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Archive: The Authority of Scripture

by G. W. Bromily, M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt.
Rector, St. Thomas’ English Episcopal Church, Edinburg, Scotland
Condensed from the New Bible Dictionary
Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan
Used by permission

The first of two articles

Our thinking concerning the authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture must start always from the fact that the Bible itself assumes everywhere that it is a message directly given by God Himself. In this first section it must be our main task to substantiate that fact and to discuss its implications. But one preliminary question must first be answered. When we assert the unique authority of the Bible, is it legitimate to appeal to the Bible’s own testimony in support of that assertion? Is it not a most outrageous form of question-begging to make the Bible itself the first and final arbiter in its own case? Are we not guilty of presupposing the very thing which we are asked to substantiate?

The answer to this question is, of course, that we do not turn to the Bible for proof, but for information. Rational arguments may be advanced in favour of the unique authority of Scripture, but in the last analysis we accept that authority by faith. We accept it only in so far as the Bible itself requires it.

In other words, it is only as the inspiration and authenticity of the record are a (necessary). part of the revelation that we confess the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life. If the Bible did not make that claim, we should have no call to believe it. Nor could we have general confidence in the teaching of Scripture. But if the Bible stands before us as the authoritative Word of God, the Word which itself claims authority, then it is as such that we must reckon with it, receiving that Word and the authority of that Word, or resisting it.

Does the Bible make any such assertion of authority? If it does, what does that assertion imply?

With regard to the first question, the answer is so vast that our main difficulty is that of compression. In the Old Testament as in the New Testament the claim to a more than human authority is everywhere implicit, and in many places it finds direct and open expression. It is claimed, e.g., that Moses received from God both the moral law[1] and also more detailed commandments, even extending to arrangements for the tabernacle. The prophets maintained that they were not speaking their own words, but the message which God Himself had given to them. The Lord Jesus Christ spoke with authority because He was conscious of speaking not merely as the historical Teacher but as the eternal Son. The apostles had no doubt as to the authoritativeness of their pronouncements, whether they were quoting our Lord or developing the Christian message under the guidance of the outpoured Spirit.

It may be objected that in the majority of these cases the claim to authority is made only on behalf of the message delivered and not on behalf of the written record in which that message has been handed down to us. Thus it may well be true that the prophets or Jesus Christ spoke with divine authority, but sometimes we have their words only at second hand. The fact that inspiration is claimed for them does not mean that inspiration is claimed for those who compiled the record of their activity and teaching. If this is so there is no guarantee that what is written in the Bible is a verbatim or accurate account of the message actually delivered.

Against this objection we may set the fact that in the New Testament especially, and with reference to the Old Testament, definite authority is claimed for the written word of the Bible. This point emerges clearly in many parts of the teaching of our Lord Himself. Thus He answers the tempter with the threefold ‘It is written’. On the mount of transfiguration He tells His disciples that it is written of the Son of man that He should suffer many things and be set at naught. To the Jews who searched the Scriptures He gave counsel that ‘it is they that bear witness to me’. After the resurrection He interpreted to the disciples in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself, showing that all things must needs be fulfilled, which were ‘written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms’.

These and similar statements make it quite plain that Jesus Himself accepted the inspiration and authority of the written Word, especially in so far as it gave prophetic witness to His own death and resurrection. It is also clear from verses like John 14:26 and John 16:13 that He expected and promised a similar inspiration in the case of the apostolic testimony[2] yet to be made.

When we come to the apostles we find that their testimony to the divine authority of the Bible is equally clear. In all the Gospels great emphasis is laid upon the inspired foretelling of the work and Person of Christ. The apostle Paul quotes extensively from the Old Testament, and his preaching to his own people is very largely an attempt to prove the Messiahship of Jesus[3] from Old Testament history and prophecy.

The statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 sums up the whole attitude of Paul. Whatever translation we adopt it is plain from v.15 that the apostle has the Old Testament in mind and that he thinks of it as peculiarly inspired by God. The other apostolic writers quote just as frequently from the Old Testament, and in 2 Peter open testimony is borne to the inspiration of the Bible in a way very similar to that in 2 Timothy. In 2 Peter 1:21 the word of prophecy is traced back to its final author in God the Holy Spirit: ‘Because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God’.

