Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from our latest book, That Word Above All Earthly Powers, written by Gerry Breshears with Whitney Woollard (Whitney is one of our staff writers). If you like this article, then be sure to pick up a paperback or Kindle copy.
Our generation has a problem with authority—we don’t trust it and, quite frankly, we don’t like it. This presents unique challenges in speaking to the Bible’s authority, a concept rejected by many as antiquated and stifling. How can an ancient document have the right to command me to any belief or action in the twenty-first century? And how can, or perhaps why should, any book bind my conscience in all matters of faith, life and practice?
These are legitimate questions to be dealt with well as Christians engage a world that is increasingly shaped by anti-authority sentiments. The idea that someone should do this or that simply “because the Bible says so” no longer holds up. It may work in a Christian bubble or conservative movement, but not in the world. Besides, those whom we call to follow Jesus need to know what makes the Bible authoritative and what that authority means for their new life in Christ. This is particularly important as we disciple them in the Word of God and instruct them to submit their entire lives to it. Obviously, no small call.
To help us towards that end, we’ve asked Gerry Breshears, Ph.D., professor of theology and chairman of biblical and theological studies at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon to share his approach to the Bible and its authority. A work this size can hardly be comprehensive. Yet, Gerry and I (Whitney) have highlighted key pieces to consider when working with the Bible as an authoritative document binding upon God’s people.
WHAT MAKES THE BIBLE AUTHORITATIVE?
You have to start here. Ask yourself, “What is it that makes the Bible authoritative?” Of course, a significant piece is that it’s God’s Word, it’s inspired text. This is what theologians call the doctrine of inspiration: That work of God wherein he providentially prepared and moved the human authors enabling them to receive and communicate according to their individual personalities and styles the truth he would have his people know for his glory and human salvation.
A whole book could be written explaining inspiration but, in short, it means that God speaks to us through his Word. The Holy Spirit “carried along” the authors of Scripture in such a way that their words were God’s very words (see 2 Peter 1:19-21). They were literally “breathed out” by him so that we could receive salvation, learn truth about him and his world, and understand how to live God’s way in order to enjoy his best for our lives (see 2 Timothy 3:15-17).
The implication of this doctrine is that when we read the Bible, we are actually reading the words of God! Pretty profound, huh? Therein lies a significant piece of its authority. Far from being a book that gives “basic instructions before leaving earth,” the Bible, as God’s Word, has divine authority because God has authority in your life as the one who alone created the universe and rules over all. This is not authority as “Bible” but authority as that which comes from the triune God (who, to be clear, is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit not God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Bible). It’s authoritative because it’s God’s words.
But what’s the nature of that authority? Inspiration tells you God has the right to command you to do something simply because he is the authoritative God who has spoken to you through his Word. But if we stop here we end up back where we started — “just do this because the Bible says so” — never understanding the God revealed in the Bible. Isn’t that the simplistic argument our generation has rejected? Moreover, isn’t it what the sufferers of authoritarianism, dogmatic fundamentalism, and spiritual abuse have cast off? So, it seems to us that inspiration is a key piece of the Bible’s authority but it’s not the entire picture.
A FULLER PICTURE OF THE BIBLE’S AUTHORITY
To get this picture we need to look at the nature of the God who speaks through the Bible. Gerry goes to Exodus 14 where God redeems his people from the hand of the Egyptians with an outstretched arm as they cross the red sea on dry land. You get the song of triumph by Moses, Miriam, and company in Exodus 15 where together they praise God for his redemptive work. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end at this high point. You turn to Exodus 16 and the people are already grumbling about having no food. What does God do? He provides food. In Exodus 17 they’re grumbling about having no water. What does God do? He provides water.
Then at the end of Exodus 17 the Amalekites attack Israel and you get that interesting battle where the Israelites are winning so long as Aaron and Hur are holding up Moses’ hands. You see that God is with Israel and he protects them from their enemies. After their victory God tells Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua” (Exodus 17:14). This is the first command to anyone in Scripture to write something down. Which means it’s pretty important. What was Moses to write down and recite? A bunch of rules? Actually, no. He was to write down all the ways that God had redeemed, provided for, and protected his people. So that’s the first thing—God is there to redeem, provide for, and protect people who don’t deserve it.
Then in Exodus 19 God invites the people, the grumblers of chapters 16 and 17, into a covenantal relationship. This covenant is ratified in Exodus 24 when Moses takes the elders up onto the mountain and draws near to the Lord. After he does the sacrifice and sprinkles the blood he comes to the people and tells them “all the words of the Lord and all the rules” (Exodus 24:3). In verse four we see Moses write down all these words, thus getting more written Scripture. Now you see that God is not only the one who redeems, provides for, and protects, but he’s also the God who initiates and invites covenant relationship with humans. The invitation to relationship comes first and the “rules” of that relationship (i.e., the law which the Israelites understood to be authoritative) come after. When you put the pieces together the following theme emerges in regards to the Bible’s authority:
The Bible is authoritative because it comes from God (inspiration) and he has the right to command us to do things and tell us how to relate to him not only because he is the God of the universe, but also because he is the God who redeems, provides for, and protects, and he wants to have a good relationship with us.
