THE AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE TODAY
The 20th century has been called the century of liberation. Religious leaders, especially in underdeveloped countries, are writing, “theologies of liberation.” This appeals to a basic desire within human beings: to be free, to express ourselves, to live as we think we should. When the United States began 200 years ago, there was a Holy Holy Roman emperor, France was ruled by a king, China by an emperor, Japan by a Shogun, Russia by a Czar and Great Britain by a monarch. But these monarchies have either disappeared or have been severely modified. In a century of liberation, why would anyone encourage authority? Because, even though we want freedom from ignorance, falsehood, sickness, hunger, war, poverty, suffering, and worry, we realize there is no such thing as absolute freedom. We want the forces of bondage broken. but to find true freedom means that we have to find true authority. A free society has to have an authority which protects its freedom. America began with such mottoes as, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Following the Revolution, the colonies were a loose coalition of individual states until 1783. Each state ran its own affairs with little concern for the broader needs of the country. States circulated a dozen different currencies, most of them of little value. Neighboring states erected tariff barriers against each other. State legislatures would not pay war debts. Some were ready to take up arms again to solve such problems. Shay's Rebellion against the government of Massachusetts in 1786 organized thousands of farmers against the Boston regime. The colonists soon found that if they were to survive and prosper as a nation, they must establish a stronger central authority which could give stability. Only then was the constitution written. Freedom has been the rallying cry of many a revolution, but authority is quickly needed to preserve what is won. What about authority in our individual lives? A doctor prescribes, but he can only help as the patient follows his prescription. A scientist's freedom is limited by the validity of his scientific method. He cannot just believe and act in any way he likes; he has to follow the evidence. We look for freedom. What we need is the kind of authority which can give us true freedom. Jesus once said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). In our world you have to be careful of the kind of authority you choose. Modern advertising techniques often do not sell a product on its merits, but rather on the basis of suggestion. You are given the idea that the product can do much more for you than it is capable of doing. From an alcoholic beverage ad, you would think joy and good company were inside the bottle. Beautiful, clever friends will surround you when you open this can. You are not given the picture of the twisted steel and the pained bodies of a car accident, or the gun shots that still occur near the bar. We need an authority for our lives which will give true freedom. Human authorities change with new information. We keep learning. Polio was once a crippler, but we have been freed from the dread of the late summer season through discovery. The plagues of the Middle Ages no longer take large percentages of the population. Grade school children today know more about the nature of the universe than the wisest of ancient philosophers. And we keep learning. But is there a more trustworthy authority for life? An authority which does not change? How does God exercise authority in our lives? Are we to follow our own reason as we make the basic decisions of life? Human reason has scored remarkable achievements. It is part of the “image of God” with which we were created (Genesis 1:26,27). We cannot afford to be irrational . If the Bible insisted that two plus two equal five, we could not accept this conclusion. Ignatius Loyola, 16th-century Spanish religious leader, once said, “If anything shall appear white to our eyes which the church has defined as black, we likewise must declare it to be black.” I do not believe the Bible requires this kind of rejection of our own reason. But how adequate is human reason alone in man's approach to God? The Bible often warns that our minds can be misguided. Paul describes idolaters in Romans 1 like this, “ For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles (Romans 1:21-23). On another occasion Paul asked, “For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (I Corinthians 2:11). We cannot know the secrets of another person's life unless that person chooses to reveal himself to us. Nor can we know God's will for our lives without God's revelation. A second authority which is commonly accepted in religion is experience. But our experience, our moods, are quite changeable. They depend on our emotional state or some stimulus from the outside, but feelings are hardly a safe guide in the basic decisions of life. We often have feelings about another person which turn out to be without foundation. When we know God, as his children, we do have feelings and experiences which come through fellowship with him, but these are the results of his revelation to us. These experiences are not the pathway to knowledge of God. When we know what God has required, and we respond to this with our whole hearts and lives, we will have happy feelings. But facts and faith must precede the feelings. Feeling is never the basis of our knowledge of God. Still others trust the church as the source of religious authority. The early church collected the inspired