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Previous article in this series: May 1, 2016, p. 349.

Introduction

The Bible is authoritative. The Bible is the authority over faith (what we believe) and over conduct (how we live). It is the authority for the individual believer, whether layperson or officebearer, whether professional or daylaborer, whether company executive, farmer, or carpenter, whether housewife, student, or office worker. The Bible is the authority over the church as a whole, whether the local congregation, consistory, classis, or synod; whether in the established congregation or on the mission field; whether in the seminary classroom or in debate at one of the church’s assemblies. Attention must be given by all to one voice. All must bow before one scepter. One sword must be unsheathed for safeguarding the truth and for defense against the lie. Before the Scriptures the Christian’s response must be that of Samuel when God spoke directly to him: “Speak, for thy servant heareth” (I Sam. 3:10).

Scripture is authoritative because it is the infallible Word of God. If Scripture was not the inerrant Word of God, neither could it be authoritative. If Scripture was in any respect the word of man—the weak, often inaccurate, in many instances mistaken word of man—it would be impossible for Scripture to function as the authority in the church. Scripture’s authority is dependent on its infallibility. Because Scripture is the Word of God, it possesses the authority of God Himself. Just as parents’ words are authoritative for their children, and as the boss’ word is authoritative for the worker, so the Word of God is authoritative for His people.

In the past the church has used certain theological terms to express the supreme authority of the Bible. It is always good to be aware of these theological terms as a helpful way of expressing biblical truth. Formerly, the church has referred to Scripture as the norma normans non normata (the norm with no norm over it) or the norma causativa (the causative norm) or the norma absoluta (the absolute norm). Scripture is the norm or standard; everything must be judged (normed) according to it and by comparison with it. The Reformers referred to Scripture as the “norm of norms, and without norm.” With these words they confessed their belief in the sole authority of Scripture. “Norm of norms” is to be understood like such similar expressions as “king of kings” and “lord of lords.” Scripture is the supreme norm. As the norm over all lesser norms, Scripture is without norm. As a norm, Scripture is in a class by itself.

Alongside of Scripture, as a secondary authority subservient to Scripture, are the creeds. Traditionally Reformed theologians have referred to the authority of the creeds as norma normata, that is the normed norm. The creeds are the normed norm inasmuch as they are normed to Scripture, the ultimate norm. Since they are normed to Scripture and to the extent to which they are normed to Scripture, the creeds are authoritative. Their authority is a real authority, but it is a derived authority and a secondary authority. The authority of the creeds is always subject to the authority of the Bible.

Biblical Support

In more than one place and in many different ways the Bible teaches its supreme authority.

Both classic passages on biblical inspiration and infallibility teach Scripture’s authority. In II Timothy 3:15-17 the fact that Scripture is “God-breathed” (v. 16) implies Scripture’s authority. If Scripture is indeed the breath and Word of God, it carries with it the authority of God whose Word it is. Additionally, since Scripture “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” it must be authoritative. Scripture can only be profitable for doctrine if it is authoritative in doctrinal matters. Scripture can only be profitable for reproof if Scripture is authoritative in its warnings, reproofs, and rebukes. Scripture can only be profitable for correction if Scripture is authoritative in setting forth the standard according to which Christians are to be corrected. Scripture can only be profitable for instruction in righteousness if what Scripture teaches regarding Christian living is authoritative. It ought to be obvious that all the profit of Scripture is dependent on Scripture’s authority.

II Peter 1:19-21 also clearly establishes Scripture’s authority, an authority like no other authority in all the world. The apostle teaches in this passage that the written Word of God (the “more sure word of prophecy”) is as much the Word of God as the word proclaimed by God on the Mount of Transfiguration, when God said from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v. 17). Since Scripture is the Word of God, it must also carry the authority of God whose Word it is. The authority of Scripture also comes out in this passage when about Scripture it is said that it is “a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (v. 19). Since Scripture is the only light that shines in this dark and evil world, we ought to walk in its light. As much as the light ought to be followed by those who are walking in a dark place, if they are to avoid the pitfalls, obstacles, and dangers that surround them all unseen, so ought also Scripture to be followed by the Christian. That establishes the authority of Scripture.

The Lord Jesus teaches the authority of Scripture by the example of His own use of it. From the beginning of His public ministry, time and time again, Jesus appealed to the Holy Scriptures in support of what He taught, in defense of what He did, and as the basis for His rebukes. He set the pattern at the time of His confrontation with the devil in the wilderness at the time of His temptations, immediately following His baptism and the inauguration of His public ministry. What did Jesus do when the devil came tempting him? How did He respond to Satan’s temptations? In all three cases He appealed to Holy Scripture. “It is written,” He said (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). To such an extent did Jesus regard Scripture as authoritative that, rather than to appeal to His own authority as the Son of God, He appealed to the authority of Holy Scripture. What was written decided the issue, so far as our Lord was concerned.

