**This post was originally published on my old site in March, 2015.
What We Mean When We Say “Authority”
Authority is the ultimate issue. It is what drives our actions and reactions. We are dictated by what we recognize as our authority. Whether or not a small boy gets to spend the night at a friend’s house hinges on the approval of his parents—his authorities. Whether or not a driver is allowed to drive 35mph or 65mph hinges on the law—the speed limit is his authority. At some point, we all have to identify an ultimate authority by which every decision is judged. Think of it as a supreme court of the mind; the highest authority to appeal to for all of our decisions.
To be a Christian means to identify the Scriptures as the ultimate authority. This doctrine is what the reformers described as Sola Scriptura—Scripture Alone—and it means that any desire or decision that collides with the teachings of Scripture is to be rejected by default. Sure, we can use other means in the process of determining the value of a given desire or action; but ultimately, as Christians, our highest court of appeal is Scripture. Submission to the teachings of Scripture—in belief and practice—is not optional for the believer.
So why should Scripture be the ultimate authority over our lives? Because the Bible tells us so. Now, the careful reader will be quick to point out the circular nature of this response; this is what we callbegging the question. I know it seems silly for me to assume what I’m trying to prove, but hang with me for a second. Isn’t this necessary? Think about it; in order for you to get anywhere, you have to start somewhere. An ultimate authority is by nature self-authoritative. The second you appeal to a higher authority to justify your highest authority is the second you have dethroned your highest authority in place of another (feel free to read that again if you need to). If I try to justify Scripture as my highest authority by ultimately appealing to anything other than Scripture, then Scripture is not actually my highest authority; something else stands over and above it, and has the power to validate or invalidate it.
So when we look to Scripture, what does it say about its own authority? We could go to a lot of places in the Bible to answer this question, but let’s just go to a few.
For starters, we have the classic passage of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, when he affirms that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is sufficient to make the “man of God…complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-16) It would stand to reason that if the scriptures are the breathed out words of the Creator of the universe, they are authoritative. We could also turn to passages in the Old Testament that sing the accolades of the word of God, like Psalm 19, or Psalm 119, or Isaiah 55. But perhaps one of the most compelling examples of Scripture describing its self-authoritative nature can be found in the gospels, where Jesus himself submits to the authority of the Bible. In Matthew 4, Jesus responds to the temptations of Satan with Scripture; Jesus essentially said, “I can’t do that Satan, the Bible forbids it.” Or we could look at John 8, when Jesus dares his opponents to convict him of sin; that is, show him where he had broken the Law of God. Presumably, if Jesus could be seen as doing or saying anything in contradiction to Scripture, he would be wrong, and he would have been willing to admit it as well (Of course, Jesus would never do anything contrary to the authority of Scripture because he was the sinless Son of God—which is a teaching that we find in… yep, you guessed it: Scripture). This is what submission to authority means.
What Difference Does It Make?
So we can see that the authority of Scripture is important for us theologically and epistemologically (there’s your five-dollar word, feel free to impress people with it: epistemology is simply the branch of philosophy that teaches us how we can know what we know); but what about the practical level? Does the doctrine of the authority of Scripture apply to the real life of the church, where people live and eat and talk about things of everyday life? Or, as I like to put it, can this doctrine meet our fingertips, or is it to be stuck in our bloated cranium? The authority of Scripture is in fact important on the ground level, for both the pastor and his congregation.
For the pastor, the authority of Scripture is the doctrine that gives him the right to preach. Without the authority of Scripture, a preacher can’t preach; at best, he can stand up and share his ideas about some ancient text. How presumptuous and audacious does one have to be to assume that a group of people ought to come together every week—giving their time and their money—to simply hear him think out loud about any given idea? But if that group of people is coming to hear the word of God, the preacher isn’t being presumptuous, he’s being faithful. If people are coming to submit to their authority, then the pastor can declare with unction, “Thus says the Lord!” The authority of Scripture is at the heart of the preacher’s prerogative to preach; without it, he is powerless, and he is unable to justify boldness.
For the congregation, the authority of Scripture is the doctrine that protects them from being taken advantage of. It is the Scripture that they owe their full, unquestioning allegiance to; not their pastor. It is the Bible that the church must unabashedly obey; not a personality. Furthermore, submitting to the absolute authority of Scripture means not submitting to the constantly shifting social laws of the culture. In other words, the authority of Scripture is what gives the Christian the ability to remain a Christian in an increasingly non-Christian society. How much more practical could you possibly get?
Further Resources on Authority
- Carson, D.A., Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon
- DeYoung, Kevin, Taking God At His Word
- Henry, Carl F.H., God, Revelation, and Authority
- Warfield, B.B., The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible
- The Top 10 Books On the Bible’s Authority
- Biblical Authority In An Age of Uncertainty