The teaching of the Lord Jesus was challenged by his enemies, not just because of its content, but also on the ground of its origin. We read that “the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him [as he was] teaching, saying, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21: 23, my emphasis). Now the question was a legitimate one, even if the motive behind it was evil. Furthermore, it is a question that those who follow in the footsteps of Christ must expect others to ask—as well as asking it of themselves. By what authority do we do the things that we do, or teach the things that we teach? It is not simply a matter of being “prepared to [give] an answer [to] every one that asks you to give an account of the hope that [is] in you” (1 Pet. 3: 15), but of knowing the basis of that hope as well. Luke, in the introduction to his Gospel, speaks of “the matters fully believed among us” (Luke 1: 1), but he also speaks of “eye–witnesses” and “attendants on the Word” (v2) who had delivered their testimony to the first Christians. Thus what is believed and taught has its origin in an authority (in this case the testimony of witnesses) and that authority is the root and cause of both why we believe and what we believe. It is very common, for example, to hear people to say that they have ‘come to faith’, and to be very sincere in saying it, but such language is essentially meaningless. Faith needs to be in God, and that, ultimately, is proved by faith in His Word. Anything that bears the name of Christ but is not rooted in the Bible is really mysticism. Sadly, such human ideas and fantasies dominate Christian thought today.
Now it is evident from the earliest pages of Scripture that there are competing authorities operating in this world. Adam’s behaviour was to be regulated by what God had said. Thus: “Of every tree of the garden thou shalt freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Gen. 2: 16, 17). This authority was quickly called into question by the serpent (see Gen. 3: 1, 5), and as a result, the woman took of the forbidden fruit. She heeded Satan rather than God and, in turn, the man heeded the woman rather than the divine instruction. In the next chapter, we find Cain approaching God in his own way (see Gen. 4: 3–7; Jude v11), while Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice “by faith” (Heb. 11: 4). Cain’s authority was his own thoughts, but Abel approached God according to divine revelation. And so we might go on through the Bible. On the one hand, we have God, and what He has revealed as to His mind, while on the other, we have many contrary authorities, which, despite their variety, are actually united by their antithesis to the divine will. By rights, there is really only one authority—God’s—and all others can be lumped under the heading of “revolt against Jehovah” (Jer. 28: 16). When Elijah pleaded with Israel saying “How long do ye halt between two opinions” (1 Kings 18: 21), he gave a perfect illustration of the position in which man finds himself. It is the divine will that is to be obeyed or, in turning after any other will, the divine will that is rejected. There is no take it or leave it option. Man is either obedient to what God has said (and this goes far beyond just belief in the Gospel), or, like Nimrod (see Gen. 10: 8), a rebel (which is what his name means). Thus those who have believed have “obeyed from the heart the form of teaching into which” they “were instructed” (Rom. 6: 17, my emphasis). But what, exactly, is this form of teaching, and how does this instruction come to us?
The Seat of Authority
For example, ask professing Christians why they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and you will not get one answer but several. Some will say that they do not believe it, others will point to it as being the traditional position of the Church, and many will respond that it is what the Bible teaches, without being very clear where in the Bible. The first group has rejected divine revelation, but the other two groups have not got what they hold from the fountain–head. Their belief, although true, is second–hand—their authority, sad to say, is not Scripture, but other men and women. This is often brushed aside on the basis that people in the Bible also got their beliefs by way of the instrumentality of others—through Moses and so on—but this objection is unsustainable. Now Scripture is certainly very clear that Moses was the mouthpiece of God (see Exod. 4: 15, 16), and, more generally, that all the prophets spoke as having a word from the Lord (sometimes very specifically as in ‘Thus saith Jehovah’). Hence in believing them, the people were believing God. However, divine revelation is now complete, both as to content and as to time (see Col. 1: 25; Rev. 22: 18), and there is no one today who can speak authoritatively as the mouthpiece of God. Authority now lies in the record of what has been revealed—the written Word of God. It is that which must be brought to bear on our hearts and consciences. Thus the true Christian believes that Jesus is the Son of God because Scripture tells him so (see Luke 1: 32; John 9: 35–37; Rom. 1: 4 etc.). Furthermore, he can have confidence that it is true because God has said it. To rely on the testimony of others (however pious or gifted) is essentially to have faith in man. Far better to be like the Samaritans of John 4 who could say “[it is] no longer on account of thy saying that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world” (v42). Let us now pursue this matter of the authoritative nature of Scripture further.
The Word of God
Now the expression the Word of God is so familiar that its force is sadly often lost sight of. It is God speaking. Think of that! Peter tells us that “prophecy was not ever uttered by [the] will of man, but holy men of God spake under the power of [the] Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1: 21), and Paul declares that “every scripture [is] divinely inspired” (2 Tim. 3: 16). The Bible is therefore unlike any other book in that its origin lies not with man, but with God: it is the expression of the divine mind. This is not merely a question (as some say) of Scripture containing God’s Word, for it is God’s Word. Make Scripture to only contain God’s Word and its authority is lost for we are then dependent on man to tell us what is divine and what is not. Again, inspiration relates not merely to concepts but to words for it is “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2: 13). There is a world of difference between someone telling me what he thinks is the substance of what another has said, and that message being delivered to me in the very words used.
