Biblical Authority – Do We Really Acknowledge It?

The nature and extent of biblical authority is a subject that has been studied and widely discussed during the past three years in Christian Reformed circles. Officially, that discussion ended with the adoption of Report 44 by the 1972 Synod.

However, there is a matter inseparably bound up and interwoven with this study of and discussion of the nature and extent of biblical authority, a matter of such fundamental and practical significance for our daily handling of the Scriptures. that it warrants a separate and a special emphasis. It is that of the acknowledgment of biblical authority together with the nature and practical consequences of such acknowledgment.

Let us define the terms of our subject first of all. The dictionary (Funk & Wagnalls) defines “authority” as “the right to command and to enforce obedience.” As, for example, in parental authority, or in civil government. Agreeing with this definition and remembering that biblical authority is God‘s authority, we may define the phrase “biblical authority” as God’s inherent right to demand of us absolute faith in and loving obedience to His Word, the Bible. By the acknowledgment of this authority we mean man’s response to this right of God. It is our purpose to consider the nature of this response, or what kind of acknowledgment of this right God expects of us.

The Nature of This Acknowledgment

There is a great need for considering this subject. Today all Christian people, including many theological scholars, profess to acknowledge the authority of the Bible. But when one considers the thoughts or writings of some of them, one often cannot refrain from wondering about their professed acknowledgment of biblical authority. What kind of acknowledgment is it? Is it a full, wholehearted commitment to the Bible as the infallible and authoritative Word of God, or is it only partial and conditional, depending on their. reasoned understanding of biblical revelation? If the latter is the case, what does this imply, and what does it inevitably lead to? Surely there is need for considering this subject.

Does the Bible itself teach what the proper acknowledgment of biblical authority is? It certainly does, and abundantly too!

Consider Psalm 119, for instance. What else is this Psalm but one grand Spiritinspired acknowledgment of the integrity, the truth, and the majesty of God’s Word. In every one of the 176 verses the Psalmist is speaking of the Word of God, designating that Word by different terms or words, such as God‘s testimonies, precepts, statutes, judgments, commandments, laws, Thy salvation, Thy word, etc., etc. And  throughout the entire Psalm the psalmist responds to and acknowledges the Word of God. What kind of acknowledgment is this? Is it partial, halfheartedconditional? Or is it full and wholehearted? The latter, to be sure!

Note how the Psalmist responds to the authority of God’s Word: “I will keep thy statutes” (18), “Thy Word have I hid in my heart” (11), “I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies” (14). “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (14), “Thy testimonies are my delight and my counselors” (24), “Teach me a Lord the way of thy statutes and I shall keep it unto the end” (33), “Let my heart be sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed”'(80), etc., etc. Note how the Psalmist, inspired by God’s Spirit, throughout the 176 verses of this psalm, and in each one of these verses acknowledges the authority of God’s Word.

Again, what kind of acknowledgment is this? It is full and wholehearted with all the faculties of his soul, mind, heart, and will. “I will delight myself in thy commandments” (47). This is a wholehearted, unconditional response of faith and obedience to the Word of God. And, we may add, such is the kind of acknowledgment exemplified also by all the inspired human authors of the Holy Scriptures; yes, also by our Lord Himself who constantly appealed to the Old Testament Scriptures in His day and also declared that these Scriptures cannot be broken and that He came to fulfill them (cf. Luke 24:25, 27).

This is the kind of acknowledgment that God demands, a response of absolute trust in and loving obedience to His Word. It is in this attitude and spirit that one must approach the Bible, read it, study it, and teach it. Any other approach sooner or later leads inevitably to a rejection of biblical authority.

Make no mistake! An approach and acknowledgment, for example, as expressed in such statements as; “I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but . . .”; or “the Word of God is in the Bible, but the whole Bible is not the Word of God”; or “to understand the Bible properly, one must make a distinction, that is, a separation between its contents and the form in which it is written”; or “the Bible is the Word of God only in so far as it speaks to me and I experience its truth,” etc., etc.—all such critical approaches to the Bible are, at best, only a partial acknowledgment of its authority. But whatever it may be, this is not the approach of absolute faith in the trustworthiness and authority of the Scriptures. It is not a total, unreserved, unconditional, wholehearted commitment to the Scriptures as the infallible, inspired and authoritative Word of God. It is not a total response of mind, heart, and will.

The latter is precisely the response that God demands. And this is the acknowledgment that all are bound to give to the Scriptures. Why? Because this approach to and acknowledgment of Holy Writ is Spiritinspired! It is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the soul of every born again Christian. It is an essential ingredient of saving faith in the Christ of the Scriptures. Note how this is clearly taught in God’s Word.

We read, the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. Again, “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, save by the Holy Spirit.” Again, “Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Once more, “But we received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Spirit teacheth, comparing Spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, and he cannot know them because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things” (I Cor. 2:12–15).

If the above truths of Scripture teach anything, they teach that the proper, God-willed acknowledgment of biblical authority is Spirit-wrought. It is the result of His operation in a believer‘s soul. And they also teach that the natural man, i.e, the unbeliever, does not and cannot render this acknowledgment, for it is not a natural asset of man, but it is God given, wrought by His Spirit, an essential element of the new birth, an inseparable ingredient of the Christian faith, whereby the believer, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “holds for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word.”

