Is the Bible Authoritative?
The Bible is globally recognized as the world’s best selling book. Based upon its popularity, inquiring minds will seek to know: Is the Bible authoritative? And if it is, to what extent does its authority reach? Honest hearts will seek to know the answer to both of these questions. It was variance with the authority of God’s verbal communications that deprived man of his dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26-28; cf. Hebrews 2:5-9), plunging him into ruin through sin, and separating him from the eternal Creator (Isaiah 59:2). The Law that was written on tablets of stone by the very finger of God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:18) was broken through wickedness within the forty days of its constitution, and Moses literally cast the tablets down, breaking them into pieces at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 32:19).
The Old Testament is a record of the arrogant, willful rejection of the law of God by an obstinate, self-serving people who continually violated the benign government of the Creator, despising the authorized and acceptable acts of worship, each one doing “what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The need for a Savior was witnessed through the continuing death of mankind as initiated by sin (Romans 5:12, 17), and the New Testament opens with the arrival of the promised Messiah. In His ministry, Jesus elaborated upon the need for sincerity and a pure heart in worship, also teaching the necessity of practicing constraint in daily living (Matthew 5-7), specifically indicating that sin originates in the heart (5:21-28). He insisted that simple belief and acknowledgment of Him as “Lord” was insufficient for salvation (Luke 6:46-49), stating in contrast, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Jesus made obedience to His words (teachings) the proof of discipleship, saying, “If you abide in My words, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31, 32). Immediately preceding His death on the cross, Jesus promised, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My words; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (John 14:23, 24). For men to be saved, the words of Christ would need to be available, directing men in steps to follow for salvation and acceptable worship that would be pleasing to the Creator. This task would be the work of the apostles.
Christ promised the apostles a special gift that would ensure the accuracy of the divine message of salvation without error, saying, “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 that I said to you...But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (John 14:26; 16:13). The fulfillment of that promise began on the occasion of Pentecost less than two months afterward, the apostles receiving power from the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel of salvation to all the world (Acts 2:1ff; cf. Colossians 1:5, 6, 23).
The authority of the apostles was binding whether in personal word of mouth or by written letter (the New Testament today). Christ gave the apostles the authority to “bind” or “loose” commands (Matthew 16:19; 18:18), emphasizing the integral part they would exercise in the proclamation of the truth that men must obey in order to be set free from sin. These instructions were superintended by the Holy Spirit (I Thessalonians 1:5), and the remainder of the Bible from Acts to Revelation details the pattern of worship and personal behavior to be observed by all who enter the family of God. This is why Jude exhorted, “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).
The permanent authority of the divine pattern for the church is accentuated by Paul when he instructed the church of the Thessalonians, saying, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by letter from us…And if anyone does not obey our instructions in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame” (II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:14). The same caution was expressed to Timothy, Paul certifying the essential truth of the gospel, declaring, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 1:13). Considering these few passages, it is truly distressing to hear claims similar to those sounded forth more than twenty-five years ago by Max Lucado who stated, “The Bible is a love letter as opposed to a blueprint. You don’t read a love letter the same way you read a blueprint…for me, for years, Christianity was a moral code. It is now becoming a love affair. For years there were rules and regulations, now, it’s a relationship” (Jenkins, 1989). This attitude represents the basis on which the divine authority declared by Jesus and His apostles in the foregoing passages is dismantled. If it is literally true that no “rules and regulations” exist, then man is certainly left to do “what [is] right in his own eyes,” disregarding “the pattern of sound words” that allow the relationship of God and man to be restored.
In proof of the authority of the Scriptures, a strong case is made by Paul when he asked the following question during argument: “For what does the Scripture say?” (Romans 4:3). Paul appeals to the authority of an Old Testament passage to evince the continuity between God’s actions in the past and the current gospel plan of redemption. Salvation from sins did not arise through the Mosaic Law, but through the promised “Seed” of Abraham, Jesus Christ our Lord (Galatians 3:16-19). For the benefit of this current discussion on authority, observe how Paul personifies Scripture as speaking with divine clout, implying that there is authority inherent in “Scripture.”
Paul does the same again in Romans 9:17, stating, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” Although these words were actually spoken by Jehovah through Moses to Pharaoh (Exodus 9:13-16), the Scripture itself is personified as speaking. By this method, Paul indicates that the very words written in the Hebrew Bible are a communication of God, containing the full authority of deity. The voice of the Scriptures is authoritative, and men are called to heed the written testimony as if God himself were speaking the words.
