Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Authority of the Bible

The danger of doing sermons on the basis of suggestions submitted is that you can't limit the scope of the questions. Some are specific enough that they can be tackled in a 15 to 20 minute sermon. Other questions really require a book to give a full answer. Our sermon suggestion slip drawn for this month says “Preach on the authority of the Bible.” And there are whole books dealing with the subject. So all I can do here is deal with the basics and outline certain lines of argument. If you want to know more, go to or for books containing fuller treatments.

The Greek word in the New Testament translated “authority” can also be rendered “power” or “right.” Someone or something with authority has the right to exercise power in some sphere of human life. And that power is either inherent or bestowed. Inherent power over something usually derives from creating it. If I create a machine or software, I usually have the authority to sell it, distribute it and license it. And, by virtue of having created it, I am usually the authority on the proper way to use it. I can, however, bestow that power onto a company to which I sell the patent or onto a person I designate as my successor.

Strictly speaking, God is the only person with inherent authority. All other authority is bestowed. In Romans 13:1, Paul points out that,”...there is no authority except from God and those authorities that exist have been established by God.” All authorities are, in essence, stewards of the power given them by God. You may argue whether those exercising authority are doing it properly but you can't deny that they have authority.

The U.S. Constitution has authority but it is bestowed. It was created by the founders of our nation. It was ratified by the original states. It is the authoritative blueprint for how our federal government works and the extent and limits of its power and the power of its constituent parts. We treat it as authoritative in resolving disputes through the Supreme Court which has the right to interpret it. We can also amend the Constitution.

Is the authority of the Bible like that of the Constitution? Is it inherent or bestowed? And if it is bestowed, who bestowed it, God or the Church? And what about things the Bible doesn't address? Those are the truly vital questions that I will attempt to answer.

In a sense the Bible is a bit like the Constitution. It did originate with the founder of our faith, God. It is not just a book of human wisdom. The phrase “Thus says the Lord” appears more than 400 times. Jesus says “I tell you the truth” 78 times. To deny that the Bible is God's word would therefore mean that Jesus and all the prophets were either lying or wholly mistaken. It means the Bible is fundamentally wrong and unreliable.

But surely anyone can say “Thus says the Lord” and yet we don't accept everything everyone who uses that preface utters. That where the second part of the process comes in. The people of God debated which books were divinely inspired and accepted the ones we have as canon or the standard. And they did this through the Holy Spirit but also in response to historical challenges.

The canon of the Hebrew Bible was pretty much fixed about 200 years before Jesus' time. The criteria were basically that a book must be in Hebrew (though the Aramaic bits in Daniel and Ezra were deemed acceptable); it must deal with the major themes of Judaism; and it must have been composed before the time of Ezra. Later books like those in the Apocrypha may have been popular but were not considered divinely-inspired. And later on, rabbis definitely excluded Christian books from the 39 they settled on.

In the case of the New Testament, the problem of what is considered canon was precipitated by a heretic named Marcion. A bishop from Asia Minor, present day Turkey, he was an anti-Semite who tried to expunge everything Jewish in Christianity. He was the first person to propose an canon of authoritative Christian scriptures. It consisted of the Gospel of Luke and Paul's epistles, though he edited out any references connecting Jesus with the Old Testament and Judaism. He did this because he felt the God of the Old Testament was a different and inferior deity to the supreme God of Jesus.

In response to Marcion, who was excommunicated, Christians proposed a broader canon, one that did not ignore the Old Testament or the connection between the Old and New Covenants. For 200 years the discussion went on until we arrived at our present canon of 27 books, though by 200 AD, the only ones still being debated were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John and Revelation. This is not to say that there weren't other books that some thought should be included, like the Shepherd of Hermes and the letters of Clement, or that there weren't other books read in various geographical and ethnic parts of the church. But what we ended up with was the universal consensus from the 4th century on.

