A couple of weeks ago, after writing my posts about inerrancy, I was thinking about biblical authority. I had noticed that many, if not all, statements of belief say something like this:
The full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian Faith.
We believe that Scripture is pervasively propositional and that all statements of Scripture are completely true and authoritative.
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
All claim that the Bible is the ultimate – or even only – authority for a Christian.
So I wondered, could this be right? Especially given the difficulties with inerrancy.
Of course, inerrancy is a necessary condition for the Bible to be the ultimate authority and I have already written in this blog about why I do not believe in Biblical inerrancy. So that’s a problem.
But even if I believed in inerrancy would that be a sufficient condition?
Is inerrancy both necessary and sufficient, or is there some other evidence for believing in the ultimate authority of the Bible or for believing this not to be the case?
Who has all authority?
Then it came to me! In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus is recorded as saying,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
He did not say that the authority was limited in time, or that he was going to delegate it to a book that had not yet been written!
No, he said that all authority had been given to him and that he would always be with us.
Before that, on the Mount of Transfiguration, God had told the disciples to listen to His Son rather than to Moses and Elijah representing the Old Covenant scriptures – the only Bible available at the time.
But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.”
From this we can see that Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority, and, although He will often speak to us through it, He will also speak to us in many other ways.
Are you worried that you won’t hear from Him? He promises that we will!
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
John 10:27 (ESV)
The apostle John also writes:
“But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ.”
1 John 2:23
He is clearly not worried that we won’t hear his voice.
God speaks outside the pages of the Bible
In fact, it is only because God speaks to us outside the pages of the Bible that men and women have left the comfort of their homes to spread the gospel in lands they did not know using languages they had yet to learn. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel only tells to go into all the world; direct revelation, if you will, tells us where more precisely we should go – and much more besides.
The example of Paul
The apostle Paul was, of course, the first missionary to non-Jews, travelling all over the Middle East. The impetus for this came from his vision on the Damascus road and guidance from the Holy Spirit, including a dream in which a man from Macedonia begged him to come there. The Bible, whose new-covenant section he was (unknown to him) still writing, was not the authority in his life.
As he was later to say when on trial before King Agrippa, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Acts 26:19.
Some will argue that now that we have a Bible we don’t need anything else, and should regard it as the new ultimate authority and guide. But this would be a mistake.
Modern examples: slavery and trafficking
Take for example the slave trade of 18th century Britain and other countries. It was Christians who led the campaign to eliminate the slave trade and later slavery itself, while their opponents justified these heinous practices from the Bible. If William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson had believed in the ultimate authority and sufficiency of the Bible, the slave trade would not have been abolished when it was.
Like Paul, Clarkson had a divine revelation and “This experience and sense of calling ultimately led him to devote his life to abolishing the slave trade.”
“I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject [of the slave trade] in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.” I then began to envy those who had seats in parliament, and who had great riches, and widely extended connections, which would enable them to take up this cause. Finding scarcely any one at that time who thought of it, I was turned frequently to myself.”
Sadly the slave trade – human trafficking – is still going on in different ways, but Christine Caine heard from God and as a result in 2008 she founded the anti-slavery organisation A21.
God spoke to them both about a practice that could seem to be justified by the Bible, but they did not consider that to be the ultimate authority; Jesus was!
I could cite many other examples of people who have been led directly to undertake a work for God, which they would not have done if they had limited themselves to the Bible as the only, sufficient authority in their lives. Maybe these will inspire you to find your own examples.
The Bible, while useful as Paul writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16), is not sufficient and not the ultimate authority; Jesus is, so listen to Him.
Who knows what he might call you to do!