It follows from all this that Scripture is its own authority. Ordinary books are only as good as the competence of their necessarily flawed human authors, and their authority (such as it is) is often dependent on other sources outside their pages. The Bible is wholly different. Here we have God speaking, and it is as well to remember that “Who is like unto Jehovah our God?” (Ps. 113: 5). The Bible carries with it all the authority of God Himself and it is therefore irreverent in the extreme when men presume to sit in judgment upon its content. Nothing external to God’s Word proves God’s Word because of the simple fact that it is God’s Word. It does not need proving—only believing. Nor is believing presented as an option for “He that rejects me and does not receive my words, has him who judges him: the word which I have spoken, that shall judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken from myself, but the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12: 48, 49). God demands not only to be heard but heeded. This passage is of course referring to unbelievers, but this does not exempt Christians from the need to be careful in their handling of Scripture. Taking my opinions to the Bible and seeking texts to support them is not only a dangerous way to read the Word, but is, essentially, a denial of its authority. When God speaks, it is obligatory that “all flesh be silent before Jehovah” (Zech. 2: 13). We go to Scripture to hear what God has to say—not for God to be requisitioned as a buttress to our own agendas. Such a course may make us wise in our “own eyes” (Rom. 12: 16), but wresting Scripture in this way (see 2 Pet. 3: 16) is actually a mark of the untaught and ill–established.
The Church and Authority
Nor has such behaviour been confined to individuals, for laying down doctrine soon became a characteristic of the professing Church—even though the faith (or body of doctrine) had been “once delivered” (Jude v3). Of course it is true that a certain kind of authority has been delegated to the Church (see Matt. 18: 17, 18; 1 Cor. 5: 7–13)—at least in its initial state of unity— but what it has never had is the authority to teach in the sense of deciding doctrine. The assertion that Acts 15 is the fore–runner of the ecclesiastical councils and synods that dogmatized over doctrine in later centuries is without foundation, for in that chapter Peter and James simply appealed to Scripture. Again, when Paul said that “there will come in amongst you after my departure grievous wolves, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20: 29), it is significant that he committed the saints, not to the Church, but “to God, and to the word of his grace” (v32). Of course, the Church, as God’s house, is “[the] pillar and base of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15), but that means lifting the truth up for display as a responsible witness. It is not, as some think, that the Church is the basis for the truth (and by ‘Church’ those who argue this way generally mean its clergy, official or otherwise). The thought is simply all believers, as placed together as living stones in God’s house being a collective testimony to the truth. In actual fact, the Church quickly failed in that collective witness and degenerated into a “great house” in which there was a mixture of vessels “some to honour, and some to dishonour” (2 Tim. 2: 20).
It is obvious that if the Church can teach, then the Bible is only the repository of some of the truth, and we are at the mercy of whatever that body further decides. This is what had happened in Thyatira where “Jezebel, she who calls herself prophetess” had taught and led astray the Lord’s servants “to commit fornication and eat of idol sacrifices” (Rev. 2: 20, my emphasis). Of course the NT apostles and prophets laid down NT truth authoritatively before the canon of Scripture closed (see Eph. 2: 20), but their service has long ended, and those individuals gifted in teaching today (see Eph. 4: 11) are restricted to opening up that apostolic teaching as recorded in the Bible. They cannot get it anywhere else. I am aware that some wrest Matt. 13: 52 out of its context and allege that there are “things new” today that the apostles did not have, but Scripture is explicit that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles into all the truth (see John 16: 13). The “things new” in Matt. 13: 52 is simply NT doctrine!
Now of course the apostles handed down instruction to their successors (for such is the simple meaning of the word tradition in Scripture), but there is a world of difference between what the apostles handed down in addition to OT revelation (see 1 Cor. 11: 2; 2 Thess. 2: 15; 3: 6; 2 Tim. 2: 2) and what has come from the Church fathers and all who have come after them. Thus the apostle John exhorts his readers to “let that which ye have heard from the beginning abide in you” (1 John 2: 24) and we find the record of what he is talking about preserved to us in the NT Scriptures. Others, however, hold tenaciously to “what has been delivered by the ancients” (Mark 7: 3), but that, by definition, is preserved outside Scripture. The great difference is that while both have the lustre of antiquity, the former is God’s Word, and the latter is man’s word. Now there is no need to travel out of one’s immediate ecclesiastical circle to find that some things are done simply because they have always been done that way, or because it was an instruction of a respected teacher in a past generation—despite there being no definite Scripture behind it. And when it is impossible to diverge from that tradition, then you have a law, and therefore an additional authority to that found in Scripture. In practice, of course, it is nonsensical to speak of two authorities, and so the invariable result is that tradition carries more weight than the Bible. If there is a choice, man always prefers his custom to God’s Word for, as the Lord charged the Pharisees “Well do ye set aside the commandment of God, that ye may observe what is delivered by yourselves to keep” (Mark 7: 9, my emphasis).