So you can forget Dan Brown's assertion that the Emperor Constantine decided what books would go into the Bible. The canon had been pretty much hashed out by then. God's Spirit spoke through these books and God's people heard his voice and responded.

But here's where the parallel between the Bible and the Constitution ends. The Constitution can be amended. The 18th Amendment created Prohibition, forbidding the production, sales and transportation of alcoholic drinks. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. There is no mechanism to do the same with parts of the Bible.

That said, we do see Jesus and Paul amending or nullifying parts of the Old Testament laws, specifically in reference to the dietary restrictions, the prohibition of all work on the Sabbath and circumcision. How do they get away with that?

Jesus basically reinterprets certain things found in the Old Testament. And as the Son of God, he has that right. So to him, helping someone in distress on the Sabbath is not counted as prohibited work. Nor is feeding oneself. He obviously does not think that touching lepers or dead bodies or menstruating women when healing them are acts that would render him ritually unclean, though these things are explicitly forbidden in the Torah. Nor does Jesus feel constrained by the traditional interpretations or rules offered by the Pharisees. So he did not practice their elaborate handwashing at meals. He does not fast on the days they prescribe. And he teaches women God's word.

Jesus has the authority to do such things because, as God, he is the drafter of the covenant with Israel. Because he made the rules, he can revise them and he can give authoritative interpretations of them. But by what right does Paul say that God's people need no longer get circumcised?

By the right given him by Jesus when he says to his apostles, in Matthew 18:18, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” He gives them the authority to exercise discipline in the church as to what is permitted and what is forbidden. But notice that Jesus is not giving them the right to alter things in heaven. As this translation accurately states, what they bind on earth “shall have been bound in heaven” and what they loose here “shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, guided by his Spirit, the apostles will be altering the conditions of behavior on earth to what they already are in heaven. They shall be, so to speak, returning things to the original factory settings!

And, indeed, before the apostles start altering the way Gentiles are treated, God acts to show them the new way. So in Acts 8 Phillip is told by the Spirit to approach the eunuch reading from Isaiah and baptizes the first Gentile convert to Christianity. And Peter in Acts 10 three times sees a vision in which he is to kill and eat non-Kosher animals before he is summoned to meet Cornelius and his household. Receiving the Holy Spirit as Peter tells them the Gospel, they become the first Gentile family to be baptized. And there is no hint that Peter demanded they be circumcised first or afterward. So when Paul tells the church not to demand that Gentiles become circumcised when they become disciples of Jesus, and not to hold them to the dietary laws, he is following divine precedent. Paul and the other apostles are, like the prophets, spokesmen for God.

But since there is no trustworthy way for we who are not one of the original apostles to amend the Bible—if it were up to me, I would add most of C. S. Lewis—how do we deal with things that are either unclear in or not covered by scripture? Here we enter into careful interpretation of scripture. For instance, does “thou shalt not kill” refer to all killing, such as killing animals or to war? Does it refer just to murder and if so, does that include abortion? Does it refer to what we would call “manslaughter”? What about neglect to, say, label something as dangerous or to provide safety equipment on a risky job?

For those things that are not clear—like, say, the position of a Christian soldier in the army of a secular nation—we must first study scripture, all of it. We have instances of Israelites as soldiers but generally they are fighting for theocratic Israel. However, David, while on the lam from King Saul, fights for the Philistines. How can that be justified? We have John the Baptist instructing Roman soldiers on how to behave. We have Jesus telling Peter that those who live by the sword shall perish by it. We have Paul saying in Romans 13 that we should obey the authorities. Carefully studying those and other passages, and looking at the context of each, will at least clarify certain issues and possibly give some directions. It can help us define a principle or principles to be used to discern the proper thing to do in some issue not explicitly covered in the Bible. For instance, a cell phone is not specifically mentioned in the 10th Commandment, which prohibits coveting your neighbor's wife, house, servants, animals, etc, but clearly the principle of not coveting applies to your neighbor's iPhone, too.