THE BIBLE AS A COVENANT DOCUMENT
So you see the Bible is not a book of rules that you try to obey to get into heaven when you die or feel guilty about when you break. Rather, it’s a covenantal document written by people telling the story of God acting in history to redeem and protect his people. It recounts how God invites people into a covenant relationship – like a marriage – with rules of relationship so we can have an intimate relationship with him and become a people characterized by faithfulness, generosity and justice.
Think of it as a father in a loving relationship with his kids. Or a spouse in a faithful marriage to his wife. Don’t think rulebook used by teacher in a classroom. It’s not that. It’s a covenantal God who has redeemed and provided for us through Jesus the Messiah and will protect us until his return. Thus, the Bible is the binding covenant document given by this God so we can know and receive Jesus, learn how to live for him, and be sent out on mission with him.
If people are going to reject the authority of the Bible (and many will), let’s make sure they’re rejecting the Bible rather than some pop-cultural view of God that hands us a rulebook with impossibly high standards to get his kicks and giggles from watching us fail. That’s a distorted, unbiblical view. The God who gave his own Son to be in relationship with you is the same God who gave you the inspired Word so you could know him and enjoy good relationship with him.
Does this mean that the Bible is all relationship and no rules? Of course not. Look back at Exodus 24:3. Moses was to write down all the words and all the rules of the Lord. The Bible does have rules (or “commands”) that help navigate our walk with Jesus just as every good relationship comes with rules.
THE “RULES” OF RELATIONSHIP
If you’ve ever read the Bible you’ve come across rules. The infamous ones are known as the ten commandments. You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself a carved image, you shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, and so forth. Almost everyone is familiar with these commands. But often they’re taken out the context of Israel’s story. These rules were given by God after he redeemed them and entered into covenant with them. They were the positive things God put into place to help humans cultivate a happy relationship with him and others.
Before you balk at this idea, consider how we see this in marriage or family. We all have rules that help make our relationships work. Gerry’s rule for his sweetheart Sherry is “Thou shalt not touch thy husband at night unless thou is having a nightmare and needs to be touched.” The reason being, once he’s awake he’s up for the night. Or, “Thou shalt kiss thy wife whenever she walkest into the house.” When a husband gets adequate sleep or a wife gets lots of kisses it makes for a happy marriage. See, happy rules! But they are rules.
A lot of the Bible is like that. A covenantal God giving rules to his people so that they can be in a happy relationship with him and others. For example, the command not to commit adultery is put in place so a husband and wife can enjoy fruitful, faithful intimacy with each other. It is an authoritative rule God’s people are to live by but it’s a good rule that protects a marriage. It’s for our benefit!
I (Whitney) remember a time right after my conversion when I was “hanging out” with a boy I had crushed on for years. It was finally happening! Then one morning I opened by Bible to 1 Corinthians 6:18 (all new to me, by the way) and came across these words: “Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.” The Spirit gripped my conscience with those words. I realized this was a boundary marker or a “rule” that I needed to live by. Immediately I broke it off. I see now how those words were for my benefit from a loving father. To this day I thank God for that rule.
The point is, when we reject the Bible’s authority we’re rejecting the very things that have been put in place by a loving God for our good. Far from being that which stifles our “true selves,” the rules in the Bible set us free to be fully human. The Bible teaches us how to cultivate a heart that loves Jesus and Jesus’ people and how to walk with him in a way that nourishes our souls. It warns us to run from those things which hurt us or vandalize the image of God in others. It trains us to become people of justice and mercy and righteousness. It gives us guidance on how to carry out his mission in his world.
Submitting to the Bible’s authority is actually a good and beautiful thing. As Gerry helpfully teaches, accepting God’s authority in Scripture means loving him, taking his values to heart, obeying his commands, embracing his promises, declaring those promises in life and word wherever we go. Isn’t this something we, as believers, should desire not reject? Shouldn’t his words bind our consciences in all matters of faith, life and practice?
BUT, WAIT, WHAT ABOUT…?