The background to this verse is the Jews seeking to bind their own tradition of handwashing upon the Lord: “Why do thy disciples not walk according to what has been delivered by the ancients, but eat the bread with defiled hands?” (Mark 7: 5). It was an argument that seemed to have a lot in its favour. The Jews themselves carried ‘ecclesiastical’ authority, for they came from Jerusalem, the great religious centre of the day. They also knew their Scriptures, for some of them were scribes and they were morally upright, because some of them were Pharisees. Furthermore, the practise may even have had a pious origin since personal purity would illustrate that God looks for holiness among His people. These Jews may also have pleaded that the tradition was indirectly drawn from the word of God, because there were certain washings under the Law which God’s people always practised. Yet though they honoured God with their lips, their hearts were set on tradition—even to the extent of allowing it to contradict the Word of God itself (see vs. 6–13). They were nothing but blind leaders of the blind. Now of course there are many traditional practices among God’s people that are not of this serious character, and a good portion are harmless or even beneficial. However, if they are made binding upon the conscience then another authority is in operation apart from the Word of God, and God is effectively made to share His throne. To be helped by those who teach is one thing—but this is a very different from an authoritative rule imposed as binding upon the conscience. Those so gifted may teach, but if they teach as they should, it is to teach “obedience to the truth” (1 Pet. 1: 22).
Ministry of the Word
Ministry, if is of God, is thus “ministry of the word” (Acts 6: 4, my emphasis). There is no obedience associated with ministry in itself—the obedience is in the Word of God to which it points. In the light of this, it is quite sobering to come across Christians who appear to be governed by Scripture but who in fact are regulated by a particular brand of teaching. Bring Scripture to bear on their doctrine and practices and it has no effect. Why? Because the seat of authority (unconsciously perhaps) no longer lies in the Bible but in the thoughts of men. Such Christians will typically only read what they refer to as ‘divinely accredited ministry’, and quote 2 Tim. 3: 14 in support of their position: “But thou, abide in those things which thou hast learned, and [of which] thou hast been fully persuaded, knowing of whom thou hast learned [them]” (my emphasis). But what has this Scripture got to do with ministry today? Nothing. The words in the verse suit a certain purpose and so are used, but the context is simply ignored. The background is that when Paul wrote to Timothy the Scriptures were incomplete, and even the NT books that had been written were not yet generally available. Of course Timothy was familiar with the OT, as from a child he had “known the sacred letters” (v15), but he could not learn the distinctive truths of Christianity there. For that he was dependent on apostolic doctrine—and in his case, this meant Paul. Paul and those like him were apostles—not simply ministers of the Word—and their foundational teaching (see Eph. 2: 20) was accredited by signs, wonders and works of power (see 2 Cor. 12: 12). There is nothing comparable today because the Word of God is doctrinally complete (see Col. 1: 25). As his child in the faith, Timothy had first–hand knowledge of Paul’s “teaching” (2 Tim. 3: 10) but Christians today only have these things recorded for them in the NT. Thus “knowing of whom thou hast learned [them]” (v14) does not mean accredited ministry so–called, but apostolic ministry, and is, essentially, identical to what we find in the epistles.
The great danger with the erroneous idea of a modern “divinely accredited ministry” is that it encourages people to believe what is said (or written) without going to Scripture. In essence, it must be right because a certain teacher said so. The authority of the Bible, since it is no longer absolute, is undermined. The fact is, what accredits any ministry is Scripture, and nothing else. Thus the inhabitants of Berea, while receiving Paul’s word “with all readiness of mind” still verified it against the previous divine revelation that had been given them, “searching the scriptures if these things were so” (Acts 17: 11).
We can be thankful for any of God’s servants who bring the truth to our attention, but if they are truly God’s servants, they will point us to Scripture as the basis of our faith and confidence. If we do not get the truth for ourselves from Scripture, then we can have no certainty that what we have believed is true. False teachers get a hold of souls because what they say is never critically examined by their devotees, while even faithful teachers may disseminate a mixture of truth and error. Imbibing what seems right because we have confidence in the speaker is foolhardy, and ecclesiastical history is littered with tragic examples of those who have been led needlessly astray in this way. Even Barnabas was carried away by the dissimulation of Peter (see Gal. 2: 13). The same danger applies to reading printed commentaries without bothering to validate the teaching with Scripture. It is very revealing when people respond by saying that they trust the writer, because that is precisely what they have put their faith in. Faith needs to be in God and what He has said in His Word—not expositions. In saying this, I do not wish to undermine the usefulness of printed (or spoken) ministry, but, if used correctly, such helps will reinforce our faith in Scripture and not become a substitute for it.
It is very common to dismiss the Bible as just a book. Physically that is of course true, but it is not the whole picture. We would not say that a note from a loved one or a summons from a court are just pieces of paper—how much more that which comes from God! If these lesser things have the power to command our hearts and minds, let us see to it that we give Scripture its rightful place over our souls!