What is the Authority of the Bible, and why is this Important?

How much authority you grant the Bible, determines how the Bible will affect your understanding of God and human nature.

Readership: Christians;
Author’s Note: This essay was coauthored by Nova Seeker and Jack.

Introduction

Concerning the authority of the Bible, there are basically four positions, summarized in the following four truth statements.

  1. The Bible is a book of wisdom, written in figurative language, and rich in allusion, metaphor, and hyperbole, among many other rhetorical devices.
  2. The Bible is an anthropological artifact – a historical record of Ancient Near East (ANE) Hebrew literature.
  3. The scriptures are God breathed!  The Bible was written by great men of faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
  4. God spoke, men wrote!  The Bible is the infallible Word of God.

These views are listed in order of increasing authority being ascribed to the scriptures.

  1. Most people can readily accept the first, in conceding that the Bible has philosophical and literary value.
  2. The second point is a little harder, as it requires one to accept the assertion that the Bible is true and historically accurate.
  3. The third point is where we begin to separate the true believers — those who recognize the power of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit.
  4. The fourth point ascribes all authority of the Holy Scriptures to God Himself.  This is where people begin to stumble, and are therefore hesitant to accept this as last statement as truth.

The question is, how far down the list will we venture to accept as truth?

For the remainder of this essay, I’m going to focus on the differences between (2), (3), and (4), because this is actually the source of the Dissemination and Dissolution behind the current day church.

How Differences in the Recognition of Biblical Authority Play Out

First, we note that (3) is only different from (2) in that the former recognizes the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.  But if we consider the relative similarities and differences between two human writings, one of which is 3,000 years old and one of which is 10 years old, and both are written through inspiration by men of faith, then we are left to treat these two writings as more or less equal in authority.  At this point, many humans will have many reasons to test the value of each one according to the applicable relevancy.

About the difference between (3) and (4), if the Bible is only considered to be the faith-inspired religious writings of religious humans who were living a long time ago — to be revered in some ways, but not to be considered binding, and to be considered fallible in places, contradictory in others, and certainly nothing God spoke or specifically instructed – then the Bible becomes “ancient human written words about God”, albeit written by men of faith, rather than the “revealed eternal Word of God”.

These are two very different things, obviously.

  1. The former is fallible, contradictory, and not binding.
  2. The latter is infallible and doesn’t contradict itself, and is binding eternally.

Once you engage in that shift, the entire game changes. If the Bible is simply “ancient, human-written words about God”, then it is not inherently more truthful or accurate than any contemporary, human-written words about God.

Comparing the Conservative vs. Progressive Views of Scripture

The conservative view accepts that the source that is 3,000 years old is very likely to have an accurate understanding of any number of things, as compared to the more recent writing. This is because the older source has weathered the test of time, and still continues to speak to the human soul.  It has also survived through all the human strife and warfare over the millennia, which suggests that God must have had a hand in preserving it. So from this perspective, these ancient human writings which were sincerely inspired by the genuine faith of people who lived 2000 years ago and longer, carry a weighty authority. Those who read the ancient texts with an eye to discern what in them is still “relevant” today, 2000 years later, tend to come to the conclusion that human nature is the same, and that God has never changed.  Thus, the conservative view embraces the eternal, infallible aspects of point (4).

The “Progressive” view postulates that the source that is 3,000 years old is invariably considered to be much more likely to have an inaccurate understanding of any number of things, as compared to the more recent writing, due to lower levels of human knowledge about any number of things at the time. So if we’re really just dealing with ancient human writings which were sincerely inspired by the genuine faith of people who lived 2000 years ago and longer, most people will approach them with a more skeptical eye so as to discern what in them is still “relevant” today, 2000 years later, and what is, by comparison, “out of date”.  Thus, the “Progressive” view stops at point (3).

How Differences in the Recognition of Biblical Authority Undermine the Church

This regression from (4) to (3), and even to (2) is, in fact, precisely what we have seen done in the church over the past few decades. This is especially true when it comes to what Paul has written about various matters of Christian moral behavior and church discipline, most recently concerning the ordination of women to ministry, and then the status of homosexual sex and the permissibility of homosexual “marriages”.

What is being done in these cases is that the Pauline epistles are being regarded as a human writing from an era long past, and therefore “out of date” in many ways.  Instead of scrutinizing any contextual differences that might affect the exegesis, these are routinely ignored. Disregarding the cultural context is fine, because Paul’s “ancient words about God”, are still intact in their “spiritual” content. But the more “human” aspects of them are “updated” by ignoring the central underlying truths about God and human nature, all in favor of a more recent, post-modern interpretation, which St. Paul could not have had. The principle behind this approach is that it is immaterial what Paul “intended”, because Paul was writing his own religious ideas, inspired by his faith in God, which were based on the context in which he lived — so we can ignore the matters he writes about that we think are different from the context in which we live, such as matters pertaining to women, marriage, sex and so on.

The whole thing is fallacious (and arrogant), of course, but it’s based on a demotion of the status of the Bible from the infallible Word of God to a collection of fallible “ancient writings about God”.

Related

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19 Responses to What is the Authority of the Bible, and why is this Important?

  1. Scott says:

    There are a number of differing schools of thought on “how” number 4 is true.

    They tend to break along the lines of sovereignty and what it means/meant in the daily lives of those who wrote the original texts. Not to mention the next important step, how much was God involved in canonization (collection and collation of which texts would be included).

    Most Christians don’t even have a theory about that, and if they do they can’t articulate it or describe and be comfortable with its implications.

    You can’t intelligently get involved in discussions about parsing Greek verbs and cultural context or whatever other presupposition you bring to the table to make yourself seem smart without that. Yet, all across America last night in Wednesday night “Bible studies” people did exactly so.

