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Bible Authority: Is It All-Sufficient?

In his youth, Abraham Lincoln rejected organized religion, even refusing to attend the Baptist church of which his family were members.

The callow lad, Bible in hand, often parodied the local preacher, satirically haranguing a crowd of his fellow children (to their supreme delight). As far as he was concerned, the world was better off without religious dogma.

Still, Lincoln was also a morally sensitive young man, and even, to some extent, religiously curious. Although he remained skeptical of the Bible itself into his twenties, he never publicly denounced it; but neither, for that matter, did he affirm his faith in the good Book (see Guelzo, 446, 462-3).

As he matured, however, his mindset gradually moderated. Though doubts surely remained, he became increasingly besotted with the Scriptures.

In 1864 — a year before his assassination — while staying in his summer residence in northwest Washington, D.C., the president received a private visit from Joshua Speed, a friend and fellow-skeptic from his Illinois days.

In the evening, Speed found the president reading the Bible and exclaimed his surprise at the sight. Lincoln took exception, saying:

“Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man” (Whitney, 380).

On September 4th of the same year, a committee of men from Baltimore presented the president with a copy of the Bible. He described it as

“the best gift which God has ever given to man,”

adding that without

“that Book, we could not know right from wrong” (Lubin, 491).

Through maturity, experience, and honest Bible study, he was surely a changed man.

In like vein, renowned eighteenth century English lexicographer, Noah Webster (1758-1843) — who is considered the “father of American Scholarship and Education” — remarked that

“education is useless without the Bible,”

for it furnishes mankind with

“all necessary rules to direct our conduct” (Webster).

Scores of notable figures throughout history have expressed a similar reverence for the word of God. Indeed, no book has so profoundly influenced our world like the Bible has.

But these men were not merely suggesting that the Bible is an influential book, on the level of a Moby Dick or an Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Rather, they were contending that its influence stems from its authoritative nature — that, because it bears the marks of being divine (as the very word of God), it therefore has the right to dictate what we ought to believe and how we ought to conduct ourselves in religion and in life.

Were these men correct? Is the Bible authoritative? If so, must we depend upon the Bible alone to tell us “right from wrong”?

Or, does the Bible itself endorse other sources of authority for morality possessing equal or superior judgment? And how exactly does the Bible “direct our conduct”?

The Necessity Of Authority

If there is no need for authority in Christianity, then each individual may decide, on an impulsive whim, what conduct is acceptable and what is not.

If such were the case, the religion of Christ would become an amorphous smorgasbord, where Christ and God are no longer the supreme authority. Instead, Christianity would quickly be replaced by individu-anity.

Conversely, Jesus himself claimed authority — the right to command, permit, and prohibit — over all (Mt. 28.18; 7.29). Every individual is amenable to him, not vice-versa (Phil. 2.10-11; Rm. 2.16; 14.10).

Likewise, he recognized the need for permission to act, appealing to the authority of the Scriptures to justify his own conduct, including when he was tempted (Mt. 4.4ff); when he cleansed the temple of those who were defiling it (Mt. 21.13); when he performed acts of mercy on the Sabbath (Mk. 12.1ff); etc.

Our Lord also appealed to the authority of the Scriptures to settle doctrinal disputes.

For example, the Scriptures proved John’s legitimacy as a prophet of God (Mt. 11.10).

On the issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, Jesus argued that the Scripturesnot the hearts of men (Mt. 19.4ff) — are the ultimate authority which determines whether or not a marriage/divorce is sanctioned by God.

And according to Christ, those who do not know the Scriptures are in grave error (Mt. 22.29ff).

Dutch reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), observed that

“[t]he doctrine of the divine authority of Holy Scripture constitutes an important component in the words of God that Jesus preached, and if he was mistaken on this point he was wrong at a point that is most closely tied in with the religious life and he can no longer be recognized as our highest prophet. We cannot take Jesus seriously as a teacher and reject his own teaching concerning Holy Scripture” (108).

The disciples of Christ who wrote the New Testament likewise asserted the need for Scriptural authority.

They appealed to Scripture frequently (cf. Mk. 1.2; Rm. 1.17; 3.4, 10-18; 4.5-8; 11.8-10, 26-27; 1 Cor. 15.1ff; Acts 8.35; 17.3; etc.), which constitutes the “word of God” (Mt. 15.6; Mk. 7.13; Jn. 10.35).

They regarded both Old and New Testament books as authoritative “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5.18; cf. Deut. 25.4; Lk. 10.7).

Furthermore, those who reject, ignore, or twist the sacred writings do so “to their own destruction” (2 Pt. 3.16) and are to be subjected to the severest disciplinary measures (2 Thess. 3.14).

Hence, the Bible is authoritative. God approves those who keep its commands (cf. 1 Jn. 3.24) and rejects those who don’t (1 Jn. 2.3; 4.6).

Scripture Alone

But what about other sources of moral and religious authority?

Sociologist, Max Weber, in his ground-breaking tome, Economy and Society, developed a three-tiered classification system for the various types of authority:

(1) Traditional (established by custom);

(2) Charismatic (established by personal charm); and

(3) Legal (established by written rules).

Some denominations, like Roman Catholicism, appeal both to traditional and legal authority to justify their system of faith. For them, the church

“does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (Dei Verbum 9; cf. Catholic Church, §82, p. 31).

Others seem to base their religion solely on the charisma of their spiritual leader(s) — e.g., what the evangelist says or does is good enough for the congregants.