Christ’s apostles followed the example of their Lord. For the apostles, too, it was not a matter of the authority that they possessed as Christ’s apostles, but it was a matter of what the Scriptures taught. This was how the issue of the way in which the Gentiles were to be admitted into the New Testament church was resolved at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The decisive speech at the council was that given by James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, who had become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem congregation. It “pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church” to follow the recommendation that he made. But it pleased them to follow that recommendation because James supported his recommendation that the Gentiles be added to the church as Gentiles and not by way of circumcision according to the teaching of Scripture. James appealed to Old Testament prophecy in order to support his position, especially what is written in Amos 9. For James and for the entire Jerusalem Council the question before the assembly was decided on the basis of Scripture. Scripture was the authority.

Throughout his epistles, the apostle Paul follows the same pattern. Time and again he appeals to Scripture in order to support what he is teaching, whether what he is teaching is doctrinal instruction or the nature of the Christian life. In Romans 3, for example, the apostle is setting forth the truth of original sin and total depravity. How does he establish the truth of what he is teaching? By appeal to Scripture: “As it is written,” he says in verse 10. “What things soever the law saith,” he adds in verse 19. And in verse 21 he appeals to that which is “witnessed by the law and the prophets.” Clearly, for the great apostle there was no higher authority for his preaching and teaching than the authority of sacred Scripture.

To such an extent did the apostles submit to the authority of Scripture that they were willing to suffer persecution for the sake of their obedience to it. That, of course, is the great test of one’s submission to the authority of Scripture. It is easy enough to acknowledge Scripture as authoritative—until obedience to the Scriptures requires of us sacrifice, hardship, or persecution. Then the matter of Scripture’s authority is put to the test. Obedience to the Scriptures meant for the apostles enduring false accusation, imprisonment, being beaten and threatened, to which their response was: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Such a day is coming for Christians in North America, as indeed is the experience of Christians in other countries around the world at present. Then our conviction of Scripture’s authority will be put to the test. God grant that our response is the same as was the apostles’ long ago.

Confessional Support

The Reformation brought about a return to the supreme and sole authority of Holy Scripture. Sola Scriptura, the great watch-word of the Reformation, was a slogan that trumpeted especially the Reformers’ conviction regarding Scripture’s authority. The sola of Scripture was especially its sola as the authority in the church, an authority above that of the pope, church councils, and ecclesiastical tradition. It was a sola against which every theological teaching, worship practice, ecclesiastical verdict, and personal decision was to be judged. Nothing was above the Scripture; everything was subject to its authority.

This view of Scripture’s supreme authority was incorporated into the Reformation creeds. The title of Belgic Confession, Article 5 is “From Whence the Holy Scriptures Derive their Dignity and Authority.” The article goes on to state that the sixty-six canonical books of the Bible are “for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” In Article 6 of the Belgic Confession the canonical books are distinguished from the apocryphal books, which may never “detract from the authority of the…sacred books.” Article 7 adds:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For, since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them, at large, it is unlawful for any one though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures; nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith…. Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees, or statues, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us saying, Try the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.

The very first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith is devoted to the truth of Holy Scripture. A number of the paragraphs in this chapter affirm the supreme authority of Holy Scripture. Paragraph 4 states:

The authority of the holy scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.

Paragraph 6 teaches that

[t]he whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

And paragraph 10 concludes:

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.

The Second Helvetic Confession asserts Scripture’s supreme authority when it concludes in chapter 2:

Wherefore we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of councils; much less by received customs, or by the large number of those who share the same opinion, or by the prescription of a long time. Who is the Judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God.

Who is the Judge? God is the Judge. Where does God issue His judgments? In the Holy Scriptures. Why in the Holy Scriptures? Because the Scriptures are the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men. Because Scripture is the Word of God, inspired by God, infallible and inerrant in its entirety, Scripture is also authoritative. It is, in fact, the supreme and only authority in the whole world.

I doubt that very few, if anyone, who reads this article would disagree with the teaching that the Bible is the supreme authority in the church and in the life of the believer. We all confess that by virtue of our subscription to the Reformed confessions. But what about practically? On a practical level, do we honor the authority of Scripture? We all ought to examine ourselves. The Bible says that we are to seek first the kingdom of heaven, believing that God will take care of our earthly needs. Do we seek first in our lives the kingdom of heaven? The Bible says that we are not to set our heart upon riches, earthly fame, or glory among men. Have we set our hearts on riches, earthly fame, or glory among men? The Bible calls us to live in the world, but not be one with the world. Do we live antithetically, in the world while not of the world; or, are we friends with the children of this world and run with them in the same excess of riot (I Pet. 4:4)? The Bible calls us to honor our parents and all who are in authority over us. Do we honor those through whom it pleases God to govern our lives? The Bible calls us to date and marry in the Lord. Are we dating and do we intend to marry in the Lord? The Lord calls us to live chastely and temperately in this present evil world, and not give ourselves to indulgence in sexual uncleanness. Do we strive to live out of the conviction that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit? The Bible calls us to live faithfully in marriage; it calls husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord. Are we living faithfully in our marriages? Do we as husbands love, nourish, and cherish our wives? And do we as wives reverence, submit to, and assist our husbands in all things?

It is one thing to subscribe to the truth of Scripture’s sole authority. It is quite another thing to live in such a way that we submit to Scripture’s authority. May God give us the needed grace to honor this first and outstanding perfection of Scripture.