The authority of Scripture
First published in
Apologia 3(2):12–16, 1994; last updated 26 June 2018
Abstract: Scripture had supreme authority for the Old Testament saints, Christ and His apostles in all matters it touched upon. In particular, for Christ, what Scripture said, God said. Christ also directly affirmed many of the passages attacked by liberals. Objections to the inerrancy and suffiency of Scripture are refuted. The charge that Christ was mistaken or merely accommodating to His hearers is impossible for a consistent Christian to hold. The charge of circular reasoning fails on several counts: the internal and external cross-checks, and the role that axioms play in all philosophical systems.
Moses often testified that his writings were from God:
‘Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said …’
See also Exodus 24:7, 34:27–28, Numbers 33:1–2, Deuteronomy 31:9,
‘when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing.’
‘Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.’
The book of the Law is the Torah, also called the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible.
Israel’s greatest king clearly also regarded the Law very highly. At his stage in history, not too many books of Scripture had been written, but the Pentateuch was regarded as God’s Law.
‘But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.’
‘I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’
Note: the ‘jot’ was the smallest Hebrew letter, and the ‘tittle’ was a small part of the letter. So Christ is supporting inspiration even down to the individual letters.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’
‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’
- Christ accepted the Genesis Creation account literally (see also But from the beginning of … the institution of marriage? In fact, Jesus believed the parts of Scripture most attacked by sceptics today — see Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture)
- He cited from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, showing that He did not regard Genesis 1 and 2 as separate contradictory creation accounts, but as complementary. See also Do Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other?
v.5, which in Genesis is an editorial comment, is equated with the word of the Creator. This is not the only place where the New Testament cites an Old Testament passage as ‘God said’; compare the following pairs: Psalm 2:1 & Acts 4:24–25, Psalm 2:7 & Hebrews 1:5, Psalm 16:10 & Acts 13:35, Psalm 95:7 & Heb. 3:7, Psalm 97:7 & Heb. 1:6, Psalm 104:4 & Heb. 1:7, Isaiah 55:3 & Acts 13:34. The converse is true in the following pairs: Genesis 12:3 & Galatians 3:8, Exodus 9:16 & Romans. 9:1; where a direct statement by God in the OT is cited as ‘Scripture said’.
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died.
Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead — have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
the Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch as Scripture, while the Pharisees accepted the same books as the Protestant OT (as confirmed by the prologue to Ecclesiasticus (ca. 130 BC), Josephus (ca. AD 90), Melito (ca. AD 170)). Jesus accused the Sadducees of not knowing the Scriptures, because they did not accept the Prophets and Writings.
Even the Scriptures accepted by the Sadducees taught the resurrection: Christ demonstrated this with an argument depending on the present tense of the implied verb ‘to be’ implied — the patriarchs were living in a sense in Moses’ day, centuries after they had died physically. This passage shows that the Lord believed in verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture.
‘And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.’
The Pharisees’ Bible is the same as the Protestant OT, but the order is different. The first book was still Genesis, but the last book was 2 Chronicles. That generation was to be held responsible for all God’s people murdered in the OT, from Abel (Genesis 4:8) to Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20–21). There were other martyrdoms recorded in the Apocrypha, but Jesus did not regard these writings as Scripture, and never cited them. Jesus agreed with the Pharisaic canon (John 5:39), but not the Saddusaic one.
The Apocrypha was not recognized as canonical by the Jewish scholars at Jamnia (AD 90), and the Talmud stated that the Holy Spirit departed from Israel after Malachi. Many Church Fathers agreed, e.g. Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome. Athanasius, in his 39th Festal Letter of AD 367, listed the same canon as modern Protestants (with the exception of the book of Esther). He also stated that the Apocryphal books Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther additions, Judith and Tobit were worth reading but not canonical. He made no mention of the books of Maccabees.1
The apocryphal books abound in geographical and historical errors,2 e.g. 2 Maccabees 15:1 ff is inconsistent with 1 Maccabees 2:41; Judith 1:1 has Nebuchadnezzar reigning in Nineveh rather than Babylon. The morality and doctrine of the apocryphal books also falls short of biblical standards: Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom teach morality based on expedience; God assists Judith in a lie (Judith 9:10,13); salvation by works (Tobit 12:9, 14:10–11); prayers for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:45–46), pre-existence of souls (Wisdom 8:19–20) and creation out of pre-existent matter (Wisdom 11:17). Even the books themselves disclaim divine inspiration: 1 Maccabees 9:27 recognises that prophecy had disappeared in Israel, while 2 Maccabees 15:37–39 admits that it was a human composition with possible flaws.
