Author: Ron Graham

Bible Authority

Is It Scriptural?
—How we derive authority from the word of God

Many Christians are concerned to ensure that all they believe and do is approved and authorized by the Lord in scripture. In becoming a Christian, and in life and worship thereafter, the holy scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.

Unfortunately what is “divinely authorised” can become unclear if people pay only lip-service to “going by the Bible” bending the scriptures to suit themselves, or drifting away from the principles (2Peter 3:15-18, 2Peter 4:2, Hebrews 2:1).

This lesson looks at two right ways and one wrong way to determine whether a thing is scriptural.

1 Something Directly Stated or Commanded

The strong authority

It is very easy to know whether a thing is scriptural to teach or do, when the scriptures directly say so. Many things are the subject of quite clear statements. Here are a few simple examples:

Those are just a few of dozens of examples of how we can be sure that we are believing, teaching, and obeying what comes from the Lord --when he gives us unequivocal statements and clear commandments.

2 Something Implied, Exemplified, or Expedient

The Weak authority

We also draw some authority from what is implied by the statements of scripture. This form of authority must be regarded as the weaker and secondary form, because it relies to a degree on our own reasoning when we make inferences from what the scriptures say rather than just taking what they say in so many words. However, authority derived by implication should be regarded as valid when used with due care.

We may divide this form of authority into three sub-types:

Inference

There may be more implied in a statement of scripture than what is actually said in so many words.

Precedent

A scriptural example can provide authority when it seems obvious that there was a command behind it and it is intended as a precedent for Christians in general.

Expediency

There is a kind of inference that runs along these lines: If the teacher says, "Copy what is on the blackboard neatly into your exercise book" then she must want students who have blunt pencils to sharpen them first —even though she said nothing about sharpening pencils. By this reasoning, if God commands action A, and action B will help us expedite it, then we infer that action B is authorised by the command to do action A.

As an example, look again at the last two passages cited. To expedite and facilitate the gathering together, it may be necessary to hire or buy a meeting place. Since we have inferred that God wants Christians to gather, we also infer that he wants them to make arrangements for a meeting place. So, from the phrase "when you come together as a church" which says nothing about church buildings, we derive authority for having one!

3 Something Not Forbidden

The false authority

It doesn't make common sense to regard something as authorized simply because the authority has not forbidden it. If you face a door with a sign on it saying Authorised Persons Only, can you say you are authorised to enter by that door because nobody has specifically told you not to?

Paul makes it clear that using the scripture’s silence as authority is not right. He looks at all the things that God has not forbidden or condemned, and this is the comment Paul makes: "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbour" (1Corinthians 10:23-24). Clearly there has to be more to something than "God doesn’t say not to" before we can treat it as something he approves of.

Some things God has spoken about. These are things which he has bidden us to believe and do, or forbidden us to believe and do. It is only in those things that we can claim to have divine authority. Some things God has not spoken about. These are things he has neither bidden nor forbidden. In those things we cannot claim to have divine authority.

Now of course we do not always need divine authority. If I am choosing whether to have a strawberry ice cream or a chocolate chip one, I don’t need God’s authority for what I choose. But if I am standing in God’s presence to worship him, or presenting myself as his minister, then I do need his authority for what I do and teach. It isn’t good enough to say, "It’s nowhere forbidden". That is no authority at all. The point is: if it’s nowhere bidden, then, by that very silence, it is forbidden. Here are some examples:

Conclusion

We have looked at three common "grounds" of authority. Two of them (the direct statements of scripture, and what the scripture implies) are valid grounds. The third (what the scripture is silent upon) is not valid. Let’s conclude with this exhortation: "Try hard to make yourself approved unto God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2Timothy 2:15).

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