Studying the language as well as the historical, cultural and archeological backgrounds of the relevant portions of the Bible will also help with interpreting certain passages. Abortion was known and performed in the ancient world. Why is it never directly addressed in scripture? Could it have something to do with the culture of the Hebrews where children are considered a blessing and where being barren is considered a curse?

In the passage in Exodus 21 where a pregnant woman is injured as collateral damage in a fight so that, as it says in the original Hebrew, “her fruit is brought forth,” does that mean a premature birth or a miscarriage? Does the phrase in the verse that follows--”a life for a life”--apply to the death of a wife or the death of an unborn child? How did the rabbis interpret this in the Talmud?

This leads us to another fruitful area to study in deciding the Biblical way to behave in a situation not addressed in the Bible: namely, what did believers in the past do and say? We have not only the Talmud, a commentary on a commentary on the Torah, but also the early Church Fathers. The immediate successors to the apostles offer insights not only on scripture that was written in their recent past but can tell us how Christians responded to issues not mentioned in the Bible.

You may object that we have now left behind the principle of Scripture only. And in a strictly literal sense, we have. But we have to, if we are to live in any century other than the first century AD. Consulting tradition, the interpretations and practices of past Christians, is not the same as being ruled by tradition. Tradition, properly used, is a resource. You don't always need a Philips screwdriver but it's handy to have when you encounter a Philips head screw. Tradition is a sometimes helpful tool. But you do want to check that the tradition in question does not contradict what the Bible says.

The same goes for reason. When dealing with some issue that neither the Bible nor tradition addresses, then you try to reason from scriptural premises and principles to come up with a solution that is consistent with what Jesus and the apostles taught.

The basics of how to think about God and of sinful and virtuous thoughts, words and behaviors are covered in the Bible. And they will serve you well for most of what you have to deal with even today. For instance, in dealing Facebook and other forms of social media, a Christian can use these things provided he or she keeps in mind what the Bible says about any communication. No gossip. No slander. No lies. Ask yourself if what you propose to post will build up other people or tear them down. Before you post a picture, ask yourself if the people in it are decently attired. Or is it likely to tempt others to lust?

But some modern developments present challenges not covered in the Bible, such as what to do when someone is being kept alive by machines or other modern medical measures. No one in Biblical times ever had to ask themselves if they should take their mother or brother or child off of life support. As recently as 50 years ago, most of these dilemmas about pulling the plug or keeping someone alive didn't exist. Now it is possible to make your heart beat and your lungs inflate and deflate even if your brain is dead. Is removing you from life support murder, manslaughter or mercy?

Then there are problems which arise which go against what the Bible says. Let's take divorce. Jesus is very much against divorce, save for uncleanness, which could mean unfaithfulness. Paul allows divorce if the non-Christian spouse wishes to separate from the believer. The Bible does not recognize divorce for mental cruelty or for domestic violence. How do we deal with that? Do we deny divorced people communion as the Roman Catholic church does? Where does forgiveness come in? Jesus denounced divorce because then former spouses were committing adultery if they remarried. Yet Jesus protected a woman taken in adultery, refusing to condemn her and telling others that they could only punish her if they were without sin. What about the second of the two greatest commandments, to love our neighbor as we do ourselves? Jesus said no other commandments are greater. Is it loving to force someone back into an abusive marriage? Or is it loving to accept people who are divorced into the community of all of us sinners who are forgiven and are being healed by Jesus?

For the Christian, the Bible is authoritative on matters of faith and practice. But not everything is covered by the Bible. We can deal with those things by studying the Bible and its interpretation closely (disciple, after all, means student), by consulting the traditions of Christians in the past, and with using reason to apply Biblical principles to new situations. We must also be open to the guidance of God's Holy Spirit when dealing with people in less than ideal situations, treating them with compassion and love.