It’s also important to note that each book was canonical as soon as it was finished, because its ultimate author was God Himself. Their canonicity did not have to wait for the Church to choose them. The NT scholar FF Bruce writes:
‘The NT books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognising their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect…. [Church] councils [did] not impose something new upon the Christian communities but codif[ied] what was already the general practice of those communities.’ 3
‘He (Abraham) said to him (the rich man in Hell), “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’
Note: Christ clearly shows how important the Old Testament is. Many liberal evolutionary theologians who reject Moses also refuse to believe that Christ rose from the dead.
‘Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. ‘It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. ‘It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!
Note: Christ took the accounts of Noah’s flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the calamity befalling Lot’s wife literally. Those who dispute their historicity are therefore defying Christ. Matthew 12:39 ff. shows that Christ took the account of Jonah and the whale literally, and even used it as a type of His resurrection.
And he [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones [Cleopas and unnamed disciple], and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Note: Jesus after His resurrection still cited Scripture as authoritative, and rebuked the two for their slowness in believing it.
If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?
Note: a similar lesson can be learnt — liberals who doubt Moses often doubt what Jesus said (except of course for a selective use of His words if they could somehow be twisted to support a politically correct cause they happened to agree with).
Also, this shows that the ‘JEDP/Documentary Hypothesis’ of the Pentateuch is contrary to Christ, who clearly taught that the Pentateuch was edited by Moses. See Did Moses really write Genesis?
‘… and the scriptures cannot be broken.’
‘But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’
Note: Christ here promises his disciples that they would be taught by the Holy Spirit. These teachings eventually became written down in the New Testament.
and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- the Greek word for ‘Scriptures’ in v.15 is γράμματα (grammata), and must refer to the OT alone, as these are the only Scriptures Timothy would have known from his childhood
- in v. 16, the word translated ‘Scripture’ is γραφὴ (graphē), which would include the OT plus all the NT written by then (AD 63), i.e. all the NT except 2 Peter, Hebrews, Jude, and John’s writings. As Paul’s writings were divinely inspired, this statement would apply even to the latter books.
- ‘God-breathed’ is a correct translation by the NIV of the Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos). If Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ and God cannot err, it logically follows that Scripture cannot err.
- Scripture is able to make a man ‘wise unto salvation’ and ‘thoroughly furnished unto all good works’. This implies that Scripture contains all the doctrine and moral law we need.
- But since v. 16 makes it clear that all Scripture is God-breathed, not just some, inerrancy applies to whatever the Bible affirms, and is not restricted just to those verses deemed to relate to faith and conduct. After all, doctrine is inextricably linked to history and science, so that whatever Scripture affirms on scientific or historical matters is also true. For example, the key doctrine of the Resurrection is linked to the historical fact that Jesus’ body had vacated the tomb on the third day. It also impinges on science, because naturalistic scientists assert that it is impossible for dead men to rise. And the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection is tied to the historical accuracy of the event recorded in Genesis (1 Corinthians 15:21–22). And if we bow to uniformitarian ‘science’ in the area of origins, what should we do when Scriptural teaching on morality conflicts with ‘science’, e.g. the Bible’s prohibition on adultery or homosexual acts vs ‘scientific’ assertions that such behaviours are ‘in our genes’. Jesus asked Nicodemus ‘I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?’ (John 3:12).
