Clarifying Our Final Authority
by Bob Burridge ©2018
Great care must be taken when we study to learn what the Bible teaches. There are differing views held by different groups of sincere believers who all claim that their positions are “biblical”. There are some statements in Scripture which are very clear and direct. Some of its teachings require us to compare various statements which approach the matter from different perspectives. The problem comes when we bring in ideas that seem right to us or things we have been taught, but which are not supported by God’s inspired word.
The Bible alone is our final authority in all matters of what is true and what ought to be done or not done. It goes beyond just teaching us facts and behaviors. God’s word also tells us what should be our inner thoughts, our attitudes, and our true preferences. All these matters must be grounded in the Bible alone. We often hear the old Latin expression, “Sola Scriptura“, which means “Scripture Alone”.
The Bible is the only source of truth which was superintended by the Holy Spirit as each book of Scripture was written. We don’t believe this because some church council or team of scholars came to this conclusion. It’s directly stated in the Bible itself. A few of the verses that give us this confidence are these:
2 Timothy 3:15-16, “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,”
The expression “the sacred writings” [“tá hierá grámmata” (τὰ ἱερὰ γράμματα)] in this verse was used the way we use the word “Bible” today. To those originally reading this letter it meant all the books of the Old Testament. These sacred writings were God himself speaking. They were “breathed out” by God, inspired, so that they were free from all errors.
2 Peter 1:19-21, “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Peter was an eye witness to the teachings of Jesus, but he saw the words of Scripture as a more confident reporting of what’s true and right. It was free from his own human interpretation of what he saw and heard. It was a confirmed prophetic word from God as the Holy Spirit spoke through the writers. Even the interpretations recorded in the Bible are without error. Very literally verse 20 in the original Greek text would be translated, “… all prophecy of Scripture did not come to be [“ou ginetai” (οὐ γίνεται)] by its own interpretation.”
The Bible expands this authority to the New Testament books too. Paul in writing 1 Timothy 5:18 explains the Biblical teaching about financially supporting the ministers of the Gospel. There he writes, “for the Scripture says, ‘you shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages’ ” The two quotations are both identified as “the Scripture.” The first quote is from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 25:4. The second quote is from the New Testament, Luke 10:7. Both are equally and clearly referred to as authoritative, and called “the Scripture”.
Peter sets the writings of Paul on an equal authoritative plane with the “rest of the Scriptures.” He wrote in 2 Peter 3:15-16, “…our brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
When we bring verses together to help us understand larger topics such as the nature of God, the identifying of what is sinful, the promise of salvation from the guilt of our sin, and other such topics, we need to use the Bible itself as it’s own interpreter. There is another old Latin expression we often use to describe this, “Scriptura Scripturae Interpres“, which means “Scripture interprets Scripture”.
As we try to teach and explain our findings of what the Bible says, we need to be clear about the evidence we rely upon in drawing our conclusions. We also need to be clear when we cite scholars and historic documents, that we are not using them as evidence to add to what the Bible teaches. Quotes from sources outside of Scripture can be helpful when they clearly explain what’s taught in God’s word, but they should not be presented in a way that appears we are relying upon them as authoritative sources of truth.
When we read articles and books explaining the teachings of Scripture it’s important to note when the writer’s comment is simply a quote from a scholar for clarification, and when it is something stated in the inspired word of God.
A while ago a reader of a published article expressed his differences with the position taken. Discussing our different understandings of God’s word is always valuable if it makes us take a closer look at the evidence upon which our conclusions are based. Unfortunately the reader’s comments were based upon a misunderstanding. He saw that the article quoted some historic documents beyond just the Bible. If he had read more carefully he would have seen that the quotes were only there to help explain the author’s conclusions which were clearly based upon statements in God’s word alone.
One of the widely recognized and helpful historic documents is the Westminster Confession of Faith. The first article in that confession is titled, “Of the Holy Scriptures.” There it immediately says that the Bible is our only foundation for truth.
1:9, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”
1:10, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
Then in chapter 31 it directly rejects the idea that the work of councils and committees of the church should ever be used as a test for truth. The intent of this confession was to help explain what the Bible itself teaches.
31:3, “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”
The Bible alone, as God’s infallible and inspired word, is our final authority in all matters of what God has revealed and done. It alone tells us about his eternal promises and plans. Other writings may be helpful in putting together what the Bible says, and in offering good ways to explain or summarize it’s teachings, but only Scripture itself is the final test for our interpretations of the Bible. When we read, hear, or watch lessons or sermons about the Bible we should only accept as right and true those points which are anchored in clearly interpreted texts of Scripture.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)