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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Is the Bible the Ultimate Authority?

Don Stewart :: What Are Some Non-Biblical Views as to Where Ultimate Authority Comes From?

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What Are Some Non-Biblical Views as to Where Ultimate Authority Comes From?

Is the Bible the Ultimate Source of Authority – Question 2

The Christian faith believes and teaches that God has chosen to address the human race by means of a written Scripture; the Bible. The authority of the Bible is at the very center of the defense of Christianity. This being the case, it is only logical that the Bible is also at the very center of the attacks against the Christian faith.

Consequently, we find that there are a variety of other ways in which people have approached the issue of ultimate authority apart from Holy Scripture. Each of these views denies that the Bible is the final authoritative source on all matters of which it speaks. It is important that we understand these various approaches to ultimate authority and what they are saying.

Those Who Reject Scripture Substitute the Following in Its Place

These non-biblical approaches, as to where ultimate authority comes from, include the following:

1. Human Reason

For many people, human reason, or rationalism, is the final source of authority on all matters. Human beings are the ones who are the final determiners of what is true and what is not. They believe there is no outside source of authority to determine what truth is. When this is applied to the Bible, it denies that God has revealed Himself to humanity.

Under this approach, the Bible is not viewed as authoritative, but rather as a piece of religious literature. Agnostics, atheists, as well as theological liberals would fall into this category.

Response to Human Reason Being the Ultimate Authority

Human reason, as brilliant as it may be, is always limited. Even the best human minds are pathetically limited in what they know, or even can know. Human reason, therefore, is an inadequate way to establish authority in any realm.

In addition, Scripture says that human reason, unaided by the Holy Spirit, cannot understand spiritual things. Paul wrote:

The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14 NET)

The Bible says the Scriptures are to judge humanity - humanity is not to judge the Scriptures. We read in the Book of Hebrews:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13 ESV)

Whenever human beings reject any part of Scripture they are placing themselves as a higher authority than God. It is not possible to correct something unless there is a higher or more accurate authority to make the correction. Therefore, when someone corrects Scripture they are saying that they have a greater knowledge of the subject than God. This is a tragic position to hold. Unaided human reason cannot speak with final authority on any matter. We do not have that capability.

2. Personal Feelings

Some people have developed their theories of ultimate authority purely upon human feelings. This is usually as a reaction to human reason being the final source of authority. Since our knowledge is limited, and not always reliable, humans must resort to feelings to determine what is true. Therefore, experience, not reason, becomes the final judge of all matters.

Response to Personal Feelings as Authoritative

Personal feelings also place the final source of authority somewhere apart from the Bible. Feelings can be misleading—they are not always an accurate guide as to what is true. Furthermore, what if two people have different feelings about the same issue? Who, or what, determines what is correct? Appealing to personal feelings does not solve the authority problem.

Human nature, either in its reasoning process, or personal feelings, becomes the final source of authority for these first two perspectives. However, the Bible says that the human mind is hostile to God. Paul wrote:

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8 TNIV)

Consequently, humans should never make themselves the final word on any matter. They do not have that ability.

3. Neoorthodoxy (an Encounter with Christ)

Neoorthodoxy means the “new orthodoxy.” It is a religious point of view that places the final authority in Jesus Christ, not humanity. However, the Neoorthodox position is that the Bible is not an infallible guide to all matters of faith and practice. It believes that it contains misstatements and errors. The Bible is only a witness to the Word of God. It only becomes authoritative at the moment it speaks to the individual. Each individual must determine what is, as well as what is not, the Word of God within the pages of Scripture. Consequently, it makes the believer’s personal experience with Christ as the final determiner of what is true and what is not.

Response to Neoorthodoxy

If one relies on personal experience alone, even while acknowledging Jesus Christ, there is no ultimate standard of authority. We again have the problem of what to do when two people disagree on a certain issue. There is no way of knowing whom, if anyone, is right about the matter.

