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Asbury Bible Commentary – Authority of Scripture
Authority of Scripture

Authority of Scripture

Since apostolic times, the church has wrestled with the certainty of God's communication on the basic issues of salvation. A dual threat, of persecution from without and heresy from within, held much of the early church's attention. It needed an authoritative and fixed point of reference for its teachings and life. Jesus and the apostles viewed the Jewish Scriptures as authoritative foundations for their teachings. The early church, in turn, viewed the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as authoritative. What were the Christians in the post-apostolic age to use as their basis for theological authority?

In the second and third centuries, theologians and apologists such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian began to address this problem. They did so by emphasizing the role of the bishops and the “rule of faith” of the church as the standards of orthodox theological authority. They taught that the appointment of bishops was a divine act. The role of a bishop was to preserve the apostolic teachings and to maintain the “rule of faith,” which was the sum of the essential Christian teachings. Irenaeus saw the bishops as preserving the same faith as that of the apostles. Their work was, in this sense, apostolic. Additionally, Irenaeus taught that the existence of the church was the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. He reasoned that since the Holy Spirit created the church, the Spirit used the church as the conduit for revelation.

A dual basis of authority thus developed in the first several centuries of Christianity: the written deposit of the Scriptures and apostolic writings and the traditions of the church's teachings as maintained by the bishops in the rule of faith. These two streams worked together. They did not come into conflict with one another in the early church. According to Tertullian, the teaching of the apostles, delivered both orally and in writing, is the doctrinal tradition of the church. The church in turn preserves and interprets the apostolic teaching, both in the Scriptures and in the rule of faith of the church. As heretics became increasingly adept at interpreting the written Scriptures to support their teachings, the church began to strengthen its position as well. The Fathers maintained that the church was the only possessor of the Scriptures. They also maintained that it was the sole context in which the Scriptures could be interpreted with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

Augustine contributed to this trend in the late fourth and early fifth centuries by stressing that the church holds the key to the meaning of the Bible and is the most reliable interpreter of Scripture. For Augustine, it is Christ who illumines the Scriptures through the same Spirit who inspired them. But the Spirit works only within the church where heretics have no access to either the Scriptures or the Spirit. In the fifth century, Vincent of Lerins summarized and standardized this doctrine. In his “Vincentian Canon” he stated categorically that the church is the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture. This standard-setting document stated that those teachings are orthodox that are believed “always, everywhere, and by all.” Scripture was still considered authoritative, but it now shared this authority with the teachings and interpretations of the church.For a more thorough discussion of the development of the authority of the church in relation to Scripture, see R. Larry Shelton, “Martin Luther's Concept of Biblical Interpretation in Historical Perspective” (Th.D. Diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1974), chap. 1. Also, see Ellen Flessemanvan Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Assen, Netherlands: van Gorcum, 1954). See also Herbert T. Mayer, “Scripture, Tradition, and Authority in the Life of the Early Church,” Concordia Theological Monthly, vol. 38 (1967).

Throughout most of the Middle Ages (sixth through fifteenth centuries), the authority of the Scriptures remained linked to the authority of the church. But the church's interpretations of Scripture became increasingly problematic due to its habit of using the allegorical methods employed by Origen and the School of Alexandria, beginning in the third century. Throughout the Middle Ages, the grammatical/historical meaning of the text of Scripture was at the mercy of these innovative allegorical interpretations. Martin Luther later called some of these fanciful renderings “mere jugglery” and “monkey tricks.”

In the late Middle Ages, scholars such as Thomas Aquinas and Hugh and Andrew of St. Victor began to question the extensive use of allegorical interpretation. Renewed emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture and the role of the mind of the human author in the process of inspiration by the Holy Spirit resulted in a new interest in the grammatical/historical sense of the text and an interest in biblical languages. In the fourteenth century, the Franciscan Nicolas of Lyra taught that the literal message of Scripture was the basis for all other meanings. He noted that God was the “principal author” of Scripture, and insisted that the meaning of Scripture rested upon the words of the inspired writers. This is in strong contrast to the medieval practice of allegorizing the meanings of the text so that only the authoritative teachers of the church could unravel their secret meanings, a practice that had submerged the meaning and authority of Scripture beneath stifling traditions. Nicolas thus led the way in breaking down the tyranny of the church's authoritative tradition and bad methodology.Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952), 88-120; see also, Shelton, Ibid., chap. 2. Also, note F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (New York: Dutton, 1886), 276ff.