If you accept our proposition, that as the inspired Word of God the Bible alone is the final authority for all matters of faith and life and what it teaches comes with divine authority because it is the covenant document of God’s redemptive relationship with his people, you may still have some questions. Namely, what do you do with all the parts of Scripture that isn’t commands or rules? How do you “obey” a narrative or submit to a song? And is all the Bible equally authoritative and binding on your life as it was for the original hearers? Plus, why are there so many issues in your life that the Bible doesn’t speak to? Good questions! Here are some points to consider when thinking about the Bible’s authority in your life:
1. HOW CAN NARRATIVES AND PSALMS BE AUTHORITATIVE?
The Bible is one big story. It’s the story of God acting to save people from sin, self, and Satan, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world and to set people free to be fully human, just like Jesus. Genres like narrative or psalms are authoritative in the fact that they help us learn that story, show us the character of God, and reveal his purposes for his world. We see that the whole story points towards the true Hero, Jesus, and teaches us how to receive his salvation and then live like him. As we read the Bible, we are called to live in a way that is consistent with God’s redemptive purposes in Christ, its characters and themes revealed, and the directions that have been set up in the story. For example, as we navigate relationships with broken people we follow the narrative of Jesus who loves and serves the prostitute who is under the death penalty even as he calls her to repentance. That’s something we learn through narrative. Or, like the psalmist, we choose to trust in God’s stated outcome even though we have not seen it come to pass yet. So, even though these texts aren’t strictly “legal” we can submit to them by following the mission and character of God revealed in them.
2. IS ALL THE BIBLE EQUALLY AUTHORITATIVE?
All the Bible is equally God’s Word, but there are parts that were written for a particular era which give us broader principles to apply but are not directly binding. For example, the Mosaic covenant was given to Israel after the Abrahamic covenant until the Messiah came and the New Covenant was inaugurated. In Galatians 3:19-4:7 Paul explains how the law acted as a “babysitter” or a “guardian” to help keep Israel until the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Now that Jesus, Abraham’s offspring, has come and inaugurated the New Covenant promises, we are no longer under the Mosaic code. Gerry ate bacon for breakfast the day we met about this article. I (Whitney) ate sausage. We’re okay to do that. However, much in the law of Moses is a part of the bigger picture of biblical morality and reveals to us what the divine priorities are. We would do well to apply culturally appropriate applications from the principles set forth in those texts. Of course, this will require the hard work of good interpretation which we encourage you to do.
3. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY ISSUES WHERE THE BIBLE DOES NOT TELL US WHAT TO DO?
There are a lot of specifics in our daily life that just aren’t addressed in the Bible. So how do we submit to its authority in areas that seem unclear? Well, first off, what the Bible prescribes we must believe and do. This is the black and white stuff. Faith in Jesus and repentance of sin is the only way to the Father (see John 14:6). Looking at porn is a sin (see Matthew 15:18-20). Being a part of a vibrant faith community is a must (see Hebrews 10:25). Next, what the Bible describes we should follow as closely as possible. The book of Acts is a great example. It’s a descriptive narrative telling us how the gospel spread to the ends of the earth. As we engage the same mission, we should follow the disciples in the book of Acts as closely as possible. Finally, when the Bible is silent, he intended to give us freedom to be Spirit-led and wise. This pertains to issues like who you should marry, if you should take that job offer, if you should move your family overseas, and so forth. The Bible didn’t tell me (Whitney) to marry Neal. Rather, it shaped the values I was looking for in a spouse. When I met Neal I saw that he loved Jesus, had integrity, and was missionally-minded, so I married him! A lot of life is lived in this area. You seek wisdom and guidance from God and people, pray for the Spirit’s leading and then make a decision. The authority of the Bible sets you free to make decisions, it shouldn’t paralyze you.
READ YOUR BIBLE!
One final admonition from us—read the Bible! What a treasure we have in our hands. At any moment we can open the Bible and hear the voice of God. In a culture that is growing increasingly confused, we can go to the Bible and receive authoritative words with clarity and confidence knowing that it comes from a loving Father who wants his kids to have a good relationship with him.
So take up and read.
Read the Scriptures in the context of the whole story and in the context of the worshipping, serving body of Christ, as well as privately and devotionally, for the sake of joining God’s gospel work in the world. Then together, with the Spirit’s help, submit your life to God’s Word in all matters of faith and life and experience the joy that comes from faithful submission.
Gerry Breshears has been professor of theology at Western Seminary since 1980. In addition to teaching and lecturing at a number of colleges and seminaries around the world, he speaks in many churches. He ministers with a wide variety of people and issues in the pastoral side of his life. He works in leadership in the Evangelical Theological Society nationally and regionally, including having served as national president. Gerry and his wife, Sherry, have two sons, Donn and David, and a daughter, Cyndee, and four wonderful grandchildren. He is an elder and a member of the preaching team at Grace Community Church of Gresham, Oregon.
Whitney Woollard is a writer, speaker, and Bible teacher. She serves as a staff writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and contributes to various ministries, including YouVersion, 9Marks, and the Bible Project. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Word with others. She has been married to Neal for over ten years and together they serve Jesus at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. You can contact her at www.whitneywoollard.com.