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Monday, October 19, 2015

Questioning Authority

I've done several posts of late around the topic of the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and practice for the Christian faith. It's probably a good idea to question that authority. No, not whether it is so, but just what it means. Perhaps by fleshing out the concept, it won't be as offensive to many as it seems to be. (Of course, anyone who denies the authority of Scripture will still be offended. Not much I can do about that.)

Perhaps it might be helpful to start with what it does not mean. There seems to be much confusion here. It does not mean that only the Bible contains truth or that all that is true is contained in the Bible. Scriptures tell us, for instance, that "The heavens declare the glory of God." (Psa 19:1) Paul says, "That which is known about God is evident within them (Man); for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." (Rom 1:19-20) "Sole source of all truth" is not the point. Nor does it mean that there is no other authority. That would simply be a contradiction ... of the Bible. The church has authority (Matt 18:15-18). Church leadership has authority (Heb 13:17). Human government has authority (Rom 13:1-5). Husbands have authority (Eph 5:22-24; 1 Peter 3:1-2). Parents have authority (Eph 6:1; Col 3:20). Even masters have authority (Eph 6:5-7; Col 3:22-25). Indeed, there is a biblical hierarchy of authority (1 Cor 11:3). Sola scriptura does not mean "no other authority".

Many people complain because "Well, it sure wasn't the sole authority in Moses's day. I mean, when Paul wrote, 'All Scripture is God-breathed', he surely wasn't talking about what he was writing. That wasn't Scripture yet. They only had the Old Testament and that wasn't the sole authority." So I need to point out that it also doesn't mean "Always has been". The actual ultimate authority is God. If you deny that, you're simply proving the original problem of sin. God has always been the authority and will always continue to be. So when God verbally spoke to Israel, they didn't need a transcript, a council meeting, and a declaration of "This is Scripture" to consider it authoritative. It was authoritative because God said it. For Christianity, up to the end of the writing of the canon of Scripture, the primary authority structure was God -> Christ -> the Apostles and Prophets, where "the Apostles" were actually on hand and "the Prophets" were available by existing Scripture. At the end of the Apostles, we were left with the same structure -- God -> Christ -> the Apostles and Prophets -- with the exception that we no longer had the Apostles present. They were found in Scripture. So that is the current authority hierarchy: God -> Christ -> the Apostles and Prophets (as found in the Scriptures). After that, there are other sources of truth and other designated authority structures.

This concept of the authoritative nature of the Word is not foreign to the Word. Indeed, it is all through the Bible. "What was written" was the authority from the earliest writings. Moses wrote down the law (Deut 31:9) "so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law." (Deut 31:12) God told Joshua, "This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success." (Josh 1:8) Israel was constantly called to "do all that is written in the book" (Josh 23:6), to "Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God as it is written in this book of the covenant" (2 Kings 23:21), to return to "what is written" (2 Chron 35:12; Ezra 3:2; Neh 10:34, etc., etc., etc.). Do a search sometime and see how many times Jesus referenced "it is written", including the repeated use of the phrase in His trial with Satan in the desert. The Gospel writers often referred, as proof of the truth, to what was written (e.g., Matt 2:15, 18; Mark 1:2; Luke 2:23; John 12:14-15). My Bible is quite helpful in this regard because every quote from the Old Testament used as proof or reference in the New Testament is capitalized ... and there are a lot. It just keeps going. Timothy was told to persevere through persecutions and impostors by remembering "the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." (2 Tim 3:12-15) It's all through Scripture. What is? Scripture is all through Scripture, relying on Scripture to support Scripture and God's Word to back up God's Word.

What is the ultimate authority? Well, of course, it is God. Not you. Not me. Not your feelings or even my reasoning capacities. It is God. And in Israel's days of theocracy or the Apostle's days of direct connection with God, it was not only Scripture. It was God. What we have today, however, is God as He speaks in His Word. If God is the final authority and He has expressed Himself in His Word, then you have the actual reason for the position of sola scriptura. God, speaking to us through His Word, is the ultimate authority. Do we not use our brains? Well, of course we do. But the aim, the point, the real purpose here is "What does God say?" followed by "Yes, Lord." And this isn't a simple reasoning project. If Jesus was correct, we have the Holy Spirit to lead us into that truth. Thus, there is tradition and the church and history and the Communion of the Saints, a consensus of sorts from the beginning that affirms all the essentials with all who hear His Word whispered by the Spirit. So? So when you hear, "You know what? The Church for 2,000 years has been entirely and completely wrong on this point and you have figured out by your fine reasoning skills and simple logic what is really true," you can be fairly sure it's not the Spirit speaking to you through the Word of God. And if you hear, "Your reasoning is the final authority over Scripture", you can be rightly suspicious that it sounds very much like the voice that asked Eve, "Did God say ...?"

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