With the dawning of the Protestant Reformation, a new and fresh role developed for Scripture in the church. Martin Luther's emphasis on sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” became the watchword of the Reformation. Not only did he assert that the Scripture was authoritative, but he denied the authority of the pope and the traditions and interpretations of the church. The Roman Catholic Church viewed the authority of Scripture as resting on that of the church. Luther pointed out that the Bible derives its authority from itself, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. He said, “No believing Christian can be forced to recognize any authority beyond the sacred Scripture, which is exclusively invested with divine right, unless, indeed, there comes a new and attested revelation.”Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke, ed. J.F.K. Knaake, vol. 2 (Weimar: Hermann Nachfolger, 1966-71), 279. He thus sought to return to the apostolic teachings, which he believed had been silenced by the church's role as the final doctrinal authority.

For Luther, the authority of Scripture rests on several issues: its inspired character, its reliability for salvation, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. First, Luther viewed the Bible as authoritative because he believed it to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. He wrote very little concerning the nature of inspiration, but he was clear in asserting that the Scriptures are not a dictated collection of supernatural syllables. Some writers received historical materials by research, while the Holy Spirit superintended their arrangement and interpretation of details. Luther believed that inspiration involves an objective quality that includes both phraseology and diction. Yet it is the subject matter of Scripture, Christ, to which the Spirit witnesses in the Word. Scripture mediates the living Word by the operation of the Holy Spirit and thus becomes the medium of salvation. The inspiredness of the Scriptures lies, then, in their ability, through the Spirit, to produce in the believer all that is needed for salvation. It is because the Spirit makes Christ present through the Scriptures that they have redemptive effectiveness.Herman Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” Accents in Luther's Theology, ed. Heino O. Kadai (St. Louis: Concordia, 1967), 84. See also, Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1953), 107. H. H. Kramm, The Theology of Martin Luther (London: James Clarke, 1947), 116.

This leads to the reliability of Scripture, which is Luther's second basis for authority. The Scriptures are reliable because they produce in the reader the conviction that they proclaim the love of God and his power to save.Albert Peel, “The Bible and the People: Protestant Views of the Authority of the Bible,” The Interpretation of the Bible, ed. C. W. Dugmore (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1946), 68. See also, Shelton, op. cit., “John Wesley's Approach to Scripture,” 32 and notes. Through personal spiritual struggle, Luther found in the Bible a God who saves. It is precisely this saving role that proved to him that Scripture is a divine Word. Its character as the Word of God becomes evident through its function as a saving Word. Scripture's authority thus consists in its ability to do the work of salvation through the Spirit in the hearts of those who hear it.

Finally, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms the Bible's inspiration and thus its authority. Luther believed that the inspired character of a book could be evaluated only on internal criteria. For him, the primary internal criterion is the Holy Spirit's witness in the church to the reality of Christ crucified. This internal witness of the Holy Spirit (testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum) attests the Scripture as the genuine Word of God.Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 75. It is Jesus Christ working in and through Scripture who is the infallible Word of God. The Scripture is authoritative because it faithfully reveals Christ through the human instrumentality of the biblical writers, whose inspiration comes from the Spirit. Ultimately, then, it is the content of Scripture, not its form or written style, that is authoritative.

Luther believed that the inner testimony of the Spirit witnesses to Christ and establishes Scripture as inspired and authoritative. He believed we would certainly err by thinking that mere human reason could perceive the authority of God's Word. As the Holy Spirit penetrates our hearts, the Bible becomes not simply God's Word, but God's Word “for me.” It is the saving activity that the Spirit effects through Scripture that verifies its authority. Authority is thus a functional element that relates to both the character of Scripture itself and to the effect it produces in the believer through the Spirit.Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Inspiration of the Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 79; see also Shelton, “John Wesley's Approach to Scripture,” 32. For a more specific treatment of the role of the Holy Spirit in the theology of the Reformers, including the Spirit's role in Scripture, see R. Larry Shelton, “The Holy Spirit in the Theology of the Reformers,” The Spirit and the New Age, eds. R. Larry Shelton and Alex R. G. Deasley, (Anderson, Ind.: Warner, 1986), 168-76.

The other major Reformers, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, also founded their understanding of the authority and inspiration of Scripture on the reliability of Scripture and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Zurich, emphasized that Scripture is the Word of God because it brings to pass precisely what it declares. For example, prophecies found in Scripture are fulfilled and salvation that is promised comes to pass. Additionally, the Holy Spirit directs and applies the content of Scripture to the reader.Huldrych Zwingli, “Of the Clarity and Certainty or Power of the Word of God,” Library of Christian Classics, vol. 24, ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), 82. Also, see R. Larry Shelton, “The Emphasis of the Zurich Reformers on the Subjective Work of the Holy Spirit in the Interpreter.” The Asbury Seminarian, 29:3 (July 1974), 18-33. Thus, the reliability of Scripture and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit are the foundational principles in Zwingli's doctrine of the authority of Scripture.