Although believers have the Holy Spirit to guide them, they are still fallen human beings. Each of us has a different temperament as well as different amounts of training. Therefore, the understanding that the Holy Spirit gives each believer varies from person to person. The existence of the different Christian denominations proves this point.

4. The Church Alone Has Final Authority

There is the perspective that Jesus entrusted all authority to the church on the earth. He gave this authority to His immediate disciples who passed it on to others. As the years went by, and different situations have arisen, it is the church that has the authority to say what is right and what is wrong—not the Bible. Therefore, it does not matter what any individual thinks may be right or wrong, it only matters what the church says. Ultimately, right and wrong are officially determined by the church, and by its authoritative pronouncements.

This position is held by the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian, Syrian, and Coptic, as well as other churches deriving from Christian antiquity. All of these groups accept the Bible as well as the living tradition of their church as having ultimate authority.

Response to the Church Alone Having the Final Authority

There are a number of problems with placing the authority of the church over the authority of Scripture. First, there is no biblical basis whatsoever for this position. Second, what happens when the two conflict? Third, the Bible warns us about placing tradition over the authority of Scripture. Finally, the Bible did exist before the church—the Old Testament.

God Did Not Entrust His Authority to the Church

To begin with, there is no Scriptural basis for the belief that any human organization would continue to carry God’s absolute authority. The authority of Jesus was given to His immediate disciples; not to anyone else. There is no passage in Scripture that teaches that the authority of Jesus was passed down from His immediate disciples to others.

What Happens When the Church and Scripture Conflict?

There is another issue. What happens when Scripture and the church conflict as they so often have in the past? Who are we to believe? Is it the church, or is it the Bible? Furthermore, which church do we believe? Is it the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, or one of the other ancient communities? They do not agree on every issue. Since there cannot be two infallible sources of truth which disagree with each other, somebody must be wrong.

Scripture Should Not Be Placed under Tradition

Another problem with this approach is that it places tradition over the Scriptures. Scripture does not allow for this. Jesus repeatedly chided the religious leaders for putting ungodly human traditions over the Word of God. We read in Matthew:

Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 NET)

Jesus contrasted the written Word with their ungodly traditions. He was critical of the idea that human tradition was elevated to a place superior to Scripture.

The Bible does teach that certain traditions do have their place. Paul wrote:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NET)

Yet, in this context, tradition refers to the teachings of the Apostles; whether oral or written. From Paul’s statement, we find that some of the apostolic teaching had already been committed to writing.

The written Word of God has always been the final authority for God’s people. Traditions, whether oral or written, can only be accepted if they conform to what God has previously revealed.

Each Individual Is Responsible to Study God’s Word

Another point that should be emphasized is that the Bible says that each individual is responsible for studying the Scripture on his or her own. Paul wrote to Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker who isn’t ashamed to teach the word of truth correctly. (2 Timothy 2:15 God’s Word)

Believers are to study the Scripture for themselves—not wait for some authority to tell them what to believe. The New Testament nowhere teaches that the church is the final authority on all matters of doctrine and practice. It is only the Scriptures themselves that constitute God’s final Word to humanity.

God’s Truth Existed in Scripture Before the Church Existed: the Old Testament

Finally, the truth of God existed before the church in the form of the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures, along with the words of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles, were the final authority for the first Christians—it was not the declarations of the church. Therefore, the church has no claims over the Bible.

All Church Teaching Needs to Be Evaluated

Having said this, we are not saying that all decisions that have been made by the “mind of the church” were wrong. To the contrary, the statements that came out of the ancient church councils were extremely helpful in defining and summarizing Christian truth. Also, the fact that each believer is personally responsible to study the Scripture does not mean that they should ignore what the church has taught for two thousand years. There are certain beliefs that Christians, from every generation, have embraced. These truths do not change with time.

Therefore, we must be careful when we say “the mind of the church” has no authority. What we are emphasizing is that everything which is taught should be evaluated by the Word of God.

Further Revelation That Adds to The Bible

Many non-Christian cults add further revelation apart from the Bible. This so-called revelation is considered as authoritative as, or even more authoritative, than Scripture. They add to God’s Word with their so-called revelation. The final source of authority is that particular revelation, not the Bible.

