What Is the Meaning of the Authority of Scripture?
The authority of Scripture means every word and stroke of the Bible possesses the authority of God and the right to rule the hearts, minds, and bodies of every inhabitant of the earth. Scripture’s authority doesn’t depend on whether mankind cooperates with it or understands it. Its authority depends on the power and supremacy of its Author—God. Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), which means Scripture is God speaking and thus has the final say in all matters—whether we choose to submit to it or not.
We all understand the concept of authority. Whenever we sit behind a steering wheel, speed limit signs possess the authority to demand we obey them. We’re not invited or allowed to ignore them or paint over them with whatever speed we prefer. The signs instruct us of the limits of what the lawgivers have deemed a safe speed and authorize the police to fine or even arrest us for breaking the posted limit.
Whatever authority a government—or speed limit sign—may wield, Scripture’s authority exceeds it. Humans write the laws of their country. God wrote the Scriptures. They came from His mouth. The Bible is the written representation of who God is—His character, nature, and ways. Scripture tells us what He’s done, is doing, and is going to do—and how we’re to respond to Him. Regardless of what we believe about Christ or His Word, one day we’ll all stand before Him and answer for how we submitted—or didn’t submit—to Him as He’s revealed in His Word.
How Do We Determine Scripture's Authority?
To ascribe supreme authority to Scripture naturally begs the question of how we determine that it possesses this declared authority. Where is the evidence? There are at least seven types of evidence we can examine to determine Scripture’s authority.
1. Internal Evidence: Scripture’s Self-Attestation
The first place we look to determine Scripture’s authority is to Scripture itself. To look outside of it for confirmation is to look to lesser things. We don’t depend on our speedometer or our feelings to determine the authority of the speed limit signs. We depend on the lawgivers. Likewise, we don’t look to creation to determine the authority of God’s divine Word. We look to the Creator, who speaks through His Word. The heavens declare the glory of God, but Scripture declares His glory and His Words. The Bible attests to its own authority to rule creation by declaring itself the divine Word of God (Psalm 19:1; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).
2. Internal Evidence: Fulfilled Prophecy
The Scriptures record fulfilled prophecy from Genesis to Revelation. Around 150 years before King Cyrus of Persia lived, God called him by name through the prophet Isaiah. He declared Cyrus would be king and serve His purposes for His own people after the Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 44:1, 4, 28).
Long before Jesus was born in a manger, the Old Testament prophets spoke of His earthly ministry in more than 300 prophecies. Christ fulfilled them all. These prophecies along with many others in the Bible testify to the Scriptures’ trustworthiness and right to be authoritative in our lives.
3. Internal Evidence: Scripture’s Unity
Because God directed what each author of the Bible wrote by His Spirit, more than 40 men put their pen to paper (or quill to parchment) and wrote His message without contradiction or error. God worked through the authors’ personalities, experiences, and writing styles, but the words were His, not their own (2 Peter 1:20-21).
4. Internal Evidence: Jesus Christ’s and the Holy Spirit’s Recorded Testimonies
God’s perfection, power, and authority naturally endow His Word with these same attributes. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, attested to this truth when He prayed, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17 ESV). Christ told His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come and confirm this truth in the heart of believers (John 16:13).
Jesus confirmed the authority of Scripture when He said, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18 ESV). In Luke 16:17, He said, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.” “The Law” is the Old Testament Scriptures—the Hebrew Bible.
Jesus again showed His confidence in Scripture’s authority when He said to the religious leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39 ESV).
After His resurrection, Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus and spoke with two disciples. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV). Christ trusted in the accuracy and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Peter, led by Christ’s Spirit, spoke to the New Testament’s divine authority. “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21 ESV). The God who breathed out the Old Testament and faithfully preserved it is the same God who chose every New Testament author and spoke through them.
5. Internal Evidence: Scripture’s Endurance
Since the day when Satan attacked the faithfulness of God’s words in the Garden of Eden, God’s enemies have questioned the trustworthiness of His words. Despite the vehemence of the attacks on God’s Word and His opposition’s relentless attempts to disprove it, the Bible remains the best-selling book of all time (Thus sayeth The Guinness World Book of Records). History, archeology, and science confirm it rather than refute it as true.
6. External Evidence: The Dead Sea Scrolls
With documents as old as the Bible, external evidence is limited and scattered across the ages. But once accumulated, it’s hard to ignore the evidence, such as the Dead Sea scrolls. In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd wandered along the cliffs of the Dead Sea in search of a lost goat. When he tossed a stone into a hole in the cliffs, the sound of clay jars breaking signaled the discovery of one of the greatest archeological finds in modern history. Around 900 ancient documents rested in tightly sealed jars, forgotten and undisturbed for nearly 1900 years. The most exciting discovery in the containers were scrolls of every book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) except the book of Esther.
When experts compared these manuscripts to the modern copies of the Old Testament, the results stunned them. Professor Gleason Archer, an expert in Egyptology and Semitic languages, commented on the Dead Sea Scroll’s copy of the book of Isaiah, saying they “proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variations consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest.”