- Paul brings up two positive uses of Scripture—teaching and training in righteousness—and two negative uses—reproof and correction. The former entails that there is nothing in Scripture that should mislead us into factual or moral error; the latter entails that Scripture should enable readers to reject ideas and practices that conflict with it. Any errors would undermine Scripture’s dual role.
- 1 Timothy 5:18 cites both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 as graphē; i.e. both the Old and New Testaments. This again shows that the NT was already regarded as Scripture even in apostolic times.
1 Timothy 2:12–14:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
Note: Paul accepted the Genesis account as a historical narrative, and used it to teach on the role of men and women in Church.
When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said.
Note: this shows how important the Scriptures were to Paul’s evangelism to Jews, who already accepted them as authoritative.
As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
This shows that even Paul’s teaching was subjected to the test of Scripture by people who were commended for it. So Christians today should follow that Berean example and test the teachings of any church (or scientist) by Scripture.
2 Peter 1:20–21:
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
Note: The chief Apostle, Peter, believed that God moved (literally ‘carried along’) the writers of Scripture so that they recorded exactly what He wanted. However, God did not usually dictate the words, but superintended the authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they recorded His revelation without error.
2 Peter 3:15–16:
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Note: Peter affirms that Paul’s writings were also Scripture.
‘Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.’
N.B. If the faith was once delivered, then there is no need for additional revelations of doctrine after the canon of scripture was closed).
‘But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’
Christ’s promise in John 14:26 was to His disciples personally present. John was the last survivor, so his books are the last of the NT Canon. It is possible that Revelation 22:18–19 is an indication that this book closes the Canon.
All the NT except 11 verses could be reconstructed from the writings of the Fathers. 4 For Irenaeus (c. AD 170), the fourfold Gospel was as axiomatic as the four quarters of the earth and the four winds. He cited 23 of the 27 NT books, omitting only Philemon, James, 2 Peter and 3 John. Ignatius (AD 50–115), Bishop of Antioch, cited 15 NT books. He recognised that the NT had a higher authority than he: ‘I do not order you, as did Peter and Paul. They were Apostles and I am even until now a slave’ (Letter to the Romans)
Augustine recognized the cardinal importance of biblical inerrancy:
For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive: nay, it is not another question — it is no question at all. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true. (First letter to Jerome)
1) John 20:30:
‘Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.’
This verse is used to suggest that perhaps the Church has preserved some essential doctrines not taught in Scripture. However, the next verse implies that what was written was enough (note all the NT had been written by the time that John was written, except for his letters and Revelation) — John 20:31:
‘But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
2) 2 Thessalonians 2:15:
‘So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.’
This verse is sometimes alleged to support the existence of essential tradition not recorded in scripture. However, this book was probably one of the first NT books written (AD 51), so the verse does not apply once all the essential traditions had been recorded in the NT. 1 Corintians 15:1–8 is a good example of a well established oral tradition which Paul writes down.
3) 1 Timothy 3:15:
‘if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.’
Paul was simply affirming the church as the support and bulwark — not the source — of God’s truth. His words should not be stretched beyond this to claim that no-one can know the truth unless he depends on the teaching of some organised church or church group. Note:
- The Greek word ecclesia means congregation or assembly, so this verse cannot rule out (say) Carindale Community Church of the Nazarene.
- Even a church founded by apostles could have its lampstand removed from its place (Revelation 2:5).
4) ‘Jesus was mistaken, because in the Incarnation his omnipotence was masked.’ Often this and the next blasphemous charge are made by liberal theologians or theistic evolutionists with pious-sounding talk about Jesus’ humanity. But:
- This confuses Limitation and misunderstanding:5 while the Second Person of the Trinity was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, He voluntarily limited His omniscience (Philippians 2:5–11). I.e., in His humanity, He did not know all things. But this does not entail that He was mistaken about anything He said. All human understanding is finite, but this doesn’t entail that every human understanding is errant. Also, what Jesus did preach, He proclaimed with absolute authority (Matthew 24:35, 28:18), because He was speaking with the full authority of God the Father (John 5:30, 8:28), who is always omniscient. Furthermore, God the Father during the Transfiguration told the listeners, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)—an explicit endorsement of everything Jesus taught. So if a liberal wishes to maintain his charge that Christ was mistaken because of His humanity, he must logically charge God the Father with error as well. Or else, if Jesus taught an inerrant Bible and attributed his teaching to the Father and such teaching is wrong, Jesus must be a charlatan in a hopeless muddle.
