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Howard N. Wallace

The Oxford English Dictionary has two basic definitions of "authority." First, "authority" is a power to enforce obedience with moral or legal supremacy or the right to command or give an ultimate decision. Secondly, "authority" can be a power to influence opinion, action or belief, either personal or practical, through influential opinion or testimony. There is a significant difference between these two definitions of authority. It is important, therefore, when we speak of the authority of the Bible to be clear on the nature of that authority. What type of authority can we attribute to the Bible?

Some basic considerations


Does Scripture make any claims about its own authority? There are two passages which are often cited in this regard and it is important to look at these in order to establish what they do and don’t say. The passages are 2 Tim 3:14-17 and 2 Pet 1:20-21.

2 Tim 3:14-17

This text speaks of the function of Scripture primarily in terms of a pastoral role. The writer writes, especially in 2 Tim 3, so that the reader might avoid those who would pervert the faith he or she has held to date. In that context, Scripture is able to instruct for salvation. All Scripture is said to be God breathed and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” with the result that the faithful may be “equipped for every good work.” Scripture is seen chiefly as a useful guide and aid for continuation and growth in the faith.

What is not said in this passage about Scripture is interesting in relation to what is said. While Scripture is useful for reproof and correction it is not described in any controlling or absolute terms in relation to faith. There is no mention of inerrancy or infallibility in any form. At the same time we should remember that the Scripture mentioned here was essentially the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, roughly our Old Testament. If we take the point of 2 Tim 3:14-17 in relation to the New Testament, which may not be illegitimate, we still must recognise that we move beyond the scope of the text itself.

2 Pet 1:20-21

This passage is from another pastoral letter. In it the writer deals with misleading interpretations of Scripture. They argue that the interpretation of the “prophecy of scripture” is not a matter for individual speculation. The interpretation of “prophecy” by individuals should not be a controlling force in the church because it can be distorted. This is the case because the “prophecy of Scripture” is not the product of human thought but rather arises from people moved by the Holy Spirit. J. Barr writes that the "centrality of the church's communal understanding and custom here is the locus of the interpretation of Scripture" not the individual. Indeed he notes that in those times the "Spirit (was) vested in the apostolic witness of the Church." (Escaping Fundamentalism, ch. 1). This underlines the importance of the role of the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture. We note that again there is no reference to inerrancy or infallibility. We also note that only "prophecy" is mentioned here. Again, to apply this text to a wider body of Scripture we move beyond the argument of the writer.

Deut 13:1-6; 18:15-22

2 Pet 2:1, which follows immediately on from 2 Pet 1:20-21, speaks about false prophets. Although the Old Testament texts of true and false prophecy do not often get quoted in this context, they might still have some guidance to offer us. The question of whether a prophecy was true or false was an important issue in Old Testament times. It was an issue in the prophetic work of both Jeremiah (chapts. 27-28) and Amos (chapt. 7). However, Deut 13:1-6 and 18:15-22 are important. They deal clearly with the issue.

Prophets claimed by their very words ("This is the word of YHWH" etc.) to be spokespeople of God. But what check was there that they actually spoke the word of God and not their own word? Seeking and understanding the will of God was as much a problem for Israelites as it is for faithful people today. The test of the authenticity of a prophet's word, according to Deuteronomy 18:15-22, is a simple matter. If the prophet's word comes true, then that must have been an authentic word of God from the prophet. In other words we can only know the true word of God as our experience identifies it. However this is not all that helpful if it is our responsibility to plan our action ahead.

Deuteronomy 13:1-6 speaks along the same lines but takes the matter a little further. Even if, in the community's experience, certain words of a prophet come true, that might still not indicate that the prophet speaks with the authority of God. The prophet's words could be misleading and God could be testing his people. We might wish to question whether a God of love would do such a thing, but the important point raised by this passage is that experience is not always to be trusted in relation to God’s will. Even those words which purport to be from God and which our experience confirms might still not be authentically God’s word to us. This passage outlines further tests of the authenticity of a prophet's words. In short, they amount to the requirement that the prophet's words, uttered in the name of God, be consistent with the Torah, the law of the covenant. In other words, not only do the words have to be validated by experience, they also ought to be consistent with what God has revealed to his people in the past.

The point to be made from this in relation to the authority of Scripture is that a hearing of a "word of God" ought to be tested and examined in light of both the community’s past experience and what it recognises as other revelation from God. The authority of a word that claims to be from God is not something that is necessarily self evident but needs to be tested against other authorities.

