Word of the Week: Authority

The Bible is our authority for Christian life. As a professor of Western history, I’ve often used the theme of authority to describe historical eras.

Under the Roman Empire, Rome had authority.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had authority.

The Reformation occurred precisely because of the issue of authority. Roman Catholics equated church tradition and Scripture as equally authoritative while the Reformers understood the Scripture to be their sole authority.

The Enlightenment Era shifted the authority from revelation (Scripture) to reason (science and philosophy).

In postmodern thought, authority has shifted toward individualism and personal freedom.

The idea of authority, who or what gets to determine what is right, true, or moral, is tremendously important for human experience.

To see the importance of biblical authority, we can look at the story of Charles Templeton and Billy Graham. Templeton and Graham both served as traveling evangelists with Youth for Christ in the 1950s. While Billy Graham was simple, clear, and direct, he was also genuinely productive when he preached. Charles Templeton was a young evangelist who had charisma, eloquence, and vigor in his preaching. In many ways, Templeton was superior to Graham as a communicator. Templeton ended up leaving Youth for Christ in order to go to Princeton to receive theological training. Several times he argued with Billy Graham and challenged him to head to seminary as well to develop his theological perspectives. At Princeton, Templeton was taught that the supernatural events of the Bible were made up stories to give credibility to early Christianity rather than accounts of what actually happened. He (as so many theologians of the era) developed a bias—that modern thinkers know more than and think about theology better than the original authors.  Templeton challenged Billy Graham on these matters, and Graham didn’t have answers to the theological questions Templeton was raising. Templeton and Graham differed on the issue of biblical authority. Templeton shifted his view of authority from revelation to reason due to the theologically liberal education he received. Graham was understandably troubled. The story goes that Graham went to spend some time in the woods praying and seeking God. Upon his return, Graham concluded that he was going to trust that the Bible was God’s Word (that it represented God’s authority) and preach it as such. God immensely blessed Graham’s evangelistic ministry as a result.

Billy Graham made famous the phrase, “the Bible says.” But you may never have heard of Charles Templeton. Graham’s ministry was built on biblical authority, while Templeton’s theological drift led him away from Biblical preaching. (You can read more about this story in William Martin’s book, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, pages 110-112). 

But we must not hold to biblical authority simply because of pragmatics (the apparent blessings of Graham’s ministry compared with Templeton’s shift in ministry). The issue of authority is ultimately about God.

Consider Jesus’ claim when he gave the Great Commission:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (emphasis mine)

Jesus has authority. So the word of Jesus, the Bible, has authority because it is from God. Our previous posts about canon, inspiration, manuscripts, inerrancy, sufficiency, and clarity underscore the following truth: if God is the author of Scripture, then we must submit to God as the ultimate authority in our lives and obey what Scripture teaches.

N.T. Wright argued in his book Scripture and the Authority of God, that God exercises his authority through Scripture. In essence, Scripture is authoritative because God has ultimate authority.

Here are some implications for this doctrine of authority:

  • If the Bible is authoritative, then salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ (see Acts 4:12). This is the reason we believe in the mission of the gospel to our neighbors and the nations. If they do not hear of Christ and follow Christ, then they are apart from salvation.
  • If the Bible is authoritative, then followers of Jesus must share the gospel. See the previous point. If we really believe in the doctrines of the Bible as inspired, inerrant, sufficient, clear, and authoritative, then the only hope for dying world is the life-giving message of the gospel (John 10:10). We must be witnesses of this news.
  • If the Bible is authoritative, then followers of Jesus must submit to the Scripture. The primary reason we must read, learn, study, apply, and memorize the Bible is because it is God’s message to us. If God is our ultimate authority, then Scripture is how he exercises and communicates his authority to us (2 Timothy 3:16).
  • If the Bible is authoritative, then cultural mores will often be at odds with biblical ethical commands. For example contemporary views of human sexuality contradict Biblical sexual ethics (see Romans 1:18 ff). It is at these places where Biblical authority and cultural values intersect. If God has authority, then Christians will live and look differently than the world around them.

During my ministry, I have tried to operate under the authority of God through Scripture. When we bend our hearts and wills to God through obedience to his word, we have the opportunity to experience the blessings of relationship with God.

Today’s cultural expressions of individualism, personhood theory, and personal truth are at odds with biblical truth specifically in the arena of authority. If I am the authority in my life, then I don’t have to submit to another authority.

But when we find ourselves at odds with biblical authority, ask yourself this question, “Who knows more, us or God?”

Since God knows all, then we can trust his Word. Since we can trust his Word, we can obey it.

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