Again, in 2 Peter 3:16 there seems to be a further allusion to the written Bible as an authoritative word which must be approached with reverence and humility. The latter verse is particularly interesting in that it couples together the Epistles of Paul and the other Scriptures, a fairly plain hint that the apostolic authors were conscious of adding to and completing the authoritative Canon of the Old Testament.

Surveying the evidence, we may allow that the passages that treat directly of the inspiration of Scripture are few in number, and that there is no particular assertion of the status or authority of every individual book. On the other hand, we may note that, with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Nahum and Zephaniah, all the books of the Old Testament are quoted in the New Testament. And when we take into account the attitude of the New Testament to such quotations there can be little doubt that the ‘Thus says the Lord’ of the prophets was taken to apply to the records of prophetic activity as well as to oral words delivered on this or that specific occasion. The written word was treated as the inspired and authoritative form in which the content of divine revelation[4] had been expressed and handed down.

When we ask concerning the implications of this witness, several important points emerge. First, it may be noted that no specific theory of inspiration is introduced. From the two texts, John 14:26 and 2 Peter 1:21, it seems that there is a twofold activity: that of the human author on the one hand, and that of the inspiring and controlling Spirit on the other. Certainly there is no doubt as to the final initiative and supremacy of the Spirit. But there is also no suggestion of the obliteration of the personality and individuality of the human author.

Again, we may notice that inspiration is seen particularly in the insight of the Old Testament writers into the future activity of God. The prophet was a forthteller, no doubt; but the ultimate test of his prophecy was the correctness of his insight into the divinely-directed future, and that necessarily meant foretelling. Even in the Old Testament itself the prophet who foretold incorrectly was discredited, and in the New Testament the main value of the Old Testament is the prophetic witness to Jesus Christ. If it is true that that witness supports the Messianic claim[5] of Jesus, it is also true that the Messianic work of Jesus vindicates the prophetic claim of the Old Testament. A very large proportion of the Old Testament citations are concerned with various forms of that prophetic witness.

A third point is that the historical setting of the Old Testament is everywhere accepted as authentic. Our Lord, for instance, does not question the connection of Moses with the Law, or the Davidic authorship of Psalms 110. The apostles accept all the main events of Old Testament history from Adam and the Fall (I Timothy 2:13; 14) to the crossing of the Red Sea (I Corinthians 10:2), the Balaam incidents (2 Peter 2:16), the fall of Jericho (Hebrews 11:30), the deliverances under the judges (Hebrews 11:31), and the miracles of Elijah (James 5:17).

In face of this clear testimony the suggestion has been made that our Lord and the apostles simply shared the common assumptions of their age and made use of the historical happenings only in illustration of their theology. It certainly cannot be denied, however, that, in the New Testament, belief in the authority of the Old Testament does involve an acceptance of its historical as well as its religious or doctrinal truth. It is worth remembering, too, that if that acceptance means acceptance of the supernatural control and intervention of almighty God, nowhere do we have a clearer or more decisive instance of such intervention and control than in the central facts of the Christian gospel, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. …

We must be careful, of course, not to read into the self-attestation of Scripture more than is actually there. With regard to authorships and dates, tradition has often been vocal where the Bible itself is silent. The extent of the Biblical silence is sometimes rather surprising. We know little about the compilation of the historical books of the Old Testament. We are not told the exact date and circumstances of some prophetic writings (e.g. Malachi). We do not know who wrote many of the Psalms or the book of Job. We are not told that Hebrews was written by Paul. The text itself does not tell us that Luke wrote the Third Gospel and Acts, or that the apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel, although the case for Luke and John rests on sound and legitimate inference. It is as well sometimes to remember that there is this line between a direct Biblical testimony and even the reliable evidence of tradition. Otherwise we may easily identify the authority of Scripture with that of historical statements which are outside the scope of Scripture itself.