    It’s one of the reasons I ultimately concluded that hierarchy is necessary, against all my protestant/restoration movement background and sensibilities. 40 plus years of devotional time in rooms full of self-proclaimed experts, walking away every time even more confused than the minute I walked in was enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cameron232 says:

      I don’t understand how scripture could be described as an “authority” anyway. Authorities make decisions, act. The Bible doesn’t self-interpret.

      Like

      • Lance Roberts says:

        No, the Bible does self-interpret. The number one rule of hermeneutics is that the Bible best explains itself.

        Liked by 1 person

      • cameron232 says:

        I disagree. I know this is an overused argument, but it doesn’t self-interpret, so there are a hundred Protestant denominations. There are important things that the Bible doesn’t address directly, not things like fine points on abstract Christological doctrines – I mean things that affect people in real life. Things that, if I could live for a thousand years and study the Bible every day, I could never decide on. Things that God would want us to know. I think if God intended the Bible to be used as Protestants use it, He would have written it like a catechism.

        I guess this will turn into a fruitless Prot. Vs. Cath. debate – you know my perspective now and I’m willing to drop it since this will go nowhere.

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      • Jack says:

        “I don’t understand how scripture could be described as an “authority” anyway.”

        The power of the scriptures is not imposed by force, so to speak. It remains up to the individual to read it, believe it, and apply it. Thus, the Bible only has the amount of authority over one’s life that one is willing to grant to it. The basic question posed in this post is about how much authority it should be granted, and what are the practical outcomes of granting different degrees of authority?

        “Authorities make decisions, act.

        That’s right. The believer makes decisions based on his faith in the authority of the Bible. Much of that authority waits to be discovered by the believer.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Novaseeker says:

        There are important things that the Bible doesn’t address directly, not things like fine points on abstract Christological doctrines – I mean things that affect people in real life. Things that, if I could live for a thousand years and study the Bible every day, I could never decide on. Things that God would want us to know. I think if God intended the Bible to be used as Protestants use it, He would have written it like a catechism.

        As someone who isn’t a Protestant but has studied various kinds of Protestantism, I think this issue is often misunderstood by those of us on the “Cathodox” side of things. The reason is that Protestants, on the one hand, and Cathodox, on the other, view salvation and the Christian life differently. This deserves another post, soon to come.

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  2. Scott says:

    This is a perfect example of what I meant

    I went to perfectly legitimate reform seminary with a true scholarly approach abt the number one rule of hermeneutics was “context is everything!”

    Like

    • Lance Roberts says:

      I think the Bible interpreting itself fits into context is everything because the Bible is the context.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jack says:

      Look at this…

      “The Bible doesn’t self-interpret.”

      versus

      “…the number one rule of hermeneutics was “context is everything!”

      I think both of these statements are true. A self-interpretative reading of the Bible is largely dependent on the reader’s understanding of the context. If you can understand the context, then the Bible is more or less self-explanatory. But the thing is, the Bible doesn’t explain the context for every single passage. So if you can’t latch on to the contextual differences somehow, then the Bible appears to be stocked full of confusing contradictions.

      Part of the reason why a contextual analysis is so difficult is because western culture is vastly different from ANE Hebrew culture. If you grew up in the west, then it’s really difficult to imagine a social and ethical system that is so vastly different as the ANE culture.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Ed Hurst says:

    Saying that we are accountable to God for what the Bible tells us is not the same as agreeing on what it tells us. Nor should it be. This is part of how we choose with whom we should fellowship. There is no objective standard, and I am quite certain the Hebrew intellectual culture would snicker at the notion of “propositional truth.” It’s our duty to God to learn how think like the ancient Hebrews.

    Liked by 4 people

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  7. JPF says:

    so there are a hundred Protestant denominations

    This is not the strong argument that many Catholics / Orthodox like to pretend it is.
    There are also at least dozens of Orthodox church groups/branches. Many are separated by ethnic or language lines, such as Serbian, Ukrainian, etc.
    Others may be in the same ethnic region, but there are separations by what branch they submit to; for example in Ukraine there are three major divisions; some are part of the Russian branch, others the new Ukrainian branch that started about a year ago, plus one other for which I can’t remember their exact authority structure.

    The RCC people have charismatic branches/groups too; I do not recall hearing this for Orthodox churches however.

    Similarly, some Prot denominations are stronger in a certain area, either due to geography or the ethnic/language group locally represented. Mennonites are an example.

    There are also variations due to spiritual maturity (or disobedience), such as some Anglicans (closely related to RCC) splitting due to a disagreement over whether to ignore the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual acts.
    But these variations should be expected; Paul wrote about some leaving us, as they were not truly a part of us to begin with.

    Like

    • Lance Roberts says:

      I mostly agree, but realize that it’s not that every variation left us, it’s that God is allowing different branches of the tree of the church. This keeps people exploring issues and getting closer to him over time. A little conflict isn’t bad, and everyone is wrong on some issue. The trick is identifying those who aren’t theologically orthodox and not being fooled into their heresies.

      Liked by 2 people

    • cameron232 says:

      I partically agree about the Orthodox – if I understand, they recognize a certain number of autocephalous Churches. Doctrine is pretty standardized since they look to the early Church fathers and ecumencial councils.
      However, I don’t know in principle, how they would decide on the existencce/automony of a particular national Church. Is the Ukrainian Church autocephalous or under Moscow? Other than another ecumenical council where it’s decided democratically among the long recognized national Churches?
      Catholicism doesn’t seem to have this problem since the whole idea is there is one Church under a visible head.
      Protestantism has a much wider variety of basic doctrine as well as a much wider variety of understandings of basic things like marriage.

      Like

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