The authority of Scripture rests in its purpose: to reveal a love story between God and His creation.
As children, we learn early in the journey of life the significance of authority figures who offer direction and support for our lives. Most children view their parents or guardians as authority figures. When children reach school age, they add teachers, coaches, and other significant individuals to this list. Children who grow up in Christian environments have pastors, Sunday school teachers, and other members of the community of faith as authority figures.
By the time we reach adulthood, we have a growing understanding of the notion of authority for life. We recognize a stoplight as an authority and bring our vehicle to a halt when the light turns red. We acknowledge physicians as authorities and know that their directives intend to promote good health and well-being. We submit to the authority of a civil judge who makes decisions about legal cases and recognize that in most cases the decision of the court is final.
Rethinking a Popular Christian Perspective
All of these examples from life view the concept of authority from a common perspective that works in the give and take of daily living. We recognize that every organization, belief system, and individual must have a foundational authority on which they rest.
So, when we attempt to examine the authority of Scripture, our minds quickly go to the models and perspectives that we know best from personal experiences. We imagine an authoritative person like a parent, teacher, or pastor and attempt to ascribe to Scripture those same qualities or characteristics that we know about highly respected individuals.
When asked to define the authority of Scripture, people often say something like this: “The Bible is the ultimate authority in telling us what we should believe and how we should live.” I have heard people respond in this way all my life. It seems like such a simple matter to give the Bible the same authoritative qualities we give to individuals who have authority over us.
Unfortunately, the authority of Scripture does not fit neatly into patterns and examples that can be easily described. The analysis is much more complex and requires us to think in different ways in order to grasp the biblical and apostolic Christian understanding of the authority that Scripture has on our lives and destiny.
Jesus ended parables and other declarations with an important phrase that applies to our understanding the authority of Scripture: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9). Only by listening in new ways can we gain insight that God desires for us as we embrace a broader perspective on Scripture.
The Bible is . . .
A popular view says that the Bible is a divine deposit of Truth statements and life examples that God gives to humanity. This encyclopedia of truth about faith and life serves humanity as the ultimate source of knowledge. God has summarized all truth about our earthly existence in this book. Viewed in this way, the Bible then assumes the role of supreme authority over us. This understanding characterizes the view of many evangelical Christians. These believers present this perspective with such fervor and persuasion that they often leave the impression that this is the only viable option for Bible-believing Christians. A common bumper sticker slogan of this perspective reads: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it!”
The slogan certainly sounds pious enough, but most Wesleyans, including those of us in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, do not adopt this commonly held understanding. Wesleyans see this view as an appeal to rationalism, which approaches the Bible as a group of reasoned truth propositions which can be proved through the laws of logic. Thus, Wesleyans find this view too narrow and restrictive to capture a broader and fuller perspective on the Bible’s authority.
This rationalistic view is likely so popular today among Christians because we live in a world that tends to embrace a subjective view of life and truth. Our culture says to us, “I see truth my way; you see it your way. My view is not better than yours, just different.” This perspective rejects the idea that an authority figure or an authoritative book can interpret life. This perspective clouds life with uncertainty and ambiguity.
A common evangelical perspective on the authority of Scripture counters this position with a statement of certainty about the Bible that gives individuals a solid authority base on which they can build a life of faith.
Toward a More Wesleyan View of Biblical Authority
Wesleyans, however, do not begin a discussion of the authority of Scripture by considering truth claims or the veracity of the leather-bound volume sitting on the desk or end table. We listen carefully to the words of Jesus: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). Hence, we begin with God, the One who is the ultimate authority of all reality.
As we see it, all authority comes from God. Scripture gives us the self-revelation of God to humanity. This revelation begins with baby steps of understanding in Genesis. It then grows across the years to the ultimate revelation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ offers us the clearest picture of God we will ever have this side of eternity. He is the Living Word, God’s revelation to humanity. Scripture, then, is our primary witness to that revelation. Rather than seeing the Bible as only a book of Truth statements or rules for life, we see it as a narrative—God’s story. The Bible is not just a historical narrative, but a love story of the creator God searching for His lost children.
The Father’s search began in Eden’s garden when He asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). The search continues across the generations of humanity and through the pages of Scripture until we hear the invitation in Revelation 22:17, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
Perhaps the clearest image of this searching God comes from the ministry of Jesus in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). The story images a shepherd on a mission: restlessly searching for one lost sheep. He lovingly brings each sheep safely into the fold.
That is why we do not perceive the Bible as only a catalog of timeless Truth statements, a book of doctrine, or a collection of pithy spiritual sayings. It is much more.
The Bible unfolds a love story of the ever-searching Father, determined to find and bring home every lost sheep.