When all this is said, however, it must be said too that the Bible does lay serious claim to divine origin, status, and authority. It states clearly that its message is of God. It traces back its authority through the human writings to the Holy Spirit. It accepts the supernatural both in prophetic utterances and in historical events. It makes no artificial distinction between the inward content of the Word of God and its outward form. By its self-authentication as God’s Word written, the Bible challenges us directly either to faith or to unbelief. In our approach to the Bible other considerations may obtrude, but the basic challenge certainly cannot be ignored.

It was upon the foundation of the self-witness of the Bible that the Reformers[6] built their doctrine of Holy Scripture. They adopted this procedure because first and foremost their theology was a theology of faith, a revealed theology. Their starting-point was, therefore, the response of faith to the challenge of the Biblical message. They accepted that message on its own terms, and in loyalty to it they tried to understand the Bible as the Bible understood itself. …

The Reformed method is regarded as both illegitimate and futile by those who think that theology should be constructed upon purely rational foundations. But the Reformers themselves were theologians of faith, making use of reason only in response and obedience to the divine revelation. This meant that they were theologians who were pledged in faith to receive the testimony of the Word of God written, even in matters concerning its own nature and being.

The Reformers believed, then, that the Bible was given by God, and that it was inspired both in content and also in form. They did not take any radical step when they propounded this view. The mediaeval church had held a similar view. But they did take the step. Everywhere in their writings we find evidence of a wholehearted acceptance of inspiration and authority of the Bible. This is so in spite of the free comments which have led some modern scholars to regard Luther and Calvin as early critics, or at any rate as men who distinguished between the living content of Scripture and the detailed wording, in contrast to their supposedly more legalistic successors.

In fact, however, both Luther and Calvin extolled the authority of the letter too. Their remarks on the minor problems should not blind us to the fact that for them Scripture was the divinely-authoritative record upon which all true theology must be founded. The special attitude of Luther to James is linked with his doubts as to its authentic canonicity;[7] so that it does not affect his general understanding.

The Bible was inspired and authoritative, but it was also sole-sufficient in matters of faith and conduct. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Reformers set up the Bible as the only authority in the church. But it is no exaggeration to say that they regarded the Bible as the supreme authority from which all other authorities derived and to which they were all subject. Because it was itself from God, the Bible contained everything necessary both to salvation and to the Christian life. Nothing was to be believed or taught in the church unless it had the sanction either of the plain text of Scripture or of clear inferences from it. The Calvinists extended the direct rule of Scripture even to the details of church order and worship, and the Lutherans and Anglicans all ascribed a negative authority to the Bible in these spheres—i.e. they would not permit anything which was excluded by Scripture or repugnant to it. …

All parts of the Bible are inspired and authoritative, the Reformers taught, but not all parts are of equal importance. The Mosaic legislation in Leviticus had not the same spiritual or theological value as the Gospel of John, or even the Decalogue [Ten Commandments]. In this respect the Bible is in some sense analogous to the Church as the Body of Christ. All the members constitute the Body and are necessary to it. But although all the members are necessary they are not of equal importance. Some members are more used than others, and some may be regarded as vital: without them the body would perish altogether.

So it is with the Bible. We cannot mutilate the Bible without loss, but some parts are more dispensable than others. If the evangelical message is given, it is possible to be a Christian with only a fragment of Scripture; to be a full-grown Christian it is necessary to have the whole counsel of God.

A certain difficulty arises when the attempt is made to discriminate between the more and less relevant important passages, for purely subjective considerations threaten to control and perhaps distort our judgment in this matter. Zwingli and Luther both gave helpful rules which are not so very different; the importance and relevance of a passage depend upon the measure in which it serves, first, to promote the glory of God and, second, to reveal and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ. It is because some parts of the Bible do this more directly and plainly than others that they are to be regarded as the more important passages of Scripture. But in the last resort all Scripture is in some way directed towards this twofold end.

The Reformers emphasized the importance of the letter of the Bible, but not at the expense of the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in His use and application of the Bible message. In the thought of the Reformers the Holy Spirit was not merely the Author of Scripture. He also determined the application of Scripture to its twofold end, and gave to the believer an inward persuasion of the authority of its message as revealed truth. On the first of these further points it need only be added that, while the meaning of the Bible is plain, for an inward apprehension something more is needed than ordinary rational intelligence. For genuine understanding there is required the illumination of the Holy Spirit which is for the individual the necessary complement of God’s outward revelation.

