Living in the Story: The Authority of the Bible
2 Timothy 3:10-17
(This sermon makes use of Tom Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God and Surprised by Scripture).
Today in our ‘Living in the Story’ theme, we’re considering the authority of the Bible. The Bible is the place where we find the very story we’re telling, so it seems perfectly logical to consider in what ways it is authoritative.
As a member church of the Baptist Churches of SA, GBC signs off to say we hold to the foundational values of the movement. In regard to the authority of the Bible, this is what we’ve signed off:
Our final authority in faith and practice is Jesus Christ, as revealed in Scripture and present among his people through the Holy Spirit. We recognise the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, interpreted under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and in the community of God’s people, as the primary authority for knowing God’s revelation in Christ.
I doubt that any of us would have difficulty agreeing with that statement. One of the things Baptists are generally known for are being people of the ‘the book’, and one of the things the book says is:
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV) 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Hence we would quite happily say the Scriptures are the ultimate authority for the church and for us personally.
I have some questions.
We might often say that because the Bible is our authority, we hold to very word. ‘If the Bible says it, then I believe it!’ But the fact is, we cherry pick. For instance, God told the people of Israel that anyone who profanes the Sabbath should be put to death [Ex 31:14]. That’s an authoritative statement, but not one I’ve seen followed recently! How do we then work out what bits we can put aside and what bits we need to follow? If we hold some parts to be applicable to today and others not, where do we stop with that? Aren’t we at risk of watering down the very gospel itself?
Some would argue that the Bible is authoritative because it’s inerrant i.e. without error. Some add to that the idea that God actually dictated the words to the writers and, further, that the only suitable Bible is the KJV. I believe the original manuscripts were inerrant, but we don’t have them any more so what does that mean in terms of seeing the Bible now? Did God actually dictate them? What do we do with all the different versions of the Bible? Textual scholarship has shown conclusively that there are many inaccuracies in the KJV. Are the NIV, NRSV, NASB (and others) versions any better? They might be a closer reflection of the original texts, but does that make what they claim inerrant?
What Does Authority Mean?
The big question is what does it mean that the Bible is our authority? In what sense is that? How does it work out on the ground? One of the ways we approach that is through what we might call proof texts e.g. the Bible says we shouldn’t kill and so we take that as an authoritative statement. But what does the Bible have to say about the ethics of, say, embryonic stem cell research? Where is the verse that says, ‘Thou shalt not undertake embryonic stem cell research.’ Proof texting might work sometimes, but there’s lots of things that aren’t specifically addressed. In what way does the authority of the Bible apply then?
The Authority of the Bible
Where do we go with all this?
All Authority is From God
The first port of call is to say that all authority belongs to God, who has handed it to Jesus.
<blockquote>Ephesians 1:20-21 (NIV) 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.</blockquote>
John says that the Word—Jesus—was there in the beginning, but he doesn’t go on and say that the Word was written down. Rather, the Word became flesh . In other words, the scripture itself points away from itself as to the final authority to Jesus. So at the very best, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can only be a shorthand way of saying the authority of God/Jesus as mediated through the scripture. Having said that, it doesn’t mean we appeal directly to Jesus and wait for an email from heaven; the Bible is the means through which Jesus has been made known to us.
The Bible Itself
The second thing we need to take into account is the nature of the Bible itself.
- The Bible is not a set of proof texts used to win arguments or prove a case.
- Neither is it a personal devotion guide primarily designed for me to get more spiritual.
- Nor is it a set of doctrines designed to teach believers.
I’m not saying these things are invalid, because the Bible can be used for each of them. But they are not the primary nature of the Bible. Primarily, the Bible is a story. The main thrust of the story of the Bible is God establishing his kingdom and Lordship on earth as in heaven. The way God had always planned to exercise his authority in earth was through obedient humanity. That’s how it was at the start, but it was messed up through rebellion and disobedience. Ultimately Jesus came and, as a human, perfectly fulfilled God’s calling to humanity. The Bible is what God has given us here and now to equip us to be obedient servants and a royal priesthood putting into effect his saving rule on the earth.
The Bible as Story
But how can a story be authoritative?
A Five Act Play
Here’s a helpful way for understanding how the Bible as a story can be authoritative. We can see the Bible as being like a 5 act play:
- Act 1 Creation;
- Act 2 Fall;
- Act 3 Israel;
- Act 4 Jesus;
- Act 5 The Church (we could also add Act 6 New Creation).
On this scheme, we are currently in Act 5. Act 5 started with the cross, resurrection and Pentecost. The first parts of the story are the early church. The charter for Act 5 is the New Testament. The goal is found in Rom 8, 1 Cor 15 and Rev 21, 22. Because the story has a trajectory which started with creation itself, the first four acts are still relevant because, apart from anything else, we know what has gone before and that gives us insight into where the story is going. Our actions in the current act need to be in continuity with what’s gone before, even though there will still be an element of discontinuity.
As an authoritative story, our part is to tell the story of Jesus. The first scene of the story—Cross, resurrection, Spirit, early church, all as recorded in the NT—is non-negotiable and is the standard by which the rest of the unfolding 5th Act is assessed and judged. For instance:
- Because parts of the first scene in Act 5 tell us that we are to be servants like Jesus, big noting ourselves or putting leaders on pedestals doesn’t fit into this act.
- Because we know that God has placed all things under Jesus’ authority, we know in this act that regardless of what we might see around us, God is still in charge.
The story gives us glimpses into what the end is going to be like. We don’t know when that’s going to come or how it will all work out. But on the basis of all the previous acts, we do know the sorts of things we as the people of God can be and do which both reflects and prepares for that coming kingdom and the time when God’s space and ours will be one. To work that out, we listen to the scripture, the Spirit who speaks, the voices of the people of faith from the past, the traditions of the faith, scholars, each other. We pay attention to rhythms and themes. At the same time, we’re not afraid to explore fresh expressions of what it means to live within the current act and its trajectory to the end. All of that we weigh against the story, discarding what is inconsistent, and it’s in that sense that the bible is authoritative.
A Living Authority
That means that the authority of the Bible is most truly and fully put into effect when the scripture forms the mind and heart of the church so that we increasingly take on the life and priorities of the kingdom. We will see it when the church as the sent people of God expresses God’s love to those who don’t yet know him, who through word and action spread the good news that in Jesus God has defeated the powers, and in his resurrection the new creation has been inaugurated. We won’t go about beating people over the head with our huge King James pulpit bible, but we will winsomely reflect the coming kingdom. That’s the authority of the Bible in action.