" a part of life, they misuse the Bible to address only our symptoms as opposed to our disease. The idea that Scripture is in any way self-help is a flawed premise; rather, the biblical diagnosis of humanity is that we are beyond help. Our mismanagement of money, our flawed relationships, and our failure as leaders are simply the symptoms of the disease called sin. As Luther would say, they are the fruit of a bad root. To offer people five steps from the Bible to a better you-fill-in-the-blank is like a hospital offering the victim of a lethal gunshot wound a tissue: after a while, no one would recognize the authority of the hospital either.

The Bible possesses authority even if the world does not recognize it. There are some things that just cannot be left up to subjectivity. For example, traffic lights are authoritative whether or not we give them authority. If one does not go on a green light, people will scream and honk their horns; and if one does not heed a red light, one runs the risk of an accident. Sin and its effects are not subjective either. They are tangible, and it is to the matter of sin that the Bible speaks clearly and with authority. In Ephesians 6:17 Paul refers to the Scriptures as the "sword of the Spirit," and in Hebrews 4:12-13 the author says that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of Spirit, thoughts and intention of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account." The Bible is authoritative not because it is a manual for living, but because it reveals to us Jesus who has the power to cut through all of humanity's baloney. He not only cuts through all our attempts at self-improvement and social evolution, but reveals himself as God's only authoritative solution to sin, humanity's disease.

I love the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John's Gospel because in it we see Christ cut through her socially and self-constructed isolation to offer himself as the solution to her deep need (John 4:1-29). This woman is a complete mess. She did not recognize the authority of the Scriptures, since Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim and believed that there were no prophets after Moses. Also, she was fetching water in the heat of the day, an obvious sign that she was an outcast. In fact, her outcast status was particularly notorious: not only had she had five husbands but was living with a sixth man who was not her husband. Jesus, however, does not respond to her by being helpful. In John 4:7, Jesus actually asks her to get him a drink of water. Nor does Jesus present to her five easy steps from Isaiah so that she might have more fruitful relationships. Rather, by communicating to her who he is, Jesus authoritatively cleaves the scar tissue of her life and offers himself as the solution to her deep need, her eternal thirst. Her overwhelming encounter with Christ moves the woman to return home as an evangelist. She tells her town, "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?" Through her, many came to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world. This encounter clearly illustrates that the authority of the Bible comes from its revelation that Jesus is the Lord who meets her deepest need for forgiveness and absolution.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible derives its authority from bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Martin Luther once said, "The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is lain." The Bible is the only place where God conveys to the world knowledge of his will, the solution to sin, and the hope of eternal life. Article VII of The 39 Articles of Religion, the defining statement on Anglican doctrine, states, "For both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man." The authority of the Bible is found–and for no other reason than–in the fact that it gives us Christ. As Jesus tells the Jews, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life [managing your money, helping you raise happy kids, etc.], and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5:39-40).

Hermeneutically then, as Jesus declares, how do the texts of the Scriptures authoritatively bear witness to Christ? One of the great gifts of the Reformation was the return to–rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15)–making the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. John Calvin's student, the Reformer Theodore Beza (1519-1605), wrote in his famous work The Christian Faith:

We divide this word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the "Law" and the other the "Gospel." For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings….Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.

It is as if the man were writing today! The law and the gospel are found both in the Old and New Testaments. Grammatically, the law takes the form of the imperatives in the Bible, informing us what we shalt and shalt not do. The law, given by God, is perfect. Humans are not perfect, and the law always demonstrates that we are not perfect. As the Reformers would say, the law always accuses. St. James conveys the mercilessness of the law when he writes, "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10). This is a demand that leaves no room for our best shot. The law conveys to us that God is completely perfect and he demands utter perfection. The law dictates how people should act and clearly delineates how completely wrecked humanity is. When brought before the law, the only proper response is to drop to our knees and cry out like St. Paul, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24).

The second word, the gospel, provides the answer to that question. The gospel is found in the indicatives in the Bible, and they let you know who you are because of what God has done for you in Christ. The gospel, when seen in light of the heavy demand of the law, is a glorious word because it says that God has provided and accomplished all that is demanded of you in Jesus Christ. This word says that Christ has not only died for your failure before the law, but has been raised so that you might stand completely justified before the law as if you had never done nor will do anything wrong again. Because of Christ's death and resurrection, God is completely just in this pronouncement. When the law and the gospel are properly distinguished, Christ is always presented clearly as not only holy and righteous but also as forgiving and merciful.

Evangelistically, this presentation of Christ from the Scriptures carries the authority to respond to the cultural throwback: "The Bible is not authoritative over me if I don't make it authoritative." By distinguishing the two words, one can enter into the murkiness of the world's subjectivity and make sense of it. As St. Paul points out in Romans, the law is so much more than simply the Ten Commandments: it is written upon our hearts, it is found in our conscience, and manifests itself in our conflicting thoughts (Rom. 2:15). The law explains why people feel the way they do, what keeps them up at 3:00 a.m. No one is immune from its accusations. In light of humanity's failures, the law always says that our effort is never enough. People's subjective failures, for they are different with everyone, are ultimately rooted in the objective truth that we have failed before God and his Holy Law. When this is properly understood, the gospel–Christ crucified for you–objectively and authoritatively becomes the ultimate answer to all of the world's subjective angst.

The Bible is authoritative whether one trusts or does not trust in its authority. As Bible Protestants, we believe this is objective truth. The point and authority of the Scriptures are lost, however, when we make the Bible about anything else other than Jesus Christ and him crucified for the sins of the world. When the Bible becomes a guide to self-improvement or some sort of mandate to humanly save the world, the church finds itself in a standoff against the world, which argues that even though it works for you, "it ain't necessarily so." When the words of the law and the gospel are rightly distinguished in the Scriptures, however, Christ is always presented in the fullness of his glory as both Judge and Savior. This is where the Bible's authority lies and, like a sword, cuts right through all of humanity's subjective objections. When the law and the gospel are distinguished, they reveal humanity's blindness caused by sin and give Christ as the solution. As a result, we can trust that God will work through his Word. It shall not return empty and "shall succeed in the thing for which He sent it" (Isa. 55:11).

1 [ Back ] The term "Bible Protestants" is used by A. A. Hodge in his work Outlines of Theology in order to describe and distinguish those Protestants who hold to a confessional standard.
2 [ Back ] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, vol. 1 (East Peoria: Versa Press, 2005), 165.
3 [ Back ] John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1970), 360.
4 [ Back ] Unlike Renaissance Humanist, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard simply seeks to nurture and develop atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious students at Harvard and beyond.
5 [ Back ] Jesus, CEO Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership was a national best-seller by Laurie Beth Jones.
6 [ Back ] Except for the one Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:18.
7 [ Back ] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 869.
8 [ Back ] Theodore Beza, Two Parts of the Word of God: Law and Gospel. Reformation Ink,
Friday, January 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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