Practical Consequences

We have noted the future of the response to His Word that God demands. It is a total response of faith and obedience, including intellect, heart, and will, unconditional, without any reservation, and it is Spirit-wrought.

Consider now certain practical consequences that follow inevitably from such an acknowledgment of biblical authority.

1. First, this binds all God’s true people together in a common bond and confession, that the Bible is truly the Word of God,

All God’s true people can and do acknowledge this. Real Christians the world over throughout the ages are united in this common confession—all and everyone of them, whether literate or illiterate, educated or uneducated, from the most humble believers to the most learned, all without exception, acknowledge the authority of Holy Writ, unconditionally, without any reservation.

Why? Because this response is wrought in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, testifying with their spirit that the Bible is truly God’s Word. This is an ingredient of saving faith, wrought in their hearts by God’s Spirit. It is a conviction so strong and immovable that, no matter what arguments opponents may advance against the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible, God’s people join in answer with Martin Luther who, when defending the teachings of the Bible at the Diet of Worms before the Roman Catholic hierarchy, who were misquoting and distorting the truths of the Scripture, exclaimed: “Das Wort sollen die stehen lassen,” i.e., “You shall let the Word stand as it is!”

This is one of the practical consequences that follows from a biblical acknowledgment of Holy Writ. It binds all true believers together in the common confession: “The Bible is the inerrant, authoritative Word of God.”

2. A second consequence that follows inevitably from a Scriptural acknowledgment of biblical authority is that for all God’s true people the Bible is the norm for all faith and practice. The watchword of God’s faithful people throughout the ages has ever been that expressed in Isaiah 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony! if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them!”

What does this mean in practice? It means to abide by the teachings of the Bible in all matters of religion and morality. God’s children, when confronted by questions of moral right or wrong turn to the Bible to learn what it teaches on the particular religious or moral matter under consideration. Whatever God‘s Word plainly teaches on the matter is decisive for them. For example, the teachings of the ten commandments are applied to such questions as marriage. sex, abortion, race, war, crime, ecology, and many other moral questions. Whatever these commandments teach (and, oh how wide and comprehensive their scope!) detcnnines the stand of God’s people on these matters. The same procedure is followed in all religious questions, such as, how can a man be saved, what is the nature of the church, which are the marks of a true Christian, what is proper Sabbath observance, what is rcal Christian witnessing, etc., etc. The teachings of God’s Word are decisive and determine the faith and practice of Gods people.

The Bible is to be the norm, the final criterion, the last court of appeal in all moral and religious questions. That is the practical acknowledgment of biblical authority. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you keep my commandments,” is the word of our Lord.

3. Finally, a third practical consequence which follows inevitably from an unconditional Spirit-wrought acknowledgment of biblical authority is that a believer will not subordinate the Bible to his hermeneutics, but he will subordinate his rules far interpreting and explaining the Bible to the Bible itself!

A scriptural acknowledgment of biblical authority demands that the rules for interpreting the Bible must be derived from the Bible itself. A comprehensive treatment of this fundamental position on biblical interpretation is given in Professor Louis Berkhof’s book: The Principles of Hermeneutics. How clearly the late esteemed professor shows in this book how the Bible can be rightly understood and interpreted only when one follows such rules as these: (1) What does the Holy Spirit mean when the Bible says this or that? After all, there can only be one meaning to the words of Scripture, the meaning that the Holy Spirit put into it. It is the task of the exegete to get at the meaning. (2) To do justice to a text, it must be viewed in its context. (3) The Bible docs not and cannot contradict itself because it is the product of the Holy Spirit. (4) Obscure passages in Scripture must be explained in the light of clear passages and not vice versa. (5) There are mysteries in the Bible which cannot be fathomed by the human mind, hut must be accepted in faith.

Following such rules the Bible becomes its own interpreter! And, then we are not subordinating the authority of the Bible to our own hermeneutics or rules of interpretation, but we subordinate our hermeneutics to the primary author of the Bible, the Holy Spirit himself. Letting the Bible be its own interpreter! Is not this the basic issue between the so-called new hermeneutics (Dr. Kuitert) which Rev. L. Verduin in The Reformed Journal aptly calls “Verpakkings material hermeneutick,” and the Reformed position? We believe it is.

The above is to be our acknowledgment of biblical authority, which we defined as God‘s right to demand of us absolute faith in and loving obedience to His Word. Difficulties and problems encountered in interpreting the Bible do not in the least change the conviction of the child of Cod that the Bible is God‘s inerrant and authoritative Word. Because the believer‘s response in faith aDd obedience to that Word is wrought in him by Gods Spirit.

May our acknowledgment of biblical authority ever be that which Cod demands of us. Total and unconditional Any other kind of acknowledgment, in one form or other, leads to rejection of scriptural authority and a consequent losing of the Word of God. Let us be warned!

Lambertus Van Laar (emeritus) resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan.