The Authority of the Bible


2 Peter 1:20-21

Last time we considered in some detail Paul’s statement about the origin and nature of the Bible in 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Tonight I want to consider the related statement, this from 2 Peter 1:20-21:

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul makes a point of saying that “all Scripture is God-breathed,” that is, it comes out of God’s mouth, it is the very Word, the speech, of God. Peter here says the same thing but makes more explicit the divine and human partnership that lies behind Holy Scripture and that brought it into being. It is that that I want to reflect on this evening. And I want to do so with respect to the issue of the Bible’s authority; how because it is the Word of God, it is the absolutely unqualified rule of our faith and life.

There are two supreme differences between Islam and Christianity, and from these two differences all other differences come in train. The first is the triunity of God – the triple personality in the unity of God – from which comes not only the Christian understanding of God, but our understanding of the nature of man, as man in relationship, the nature of man’s fellowship with God as a communion of persons in relationship with one another, and all the rest. In Islam one does not “know” God. God is far removed and far above mere creatures. In Christianity, God is far above, but still may be known and it was from the beginning his intention that human beings know him, know him in a way analogous to the way in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit know one another. Christianity is a personalist worldview in a way Islam cannot be because it does not know God as a God of persons in relationship, of persons bound together by mighty love. The second distinctive of Christianity, and it flows from the first and is made possible through it, is that of the incarnation. That God should come into the world as a man to be known by men is inconceivable in Islam and a blasphemous idea, unworthy of the high God. But the Triune God’s relationship with his creation, according to the Bible, is as intensely personal as that, shaped by his love for his creation and for his people, a love that caused him to empty himself for their salvation. There is, of course, no incarnation in Islam; there cannot be and that is why there can be no reconciliation between the two religious impulses and principles of these two faiths, these two worldviews, these two philosophies of life. They answer fundamental questions about God and man in completely different ways and in fact in irreconcilable ways.

I mention this because these principles bear mightily on the difference between the Koran and the Bible. The doctrine of Islam is that the Koran was dictated directly to Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel. In this way, it is the word of God entirely and only and is in no respect also the word of Muhammad. The Muslims do not think that Muhammad had anything to do with the nature and character of the Koran. He simply took the dictation down as a stenographer would, directly from heaven. Muhammad was not the author of the Koran in Islamic understanding. But, as is obvious, that is not the understanding of the Bible in Christianity or for that matter in the Bible itself. The Bible has human authors; every part of the Bible. What is more, there is no effort to hide this at all. It is a fact celebrated in the Bible. Think of it: the Law of God in the Bible is often called the Law of Moses. The letters that make up a substantial part of the New Testament are the letters of Paul, of Peter, of John, of Jude, and of James. Most books of the Bible are immediately recognizable as the product of a particular writer. Further, there is no doubt that the individual writer has left his mark on what he wrote. Moses employs the literary conventions of his day and expresses himself according to the thought-world of his time; so does Paul but his were very different literary conventions and a very different thought-world, living as he did almost a millennium and a half after Moses. Moses and other OT writers speak of God placing boundaries around the waters, of bringing order from chaos, of standing above the floods, of God having his own mountain – all commonplaces of ANE Semitic cosmology – but Paul doesn’t express himself in the same terms. He describes creation in terms much more in keeping with the philosophical mind of his own day, the first century Greco-Roman world. Then, even among those who lived at the same time, Paul does not write like Peter, neither of them writes at all like John. Luke has a different literary style than Matthew or John. Still more, the various authors of the Bible are in many discernable ways the products of not only their age and their historical situation, but their personal circumstances. Luke knew Greek a lot better than John knew Greek, which is why everybody starts out learning Greek from John not Luke. John’s Greek is easy Greek, good for a novice. Tyros want to read the Greek of somebody who didn’t know Greek very well either because he is much easier to read. Luke and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews write the most elegant Greek of the NT, which makes it also the most difficult. Some biblical authors were sons of the ancient Near East, others were also sons of the Greco-Roman civilization. Some were peasants or at least working men into their adulthood before ever they were summoned to be the penman of the Holy Spirit. Others were seminary trained intellectuals and able to wield all the intellectual weaponry of their day in the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ. And their personal experiences were very different one from another. As one author recently put it:

“Revelation comes to us, accordingly, through the inner anguish of Jeremiah, the soaring minds of John and Isaiah, the probing questions of Job and Habakkuk, the near despair of Qoheleth (the author of Ecclesiastes), the structured poetry of David, the disappointments of Jonah, the struggles of Nehemiah, the mystic raptures of Ezekiel, the slow, patient scholarship of Ezra, the careful narrative style of Mark, the historical investigations of Luke, and that pounding mill, the ponderous mind of Paul.” [Patrick Henry Reardon, “The Word Through Us,” Touchstone (March 2008) 3]

That is the Bible and that is how the Bible comes to us. It is Paul’s writing, and Luke’s and Isaiah’s. These writings are, for that reason however no less the Word of God. As we saw last time, the Scripture as it was written by these various authors was “ex-pired” or “breathed out by God.” It never had its origin in the will of man, says our text for this evening [2 Peter 1:21], but “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Again and again we are told that what the Scripture says, whoever the author of that particular part of the Scripture may be, that God himself says; and what God says, in reverse, the Scripture says. This is the Bible’s own teaching about itself and it is explicitly demonstrated on every page. By one count that I read the phrases “the Lord said,” “the Lord spoke,” and “the word of Lord came” occur 3,808 times in the Old Testament! [Lloyd-Jones, Authority, 50]

There is an incarnational principle in divine revelation, in other words: here too God stooped down to enter the world and the circumstances of human life. God’s Spirit came among men and exalted and dignified the human mind and heart, even the arts of human beings. Men who were by their own confession small and sinful in many ways nevertheless were used by the Spirit of God to reveal his truth to the world. There is cooperation between God and man in producing the revelation that is Holy Scripture. In this too there is no other book remotely like the Bible in the world.

The nature of the Bible as a work of God and man is one remarkably important instance of that feature of divine providence that theologians call concursus. Providence, you know, is the word theologians use to refer to God’s control of the world, his ordering what happens, and his making sure that everything happens according to his will, that history, in matters great and small, moves inexorably forward along the course he has set for it. Concursus means that the will of God and the will of man concur, not that man recognizes this, but so that a particular event may said to be, both man’s will and God’s. In a famous example, God sent Joseph ahead of his brothers to Egypt in order to save the family of Jacob when danger came in the years of famine. The brothers sent Joseph into Egypt to get rid of a rival. The same event, two actors, and two completely different purposes – that is concursus. Though man’s will is done, God’s will is accomplished. Even, as in that case, the sinful acts of man accomplish the pure and perfect will of God. That is how completely God takes up man’s will into his perfect plan for the world. Well it is the same with the Bible – concursus. Paul writing a letter to the church in Corinth or Rome – a letter that comes out of his own experience, his own assessment of what the Roman Christians or Corinthian Christians need to hear, his own reflection on the gospel, his own reading of the Bible, his own experience of preaching the word – and God speaking through all of that making Paul’s writing his own word. That is akin to what happened in the incarnation, both divine and human at once in the person of Jesus Christ. So the Bible: both divine and human at one and the same time.

Now the notion of divine authority is not a difficult one to understand. Almost everyone gets it, even if he or she doesn’t accept it. If your maker, the one who gave you life, tells you to do something, obviously you are duty bound to do it. If the Almighty God who is truth itself tells you to believe something, you are duty bound to believe it no matter what you think. If God, who, though infinitely offended by your sin, nevertheless summons you to accept his salvation and summons you to new life in Jesus Christ, you are duty bound to accept that gift and to answer that summons. God has intrinsic authority, an essential authority, before which his creatures must bow. That is not hard to understand. If the judge of all the earth, the omnipotent God, threatens you with judgment should you rebel against his will, your protests and complaints notwithstanding, you will not succeed in throwing off his authority. You will do what he commands, like it or not. If you will not take his salvation, you will suffer his judgment. To deny that the living God can and will enforce his will is not the courage of one’s convictions, it is the folly of insanity, akin to the poor man who jumps out a window confident that he can fly.

That is clear enough. But there is a temptation that arises out of the incarnational character of the Bible, a temptation to which Christians have succumbed from the very beginning. That temptation is to see the Bible’s authority, its divine authority, as in some way lessened or as in some way narrowed because of the human authorship of the Bible. When we come to consider the unity of the Bible I will take note of the fact that even Islam, with its dictational idea of inspiration, does not escape this problem, but it is a particular temptation for Christians who are taught, rightly, to see the Bible as the product of both God and man.

Now, as we said last time, and as I have already mentioned again this evening, the Bible itself is entirely clear that the involvement of men in its creation does not in any way diminish its authority as the Word of God. If an ambassador conveys to a foreign government the very message he has been charged to convey from his president or prime minister, no one doubts that the message thus conveyed is the message of that government, not the personal opinion of the ambassador himself. He is simply communicating what his government wishes to say; and so with the prophets and the apostles. They were the ambassadors of a king. It is amazing really that so high and great a king would deign to convey his message through the personality, the life circumstances, and the intellectual engagement of his ambassadors, lowly men that they were, but that is what he did. What makes the Bible so important, finally, is not that it is a human book. It is that; in some respects it is like every other book in the world. But what makes the Bible so utterly unique and so incomparably important is that it is at one and the same time a divine book, the Word of God.

But sinful men have a rebellious streak; even Christians still have some of the rebel in them, and divine authority often pinches. It does. It always has and it always will until we are at last free from sin and able to find our perfect freedom in complete and unquestioning obedience. But meantime there is that in the Bible that we do not like and the fact that it is a human book has made it easier for us to dispense with what we do not like. If humans wrote it; humans can un-write it, as it were. Whether or not anyone says this to himself, it is, I believe, the principle that is at work. It works itself out in different ways.

  1. For example, in Roman Catholic theology the divine authority of the Bible is compromised by addition. Another authority, that of the church, is set beside it. The Bible didn’t say all that men wanted it to say, and so they added the parts that were left out. They wanted a technology of salvation, easier to manipulate and control, and so they came up with the sacrifice of the mass, prayers to the saints, the treasury of merits, purgatory, indulgences, auricular confession, and so on; none of which appears in the Bible. None of this leaves its mark anywhere on the Bible’s understanding of the Christian life, of faith in God in Christ, of the way of the soul in the world. It is well to ask ourselves if such ideas would ever have surfaced in Christian circles if the Bible had not been such a human book and if, for that reason, the temptation so real to think of men as bearers of the voice and word of God. Indeed, in the Bible, the Word of God comes white hot out of the biblical authors’ own mind. Well then, more revelation can come from other minds, perhaps. Would there have been any possibility of such additions to divine revelation if, as in Islam, the Bible were thought to be uncreated and simply a copy of the writing that is in heaven, as Muslims believe the Koran to be? Or if the Bible had first been written on golden tablets in some magic language and translated with the help of an angel, would we think the same way about adding to it? I think not.
  2. But more interesting for our purposes is the way in which in the modern age the authority of the Word of God has been compromised by diminishment, rather than addition; but again by diminishment accomplished by pitting the human authorship against the divine. This is done in many ways, of course. Some take the Bible to be the Word of God only in the sense in which it is the testimony of certain men to their own personal encounter with God. In that way the Bible is separated by degrees from God himself and is no longer simply God’s Word to man but is much more man’s word about God. There has been a lot of that thinking over the last few centuries. It is this kind of thinking that lurks behind the criticism one still hears from time to time that people who believe in the absolute authority of the Bible are bibliolaters; they have made an idol of the Bible. They worship the Bible instead of God or instead of Christ. Christian people who ought to know better have been saying this now for two-hundred years. Here is the Scot pastor Alexander Moody Stuart addressing this charge way back in the 19th century.

    “In these days many good and able men count it a great discovery and a grand principle that the authority on which we are to trust is not the Bible but Christ, and so they have no scruple in making the Bible one of the least trustworthy of all books; yet we know nothing of Christ except what we read in the Bible, and when it is discredited men can have no Christ except by their own conception.” [A. Moody Stuart, 202] That same point has been made a thousand times and it is incontrovertible. We know no God, no Christ, and no salvation but that which is given us in the Bible. What is more, it is simply incoherent to attempt to separate a man from his thoughts and from his words. You never do this. If someone is speaking to you and you laugh out loud at his words, at his argument, at his opinion, you mock it, you make fun of it but then tell him “I’m not making fun of you, I’m only making fun of your words,” see how well that sits. The words are the people. They are the expression of his or her mind and heart. To revere his words is to revere him. To love her words is to love her. Words are how we know people. Words are the expression of the self and the way by which we know the self. It is by words that any relationship is created, deepened, and sustained. The other person is known to us by what he says. You cannot drive a wedge between God or Christ and the Bible. The Bible will not allow you to do so. If you try, the wedge will be driven not between Christ and the Bible but between you and Christ! Or, as Spurgeon tartly put it:

    “Unless we receive Christ’s words, we cannot receive Christ; and unless we receive the apostles’ words, we do not receive Christ; [as] John himself says, “…whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.” [Cited in Murray, Spurgeon and Hyper-Calvinism, 9]

    It has also been said countless times in answer to those who try to make a separation between God and the Bible that this is precisely what the Bible is at pains to forbid you to do. It is always emphasizing the union, even the identity of God and the Word of God, as we saw last time. Nevertheless, and here is my point this evening, could such a charge be made — that we are bibliolaters and that we are worshipping the Bible instead of God or Christ – could such a charge be made apart from the fact that the Bible is such a human book? Surely writings that are so human, and, indeed, in some respects, are so like other writings of other men from the same historical period, surely we cannot simply accept them to be the very word of God! It is very like the problem men had in recognizing Jesus as the Son of God. “Is he not the carpenter’s son?” they said. “Do we not know where he came from and where he grew up and his brothers and sisters?” It is absurd to believe that this thirty-year old man, nondescript in so many ways, a tradesman after all, could be the Son of God and the Messiah!” And in the same way, people have said “Surely a book so human, even so ordinary in some respects, surely that book cannot be the very Word of God.”

So, what happens when the teaching of the Bible crosses a Christian’s will? Well there is an immediate temptation to find a way to remove that particular teaching or that particular commandment from the Word of God or to marginalize it or to silence it in some way. And the way that is found usually depends in some way upon the humanity of the Bible. Let me give you some examples.

Modern feminism has posed a challenge to biblical authority in a variety of ways. Take, for example, Paul’s prohibition against women teaching or exercising authority over men in l Timothy 2. That has become in our age teaching that is embarrassing to an increasing number of Christians. It sounds so old-fashioned, out-dated, unsophisticated. I remember a PCA pastor who was establishing a church among young urban professionals in one of our great cities saying early on that he hoped to goodness that a number of these young adults became Christians before they found out that the Presbyterian Church in America did not ordain women to the eldership or the ministry. What are we to do with this teaching in a world of working women, of women managers and bosses, and in a society that has made sexual egalitarianism a first principle of its ethics? What are we to do with Paul? It is hardly a viewpoint unique to Paul, but that is the first thing that is likely to be said. Well, it’s only Paul. He had a problem with women. He was unmarried, a bachelor, we expect that. It’s only one man in the Bible. Jesus never said what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. It’s one man against another, in other words. And we can pick and choose. If you think the argument is more sophisticated than that, just read the articles and read the books.

Indeed, it is often more direct than that. Nowadays, among the so-called Christian feminists, really evangelical believers, we are likely to hear that Paul was a good man and he said many important things – indeed, gave us in many respects the Word of God – but he didn’t get everything right. Sometimes he didn’t even see clearly the implications of his own gospel. He said in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is no longer male or female. But he didn’t entirely free himself from the patriarchal baggage of his upbringing and his culture. When he spoke of women not exercising authority over men, he was simply being a man of his own day and time. We can forgive him for that; but we don’t have to follow him in his mistake. You see again how the humanity of the Bible tempts people to reject its authority at points where they are offended by what the Bible teaches or at points where they don’t want its teaching to be true.

And the same sort of thing happens when the subject is not sex-roles in marriage or church or society, but is instead the doctrine of divine judgment and hell, or the Bible’s teaching that there is no way of salvation apart from that of faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes one biblical writer will be pitted against another because they didn’t say the same thing in the same way; sometimes what the prophet or apostle wrote will be marginalized as simply the thinking of his time, needing to be updated by the deeper insights that we have gained observing life with the Bible in our hands. But in many cases it is simply the repudiation of the teaching of Holy Scripture because after all it is just a man who wrote those words however long ago. In any case, it is never said that the God-part of the Bible needs to be changed; it is always the man-part of the Bible, as if it were possible to separate the two.

Before moving on, however, let me say just a word to folk who have such struggles with the Bible’s teaching, especially those struggles where the Bible seems to contradict what seems self-evident to modern minds.

  1. The first thing to remember is that what seems self-evident to you did not seem self-evident to generations before you, does not seem self-evident to billions of people in the world today, and in all likelihood will not seem self-evident to generations following you. The Western world’s view of sex and of the relationship between men and women – a novelty of the very last few years of human civilization – is, in its best features, a product of the biblical teaching about the equality of men and women in the heart of God and of them being equally the objects of his love and salvation. But, of course, the modern view of men and women and their relationship to one another has had horrific consequences as well. Women have suffered a great deal recently from the way in which their place in the world has been changed. Men, by almost all accounts, have been diminished in this culture, made less admirable, less worthy, less reliable. Children have suffered the most in a culture that prizes self-authentication, self-development and self-achievement first and foremost. Women may make more money and more decisions, but there is very little evidence that they are happier and there is no evidence that the children are happier in our culture because of the new thinking about men and women. Further many good people around the world today look at the West and its sexual philosophy and what has become of the Western family and shake their heads in bewilderment and wonder how intelligent people can think this is the right way to live. So I say, begin to think your way through the things that trouble you in the teaching of the Bible by practicing a bit of humility. Recognize that the feminist culture and the pornography culture in which we all live and which has shaped us in many ways may not be the last word about all of these important subjects.
  2. Then in the second place before you go very far in the offense you take in the teaching of the Bible remember what the Bible is all about. It is about the knowledge of the living God and his gracious stooping down to embrace sinful, rebellious human beings. You don’t suppose, do you, you wouldn’t have supposed had you thought about this, would you – that coming to know God after a lifetime of rebellion against him or at least with a heart and a nature that needs to be remade, recreated, reborn so that you might know God – you don’t suppose that you aren’t going to have to adjust your thinking in quite a number of ways. Begin at the beginning, with God the Maker of heaven and earth, with Jesus Christ his Son, with the Lord’s death and resurrection. Then, when you move to the various commandments of the Bible you may find that you are quite ready to think new thoughts. After all, God will have his own mind about all these things and the modern West has certainly not been consulting God’s will in coming up with its view of life, of human beings, and of right and wrong.
  3. Finally, to be challenged and corrected in your thinking is, don’t you think, the inevitable result of having a personal relationship with God. You don’t imagine, I’m sure, that you think just the way God thinks about everything. It is part of the wonder of gospel that you, in the reality of your person, your own tiny self, can know the living God, the Almighty, as a person; but the consequence of that is certainly that you are going to be contradicted from time to time. You may remember the movie The Stepford Wives. It was remade recently, apparently, but the remake was a flop, but both movies told the same story. The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut turned their wives into robots. The upside was that their wives never disagreed with them; always did what their husbands wanted them to do. A Stepford wife was beautiful, compliant, and agreeable. But she wasn’t a person and the marriage was not personal. There can be no intimacy with a robot. A personal relationship is risky; a personal relationship with God is particularly risky. The living God is not your complaint partner. You are his subject and servant. But the upside is that you are finally in touch with the Truth; you know the one who rules the world, you are loved by the one who is capable of bringing your life into its intended fullness. You should expect some change in your thinking when you meet God. But his authority, speaking as he does in Holy Scripture, is your assurance that you are finally thinking and living according to what is real. [Cf. Tim Keller, The Reason for God, 113-114] The fact that everyone around you may still be living in their own dream need not keep you from living in the light of reality.

Now all of that was an aside. What I am concerned to say is that the divine authority of Holy Scripture, by the Bible’s express testimony, is unchanged by the fact that the Bible is also and at the same time such a profoundly human book. As we pointed out last week, the fact that a hymn came out of David’s experience, like Psalm 51, or that a statement of the way of salvation was crafted by Paul from his reflection on various OT texts does not make it any less the word, the voice, the speech of God when they write the hymn or the reflection down. The Holy Spirit was entirely able to use men to write the words he wanted written just as he perfectly accomplishes his will through every single thought freely thought, every word freely spoken or written, and every deed freely performed by every human being.

And the practical consequence of that is not only that what the Bible says, God says; but that what the Bible says is true, what it commands is law, end of discussion. Once it is accepted that the Bible is the Word of God, then it is in the nature of the case an unquestioned rule for faith and practice that now rests in our hand. I remember a prominent man in early PCA circles saying years ago that for a time he had come under the influence of the charismatic movement and had begun to speak in tongues. He was quite thrilled about the charismatic experiences that he had had. Then, he said, he studied the Bible and came to believe that Christians don’t speak in tongues today and so he stopped. Now, whether or not you think that is what the Bible teaches, the principle should not be questioned by anyone. It matters not what you think, what you want, what your experience may have been, what you prefer, God has spoken. If he were to speak orally to you, in the cloud and fire as he did to Moses, you certainly wouldn’t say, “Well, God, I’m not sure about that; I’ll have to think that one over.”

I have told some of you before of a friend of ours in the church we attended in Aberdeen in the mid-1970s. He was a newspaperman and an avid fan of Formula One auto-racing, the open-wheel cars that race through European city streets. He was really a fan. He went to the races, followed the races, knew all the drivers and their history. Then Formula One made a decision to move its main races from Saturday to Sunday. Well, said my friend, that was that. I couldn’t watch the races any longer, because that would conflict with my keeping the Lord Day holy, as the Lord commands me to do, so I gave up being a fan of that sport. I quit following it and I haven’t followed it since. So simple; so uncomplicated. The Bible says it; I believe it; I am under authority to obey it; that settles it. No matter the sacrifice, no matter the difficulty, God has spoken to me. Can I divorce my spouse or must I remain in an unhappy marriage? Can I employ that business practice or must I place myself in a competitive disadvantage in my industry? Can I sleep with someone to whom I am not married or use pornography or must I struggle every day with desires that I have so much difficulty controlling and that threaten to make my life a misery? Can I stretch the truth in that way? Can I be an elder if I am a woman? The questions go on and on. Every human life has them, every culture has them, every historical era and period has them. And then all the matters of doctrine? Must I believe that God judges the wicked in the world to come when it seems to me that that is not fair? Must I believe that there is but one road that leads to God and one savior of sinners when that exclusivity is so troubling to me?

This is what we mean by authority: the right to exercise control, the right to command thought and behavior. God alone has that ultimate right and he has spoken in his Word. It matters not that he has used men to communicate his word. That he did so is surpassingly wonderful and mysterious and in doing so God has paid a great compliment to man, and he has given us an extraordinary book that speaks to us in the ordinary language and circumstances of our life. It is still God’s Word, it is still God’s voice, it is still God’s mind, God’s will, and God’s truth that is expressed in the words of the Bible. And that being so, it remains and must always remain true, as God himself says,

“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and
trembles at my word.”

Moody Stuart said of John Duncan, the famous Rabbi Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, “More than any man I ever knew, he trusted every word, reverenced every word, and loved every word in the book of God.” [Just a Talker, xxxiv] That is what every Christian should aspire to be and what everyone will aspire to be who really accepts that the Bible is the Word of God. If so, then I want to know it, I want to understand it, I want to believe it, and I want to obey it: every single word of it.

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.