Jesus was asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23), a legitimate question even if it was asked with illegitimate motives. It’s a legitimate question because God himself tells us to have authority from Christ in everything we do and say (Col. 3:17). Thus, the concept of biblical authority is very important to having a proper hermeneutic of Scripture. Authority is a major foundational precept of Christianity, for without it we have no basis for anything we believe, teach, or practice in our individual lives and in the church.
Think about it. Look at prayer, for instance. Prayer is a basic fundamental trait of Christianity. We all know that Christians pray…but how do we know who to pray to, or what to pray for, or even to pray in the first place? When all is said and done, we know to pray (Col. 4:2) to God the Father (Matt. 6:9) about numerous topics (Matt. 6:9-13; 1 Tim. 2:1-2; etc.)…because God’s Word tells us to do so. If it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit-inspired Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:19-21), we wouldn’t know how to pray or even to pray in the first place (Rom. 8:26). Thus, we get our authority to pray from God’s Word.
In fact, every divinely pleasing thing we do as Christians is done by authority that comes from God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Did you notice how Paul said that Scripture equips us for “EVERY good work”? That means that if there is a work out there which we don’t need Scripture to give us authority to do in some way, then it is not a good work…not as far as God is concerned. Sure, wemight think it to be a good work…but God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9; Prov. 14:12). So again the need for biblical authority is apparent…but how do we get that authority? A study of the Bible reveals that God’s Word gives authority in three basic ways.
The first would be through a command, a direct statement of something can or cannot be done (e.g., John 13:34; Acts 2:38; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 4:3). Sometimes biblical commands are general in nature, not limited in scope, area, or application. For example, the command to “go” (Matt. 28:19) is general in nature and would authorize all methods of transportation in our efforts to evangelize, since God did not specify just HOW we are to “go.” On the other hand, sometimes biblical commands are specific in nature, like when God specified gopher wood as the type of wood Noah was to use while building the ark (Gen. 6:14). Noah would have disobeyed God by using pine wood, because God had specified gopher wood.
In like manner, a specific command may itself have a degree of general authority which would open up the use of aids not specifically mentioned in the command but which nonetheless are suitable for carrying out that which is authorized. For example, peruse the instructions God gave to Noah about the construction of the ark, and you will see more examples of how specific God was in his requirements (Gen. 6:14-16). However, you will find no mention of God telling Noah to use tools such as hammers, nails, saws, etc. Yet, we know that the ark was not built miraculously in that it took over a century to build (Gen. 6:3); thus, Noah must have used construction tools to build it, tools which God did not mention in his instructions. So did Noah go beyond what God had authorized? Not necessarily, for when all was said and done the Bible says twice that Noah “did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22; 7:5).
The second way God’s Word gives authority is through approved examples. The divinely inspired apostle Paul taught not only through command, but also by example (Phil. 4:9). In fact, he encouraged others to imitate him and to follow his apostolic example (1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:1), something which the early church did with all the apostles (Acts 2:42; Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:9) and with good reason, considering that the apostles were divinely inspired (Eph. 3:3-5). So when we have an example in Scripture that meets with apostolic approval, we know there is authority for the practice. For example, we meet on the first day of the week to partake of communion because of the example set by the early church with the apostles’ approval (Acts 20:7; cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17).
The third way God’s Word gives authority is through necessary implications. These are neither explicitly stated nor specifically exemplified, but rather are necessarily implied by the clear meaning of the language the inspired writers are using, so much so that one could only logically draw a particular conclusion. Jesus made a necessary implication in his teaching of the existence of the resurrection of the dead to the unbelieving Sadducees (Matt. 22:31). He quoted what God said to Moses at Mount Horeb (Ex. 3:6) about currently being the God of Jewish patriarchs who at the time were centuries in their grave (“I AM the God of Abraham…Isaac, and…Jacob”) to necessarily imply that God is not “God of the dead, but of the living,”i.e., that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still existed after their deaths.
We do the same thing, probably without realizing it. For example, we cite John 3:16 as biblical proof that God gave his Son because he loves all of humanity…but the verse doesn’t actually say that. It actually says, “For God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only Son…” Yet, we necessarily infer that “the world” is referring to the entire human population rather than the physical planet because of what is specifically stated in other passages (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). In like manner, students of the New Testament know that there is no specific commandment which states, “Thou shalt not punch thy wife in the face.” However, none of us would state that spousal abuse is therefore permitted in the New Testament…why? Because of the necessary implications we make from certain passages (Matt. 7:12; Eph. 5:28-29).
These principles on how to establish biblical authority may seem commonplace, dull, unimaginative, or matter-of-fact, but they have proven to be very useful in correctly applying God’s Word to our lives in a consistent and logical manner. It is my hope that you may find them useful in your quest to interpret God’s Word correctly.
(Lord willing, I’ll write an article in a few hours which will conclude this series by studying the differences between the Old and New Testaments. Hope you check in later today for that. Thanks for reading, and please know that all comments and questions are welcome, provided they are given in a Christian manner.)