Philosophical Presuppositions

Although many Christians may not be aware of it, classical philosophy has played a part in the development of Christian theology. This is especially true when it comes to the authority of Scripture. Opinions on the way the Bible has been viewed have been influenced especially by ideas associated with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The debate has essentially focused on the relation of faith and reason and what part each of these plays in our understanding and use of Scripture. On the other hand it should be stressed that the issue of the authority of Scripture and the debate over faith and reason, is not just stuck back in ancient philosophy. It has very much become a modern issue especially since the 18th century, or the period known as the Enlightenment. Since that time greater emphasis has often been placed on human reason in matters of knowledge and understanding.

One general position can be seen in the theologies of people like Augustine (354-430CE), Luther, Calvin and others. Some of its roots lie in Plato’s notion that we have certain innate ideas. On the other hand it is also grounded in biblical statements such as, "Unless you believe, you shall not understand" (Isa 7:9, LXX). In theological terms this position says that faith precedes and provides the framework for right thinking or reason. The classical statement of this position comes from Augustine: "I believe in order that I may understand." In this general position, faith and reason are associated but faith is not dependent on reason. God is known in a different way to the way other things in the world are known. In modern terms, theology (faith) is not dependent on science (reason). Theological doctrine cannot be proved rationally, nor does it have to be in order to be accepted as true. For example, affirmation that the Bible is the Word of God does not depend on our being able to verify the historical or "scientific" accuracy of the Bible's statements.

A second general position has been especially influential in Protestant circles. It draws to some extent on Medieval Scholastic theology but has its roots in Aristotle’s philosophy, in which all knowledge is deduced by reason from human experience. It was represented in the work of some of the followers of Calvin, especially F. Turretin (1623-1687) from Geneva. It was also represented in Scottish and U.S. Presbyterian circles, the last notably gathered at Princeton in the 19th cent. In this position reason has primacy over faith and belief.

F. Turretin’s views have been influential in the development of this position over the last two centuries. He stated:

“Before faith can believe, it must have the divinity of the witness, to whom faith is to be given, clearly established, from certain true marks which are apprehended to it, otherwise it cannot believe. [cited in J.B. Rogers, "The Church Doctrine of Biblical Authority," in D.K. McKim (ed.), The Authoritative Word: Essays on the Nature of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) 210]

So for faith to be sure, the source of reasoning must be secure. In this situation, the authority and truth of the Bible must be established before we can develop further doctrine from it. Turretin developed his position to the point where he felt it necessary to harmonise the apparent inconsistencies in the Bible before he could develop his reasonable proofs for faith. [ibid.]

This position was further developed, especially within circles which reacted strongly against the emergence of historical criticism. The development was fuelled by the increasing distance between faith and science (or reason) in the post-Enlightenment period. How was Scripture (hitherto regarded as trustworthy and free from error) to be read in the light of the new scientific facts and theories? An extreme position in this development can be seen in the work of C. Hodge, published in 1872. He says:

“We are certain, therefore, that our ideas of God, founded on testimony of his Word, correspond to what He really is, and constitute true knowledge.” [ibid., 219]

For Hodge, the Bible was "free from all error whether of doctrine, fact or precept." [ibid.] He speak about a model of inspiration which is "not confined to moral and religious truths, but extends to the statements of facts whether scientific, historical or geographical." [ibid., 217]

Thus we see the emergence of two entirely different positions on the authority of the Bible. The orthodox Protestant position, with its focus on faith seeking understanding, has connections, in part, with notions of Platonic philosophy. In this position, the Bible is not authoritative in all areas of life. On the other hand, the theology that emerged from Princeton Seminary in the 19th cent., based on reason preceding faith, demanded in its most strident forms acceptance of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible in all areas.

Principle of Accommodation

In mainstream Christianity there has always been the assumption, in one form or another, that God in Scripture lowers himself, or condescends, or accommodates himself, or limits his self-revelation or message in some way to suit human capacities. This is evident as far back as Origen (186-255 CE) who said:

“He condescends and lowers himself, accommodating himself to our weaknesses like a school master his children, like a Father caring for his own children and adopting their ways.” [ibid., 199]

This principle of accommodation presumes a limitation of truth revealed about God in the Bible. What is essential is stated. This has consequences for how we see the authority of the Bible.

In Augustine (354-430 CE) and the Reformers this principle is developed. The truth revealed in the Bible is, according to Augustine, the good news of salvation. Later, Luther speaks of there being "no falsehood in Scripture," not in terms of factual accuracy but rather in terms of the ability of the Word of God to establish righteousness in us.