Although they may claim to believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, it is always interpreted in light of the further revelation or the teachings that come from their particular center of authority. In some cases, it is the teachings of only one person.

Response to the Idea of Further Revelation from God

The problem with this perspective is that the teaching from the additional revelation always contradicts the Scripture at some point—usually at many points. Both cannot be true at the same time. Either the Bible is incorrect, or the teaching of the additional revelation is incorrect.

Furthermore, additional revelation is not necessary because the faith has been once-and-for-all delivered to the believers. Jude wrote:

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3 NKJV)

The Contemporary English Version puts it this way:

My dear friends, I really wanted to write you about God’s saving power at work in our lives. But instead, I must write and ask you to defend the faith that God has once for all given to his people. (Jude 3 CEV)

God has once and for all given His truth to the world. Nothing more is necessary to be revealed to humanity.

5. The Bible Is One of Many Sacred Books

In some religious groups, the Bible is considered as a divinely given revelation. However, it is looked at as one of many sacred books that humanity has received. There is also the belief that God has revealed further truth after the New Testament. Therefore, the Bible does not have absolute authority. The ultimate authority lies in these works that have been written after the completion of Scripture.

Response to the Bible Is One of Many Sacred Books

Holy Scripture is not one of many divine revelations that have been given to humanity; it is the only one. The Bible warns about adding or subtracting to what the God of the Bible has revealed. Moses wrote the following:

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you. (Deuteronomy 4:2 NET)

Nothing can be added or subtracted to what the one true God has revealed to humanity. Despite the claims, there is no evidence whatsoever, that God has revealed Himself to humanity after the New Testament was completed.

6. The Bible’s Authority Is Now Out-of-Date

Another perspective concerning the Bible’s authority is its rejection by modern humanity. The Bible may have been adequate for those in the ancient world, but it is out-of-date for those of us living in modern times. Because times have changed, modern humankind does not have to accept everything in Scripture as true. People can feel free to pick and choose which parts they believe and obey.

Response to the Idea That the Bible’s Authority Is Now Out-of-Date

This view assumes that our modern thinking is correct, and the Bible is wrong. If God has revealed Himself in a written record, then it should be for all places and all times, not just the ancient world. Why would He reveal His truth to one generation, and not to the next? If each human can choose for his or her self what they wish to believe in Scripture, then all the authority is stripped from it. The end result is a mixture of a number of different belief systems, but it certainly isn’t the Christian faith.

Response to These Viewpoints That Deny the Authority of Scripture

All of the above views are less than what the Scripture says about its own authority. The Bible alone—not human reason, popes, or church councils, solves questions over Christian doctrine. Apart from the Scripture, Christians have no other written document or source of authority for their faith. The Bible alone is the sole basis for teaching, proclamation of the faith, evangelism, missions, and Christian conduct.

Summary – Question 2
What Are Some Non-Biblical Views as to Where Ultimate Authority Comes From?

While the Scripture clearly teaches that it alone is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice, there are other approaches that people continue to take that are at odds with this view. This includes those who make human reason as the final authority on all matters.

Others place their own feelings as the source of truth. Neoorthodoxy, while acknowledging Christ, rejects the Scriptures as an infallible source. There are those who place the final authority in the church, rather than the Scriptures. Many of the cults have a separate revelation apart from the Bible.

There are some who accept the Bible as one of many revelations from God. Also there are others who believe the Bible once had authority but does not hold absolute truth for modern humanity.

All of these approaches fall short of what the Bible teaches about God and how He has revealed Himself to humanity. The final authority must alone rest in the divinely inspired Word of God. No other source provides reliable answers to the basic questions that human beings continuously ask.

Who Speaks for God? Is It the Bible or the Bible and Something Else? (Sola Scripture) ← Prior Section
Where Do Protestants and Roman Catholics Differ on the Question of the Authority of the Scripture? Next Section →
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