Authority - Part 1
Understanding The Bible
With this lesson we are starting a series of lessons on being able to correctly interpret the Bible. Recently I was impressed with the following statement, "We must get our authority right before we can even start interpreting the Bible correctly" (2 Timothy 2:15). There is a tremendous amount of truth in that short observation. One will not arrive at a correct knowledge of the truth, unless they have accepted the correct standard of authority by which all conclusions must be judged. Unless one first accepts the right standard of authority, all further study will be in vain (2 Timothy 3:7). So from the get-go the topic of Biblical authority is very important, for without the right "authoritative standard", one cannot succeed in understanding the Bible.
Two Basic Realms Of Authority
The good news for any one wanting to understand the Bible is that there are only a limited number of standards which could be the final and absolute standard by which all beliefs and practices must be measured. One writer boiled it down in the following manner: "either subjectivism is the correct approach in seeking the truth or objectivism is the correct approach; either there is some objective standard to which all men have obligations or there is no such objective standard; either men can know the objective standard or men cannot know the objective standard; and either the Bible is that objective standard or it is not" (The Spiritual Sword. October 1973 p. 1). In saying that the correct approach to the truth is either subjective or objective is the same as saying the correct approach to absolute truth is either found in listening to human wisdom or Divine wisdom.
Matthew 21:25 "The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?"
Obviously, Jesus' question must relate to their previous question to Him, that is, "By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?" (Matthew 21:23). Jesus believed that their question was legitimate for He was willing to answer it if they would demonstrate themselves to be honest men. When Jesus asked these men, "was from what source", He is asking them, "Did John derive the right, permission, sanction, or authorization to preach and baptize from God (Heaven) or from a human source?" In like manner, the authority behind Jesus and His preaching was either Divine or human, that is the origin of His teaching was man or God. Jesus summed up all possible sources of authority into two categories, human authorities or Divine authority. Thus, God commanded or man invented-- are the only two possible choices that exist for every belief and practice in the religious realm. Which also means that something either has Divine permission or it doesn't. Carefully note that by saying "from heaven or from men", Jesus inferred that religious beliefs and practices can exist which don't have God's approval.
All Human Sources Are Subjective
Mankind is finite and limited in his understanding (Proverbs 16:25; Jeremiah 10:23), in fact we are so limited that we can't even read the mind of another human being, much less read the mind of God or predict future events (1 Corinthians 2:11). From this basic premise we must conclude that all man sources of authority are in essence subjective in nature.
- Long Established Traditions (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3): The problem with human tradition is that when added to the worship and service of God, usually it ends up replacing what God has said (Mark 7:8 "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.") Modern Application: The tradition of infant baptism violates the God-given conditions that must be met prior to baptism (Acts 2:38). Reserving baptisms for certain religious holidays violates the Scriptural teaching that baptism was to take place as soon as a person was convicted (Acts 8:35-38). Many human traditions are simply worthless (1 Peter 1:18 "..from the futile way of life inherited from your forefathers".)
- Creed Books/Religious Literature: Many of the traditions of the Jews had also been codified (Matthew 15:2). People need to remember that Creed Books are the uninspired words of men. A fundamental philosophy behind many Creed Books conflicts with the Bible, that is, the Bible is too complicated and therefore needs to be broken down and explained to people. Paul believed that His letters were completely understandable (Ephesians 3:3-5).
- Majority Rule (Matthew 7:13-14; Exodus 23:2): "Surely all those people can't be wrong", is a common justification for a belief or practice. Actually, this is the standard of authority that children are appealing to when they argue, "But everyone is doing it." The Modern Application: Polls and voting do not settle right and wrong. The "Great Middle Section Of The Church" doesn't settle the matter either (Revelation chapters 2-3). Jesus is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22-23) and He doesn't hand over such Headship to a convention, assembly or conference. Some seem to be under the impression that infallibility is found in numbers, that is, a multitude of people limited in their understanding somehow equates to inspiration.
- The Present Values In Our Society (Matthew 7:13; Romans 12:2): Christians seem to forget that when the Bible condemns the "world" (1 John 2:15) it is condemning the present values of the society in which we live. Remember, the society surrounding us is lost in sin.
