Establishing Bible Authority
How do you establish Bible authority? How do we go from what the Scriptures say to what they say to us? How can we know what God’s will is for our lives? There is an instance in Acts 15 where the Christians in the First Century were trying to answer these very questions.
After the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, they returned to Antioch and “began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). Jews came down from Judea and insisted that these Gentiles be circumcised to be saved. After much debate, the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders there. They were seeking God’s will concerning this question: “Is it necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (cf. Acts 15:5)? How would they find the answer?
We have often heard of the three ways to establish Bible authority:
- A command is simply a “thus says the Lord,” where God demands that something be done or not done, as in the 10 commandments (Ex. 20).
- An example is where we are shown how disciples practiced their faith and met God’s approval. “Be imitators of me as I also am of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
- A necessary inference involves something that is not specifically stated but can be logically implied based on what is said. Philip “preached Jesus” to the eunuch (Acts 8:35). Based on the eunuch’s question (8:36), we infer that preaching Jesus includes baptism, the need to obey Jesus.
In recent years, these methods have come under attack. Some are convinced that we need something new or different. Others are of the opinion that since the names of these methods can be traced to the Restoration Movement, they are nothing more than “church of Christ” isms. But this standard of authority is used by Jesus in John 13:34-35 and also by the early Christians in Acts 15.
What is required of us on our quest for Bible authority?
A command requires obedience. God had spoken about the issue in Acts 15. James, the Lord’s brother, compared what was happening among them with “the words of the Prophets” (15:15, cf. Amos 9:11-12). The death and resurrection of Christ had brought about an opportunity for all of mankind to seek the Lord and to be called by God’s name. What they were seeing in the conversion of the Gentiles was God’s will. Instead of standing in the way, they should be going into all the world and preaching the gospel to all creation.
When people ask why we worship the way we do, it’s not about “our” preferences or what “we” think is best. We are following God’s command. It’s what He requires.
An approved example requires imitation. Paul and Barnabas appealed to their example (Acts 15:12). What did the signs and wonders God had done show about the conversion of the Gentiles? He approved of it! Just as when Jesus performed a miracle to prove who He was or to confirm the words that He spoke.
When God approves of the example, it has the same authority as when He speaks a command. That’s why we continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and gather on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7).
A necessary inference requires honesty. In Jerusalem, Peter laid out the evidence that led to his conclusion (Acts 15:7-11). God sent him to the Gentiles, namely Cornelius. He showed him a vision three times; Peter inferred that he was talking about men (Acts 10:28). The Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his family; they inferred that God approved of them. The Jews were not able to keep the Law perfectly; why would God demand the Gentiles to observe it? What was the honest inference? “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:11).
Not all inferences are necessary. In the case of Lydia and the Philippian jailer, Luke wrote that they and their “household” (16:15,33) were baptized. Does that prove that infant baptism is authorized by God? Does the text logically lead you to that conclusion? Or does that contradict other passages? This method will require us to be diligent in our study of the word of God. Instead of drawing inferences that fit our own agenda, we must examine the Scriptures in light of context and harmony.
We don’t need a new way to establish authority. We need a renewed dedication to the word of God. We don’t need more signs. We need a deeper understanding of the signs that have been revealed. What is the Lord’s will for us? We can find it, we can understand it, we can fulfill it.