Some modern theologians have seized upon this illumination as true inspiration according to the Reformed conception: i.e. the Bible is inspired only in so far as the Holy Spirit uses this or that passage to accomplish an inward enlightenment in the individual Christian. In the Reformers themselves, however, there seems to be few traces of the equation of the individual enlightenment with inspiration as such. The Bible is an inspired record of the divine selfrevelation whether this or that individual receives its witness or not. The revelation and the recording of it in written form are both objective acts. Illumination by the Holy Spirit is the subjective complement of these acts within the individual and for the salvation of the individual. As it is God the Holy Spirit who gave the objective record, so it is God the Holy Spirit who effects the subjective illumination. The message and the application of the message are both of God.

The fact that there is that inward enlightenment is the final guarantee of the authenticity of the record, whether in its general teaching or in its self-attestation. Although the Reformers accepted the Bible in faith, they were not unaware of the rational problems involved. The problems were perhaps not so acute then as they are today, but they were sufficiently acute to call for some general answer.

The Reformers could advance many reasons in favour of their acceptance of the Bible. They could point, as Calvin did, to those characteristics and qualities which mark it off as an inspired record: its literary quality, its antiquity, its combination of depth and simplicity, its preservation and historical power, its accuracy in the foretelling of the future. In the last analysis, however, the real reason for belief is the inward knowledge of the truth of Scripture which is necessarily present when the Holy Spirit applies that truth to the soul. To the self-attestation of the Bible there is added the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. But the argument is a rational argument only for the believer. In other words, the truth of the Bible’s claim cannot be made a matter simply of intellectual and academic debate. As a fundamental axiom it must be/known by experience. It must be known from within. It must be known by faith. Like the Bible itself, this knowledge is given by the Holy Spirit.

With their emphasis on the Lordship of the Holy Spirit the Reformers safeguarded themselves against dead literalism and scholastic rationalism[8] in their understanding of Holy Scripture. They yielded to none in their loyalty to the given form of the Bible. They had a high view both of the Bible itself and also of its inspiration. They believed that the Bible itself is inspired truth. They believed that it is the Word written, a Word given and applied by the Holy Spirit. They taught that the Word must always be respected and received and obeyed. Yet they remembered always that God is the Lord of Scripture and that it is His voice which must be heard if the Bible is to do its work. The Bible is not just an academic textbook of divine truth, the Euclid of the Christian faith. The text is indeed given by God, but it is always in the hands of God and always applied by God. The Bible must be respected and received and obeyed not because it is a fixed and static letter, but because under the Holy Spirit that letter is the living Word of the living God. …

Part 2, in the next issue, will describe three of the main ways that the authority of the Bible is being questioned.

[1] That portion of God’s Law, recorded in the Old Testament, which was not eventually set aside by the atoning death of Jesus Christ. The Ten Commandments summarize God’s moral law which is binding upon Christians.

[2] Testimony of the original apostles, including Paul, as accurately recorded in the New Testament. It serves as the basis of authentic Christianity in each generation.

[3] The mission of Jesus assigned by His Heavenly Father, was to be Israel’s Messiah, her Anointed King, who was prophesied in Scriptures known to us as the Old Testament. Isaiah 53 shows Messiah as the “suffering servant” of God. The crucifixion of Jesus fulfilled this and many other inspired prophesies of the Old Testament.

[4] The truth which God has revealed in Jesus, His Word made flesh, and in the Holy Scriptures, the Word as written.

[5] Assertions by New Testament writers that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and resurrected was, in fact, the Messiah (Christ} of Israel, who had been pro-Prophesied in the Old Testament.

[6] Leaders of the 16th century Protestant effort to “reform” the church. Most famous were Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. John Wesley, who lived in the 1700s was a later reformer.

[7] Rightfully part of the Old and New Testaments. Canon is the full content of the Bible excluding The Apocrypha, which Protestants may study but do not consider fully inspired Scripture, as the Old and New Testaments.

[8] A highly intellectualized approach to Christianity, where logic, reason, human wisdom, and/or argument take the place of Biblical faith and trust.


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