Thinking about Bible Authority
The good news is that folks are thinking about Bible authority again. Perhaps as a result of the continued slide of many churches into liberalism and doing things without authority (particularly adding instrumental music to worship) I am seeing renewed interest in the subject of Bible authority, how the Bible authorizes, and what constitutes authority. The bad news is that in much of that discussion (in the blog world, Internet lists or discussions, or in various periodicals) it is plain that there needs to be a lot more talk about authority because there is a lot of confusion and misinformation about the subject! Let's think some about Bible authority.
By Bible authority I am referring to the Bible approving a practice or teaching. In very simple terms the question of Bible authority is simply "Is this God's will? Does God want us to do this?" I believe that all we do must be authorized by Scripture (see Col 3:17), and I don't just mean what the church does in its collective functions. What I do personally needs to be authorized by Scripture, i.e. I need to be asking "Does God want me to do this?" in every phase of life. However, much of the talk about Bible authority does center on worship, and that is very understandable. As worship is one of the most important parts of life it is only natural that we take great care to be certain we have correctly discerned the Lord's will for worship. What has God authorized and how has God authorized what we are to do in worship?
Despite some loud objections I do believe the Bible authorizes through the simple means of commands, examples and implication (sometimes called necessary inference). This means of realizing God's will is straightforwardly used throughout Scripture (note Acts 15, for example). Further, it's not even something "sacred" or "special to the Bible." It is how we communicate our will to our children, or how a boss authorizes his employees to do their jobs. Yet objections are being mounted to this idea of how the Bible authorizes. Let me make some very practical observations in the direction of some of those common misconceptions about Bible authority.
First, "hard cases" don't prove that Bible authority doesn't work or that command, example, and implication must be discarded. Yet this is exactly where opponents of authority often begin. "What about foot washing as Jesus did in John 13?" we are asked. "Why don't you bind the holy kiss from Romans 16?" Let's be very clear: these are legitimate questions, and they deserve an answer. What they don't prove is that somehow command, example and implication fail. All these questions show is that we need to study more carefully so we know why we believe what we believe. Is Jesus making a command for all believers for all time in John 13? That's the same question that needs to be asked from every text, isn't it? We should ask that about Matthew 28:18-20 or the material about the Holy Spirit's coming in John 14-15 and every other text! And the answer to those questions is always found in precisely the same way: by studying the Scriptures! The same must be said of the holy kiss of Romans 16:16 or questions about the head covering in 1 Cor 11 or any other "hard question." These passages just need to be studied so we can understand what is and is not being bound there. The fact that these matters are difficult, or that brethren have reached different conclusions about them, doesn't prove that commands, approved examples and implications fail us. They only show that often we haven't studied the Scriptures as we should or that we don't understand how to derive authority from God's word, or both!
Second, a major criticism of commands, examples and implications often heard today is that it is cumbersome and requires human thought. Somewhere out there, people seem to think, there is something so much simpler, easier and that eliminates all ambiguity and human thought. One can see this in the writings of those who don't want to establish authority through commands, examples and implications or inferences. "Necessary inference?" gets slammed as "necessary to who?" Somehow that seems to introduce the idea that your necessary inference might not be mine and so the whole thing collapses and is no good. Of course, as a good friend of mine points out, the better term is "implication" because the Bible implies truth that we are then responsible to infer. In Matthew 22:32 Jesus rebuked the Sadducees because they failed that very test: "And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living." From the present tense of the verb "be" Jesus argues there is an implied truth. Since the Bible doesn't say "I was the God of Abraham" Jesus says that means Abraham is still alive - and the Sadducees should have known that. That inference was very necessary, Jesus said!
Further, I confess a complete lack of understanding at the objection that deriving Bible authority requires our minds and careful thought. What part of our service to God is done without our minds? How could it possibly be pleasing to God to do something mindlessly? Remember, even when God said "Do not work on the Sabbath" (Exo 20:9) that still required people to think and consider what was and was not work. Some folks got pretty far off on that by New Testament times but Jesus didn't tell people "Stop thinking! Anything that requires thinking is flawed." Jesus actually used teaching that made people think, perhaps more than anyone else ever did! Yes there are questions associated with finding authority that require study (as noted above) and much thought. How is that a bad thing? God gave us minds so we could think and serve Him fully with all our hearts!
Third, we all need to remember God wants us to obey Him. He is trying to communicate to us in a way we can understand. He desires our understanding of His ways because He wants us to honor Him with our obedience. God isn't playing hide and seek with us! If there was a way, a hermeneutic, or a method that eliminated all controversy, discussion, and was "utterly plain" then wouldn't God use that? God has given us the New Testament. It says it will "equip us for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). This is God's way of giving us the instructions we need to please Him. Let's get in the Book and trust God that if we will diligently seek Him we will find Him (Jer 29:13)!
Finally, that's what these issues all come down to: what in the Scriptures would cause one to believe God cares about this, mandated this, wants this? What is God's will? That is what we're saying when we bind something: this is significant to the Lord. I believe I can marshal plenty of evidence to make that case for baptism and even every Sunday observance of the Supper. I cannot see that case being constructed for holy kissing or foot washing. There are some who have tried, but after careful study and thought I am not compelled by the evidence offered. That may mean I just need to study more. But again, I am confident that if I am seeking God I will get to the truth if I will just keep studying. That is why questions about authority always go back to the Bible. More study, more thought, more prayer - that is the answer to our questions and even the objections to Bible authority!
By Mark Roberts
From Expository Files 15.5; May 2008