Does the Bible really have authority?
Throughout church history, Christians have affirmed that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. But what does that actually mean?
While serving in southern Africa, I met people who believe the Bible has special powers, and so sleep with one under their pillow to ward off evil spirits. They also perform animal sacrifices because they find Old Testament support for this practice.
Perhaps you know people here in Canada who subscribe to the credo: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
Then there are those who stand above Scripture, denying it is the Word of God, while claiming the authority to decide what is worthwhile within its pages.
All of these approaches have problems.
A few years ago, I was asked to state my view on the authority of Scripture as part of an interview process for my current position. I hold the convictions I stated then even more strongly today.
I believe the Bible is the fully inspired Word of God as mediated through specially gifted and selected human authors. These authors, under the inspiration, empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit, provided humanity with a record of God’s words and actions in history in order to inspire faith in the triune God, to encourage reconciliation with God and one another, and to provide God’s people with direction for personal and communal life.
Origin of the Bible’s authority
When we speak of the Bible’s authority, we must immediately move into a discussion of its origins, for the Bible has no independent (or “magical”) power of its own, but only inasmuch as God exercises his own might through Scripture.
This view is largely derived from the Bible’s own claims. In the Old Testament, the authors regularly repeat the phrase, “The Lord says….” This indicates they understood their message was from God, not themselves.
The Word of God, revealed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 5:17–19), is then further disclosed through the Spirit-inspired writers of the New Testament who also hold this conviction about their source: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21).
Peter clearly regards Paul’s letters as having the same authority of the “other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
Both Paul and Peter explicitly equate the gospel message they communicate with the Word of God. Peter, quoting from Isaiah 40, draws the connection between “the living and enduring word of God” and “the word that was preached” to his listeners (1 Peter 1:23–25).
The apostle Paul, in a most remarkable passage in 1 Thessalonians, is even more direct: “We also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (2:13, italics added).
The power of the Word
Scripture uses vivid images throughout to emphasize the impact of God’s Word. Some of the descriptions include a fire and a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces (Jeremiah 23:29), a double-edged sword that penetrates and judges (Hebrews 4:12), a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105), rain or snow that cause growth (Isaiah 55:10), seed that bears fruit (Luke 8:11), and food from the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Those who put Jesus’ words into practice find they have a rock-solid foundation for life (Matthew 7:24–27).
Hopefully, we understand that a high view of Scripture is not simply concerned with moral directives (although extremely important), but with how the Spirit of God works through the Word to save, transform and restore life. The truth of Scripture saves and sets us free as we enter into full relationship with the God
The Bible has incredible power to change our lives because it leads us to the True source of Life, Jesus Christ.
Interpreting the Word
Our MB Confession of Faith simply states: “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” But how the Bible functions authoritatively in our lives is not quite so simple.
We are called to the difficult job of interpreting and applying God’s Word for a radically different context than when the Bible was written. Yet, the hermeneutical task of contextualization is not so different from the original effort to produce the Bible. We must employ our human skills and knowledge while relying upon the Spirit of Jesus to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12–15; 1 John 2:20–27).
When interpreting Scripture, we pray and listen for God’s direction, while paying serious attention to how the church has understood and lived Scripture in the past. We rely upon God to guide our reasoning capacities as we faithfully study the historical context, literary genre and authorial intention of biblical texts.
Human experience and the counsel of the faithful community play important roles in interpretation. Throughout history, the people of God have been exhorted to carefully discern truth from falsehood, and avoid simply accepting the word of those who claim to speak on God’s behalf (Deuteronomy 13:1–5; Jeremiah 23:25–32; Matthew 7:15–23; Galatians 1:6–9).
God communicates to us personally through the Bible, but we are all prone to rationalization and self-deceit, and can twist God’s words to suit our own desires. Therefore, we should remember that Paul’s command to “test them [prophecies] all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22) was addressed to a community of believers.
We must also acknowledge that much of the Bible does not look like an instruction book. It certainly provides us with commands and key doctrines, but much of its content is story, poetry, parables and prophetic imagery. How do these kinds of literature speak authoritatively to us today?
This is where we must seek to understand how the account of God’s covenant people in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament shape our identity and inspire us to live out God’s mission of redemption, reconciliation and transformation now.
So how does biblical authority work practically? Do we need a specific text to determine every decision, or do we try to follow the major themes of Scripture like justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23)? Does the Bible simply provide us with an overarching worldview and general principles for life, or does God use Scripture to compel obedience in the mundane aspects of everyday behaviour?
Many of us want an either-or response, but a contextual reading of Scripture argues that we must pay attention to both the grand narrative and the individual details. The two are intricately intertwined.
The book of Deuteronomy is a fabulous example – the Mosaic Law is based on the reality of the Exodus. Moses told the people: when your children ask you what the law means, tell them the Exodus story, and then keep the decrees (see Deuteronomy 6:20–25).
The same is true in the New Testament. Loving our neighbours, refusing to fight back when wronged, pursuing sexual purity and serving the poor are all commanded in Scripture, but only make sense in light of what God has done in Christ. The Spirit of God working through the story of Jesus provides the Truth we need for each decision.
Dwelling in the Word
One can, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, vigorously uphold the doctrine of biblical authority yet miss out on the power of God to transform and give life through his Word (see John 5:36–40). But when we dwell in the Word, and the Word dwells in us, God will transform us by his Holy Spirit.
I pray that God, through the Bible, will continue to speak with powerful effect into our lives, our churches and the world around us.
1. Defending the authority of Scripture means we obey God’s Word.
“Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in
what they do” (James 1:22–25).
2. The authority of God’s Word extends to every area of life, not just what others see.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
3. When the Word of God lives/dwells within us, we grow in our relationship with God and experience victory over the evil one.
“I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:14).