John Calvin also based his view of the authority of Scripture on its reliability and the internal testimony of the Spirit. He reacted negatively to the Roman Catholic assertion that the certainty of faith comes through the infallible church. Likewise, he rejected the rationalistic view that the certainty needed for faith comes through reason, and he dismissed the view of the Enthusiasts who said faith can be verified by direct revelation to their spirits. For Calvin, Scripture is self-authenticating. God uses Scripture to communicate his purpose of salvation. Since Scripture reliably brings people to faith as the internal testimony of the Spirit (testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum) verifies its authenticity, it is inspired by God and thus authoritative.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in John T. McNeill (ed.), and F.L. Battles (trans.), Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 30 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), I, vii, 3; I, vii, 1-5. See also, Rogers and McKim, The Authority and Inspiration of the Bible, 103-14. On the concept of the testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum, see Bernard Ramm, The Witness of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960). This classical Reformed position is summarized eloquently in the Westminster Confession of 1647:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellences, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion as assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 603.

John Wesley held this Reformation view of scriptural authority. He believed the purpose of Scripture is to communicate the way of salvation. His well-known “man of one book” statement indicates his is a functional view of Scripture:

I want to know one thing—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! . . . let me be homo unius libri (a man of one book). In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.”John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978 reprint), 5:3. See Shelton, op. cit., “John Wesley's Approach to Scripture,” 39 and notes.

He felt the intention of Scripture was to provide information and inspiration for salvation and the Christian life. In his view, Scripture functions sacramentally as a “means of grace.” By this he means that it is one of “the ordinary channels whereby He might convey to men, preventing, or sanctifying grace.” These means of grace are prayer, searching the Scriptures, and the Lord's Supper.John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” The Works of John Wesley, Sermons I, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 381. The goal of these means is salvation and the power behind them is God himself. Wesley says in this regard: “. . . the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of religion; that consequently all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing, and vanity; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God they are not acceptable in His sight....”Ibid.

When Scripture, as a means of grace, is used in a way that is subservient to God's saving purposes, its purpose is fulfilled. Thus, there is no inherent spiritual virtue in the text of Scripture. Only as it functions through the power of the Holy Spirit can it bring to the reader the saving merits of Jesus Christ. Clearly, Wesley believes the authority of Scripture to be grounded on the work of Christ. He says, “Scripture is thus a means to this end, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.”Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” (Baker), 279. He notes further:

We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord's Supper; but that it is God alone who is the giver of every good gift, the author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby through any of these [means] there is any blessing conveyed to our soul.Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” (Abingdon), 382.

So, according to Wesley, the primary basis for the authority of Scripture is twofold: its reliability for communicating salvation and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In both instances the critical factor is the work of the Holy Spirit. Like Luther and Calvin, he relates the authority of Scripture to the living witness of God's Spirit. Wesley thus stands in the mainstream of the classical Protestant view of the authority of Scripture. The Christian experiences the living witness of the Holy Spirit who brings the gospel to the heart through the means of Scripture.See Shelton, “John Wesley's Approach to Scripture,” 37.

Ray Dunning has made a perceptive analysis of the Wesleyan position on the authority of Scripture. He points out that some Wesleyans do attempt to base the authority of Scripture on the nature or form of the original autographs of the Bible. According to this rational, deductive approach, the authority of Scripture rests on the conviction that the original copies of the text were preserved from error by the Holy Spirit and are thus divine in character. This argues for their authenticity and authority.

Citing A. M. Hills and H. Orton Wiley, both major Wesleyan holiness theologians, Dunning argues that the literal accuracy of Scripture defended by rational arguments is not the major concern for Wesleyans. What Wesleyans consider important is the doctrine of prevenient grace as the Holy Spirit witnesses to the authenticity of the written Word through which God speaks.H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith, and Holiness, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1988), 58-65. The only authority that makes any difference in the reading of Scripture is the authority given via the moral conviction that God is speaking. Because Scripture has shown itself to be a reliable vehicle through which the Holy Spirit conveys the knowledge of the saving work of Christ, it witnesses to the church of its own authority by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. By observing that Scripture functions as an effective and reliable means of grace that bears the content of God's message, the church recognizes through the Spirit's witness (testimonium) that it is, indeed, the authentic Word of God, and thus authoritative.