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Part 5: The ultimate standard of authority

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth of five articles by David S. Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on the authority of the Bible. The five articles were published as one article in the February 2008 issue of SBC Life, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention (www.sbclife.org).

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–The Bible is to be seen as the ultimate standard of authority for God’s people. The Bible derives its authority from the self-revealing and self-authenticating God. The Bible’s authority can and does communicate across cultural, geographical and temporal differences between the biblical world and our setting. Scripture is authoritative as it is rightly and faithfully interpreted in its historical setting. The Holy Spirit illumines our minds and hearts to understand the biblical message. Likewise, the Spirit leads us to recognize the authority of Scripture and to respond and obey its message today. [7]

The Bible calls for an obedience to the authority of God revealed in His Word, not in reaction to authority or in an authoritarian sense but from a true freedom that belongs to the children of God. We must avoid a concept of freedom that loses a sense of oughtness and responsibility. Simultaneously, we must avoid a swing toward authoritarianism so that our commitment to Scripture’s authority is misplaced in a church leader or in a societal trend.

Many people confuse a desire to obey Scripture’s authority with a personal insecurity that calls for a leader to tell them constantly what to do or think. More troubling is that some leaders encourage this confusion by commingling a commitment to biblical authority with the authority of certain positions in church leadership. What is needed more than ever is a clear-cut distinction between human and divine authority, so that the authority of the Bible is not undercut or lost through a false equation with human structures.

We demonstrate our concern for biblical authority not only by careful biblical interpretation but also by repentance and prayer. A commitment to the complete truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture is important because it is the foundation that establishes the full extent of Scripture’s authority.

Living with a Holy Spirit-prompted desire to respond to the message and authority of the Bible brings reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16), which result in contrition, discipleship and enablement for worship and service (2 Timothy 3:17). It results in training in righteousness that bears on Christian businesspeople and the integrity of their practice. It bears on Christians, who must speak to matters of injustice in society and in the church. Biblical authority addresses families and their commitments to one another. It speaks to preachers and teachers to handle carefully the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).

The authority of the Bible calls on us to recognize God’s desire for unity (through variety) in the church (Ephesians. 4:1-16; John 17; 1 Corinthians 12) and the need to love one another (John 13:34-35), even when we disagree over the interpretation of Scripture itself. Thus, we need a renewed commitment to biblical authority that enables us to relate to one another in love and humility, bringing about true fellowship and community and resulting in not only right doctrine but also right practice before a watching, unbelieving world. We need a renewed commitment to biblical authority that will transform our performance-oriented church meetings into authentic worship and praise — that will turn our church programs into service that is pleasing to God. The Holy Spirit, through the Scripture, illumines our appreciation of grace and motivates us toward faithful evangelism, social ministry and worldwide missions. [8]

We confess that God has revealed Himself to us. His revelation has been preserved for us in Holy Scripture by the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration. We confess our belief in the divine inspiration, total truthfulness and complete authority of the Bible. Even beyond this affirmation, with willing spirits and open minds and hearts, we must dedicate ourselves anew to the authority of Holy Scripture, assured that we can place our complete confidence in God’s truthful and reliable Word.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.


[7] James Leo Garrett. Jr., Systematic Theology, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1990), pp. 181-82.
[8] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Authority,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1979), pp. 346-371 and D. A. Carson. “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1986), pp. 46-48. Also see “Authority” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984). Much of this article has been drawn from David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995).

This series of articles originally appeared as one article in the Union University Bulletin, Volume IV, Issue 2, http://www.uu.edu/unionbulletin/pdfs/vol4-issue2.pdf. Reprinted with permission.

    About the Author

  • David S. Dockery