This story of God grabs more than our attention; it grabs our allegiance and takes control of our lives. Therefore, we recognize the Bible’s authority because it accomplishes its purpose of bringing us into a close, personal relationship with our God. It tells us all things necessary to salvation.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Before we get too far in this discussion, we must give attention to the essential involvement of the Holy Spirit in our understanding of Scripture. We believe that the Holy Spirit involves Himself directly in the inspiration, transmission, and preservation of Scripture from the time of its original revelation until today. We further believe the Holy Spirit works through the written Word to bring us in contact with Jesus Christ, the living, personal Word. God uses Scripture by the power of His Spirit to reveal Himself to every searching heart.
Scripture awakens our understanding as we submit ourselves humbly before it.
As Paul says in Ephesians 1:18, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people.” John Calvin, one of the Protestant reformers, offered us an insightful image. He believed that God gives us “faith glasses” to understand and apply God’s revelation to our lives.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said the reader or hearer must approach the Bible in “serious and earnest prayer” and in the spirit of self-examination. As we receive God’s revelation by grace through faith, the Spirit enlightens our understanding. The self-revelation of God comes alive in our hearts.
H. Orton Wiley ministered in the Church of the Nazarene as a teacher, evangelist, college president, and editor of the Herald of Holiness (now Holiness Today) from 1928 to 1936. He served as the chief craftsman of the statement that went to the 1928 General Assembly, which became our Article of Faith IV “The Holy Scriptures.” Wiley’s observations about a proper perspective on Scripture deserve repeating here:
Spiritual men and women—those filled with the Holy Spirit—do not rest merely in the letter which must be defended by argument. They have a broader and more substantial basis for their faith. It rests in their risen Lord, the glorified Christ. They know that the Bible is true, not primarily through the efforts of the apologists, but because they are acquainted with its Author. The Spirit which inspired the Word dwells within them, and witnesses to its truth. (H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, Vol. 1, 143).
The Opposite Approach
Many evangelicals begin conversations about the Bible by asserting the authority of Scripture, then urging people to exercise saving faith from that platform. Wiley took the opposite approach. He began with the saving relationship of a loving Father adopting us into His family. Wiley then saw Scripture’s authority flowing from the sufficiency of God’s self-revelation through the work of the Holy Spirit to bring lost men, women, youth, and children back to His heart.
Wiley focused attention not on the self-sufficiency of the Bible’s authority as a compendium of truth, but upon our loving God, who uses the Bible as a vehicle to share His love story with us. Again hear Wiley:
In a deeper sense, Jesus Christ, our ever-living Lord is Himself the fullest revelation of God. He is the Word of God—the outlived and outspoken thought of the Eternal. Thus, while we honor the Scriptures in giving them a central place as our primary source of theology, we are not unmindful that the letter killeth but the Spirit maketh alive. Christ, the Living Word must ever be held in proper relation to the Holy Bible, the written Word. (H. Orton Wiley & Paul Culbertson, Introduction to Christian Theology, 27).
The Mission of God
The account of the incarnation of Jesus Christ found in Matthew ends with these challenging words, “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ ” (28: 18-20). Christ the Redeemer shared His authority with His children. He invites us to join in this mission.
What is that mission? To sing, tell, and preach the narrative of God’s life-changing story to a lost and hurting world!
He equips us for this challenge by filling us with His Holy Spirit and transforming us from the depth of our being to be light, salt, and yeast in our world. He does not require us to assume this challenge on our own. We join with all of God’s saints in the community of faith from the early church until today to become the Body of Christ to our world (1 Corinthians 12:27).
We read the story of God from the Bible often enough and deeply enough to find ourselves in that story as we live victoriously “in Christ” (Romans 8:1). We then take the Bible in hand and in our hearts to share God’s love story with all who have ears to hear. The Bible’s story has authority through the work of the Holy Spirit to strike a chord of a deep longing to come home.
Wesley referred to himself as a “man of one Book.” He did not intend to imply that he read only the Bible, but that he made the Bible his primary authority. He taught that our spiritual lives and beliefs are informed by Christian tradition, human reason, and the personal experience we have in our relationship with our Lord. These three witnesses always bend to the primacy of Scripture, which bears faithful witness to the Triune God. We too must be a people of one Book, both publically and personally.
We do not reduce the Bible to an encyclopedia of truth about faith, life, and all of human experience. Rather, we read it worshipfully as we listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit bringing the presence of the living Christ to us.
Through our relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit, He remakes, remolds, and transforms us into His Christlike children. In so doing, Scripture accomplishes its purpose of revealing all things necessary to our salvation. Therein resides the authority of Scripture.
Frank Moore is general editor of the Church of the Nazarene and editor-in-chief of Holiness Today.
Holiness Today, Jul/Aug 2018.