2 last points on the authority of the Bible. Francis Schaeffer pointed out something about the Bible that helps me tremendously. He said that the information we have in the Bible about God is true but not exhaustive. That both agrees with what it says at the end of John's Gospel (about Jesus having done stuff that was not written down) and with logic. If everything there is to know about God could be put into a book, he wouldn't be God.

God cannot be totally comprehended. He cannot be totally contained by any book or database or merely human mind. That does not mean we can't know anything about him or that we can't know the essentials. And we know his character: he is just but merciful, righteous but forgiving. And because of his eternal character, what we don't know about him must be consistent with what we do know about him.

Which leads to the second and final point. Acclaimed Bible scholar N. T. Wright compares the Bible to a 5-act play and the Bible to the script for the first 4 acts. Act 1 could be God creating the world. Act 2 could be the fall of humanity. Act 3 could be the preparation for the Messiah. And Act 4 would be the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah. We are living in Act 5, the restoration of all things. We have a bit of the first part of this Act: the Book of Acts and the Epistles, in which we see how what Jesus has begun is being spread to the rest of the world. And we know how things end: a new heaven and a new earth, populated by God's resurrected people. But what we haven't got is the exact script for the bit of Act 5 that we are presently living in. God has filled us with his Spirit and is letting us improvise this bit. What we do has to be consistent with what has happened before and has to lead to the ending as it is written in Revelation.

But this doesn't mean there won't be surprises. God is great at plot twists. Jesus coming as the Messiah no one expected was a big plot twist, though it was foreshadowed, especially in Isaiah. Taking the Gospel to the Gentiles was a big plot twist, though hinted at in the Old Testament. God might have some more plot twists for us and we must respond as any good improvisational actor would: by saying “Yes” to whatever is thrown at you and working with it. If you're in the middle of a murder mystery that suddenly becomes a love story, you don't reject the change; you incorporate it into what you've been doing up to that point. And if you can add something else to make it better, you do. Stephen Colbert calls it the “Yes, and...” principle. 

When he went on a routine business trip, the good Samaritan wasn't anticipating spending his time and money on taking care of a mugging victim. But when the situation was presented to him, he said “Yes” to his God-given role as rescuer and nurse. And he added the part where he would pay for the guy's care even when he had to move on. When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he wasn't anticipating launching the Protestant Revolution. But when presented with a refusal by church officials to even debate his points, he accepted the God-given role of reformer and added to that translating the Bible and composing hymns. Francis didn't anticipate starting a worldwide movement when he renounced his father's wealth and became a friar. But he said “Yes” to his God-given role and added the creation of the Christmas manger scene and the composition of poems and songs, becoming Christ's troubadour.

You have to know the script well to ad lib. So know your Bible, your authority. Live a life consistent with it. But look out for plot twists. Say “Yes, and...” to whatever God throws your way. We know how the story ends. The fun is seeing how we get there.

1 comment:


    Where should Christians look for God's authoritative truth? Should it be the Bible? Should it be the church of your choice or the church you belong to by chance?

    The Bible was completed in 95 A.D. when the apostle John wrote Revelation. Who wrote the Bible? Was it God or was it the church?

    John 14:24-26 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent me. (THE WORDS JESUS SPOKE WERE FROM GOD THE FATHER) 25 "These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all the I said to you.

    The words of Jesus were from God the Father and He said that The Father would send the apostles the Holy Spirit so they could remember all that He said. The words of the apostles were God's word, their words were Scripture, their words were the Bible.

    In, John 14:24-26, Jesus was not talking to the Pope, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Billy Graham, Joesph Smith Jr, Mary Baker Eddy, cardinals, bishops, elders, so-called modern day apostles, preachers, pastors, nor any one claiming to speak for God. If the church or theses men as individuals, were speaking for God by new revelation, then, we would have added books to the Bible. There would the books of the Popes, the book of John Calvin, the book of Billy Graham, the books of elders, the books of churches, the book of Joesph Smith Jr. etc.


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