Biblical Authority: the Problem
When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. “Authority” is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?
As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be “no”. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations – lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds – lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question. One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible. For the most part the Bible
itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself. There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based. At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church. But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred. It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul
are talking about. Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels. He isn’t constantly saying, “What about scripture? What about scripture?” It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it. And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points; precisely because the relations between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relations between
the New Testament and ourselves.1 If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antithesis at all. As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.