- Highly Educated Religious Leaders: And so were the Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees who debated with Jesus (Matthew 22:29). Paul pointed out that human wisdom had failed to find God (1 Corinthians 1:21), which was obvious in Athens (Acts 17:18-23). Hence human theories, studies, reports, surveys, and so on do not establish spiritual truth. Gene Frost noted one of the inconsistencies apparent in the preaching of many modern educated religious leaders: "we find preachers who claim to preach the truth, but who will admit that one can be saved without believing their particular doctrine. Every profession that one faith is as good as another, or admission on the part of a preacher that he teaches matters not essential to salvation, is an admission that the truth is not taught and therefore every claim by such persons that the truth is taught is a contradiction" (Gospel Anchor August 1993 p. 223). You see, according to Jesus knowing the truth is essential to salvation (John 8:32). So when one claims that you don't have to follow what they are teaching to be saved--obviously, they aren't teaching the truth.
- Secular History: People often make the mistake of assuming that a belief or practice is authorized from the fact that professed believers following the days of the apostles participated in it. The problem with this: (a) The bible predicted a falling away from the faith (2 Timothy 4:2-4) that would happen following the days of the apostles. (b) Many false concepts were embraced very quickly after the first century. In the late first century or early second century two concepts vital to the eventual development of Catholicism arose, that is, one ruling bishop in a congregation and the false concept that such bishops were the successors of the apostles, including having the authority of the apostles. One writer noted, "the practices of early post-apostolic Christians cannot serve as an absolutely trustworthy index to the doctrines and practices of the apostles. The only way to be sure what the apostles taught is to go to what the apostles taught: The New Testament " (Gospel Anchor. August 1989 pp. 180-181). The same writer noted that we need to be thankful that God hasn't linked our salvation with knowing all the facts about history. Universal access to all the events of history is outside the capabilities of most. Access to the bible isn't. We need to be thankful that our salvation is dependent upon knowing the truth (Romans 1:16), and not knowing everything about secular history. The quotations from secular historians are not infallible.
- Feelings/Intuition (Proverbs 16:25; Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Cor. 2:11): A host of Biblical passages make the case that human feelings, conscience, instincts, gut-level intuition are all completely unreliable to finding the truth (Romans 10:2; Proverbs 28:26; Genesis 37:33; Acts 23:1; 26:9). Maurice Barnett commented, "Others look for signs, or a chastening of God, to nudge us in the right way. I have seen people, in response to some accident or a strange happening, roll their eyes heavenward and say, ‘Someone is trying to tell me something.’ Yet, we are not guided, like Pavlov's dog, by a system of rewards and punishments, nor by Astrology, weather, nor rolling animal bones" (Gospel Anchor. June 1994 p. 188). Too many people think that if something bad is happening then that means God wants you to go in another direction. This is the argument idolaters made in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 44:18). If the hardships of life establish the truth, then the lesson to the Israelites would have been, "Return To Egypt!" (Numbers 11:5), and the lesson to Job, "Curse God And Die" (Job 2:9). And on the other hand if prosperity equals rightness with God, then Jesus was wrong about the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-21), and the rich man in Luke 16:19ff.
- The Results Accomplished/Good Intentions (1 Samuel 15:22-23). I actually heard someone on the radio defend the Catholic hierarchy and the corruption found in the Catholic Church, including it's links to the Mafia in some cities, by arguing that such is necessary to accomplish the "good" that the Church is trying to accomplish, that is, big programs demand big money.
- The Personal Faith of the Individual: This is the popular idea that since one man's faith is not another’s, no one else can pass judgment upon his faith. This is what people mean when they say, "This may not be truth for you, but it is truth for me." Paul didn't buy this argument (1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Thessalonians 3:14), neither did John (2 John 9-10); and neither did Jesus (Matthew 7:23; John 14:15). Even non-Christians don't practice the above. In the world, people are fired and imprisoned for saying or doing what they believe is truth for them. In the final analysis all of the above human standards of authority are appealed to because they allow men and women to find whatever authority they desire. For even the most outlandish beliefs or practices, you can find some human authority that would justify your participation.
- "Love": "Western society is extremely self-absorbed, probably more so than at any time in history. People are totally focused on their own needs and desires, always talking about love but understanding nothing of its real meaning. They define love primarily in sexual terms and see it as constantly taking, but seldom as giving…Modern society is a picture of a culture that has completely redefined love—away from one’s self-sacrificial concern for others’ welfare to one’s greedy, lustful concern for sexual freedom and ‘fulfillment’" (The Pillars of Christian Character, John F. MacArthur, pp. 53,49). People have forgotten that the "loving" thing to do, is always what is in harmony with the teachings in Scripture (John 14:15; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). A great contrast between the real definition of love and the world’s definition of love is found in Ephesians 5:1-3.
Mark Dunagan/ Beaverton Church of Christ/ (503)644-9017