The term “Scripture” or “Scriptures” is found approximately fifty times in the New Testament. In every instance but one, the Greek word is graphe (used in both the singular and plural forms). Vincent’s New Testament Word Studies and Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary both relate how this word is used to indicate the writings of both the Old and New Testaments. In I Timothy 5:18, Paul strengthens his argument by stating, “For the Scripture says…” He then proceeds to quote one passage from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 25:4) and another from the New Testament (Luke 10:7). By combining both quotations under the designation “Scripture,” Paul characterizes both Testaments as belonging to the canon of “Scripture.” In similar fashion, Peter refers to Paul’s epistles as being in the same category as “the rest of the Scriptures” (II Peter 3:16).
The Greek graphe (singular) is used to denote a specific passage of Scripture (as in the preceding examples); but the word graphai (plural) is indicative of the whole of sacred writings. Jesus stated to the Jews concerning the entire Old Testament, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (John 5:39). The Bereans were signally honored for the fact that they examined “the Scriptures daily” to prove the gospel message as true (Acts 17:11). When Paul wrote Timothy, he emphasized the authoritative nature of every individual Scripture, saying, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 2:16, 17). In essence, the phrase “Scripture says” is essentially the same as “God says.” The Scriptures possess the same authority as if the words were spoken to each one directly from God.
The Extent of Bible Authority
Did Jesus consider the Scriptures authoritative? He most certainly did. Christ endorsed the concept of authoritative, verbal inspiration when He told Satan that man does not live by bread alone, but by “every word” that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). When the Sadducees debated with Jesus concerning the bodily resurrection of the dead, He declared that part of their problem was that they did not understand “the Scriptures” (Matthew 22:29). To explain their error, Christ quoted Exodus 3:6, asking, “have you not read that which was spoken to you by God?” (v. 31). Jesus acknowledged God as the source and authority of the words which could be read in the Scriptures. In light of this analysis, how much weight may be attributed to statements claiming the New Testament is merely a “love letter” without “rules and regulations,” and that no acts of obedience are necessary for salvation or that a pattern does not exist for acceptable church worship?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized that not “the smallest letter or stroke” would pass from the Law without being fulfilled (Matthew 5:18; cf. Luke 16:17). This statement identified the tiniest marks found in the Hebrew Bible as important distinctions within the law of God. Christ claimed it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest portion of the law to fail before being fulfilled. The Wycliffe Bible Dictionary noted that these terms can be explained, “only by recognizing that Christ regarded the individual words of Scripture as inspired and authoritative, for the change of a letter might well change the whole word and its meaning” (1999, p. 962).
Authoritative, verbal inspiration is asserted by Paul when he affirmed, “All Scripture is inspired of God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Every word of the Bible has value for the student, and inherent in Paul’s declaration is the idea that “rules and regulations” do apply, for where would the need be for reproof or correction if each one may simply do as he sees best? Those attempting to excise authoritative commands from Christianity are simply fooling themselves, and, in actuality, prove themselves unworthy of any recognition. Paul exclaimed, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (I Corinthians 14:37, 38).
Here is a clear example of the apostles reiterating the words previously spoken by Jesus. With regard to those who simply call on the name of Christ while failing to do “the will of the Father,” Jesus avowed, “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). Jesus demonstrates in this passage that obedience is the hallmark of discipleship. This is not to suggest empty or begrudging obedience is the test, for Jesus related to the apostles, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). To the church at Corinth, Paul penned the magnificent treatise on love, revealing that true Christianity is expressed through obedience motivated by love (I Corinthians 13).
That Christianity is indeed directed by laws is spelled out unmistakably in terms where the New Covenant is called “the law of Christ” (I Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2); “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2); “the perfect law” (James 1:25); “the royal law” (James 2:8); and “the law of liberty” (James 2:12). Those seeking to exempt themselves from the obligation of obedience often attempt to characterize “the law of liberty” as a license to abandon divine restraints in Christian living and worship, but the immediate context is an emphasis upon restrictions regarding bigotry, and the remainder of the chapter is based upon the necessity of obedience for justification (James 2:14-26). The law of liberty simply contrasts the New Covenant with the Law of Moses which placed a yoke of bondage upon the necks of the people, true forgiveness and freedom from guilt being unknown under the Old Law (Hebrews 10:1-4); but in Christ Jesus, the worshipper is set free (liberty) from the remembrance of sins; God having declared, “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17).
For all who are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation for sin (Romans 8:1), and the apostle had formerly spoken definitively in describing the process by which a person may enter “into” Christ Jesus in order to receive forgiveness of sins. The sixth chapter of Romans contains the “blueprint” of how a person enters Jesus Christ, receiving the benefits of the promises found in the righteous “Seed.” Sinners are “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3), becoming united with Him in His death in order that they may be raised to a new life (6:4, 5). The Bible teaches no other way to enter Him, and this is in keeping with the promise of Christ: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). It is impossible to claim Christ as Lord while denying the essential authority of baptism as a prerequisite of salvation.
