Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What is Biblical Authority?

Every year I experience the wonderful "vacate-ness" of vacation. For me, vacation is a time to "vacate" the normal rhythm of my life, the inescapable expectations each day brings. Vacation allows for day after day of clean slates. No appointments, no obligations, no oughts. And it has been my experience that, during vacation, some truly amazing things flow into this "vacancy" that actually increase the benefit of the vacation itself. In my case, these things are almost always thoughts, or expanding ideas, or even long, unplanned, mental meanderings. Since my vacations are just thinly disguised reading safaris, filled with journals, articles, and a box full of books, when suddenly my mind takes off at a gallop, it is often the result of some challenge or insight offered by a well-crafted sentence or paragraph. Words can do that to me.

This vacation I have been reading widely on the idea of authority, and more precisely, the authority we find in the Bible. If you are like me, you've grown up hearing about, and agreeing with the idea that "the Bible is God's authoritative Word." And, if that is the case, you are right, for the Bible is all of that. But what is the nature of this authority?

I love to play golf, even though I don't get to play as often as I would like. But, when some of us get out on the course, the first thing we do is determine what the rules will be for our round. We decide about mulligans (if, and how many), we decide how to score lost balls or those shots that find themselves just "slightly" out of bounds. Frankly, we should not do this, for the rules of golf already have decided all these questions. There is even a little book - the Rules of Golf - that states the way every situation on the golf course is to be handled. That book is authoritative over the game of golf. You either obey it or not.

Too often this is the idea of "authority" we have assumed for the Bible. We consider that it is only a rule book, and we turn to it to see how we should live. Notice I said "only" a rule book. My concern today relates to the fact that there is a battle raging today over the "authority" of the Bible. Let me state in no uncertain terms that because the Bible is the very Word of God, it comes with its own authority. That is, since it finds as its creative source the very breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17), it comes bearing His authority. That is the beginning place of the discussion. Yet, if the only authority we find in the Bible is a type of "rule book" authority, we will certainly go off track. Let me explain.

Seeing the Bible as merely God's book of rules is a problem because, while the Bible does give God's rules in some areas (faithfulness in marriage is a biggie!), there are a whole host of areas where the Bible does not give rules in black and white. For example, does God want me to live in Corona (where the temperature is often over 100 in the summer) or in Dana Point (where the ocean is in sight, and the temperatures are much more moderate!)? I can search the entire scope of the Bible and not find a rule that solves this dilemma. So in what way is the Bible authoritative? If we only consider it in terms of a rule book, we may end up where so many are today, believing that the Bible is no longer "relevant" to our daily lives, that it no longer speaks to our situation. Looked at this way - as only a rule book - we may turn to it, frantically searching to find the "rule" that fits our particular situation only to be disappointed (especially in the Old Testament!) when what we read seems to have no connection with the decisions we are facing. But, the problem here is not with the Bible, but with our skewed perception of what its true "authority" is.

I want to offer a better, and I believe more biblically aligned, understanding of the Bible's authority.

First, it is the very Word of God, finding its creative source in His breath as He "breathed" out the very words He wanted the original authors to use. That is what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is inspired by God (literally "God breathed out"). The Bible is not merely a description of God revealing Himself in words we can understand; rather, it is itself part of that revelation. So, where it does give rules, we are not at liberty to "adjust" them, as though we were playing golf. (It also needs to be said that over time, some of God's rules have passed out of operation, or been replaced by new ones. But that's a subject for another time, another post!). So, while the Bible gives rules, it is not primarily to be understood as a rule book.

