Word of the Week

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.

Scripture is clear with regard to its primary message: salvation.

In this post, we are still under the doctrine of Scripture. We’ve explored canon, inspiration, manuscripts, inerrancy, and sufficiency. In today’s post, we will explain the clarity of Scripture.

We need to recognize some caveats about the clarity of Scripture. First, not all texts in the Bible are equally clear. The original autographs were in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Translating from the original autographs is challenging at times because some words from one language do not have specific equivalent words in another language. Some texts of Scripture require more diligent study than others based on context and meaning. Some passages are plainly more difficult to grasp than others (see 2 Peter 3:16).

Second, the relative clarity of Scripture is also affected by the reader of Scripture. I’m indebted to Robert Letham’s Systematic Theology for this post, and he wrote on this issue:

“Some readers are less able to understand than others, whether by lack of knowledge or education, lack of Christian experience, or a deficit of intelligence… Hard work is needed to explain it. The role of the human interpreter, the knower in the process of knowing, is significant.”

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, 207.

But just because some Scriptures might not be as clear as we’d like them to be or we may not be as certain of our interpretation of some passages as we’d like, does not mean that Scripture lacks clarity. Amazingly, the 66 books of the Bible, 40 different authors, and a variety of themes throughout these books, the primary message of the Bible is clear.

Even with the above caveats, we can nevertheless affirm the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity is the theological term for lucidity or clarity. (The following affirmations are just a sampling, and they are far from exhaustive in the Scripture references that address them).

  • With regard to who God is and what God wants us to know about himself, Scripture is clear (Genesis 1:1).
  • With regard to who mankind is and what God expects of us, Scripture is clear (Genesis 1:28, OT Law).
  • With regard to who Jesus Christ is and what he did to secure salvation, Scripture is clear (Gospels, John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1).
  • With regard to what it means to experience salvation, Scripture is clear (John 3:16, Romans 3:23, 5:8; 6:23, 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-9).

See previous posts on the doctrine of salvation: soteriology, atonement, redemption, regeneration, election, justification, adoption, union with Christ, sanctification, and glorification.

Scripture itself is the primary means for communicating the gospel. It is clear unto salvation. Two examples will suffice.

First, Scripture is clear enough for both children and adults to experience salvation. As a pastor, I preach Scripture regularly and share it personally when witnessing. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of leading both of my children to Christ as well as other children and adults. The primary communication tool that I use to explain salvation is the Scripture. Scriptures on salvation are gloriously clear. It is because of the clarity of Scripture that God has brought billions to faith in himself.

Second, Scripture is the primary communication mechanism from God to people for their conversion. I just finished a fascinating audiobook, Defying Jihad, by Esther Ahmad. Esther grew up a devout Muslim and was on the path toward becoming a suicide bomber. But a dream where she saw Jesus disturbed her devotion to Islam. Providentially, God placed a man in her life who was a Christian. Esther’s conversion to Christ was initiated by a dream, helped along by a couple of Christians, but her conversion only occurred as began reading the Bible. God brought salvation to Esther from the Bible. Esther’s only prior biblical understanding came through the false perspectives of Islam. She did not have a church, a teacher, or Bible study helps. She had the Bible. And God made it clear enough for her to reject Islam and follow Jesus.

In subsequent weeks we will discuss topics like the authority of Scripture and the need for clear and beneficial interpretive strategies regarding Scripture. But one does not have to be a Bible scholar or a trained academic to understand what the Bible has to say about salvation.

God put that information on the bottom shelf for all of us to grasp. God cares about his creatures enough that when he wrote his book to us, men and women, boys and girls, of all ages, geographical and cultural differences, anywhere and anytime, could understand the message of salvation from the pages of Scripture.

As an aside, our prayer partners at Wilkesboro Baptist Church this week are Wycliffe Bible Translators, Adam and Ruth Huntley and family. The reason we care about and prioritize the translation of the Bible in the languages of the peoples of he world is because the Bible is clear, especially about salvation and eternal life. Would you take a moment and pray for Adam and Ruth and other Wycliffe translators?

Photo by Randy ORourke on Unsplash