The Authority of the Bible
When sworn into office, judges in America promise to uphold the Constitution of the United States. In their role as a judge, they often wrestle with the right way to interpret and apply the Constitution. Disagreements over such matters are common. Occasionally a judge will admit that it is burdensome to take seriously all aspects of this old document. Reconciling laws written centuries ago to the modern world is not always easy. Yet, these judges are bound by law to show how every decision they make is at least consistent with, if not explicitly rooted in, this document. Were this not the case, judges could simply do whatever “was right in their own eyes.” And as the history of Israel and many other countries has demonstrated, whenever this happens chaos ensues.
In contrast to the Constitution, the Bible is not primarily a set of laws. It is rather centered on the historical narrative of God’s interaction with his people. Yet, God has given his community this collection of writings to function something like the U.S. Constitution functions for Americans. Beginning with the ancient Israelites and continuing throughout church history, these inspired stories and teachings have served as the solid foundation that unites God’s people around a shared identity and faith.
As is the case with U.S. judges, Christians must wrestle with the right way to interpret and apply these ancient stories and teachings. Frequently Christians disagree about such matters. At times we may wish we could simply ignore aspects of Scripture. Yet, part of what it means to belong to God’s community is that we strive to make every aspect of our faith and life consistent with these foundational, ancient writings.
While the role the Bible plays among God’s people is something like the role the Constitution plays for Americans, it’s important to note that the two documents have very different kinds of authority. The authority of the U.S. Constitution is given it by the people who agree to abide by it. By contrast, the authority of the Bible derives form the fact that it is inspired by God.
This was clearly the view of Jesus. For example, Jesus consistently uses the phrases “Scripture says” and “God says” interchangeably. If it’s in the Bible, Jesus assumed it had divine authority. For this reason, Jesus held that “Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn 10:35). “Until heaven and earth pass away,” he taught, “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:18; cf. Lk 16:17). Throughout his ministry Jesus based teachings on biblical stories he assumed were true. And when people were in error on theological matters, Jesus said it was because they didn’t know Scripture well enough (Mt 22:29).
This same understanding of the Bible is reflected throughout the New Testament. Paul taught that “[a]ll scripture is inspired by God…” (2 Tim 3:16). The term “inspired” literally means “God breathed.” This doesn’t imply that Paul thought God dictated every word in the Bible, but it certainly entails that all Scripture had divine authority. So too, Peter wrote that no prophecy in the Bible “had its origin in the human will.” Rather, prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Like Jesus and Paul, Peter clearly accepts that the stories and teachings of the Bible have an authority that goes far beyond the Constitution of the United States or any other merely human document.
For Kingdom people, therefore, the Bible should be embraced as our God-breathed authority. Everything pertaining to faith and life must be rooted in this collection of writings.