So for Origen, Augustine, Luther and others, the authority of Scripture consisted not in facts but rather in the message of salvation. The word of Scripture was the Word of God accommodated to human thought etc. This became the orthodox position in Protestantism. It allows for not all authority to be vested in the Bible. It emphasises the theological role of biblical authority and does not tie biblical authority up with "scientific facts."

Our understanding of the nature of this accommodation has changed over time. In the early stages it was viewed in terms of God condescending to limit revelation of himself to human capacities. In the 18th cent., Johann Semler expressed it in terms of the use of human language:

“All biblical writings, like all other books by rational authors, consist of written discourses which were originally set down for particular readers, in a particular country, at a particular time, and, despite any other general usefulness, for a particular occasion...

“So when long ago God wanted to teach men certain important matters specifically by written revelation and through the Bible, he certainly could not adopt, invent and use for the purpose some new, non-human language. Otherwise he would have had to introduce a new set of signs and associated concepts, and men would have had first to be instructed in a hitherto unknown language....

“Unless revelation should lack all true morality, it could only be conveyed to men for their further use when, alongside revelation, the other principles of human understanding and the use of the senses necessary for general cognition were taken for granted and kept unchanged....

“God could not, through the old special revelation, have contradicted natural general revelation or the knowledge which men by the use of their natural powers of understanding and reason can obtain as men. For God was as much the author of the one as the other; special revelation could never have taken place if he had not intended men to be as much rational creatures as living creatures. [ Quoted in J.C. O'Neill, The Bible's Authority: A Portrait Gallery of Thinkers from Lessing to Bultmann (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991) 43-44]

In more recent times, the principle has been emphasised again in the form of the historical critical method’s call to take seriously the historical, literary and social context out of which the texts of Scripture grew. Attention to these issues has become an imperative in the approach to interpretation.

The Impact of Biblical Criticism

The emergence of biblical criticism has raised some basic questions relevant to the discussion of the authority of the Bible. Biblical criticism, even when seen as "critical" in a positive light, it is still a questioning process which assumes that nothing is beyond investigation and critique. Moreover, historical critical tools dissect the text of the Bible in sometimes radical ways. Various reactions to this situation have emerged. Some people have simply abandoned any notion of the authority of Scripture, or Scripture as divine word, in light of the strength of the critique. Certain forms of liberalism, in its classic sense, follow this and basically reduce the Bible to its human dimensions. Others reject parts or the whole of a critical approach, or some of its conclusions, in favour of maintaining biblical authority. Still others would locate a good deal of authority in places over against and yet in relation to the Bible, especially the church. J. Barton, in his article "Authority of Scripture" [R.J. Coggins and J.L. Houlden (eds), A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (London: SCM, 1990) 69-72, esp. 70] notes that these sorts of options have been prevalent on the British and American scenes.

More recent modes of literary criticism, with their emphasis on the study of the present form of the biblical text, may seem to be more in line with a predisposition to restore the authority of the Bible. Such is not always the case. The newer literary readings often give a strong role to the reader vis-a-vis the text in the process of interpretation. They can also be based on philosophical presuppositions which are at odds with a sense of biblical authority in its more traditional expressions.

Another way of dealing with the problem can be seen in the model of interpretation outlined in the article “Biblical Theology, Contemporary” by the New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962) Vol. A-D, 418-432). Stendahl proposes a model which distinguishes between what the text meant  in its ancient context and what it means for us today. This model neatly separates the exegetical or historical tasks from the hermeneutical or appropriating tasks. In other words, the notion of the authority of Scripture can be effectively suspended while critical questions are addressed and then recalled when questions about the text's contemporary relevance are considered. This approach seeks to free the text from the often unstated presuppositions of the interpreter, thus creating some distance between the text and the interpreter and allowing the text to address the reader with fresh ideas. However, it can also create a false impression. An interpreter can never fully suspend the religious respect or other such view they have on the text, while they employ critical tools of investigation. While some measure of distance may be obtained, still the critical questions the interpreter asks and results of their study will inevitably be shaped by their whole view of the text before them.

J. Barton [ibid., 71] contrasts the American and English approaches to the relation of biblical authority and critical study to that which developed in Protestant German theology. In the latter situation, biblical criticism was not seen as an attack on biblical authority "but as a child of an increased respect for Scripture". Barton states: "Rather than stressing the Enlightenment roots of biblical criticism, these scholars look back to the importance of Luther and Calvin in asking critical questions about Scripture." In his discussion on R. Bultmann, he notes the use of the idea of justification by faith in the argument. He summarises:

“Because the Christian is justified by faith in Christ, and not by the historical accuracy of the text of scripture, it belongs to Christian freedom to ask radical historical questions about scripture without any sense that these are somehow forbidden by a theory of biblical inspiration. To insist on protecting the Bible from historical enquiry thus runs counter to the Reformation emphasis on freedom from "the Law"; Biblical critics are not opponents of scriptural authority as the Reformers understood it, but its true heirs.” [ibid.]