The Scriptures speak explicitly to the matter of salvation, and the honest heart who is truly seeking the Lord will have no reservations concerning the authority of the Scriptures regarding what a man must do in order to be saved. Jesus taught the necessity of belief in Him as deity (John 8:32); of repentance of sins (Mark 1:15); of confession of His name (Matthew 10:32, 33); and of baptism (Mark 16:16; Matthew 28: 19). Speaking to those who were Christians, Christ promised, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Do these words possess any authority which must be heeded? They absolutely do! For Christ exclaimed “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:48).
Men are brought into a saving relationship with God through obedience to the truth, and Peter exhorted, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Peter 1:22, 23). Christ is the author of salvation for all those “who obey Him,” and the Scriptures are the authoritative source of the teachings of Christ.
For Church Doctrine
The necessity of obedience is not finalized upon entering Christ, but must continue in acceptable worship practices and personal conformity to the life of Christ (Romans 12:1, 2; 8:29). The principle of worshipping in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) is displayed vividly in the seven churches of Asia Minor addressed in the book of Revelation. Of those seven churches, only two (Smyrna and Philadelphia) were faithful to Christ, the latter being commended for perseverance and obedience to His word (3:8, 10). The remaining five churches were declared unfaithful.
The church at Ephesus was warned to “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent” (2:5). Here is a stern rebuke, calling for a return to “the pattern of sound words” that was previously obeyed or else their status as the church of Christ would be terminated. The church at Pergamum was allowing some of its members to teach false doctrines that encouraged participation in forbidden activities (2:14). Failure to repent of these heresies would incite the wrath of Christ against them (2:16; cf. Psalm 2:12).
The church at Thyatira practiced much for which they were commended, but the false prophetess, Jezebel, had overstepped her boundary, taking the lead in teaching perversions to the church (2:20). A failure to repent would soon rouse the wrath of Christ against the impenitent (2:22, 23). The church at Sardis was nearing spiritual death, having failed to complete the instructions given by the apostles (3:2, 3). They were called upon to awake from their lethargy and to obey the divine requirements pertaining to the church of Christ or else suffer loss through the actions of Christ. And to the church at Laodicea, Christ spoke to them about their severe case of apathy, encouraging them to “be zealous and repent” (3:19).
These examples are a New Testament commentary on the permanent authority of the apostolic “pattern of sound words” which the church is to follow for worship to be accepted by Christ. The authority of the written word as a binding document which cannot be exceeded by the church was stressed by Paul to the church at Corinth when he explained, “Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written…” (I Corinthians 4:6). The apostle John affirmed the same, saying, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (II John 9). The pattern of worship and doctrine for the church is clearly established upon the pages of the New Testament, and from it we also learn that God does not allow the pattern to be changed in any way (Matthew 28:18-20; Revelation 22:18, 19).
For Daily Living
The Bible is not only authoritative in matters of salvation and church doctrine, but it also deals with the daily life of the Christian. The prophet of old confessed, “I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself; Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). The same remains true today. The New Testament is authoritative in the daily walk of every child of God; from how we are to treat others to the very words which proceed from the mouth (Luke 6:27-31; Ephesians 4:29).
Honorable marriage responsibilities are given (Ephesians 5:22-33); family relations are addressed (Colossians 3:18-21; Ephesians 6:1-4); and much is written concerning the former lusts of fleshly desire to be avoided, along with beneficial traits to be exhibited by the child of God (Galatians 5:13-26). One of the gravest warnings issued time and time again is against the desire to acquire riches in this life. Jesus warned, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19, 20). Paul would later emphasize those particular teachings of Christ, warning Christians to find contentment with food and shelter because “those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and have pierced themselves with many a pang” (I Timothy 6:8-10). The Christian is called to imitate God, following in the example of Christ (I Peter 2:21); and riches were never His concern, but pleasing God was the highest priority (John 4:34).
The Bible is all encompassing and authoritative for the Christian. Peter explained how the Lord, by his divine power, “has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3). The careful and honest Bible student must acknowledge that the Scriptures constitute the verbally inspired word of God. These writings are, therefore, authoritative for human belief and practice, directing every aspect of earthly life. With reference to any religious issue, the prime question ought always to echo the sentiment of the apostle Paul: “What does the scripture say?”
Jenkins, Carolyn (1989), “Minister Teaches Simplicity in Faith,” Tulsa World, March 12
Pfeiffer, Charles F. (1999), Wycliffe Bible Dictionary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Vincent, Marvin Richardson. (2001) Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament (Oak Harbor, WA:
Logos Research Systems).
Vine, W. E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White (1996), Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old
and New Testament Words: with Topical Index (Nashville: T. Nelson).