writings and preserved them as the New Testament. But the church did not bestow authority upon the Bible; it simply recognized the authority of the Bible. The history of religious bodies indicates that nearly all of them have reversed themselves at various times during their history. The church is made up of human beings. It has been bothered by sin and schism. The church must be under authority outside herself. Church leaders do not have final authority; they too are under the authority of God. If neither human reason, religious experience nor the church is the final authority in religious questions, what of the Bible? The Bible is the written record of God's conversation his people over hundreds of years. Here and nowhere else do we have a record of the history of God's self revelation to man. God was at work in all of history. He was Lord of Egypt and Assyria as well as Israel, but his lordship was not recognized in these nations as it was in Israel. His providence was necessary in the lives of all people, but his saving deeds were done in Israel. Other nations came to know of his salvation through what he did for Abraham's descendants. If we were to lose the Bible, we would lose the whole story of God's revelation to man, and the Christian faith would come to an end. Paul reflected the impact of scripture upon his own life when he said,“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Augustine once said,“I was subdued by Thy books.” And Luther commented,“The Holy Scriptures are a vast and mighty forest, but there is not a single tree in it that I have not shaken with my own hand.” We need to recognize the authority of scripture. James Smart, in his The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, tells the story of a man, about thirty-five years old, who had not been inside a church building in twenty years. He had traveled, married, divorced, become reasonably successful in business, only to be overcome by a feeling of emptiness. He began to read the Bible, but was frustrated. He couldn't understand it. He began to visit churches, not on Sundays but on weekdays, to ask about instruction in the Bible. He said they regarded him as a “freak” or pointed him to some special series of lectures. The place of the Bible does seem to have diminished in our lives. Most people today do not read, study or consult the Bible on matters of behavior or values. J.R.Green in his history of the English people described 17th-century England when the Bible was “one book which was familiar to every Englishman.” This was true in America in an earlier age too. But is it true today? The Bible is the source of our knowledge. The only way we can live under his authority is to live by these ancient writings. They were addressed to particular situations, but their authority is not limited to those places and times. A casual perusal of the Bible will show that its first page describes the beginning of all things. Its last page is filled with expectation of the end. One story runs from beginning to end, the drama of God who works out his purposes and offers salvation to men. Internally, the Bible is unique. With great brevity and calmness, it describes the most moving evemts of human history from the creation through the cross. Its prophecies demonstrate that God can fulfill his purposes. Its portrait of Christ challenges us to the highest quality of living. Externally, the Bible has wielded tremendous influence, and its claims have been supported time and again by the findings of archaeology. Oh, I know there are many classics which have survived for centuries, the writings of Homer, Virgil, Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare. But whoever heard of a worldwide organization of millions of people who ssemble to read their works publicly and order their lives by them? The Bible is in reality a book about us. Its characters are believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, hopeful and despairing. They are like us. And it is a
book about God. Karl Barth once explained that reading the Bible is like looking out a window and seeing everybody on the street shading his eyes with his hands and gazing into the sky toward something that is hidden from us by the roof. They are pointing up excited. Something is happening, or about to happen, which we cannot see.
And the Bible does carry this air of vibrancy. It speaks to our deepest needs. It emphasizes the authority of the Christ who said, “Follow me”. (Mark 1:17). The striking thing about Jesus was his authority. When he spoke, men left their families and jobs to follow him. The people who heard him were, “astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority” (Mark 1:22). Among his closing words to his disciples is the claim, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
He continued, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). To accept him is to live under his authority, and his authority comes to us through the word. Albert Speer, formerly an aide to Hitler, wrote his memoirs, entitled, Inside the Third Reich. Speer describes Hitler's Germany as the first time in history that man has been able to employ technology on a massive scale without any conscience as to its destructive results. And you know the sorrow that brought to the human race. What authority shall guide our technological powers? What authority shall guide our lives—yours and mine—today?*
*This message is a reproduction of a message pesented by Batsell Barret Baxter in 1973 on the Herald of Truth television program, sponosred by the Highland Church of Christ, Abilene, Teas.