In the idea of canon we see the crux of the issue of biblical authority. The term "canon" comes from other words meaning "rule" and could be understood to portray Scripture as some sort of rule book. We need to remember, however, that the canons of the Old Testament and New Testament were both settled only after long periods of development. Only those books which were already recognised as authoritative in some way were admitted to the canon. Moreover, the canon was not uniformly accepted or employed.

The different communities of faith "recognised" their own respective canons of Scripture. There was a central, common core among these canons, but there were there were still significant differences between them. While the various Christian confessions. “recognised” their canons, they also submitted themselves to be guided and directed by their respective canons. There is here what R. Gnuse calls a "circle of authority." (p. 110) In Christian circles, the authority of scripture and the authority of the church are inextricably bound. Thus the Bible shares authority with the church. The canon is a fundamental resource for the church's faith. At the same time, the church is the context in which the canon is recognised and interpreted.

Another issue, which is sharpened by the discussion of canon, is that of diversity. If we are to speak of the authority of the Bible in any significant way, we cannot ignore the nature of the book to which we give authority. The canons which have been recognised by the various Christian communities, are collections of diverse texts. They are diverse in the type of literature they contain (law, narrative, prophecy, proverb, prayer, myth, gospel, letters, apocalyptic texts etc.). They are diverse in many other ways including in their theological perspectives. In fact, we can get texts which stand in sharp conflict, in terms of fact or theological stance. We have different creation traditions, two sets of data interwoven in the flood story, various traditions on the exodus from Egypt, two versions of Israel’s conquest of the promised land, different traditions on the rise of kingship in Israel, and in the Gospels, four versions of the life of Jesus. Examples could be multiplied. The shapers of the canon have not tried to smooth out the differences inherent in these variant traditions. Rather they have let them stand alongside each other.

Of course over time there have been many efforts to see some coherence within the biblical material. This can be traced back into the Bible itself (e.g. Pss 105, 106; Neh 9:6-38; Acts 7:2-53; Heb 11:2-39). While some coherence can be seen, there remains material which cannot be easily incorporated and other material which defies attempts at a unity in the biblical text. One scholar has remarked in relation to the Old Testament:

“We might say that in principle there is hardly a faith position taken in the OT that is not open to the possibility of being contradicted by another faith position that might equally be taken in the OT. There may be faith positions on the identity of God, the identity of Israel, the commitment of God to Israel, and so on, that are not open to contradiction; but they are relatively few.”
(The International Bible Commentary, Liturgical Press, 1998, p. 576)
This diversity within the canon needs to be taken seriously when considering the nature of biblical authority.

Developing Our Own View

Scripture in the Modern World

Writing in 1970,  J. Smart said that our view of the authority of scripture must make allowance for who we are today (The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church (London: SCM, 1970). He listed three points:

• We are questioning people who, in our western culture, have grown used to questioning authority. Our understanding of the Bible's authority cannot be simply a blanket assertion.
• As 20th century people we have witnessed great advances in human knowledge in the areas of science, human society, the world, human nature, psychology etc. We also have now a greater knowledge of other peoples including knowledge of their religious affirmations, their hopes and their culture. We can now no longer assume that any one culture is the repository of all wisdom.
• The Historical Critical Method has questioned many of our assumptions about the nature, inspiration and formation of scripture.

He concludes:

“Intellectually and actually we stand in a new situation and unless we can interpret that (authority of scripture) in such a way as to clear it of the charge of being the product of religious egotism and narrowness of vision, both in Israel and in the Christian church, we are not likely to persuade modern men that the scriptures contain any authority for them which they must respect." (ibid., 93)

In other words, our view of the authority of scripture must not paralyse the modern mind as it seeks to understand life, nor must it paralyse the God who seeks to address us through the pages of Scripture. We must hold the divine and human sides of scripture in close association.

The Nature of Scripture's Authority

i) We must recognise the impact of Historical Critical Method on our understanding of scripture.