These sentiments run counter to the teaching of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

Certainly, when Spirit-inspired men like Paul, Peter, and John (etc.) spoke orally by direct revelation from Christ (cf. Gal. 1.11-12), their words could be taken as authoritative when confirmed through miraculous signs and wonders (cf. Mk. 16.20; Acts 5.12; 1 Cor. 2.4-5; Heb. 2.3-4). With such spiritual gifts at hand, there was no need for written verification (2 Thess. 2.15). For example, Paul could “set things in order” at the Corinthian church in person (1 Cor. 11.34; cf. Tit. 1.5; 2.15), as well as in writing (1 Cor. 5.3-5).

However, Bible writers repeatedly emphasize the necessity of conforming our faith to the written word. In that first generation of Christians, prophecies, both oral and written, were distributed in portions, little by little, here and there; eventually, however, God caused the prophetic gifts to “vanish away” and “be done away with.” Once that initial generation of saints passed away, their completed written testimony became the sole method of verifying their teachings (1 Cor. 13.8-10).

Consequently, for the 21st century individual, the Bible alone furnishes us with grounds for faith in Jesus as the Christ (Jn. 20.30-31; Rm. 10.17); it alone gives the Christian “certainty” concerning the Lord’s instructions (Lk. 1.4).

Notably, when Paul visited the town of Berea, the Bereans did not accept Paul’s assertions purely on the basis of his personality, or by his appeal to oral tradition. Rather, they only accepted his message upon the basis of the final authority of the “Scriptures” (Acts 17.11).

Peter recognized that the only way the church could remain “mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” was by writing letters as a “way of reminder” (2 Pt. 3.1-2). The inspired apostle did not want the church relying upon mere memory or word-of-mouth as a touchstone for spiritual matters.

Paul adjured the Corinthians “not to think beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4.6). Why? In the absence of written documentation, two disciples can more easily become “puffed up on behalf of one against the other.”

In that factious congregation (cf. 1 Cor. 1.11-13; 3.1-4), a “he said, she said” milieu prevailed — some standing with what one brother there was teaching; others standing with what another was teaching, etc. One disciple may claim that Paul said this — another may “differ” (v. 7), claiming that Paul said that. Though men may still differ on the interpretation of a written document, ideally there would be no disputing the matter of what Paul said if he wrote it down.

Hence, written revelation tends to promote a settling effect, leaving speculative matters (not addressed in Scripture) off the spiritual battle-field, as it were.

Here is a case in point: we know the Bible speaks of Heaven and Hell. But what about Purgatory? The Roman Church grounds their authority for this dogma on tradition alone — not on the Scriptures. Catholic scholars readily admit that the Scriptures do not “contain an explicit and direct reference to” Purgatory (Addis, et al., 704).

Tertullian (c. 155-220 A.D.) conceded that the doctrine of praying for the dead, from which the Purgatory doctrine was eventually developed, came from “no passage of Scripture” but rather from “custom” (The Chaplet, 3-4).

How can one be assured that the custom actually derived from the inspired prophets, rather than from the speculation or misunderstanding of flawed human beings? There is no way to verify whether such doctrines truly emerged from prophetic revelation.

In short, written revelation gives us direct access to the exact words which “the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Cor. 2.13). Whereas, oral tradition depends upon the faulty memory and interpretation of uninspired individuals, increasing the likelihood of corruption in the transmission of the message.

Accordingly, early in the movement, the Spirit instructed Christians to copy and circulate the inspired documents of the New Testament for the express purpose of ensuring a complete delineation of every authorized tenet of the Christian religion (cf. Col. 4.16; 1 Thess. 5.27).

In fact, early Christians disseminated the Bible so extensively that even those who resisted the faith, like Celsus (2nd century A.D.), owned copies and cited them profusely in an effort to refute it (Jackson).

For this reason, in Paul’s letter to Timothy, he proclaimed that

“all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3.16).

Of course, it is true that not “all Scripture” had yet been written at the time that Paul penned these words. But he was not endeavoring to affirm that there would be no written revelations subsequent to this letter.

Rather, his express aim is to establish the all-sufficient authority of divinely-inspired Scripture in general.

Two points dominate Paul's remarks. First, if God is the author of the book, then it is authoritative — and is serviceable to instruct mankind in matters of doctrine and holiness.

Second, he maintains that the Scriptures alone are all a godly individual needs to become spiritually “complete” before God. The Bible equips us “for every good work.” Hence, it is all-sufficient. I do not need oral traditions or evangelistic charisma to make me a “complete” Christian.

And it is the design of Scripture, as intended by God, that there would be no “good works” for which the child of God needs “equipping” that the sacred writings had not addressed already, and would not address thereafter.

In short, no aspect of the Christian faith is missing from the Bible. It is all we need to be “complete” and “thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the next part of this study, we examine how to establish authority from the Bible.

Addis, W.E. and T. Arnold. A Catholic Dictionary. New York: The Catholic Publication Society Co., 1887.

Bavinck, Hermann. Reformed Dogmatics, edited by John Bolt. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2011. 

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. 

Lubin, Martin (ed.). The Words of Abraham Lincoln: Speeches, Letters, Proclamations, and Papers of our Most Eloquent President. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005. 

Jackson, Wayne. “What Is Sola Scriptura?” Access date: October 22, 2019. 

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkley, CA: U. California Press, (1922) 1978.

Webster, Noah. “Notable Quotations,” from Access date: October 20, 2019.

Whitney, H. C. “Lincoln’s Social Isolation,” in The Independent, 54.1.1902.


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