Where do you draw the line? If Jesus was wrong in His view of Scripture, maybe He was wrong in other areas too. Who decides whether He is right or wrong? We must, so Jesus loses His authority.
- This confuses Adaptation to human finitude with accommodation to human error:5 the former does not entail the latter. A mother might tell her four-year-old ‘you grew inside my tummy’ — this is not false, but language simplified to the child’s level. Conversely, ‘the stork brought you’ is an outright error. Similarly, God, the author of truth, used some simplified descriptions (e.g. using the earth as a reference frame, as modern scientists do today) and anthropomorphisms, but never error.
- Jesus often challenged His audience, so He would not have failed to point out their mistaken views on Scripture, if such they were.
- If Jesus acquiesced in this error, maybe He did so elsewhere as well. Who ultimately decides when Jesus is acquiescing? We must, so once again, Jesus loses His authority.
- The passages considered in section II(1) show that Jesus was not just acquiescing to the views of His audience on the inerrancy of Scripture, but was in fact reinforcing them.
6) ‘Jesus was misreported, or we can’t possibly know what He believed.’ But:
- First, it is absurd for liberals to claim to be ‘Christian’ if they cannot be sure that they are really following Christ.
- Even many liberal scholars believe that there is overwhelming historical evidence that Christ affirmed biblical inerrancy, although they disagree with Him. The evangelical scholar Harold Lindsell6 cites the liberal scholars H.J. Cadbury, Adolph Harnack, Rudolf Bultmann and F.C. Grant to prove this point.
- As shown, even many liberals believe that there is overwhelming evidence that Christ affirmed biblical inerrancy. Such independent support of Christ’s statements proves that evangelicals do not necessarily commit the fallacy of arguing in a circle, of using the Bible to prove the Bible.
- It is not circular to use Matthew to prove Genesis (Matthew 19:3–6, cf. Genesis 1:27, 2:4), Paul to prove Luke (1 Timothy 5:18, cf. Luke 10:7) or Peter to prove Paul (2 Peter 3:15–16). Finally, allegedly circular reasoning at least demonstrates the internal consistency of the Bible’s claims it makes about itself. If the Bible had actually disclaimed divine inspiration, it would indeed be illogical to defend it. This is one argument against the canonicity of the Apocrypha — as shown above, 1 Maccabees 9:27 and 2 Maccabees 15:37–39 disclaim divine inspiration.
Creation Ministries International accepts the authority of Scripture as an axiom or presupposition: i.e. as a starting point or assumption that requires no proof, and is the basis for all reasoning. All philosophical systems start with axioms. So it’s not a question of a religious system starting from prior assumptions vs. a ‘scientific’ system without any prior assumptions, but which axioms are self-consistent and provide a consistent framework in which to fit the evidence. See also Faith and facts and Loving God With All Your Mind: Logic and Creation.
- F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, IVP, Downers Gr, Ill., pp. 77–80 1988. Return to text.
- F.F. Bruce, Evangelical Quarterly 42:55, 1970, says: ‘It is possible for scholars … to defend the historicity of Daniel and Esther’; but it is ‘very difficult indeed to argue for the historical inerrancy of Tobit and Judith’. Return to text.
- F.F. Bruce The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? (Downers Gr, Ill.: IVP 1960). Return to text.
- Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Ch. 24. Moody, Chicago, Revised and Expanded 1986. Return to text.
- Geisler and Nix, Ref. 4, pp. 62–64 contains helpful discussions of these points. Return to text.
- Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 43–45. Return to text.