• Scripture is not the result of the work of a series of individuals but is rather the result of long process, influenced by many traditions and many communities of faith. Its growth is the product of writing, collecting, redaction, and reinterpretation in new situations.
• Scripture is the product of a particular age and perspective on the world, or we should say ages and perspectives. For example, it is neither scientifically nor historically precise from our perspectives on those disciplines. It is neither inerrant nor entirely consistent in these sorts of matters.
• Even in theological matters, Scripture is neither consistent nor complete in any way. Rather it presents a diverse range of views, such as four views on the life and person of Jesus and two statements on the creation of the world etc. These views were initially expressed, and even reinterpreted, within various political, religious and social contexts.
• Scripture has developed partly on the basis of what has engendered, sustained and helped develop faith within various communities of faith. It is not the property of any individual within a community, nor of one community within the many. It does not belong to any one individual or community to interpret at will and according to their own fashion. Scripture belongs to the many Christian communities. Interpretation takes place within these contexts and needs to be open and sensitive to other interpretations within these contexts.

These points suggest that the authority of scripture is not to be seen in the words of scripture nor in scripture itself as an isolated entity. The authority of Scripture first rises out of its usefulness for the promotion and maintenance of the faith and from its expression of faith, and secondly from its ability to allow the community to encounter God in its pages and to mediate God's presence. The authority of scripture is derived from the authority of God himself. Any view of scripture which focuses on the words of the text or on the form of scripture rather than on witness to the God behind the words, text or form, paralyses both the text and God. It places the authority in the wrong place. On the other hand, the diversity in Scripture, especially that of theological viewpoint, suggests that God in Scripture is not so much imposing certain perspectives upon us or prescribing matters for us, as inviting us to think on certain matters and act in faith and hope.

J.B. Rogers has said:

“The Bible's claim to authority rests not in some doctrine of scripture or theory of inspiration or anxious insistence that the Bible contains objective, propositional truth about God that forecloses all questions and all doubts. Biblical authority is established as, from its pages read, studied, and preached the God who has sought us and found us addresses us, engages us, illuminates our thoughts, clarifies human experience, and reads right to the depth of the human condition, offering more answers and raising more questions than ever we imagined possible. However strange that word may sound, it is not a stranger who speaks; it is one who has known and loved us from the foundation of the world. ("The Book that Reads Us," Interpretation 39 (1985) p. 399)

ii. The authority of scripture is a hidden authority. J. Smart states that "The authority of God's word everywhere in Scripture is invisible, intangible and contestable." (Strange Silence of the Bible, p. 98) This is the same point that is made about the authenticity and hence authority of the prophetic word in Deuteronomy and elsewhere. Even Jesus himself, according to Luke's Gospel, does not objectively establish the authority of scripture (Luke 20:1-8).

The authority of the Word of God is hidden - except to the eyes of faith. Jesus's authority in the New Testament was only established in light of the resurrection, but even then it was only open to the eyes of faith. Prophetic authority in the Old Testament could only be established in hindsight, but even then it was dependent on faith's interpretation of the events.

Faith is important for the authority of scripture. Scripture has no authority, except maybe in certain passages where its "wisdom" may be generally accepted, except that open to the eyes of faith. Here I think the emphasis of the orthodox Protestant position which goes back through Augustine can be seen and is important. Faith has priority over reason.

iii. The authority of scripture stands in conjunction with other factors. The witness of the text and of various theologians points to the authority of Scripture interconnected with the life of a community of faith, experience, tradition, reason etc. Nevertheless the authority of Scripture has a special place among these, at least if we speak as Protestants. Its special place does not derive from itself but from God, especially as it witnesses to God in Jesus Christ. Scripture's special place and authority arise from the fact that the Old and New Testaments disclose the basic pattern and events in God's exercise of authority in speaking and acting with humans. They reveal God's creative and redemptive purposes and the way God achieves them in the human context.

Scripture also suggests what are faithful and unfaithful human responses to God's word and act. This is not done by precise definition. Although Scripture does, on a few occasions, offer firm direction for faithful living, it is not in general to be seen as a recipe book for proper human behaviour. The way its own statements are debated, adapted and reinterpreted within its own pages demonstrates this. What Scripture does for us is open up before us patterns of human response to God. It lays before us paradigms for faith. P. Hanson asks:

“Wherein lies (biblical) authority? It lies in its power to extend the biblical story of creation's origin in God's love, its endangerment in human rebellion, and its healing in divine grace as an invitation to full participation with the assurance that in participation lies the completion of our being." ("Biblical Authority Reconsidered," Horizons in Biblical Theology 11/2 (1989) p. 73)

In conclusion, we would summarise that the authority of the Bible is: an authority derived from God and as a consequence it reflects the way and nature of God himself, personal, seeking to promote relationship, inviting thought and action and yet vulnerable; an authority only open to the eyes of faith and hence also open to rejection, contention and questioning by adherents as well as opponents; an authority, which while unique, stands alongside other authorities.