Secondly, the Bible is a story, and must be seen in its progressive unfolding as revealing the mind and activity of God as He superintends all of history. God created, and then sin perverted the creation. From that starting point then, Scripture tells the story of God's actual dealings in history by which He initiated a great rescue effort designed to rescue all of creation from the decay brought about by Adam's sin. This rescue effort is seen over and over as God rescues individuals and the nation of Israel, only to have them turn away. But God does not abandon His efforts, for His plan progressively reveals that man is powerless to cooperate in his own rescue. This story - this rescue effort - finds it fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and the New Testament story goes on to show how those "rescued" by Him are now thrown back into the world as samples of what God's amazing love and grace can do. The New Testament writers referred to this rescue effort as the coming of the Kingdom of God. Those brought into the kingdom - rescued! - now understand that they have been granted the privilege of offering rescue in Jesus to those around them. And, it turns out that the Bible, being the very Word of God, and especially the Gospel, is the power by which the kingdom is extended to a watching world. God, working through His Word, as it is known, believed, obeyed and proclaimed by His church, works powerfully - authoritatively - to bring about a sovereign rescue whereby His kingdom expands one soul at a time. The authority of the Bible rests primarily in the fact that God - the great Authority - is working powerfully through it to bring redemption and transformation - New Creation! - to the world and its inhabitants.

So what does this matter?

First, if we consider the Bible only as a rule book, it becomes decidedly about us. We see the Bible as a resource for us, and - it must be admitted - looked at from a purely selfish point of view, it often seems irrelevant. We begin to see reading the Bible as a kind of personal good luck charm. We go to the Bible when we need something, when we're hurting, or when we need God to do or fix something. The Bible becomes our tool, to be used by us, for us. We ought to be ashamed!

But, when we see the Bible as the unfolding story of God's activity in rescuing all of creation, we begin to see that the kingdom is much, much bigger than just us. We begin to see that our personal rescue only points to the much bigger and more glorious work by which Jesus Christ will one day bring about the final overthrow of sin, ushering in a New Heaven and a New Earth, populated by a multitude no man can number who have been rescued eternally by sovereign grace. The Bible becomes our portal on God, offering greater and greater oppportunity to see His hand in history, His heart of love and forgiveness brilliantly set against the ongoing selfishness and sin of each generation. Rather than foster selfish interests, the Bible declares that we are part of something huge that God is doing, and that it is our privilege to be part of it, for His glory.

Secondly, if we look at the Bible as simply a rule book, so much of it will be unuseable. What do we do with Leviticus? Are the rules there for us? If not, then should we just rip it out, or at least not spend our precious time reading it? And what about Obadiah? This one chapter prophetic book just talks about God's judgment of Edom (who?). Nothing there for us if we're just looking for some rules for today.

But, if we understand that the Bible is God's progressive telling of His rescue mission, we will see that He has worked in grace and love in every age, all the while declaring that the hurt and broken are powerless to rescue themselves. (BTW, the prophet Obadiah was declaring just this: those who oppose God, who think they can rescue themselves, those who believe they can prey on God's people are wrong! God is still in charge, and even the mighty fortress of Petra can't derail His plans.) Reading the Bible this way we will understand the great hope of the Old Testament people as they awaited the arrival of the Messiah, God's rescuing King. We will understand the great joy at hearing John say "there He is, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." And most of all, now understanding that He has rescued us, we will read the Epistles - not so much searching for personal rules - with great delight in knowing that through our lives we can extend the rescue to those still drowning in the ocean of sin and hopelessness. Read this way, our lives are transformed from being me-centered to God and Kingdom-rescue centered. And when this happens, we will see that the authority of the Bible is the power of God working through it, and through us as we are transformed by it, to effect rescue - redemption!- in our world. With Paul we will heartily proclaim that the Gospel is the power - authority - of God unto salvation. The authority of the Bible lies in the fact that the Almighty God powerfully works through it, in and through us, to complete His grand operation of redemption, rescue, and New Creation.

Hope this helps,



At 1:37 AM , Blogger Super Jew said...

I see that you haven't written in a while, but I wish you would. What you wrote, I agree with totally. Jesus, to many is so nice guy who's their to help out. The reality he his our Lord and King and master of our fate. I truly love who Jesus is, I don't rest on facts, I rest on Christ, and depend on His love and free grace that He gives.

Sincerly, A fellow brother in Christ Nick Albano Sandra Walker's son.


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