Why is the Bible authoritative? Why that book and not other books? On what basis is the Bible the “supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct” (to use the words of the excellent A.F.E.S. doctrinal basis)? What is authority anyway?
Authority has to do with legitimate power: power to make decisions, command obedience, and decide between disputes. For Christians, the Bible is that source in all matters of faith and conduct. It’s not the only authority. Tradition, Christian leaders, teachers, reason, and experience all have a kind of authority, yet only scripture has supreme authority. It is the authority to which other authorities yield when it comes to knowing God.
The question of authority is at stake in Galatians 1:11-2:10. The Galatian churches are caught between what Paul taught them and what the new teachers are saying. There is a contradiction, and it’s one or the other. Paul claims his authority has come directly from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). The new teachers teach from tradition; Paul teaches directly from a revelation of Jesus.
For the Galatian Christians, they had Paul’s teaching and they had access to the Old Testament. Together, that was their authoritative source of the knowledge of God. For us, it’s “the Bible”. And it’s from the sort of thing we learn in Galatians that we come to our doctrine of the authority of scripture. How does that work? It comes in three moves, and it starts with Jesus.
First, we come to be disciples of Jesus. The gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed and we believe it. At this stage it doesn’t really matter how it came to us—a sermon, our parents, a book, a podcast—whatever. Somehow or other we hear about Jesus, the Spirit moves, we come to trust that Jesus is Lord, and we sign up to be his disciples.
2. The Old Testament
As disciples of Jesus, we sign up to do “everything he commanded” (Matthew 28:20). We become his students and follow his lead in all things. We find out pretty soon that he thought the Old Testament was the very word of God, his Father (Matthew 4:1-10 and a bazillion other places). So, as his disciples, we adopt the same attitude to the Old Testament scripture our teacher Jesus has.
3. The Gospel and the Apostles
So far, so good. But what about the New Testament? The New Testament didn’t exist when Jesus was on earth. Why do we trust it and receive it also as the word of God?
The best answer, I think, is that the New Testament contains “Gospel” and “Apostle”.
The Gospels are the gospel. They contain the words of Jesus and the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They are Gospel.
The Gospels (whoever they were written by) carry the authority of the Twelve Apostles. They, together with the apostolic writers of Peter, James, and John, are our way of continuing to submit to the apostolic gospel entrusted to them by Jesus.
The New Testament also contains “The Apostle”—that is, Paul. Paul is a unique case. He was not one of the Twelve, but he was commissioned by the risen Jesus specifically to take the gospel to the Gentiles (see Galatians 1:10-2:11). Thus, if we are gentiles, the apostle Paul is uniquely our apostle—the one who before he was even born, was set aside to bring the gospel to us (Galatians 1:15-16).
The book we call the New Testament is the Gospel (that is, the four Gospels that are the gospel) and the thirteen books of Paul, whom Jesus commissioned to speak on his behalf and with his authority to the gentile world. These—Gospel and Apostle (together with the other ten books which each, in their own ways, reflect apostolic authority) constitute the New Testament.
If I can put it another way, the church didn’t invent the Bible; the Bible invented the church. Jesus preached, died, and rose again. He commissioned gospel preachers to take his message to the nations.
Churches were born as a result of apostles preaching gospel which in turn presented us with a Jesus who took the Old Testament to be the word of God. In this way the word of God created the church and not the other way around. When we gather to read the Old and New Testaments, we continue a tradition begun by the very first churches. We allow Jesus to rule his church by his word.
The Church Bookstall
Speaking of God’s word, let me remind you again about the Church Bookstall. We’ve set that up to help you take a deep dive into God’s revelation. We’ve curated some choice books: topical, biblical, and evangelistic. Have a look next Sunday and see if there’s something there that would enrich your walk with God.
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