7. External Evidence: Other Archaeological Discoveries
Before the electrifying discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a synagogue storehouse (geniza) in Cairo, Egypt did its own fair share of shaking up the world of antiquity. Inside the hollows of the Cairo Geniza, archeologists found around ten thousand biblical documents dating from the fifth century.
Along with the testimony of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Geniza, archeologists also discovered the Ataroth stone altar, the Rosetta Stone, and the Behistun Rock. These latter finds allowed experts to crack the code of various ancient languages. Finally armed with the ability to translate many ancient documents, experts confirmed the accuracy of numerous historical records of civilizations and kings chronicled in the Bible that had once been considered by some to be false.
The stone altar discovered in Ataroth, Jordan, confirmed the biblical report of an uprising by the kingdom of Moab against Israel (2 Kings 3). Archeological discoveries in ancient Boghazkoy (Turkey) confirm the existence of the Hittite empire, long believed to be a biblical myth until 1906 when Hugo Winckler uncovered a library of 10,000 clay tablets.
No matter how we look at it, whether internally or externally, God has proved His power to preserve Scripture across the ages, which speaks to its supreme authority as well as its inerrancy.
Is the Bible Inerrant?
God is perfect in His character, nature, and ways. He can’t make a mistake or misspeak. Therefore, His Word as He gave it to His chosen authors in the original language is inerrant—it’s free of error in everything it teaches. The Bible doesn’t just contain inerrant words from God. It is God’s inerrant Word. We, humans, are fallible, but God’s power isn’t limited by our imperfections. We can trust God’s ability to ensure the authors faithfully communicated His words in the original manuscripts and that He’s preserved the truth of His Word across the ages.
Why Do so Many People Push Back against the Inerrancy of Scripture?
Since God created the world, people have pushed back against His words by asking, “Did God really say?” When Satan tempted Adam and Eve to rebel against God’s authority, he posed this same question to Eve. “And he [Satan disguised as a serpent] said to the woman [Eve], ‘Has God really said, “You shall not eat from any tree of the garden”?’” (Genesis 3:1 NASB, emphasis mine). (Actually, no God didn’t say this, but what happened in the garden is a topic for another article.)
Our point is that Satan’s attempt to cast doubt into the heart of mankind concerning the authority of God and His Word has continued since the Garden of Eden. But why?
The most basic answer is the sin of pride. We inherited a sin nature from Adam. The root of all sin is pride. Because its roots grow deep into our hearts, we’re born with the same desire as Satan—to sit in the place of God. Our pride naturally opposes embracing the Bible, much less embracing it as inerrant. The Bible contains too many verses about humbling ourselves before God and man to suit our taste. Apart from Christ working in our hearts, we find these verses too hard to swallow. Too offensive.
We naturally fight against believing in the Bible or its inerrancy because if we accepted it, we’d have to submit to it. Apart from Christ making us spiritually alive and giving us the faith to believe and surrender to Him and His Word, we’ll never submit to the Bible. We’ll never embrace it as inerrant. But even Christians can struggle with the fact of the Bible’s inerrancy. Believing it contains errors gives us a good excuse to ignore the parts we don’t like.
Does the Bible Contain Contradictions?
“We all make mistakes.” Who hasn’t uttered this statement? More than 40 men from three different continents over a span of 1500+ years wrote God’s words into 66 books, which we now call the Bible or Scripture. Surely such a book contradicts itself somewhere. This reasoning, however, denies God’s ability to guide the writers and preserve His Word.
The supposed contradictions, however, are easily resolved through proper interpretation of the text and recognizing that copyists made errors. The original author didn’t make errors, but those who copied the original manuscripts did at times make minor errors. Fortunately, these errors didn’t change the meaning of the message.
Some people point to the differences between accounts, such as the four Gospels. Matthew and Mark mentioned one angel at Jesus’ tomb after His resurrection. Luke and John mentioned two. Their accounts would contradict each other if Matthew and Mark wrote that “only” one angel appeared. Leaving out an event or person who was present but not mentioned isn’t a contradiction.
If two people vacationed at the beach together, their accounts would differ. One might mention the sandcastle they built while the other only talked about the golden retriever who grabbed their frisbee and ran away. These aren’t contradictions. They’re different snapshots of the same vacation. Each of the gospel writers wrote to different audiences for different purposes. They included the details that mattered in the order that best served their God-breathed purposes.
Why Is the Authority of Scripture so Important to the Christian Faith?
Before Christ went to the cross, He prayed for His disciples and all believers, saying, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17 NASB). Christ was saying, “Your word [Scripture] is truth [divine, authoritative, absolute, and inerrant.]” If it were not divine, authoritative, and inerrant, it couldn’t be truth.
If we can’t trust Scripture to be inerrant and authoritative, who is to say which parts are truth and which are error? If we can’t trust all of Scripture, how can we trust any of it? How can we trust it to accurately explain the way to salvation from our sin? How can we enjoy the assurance of our salvation? If God isn’t able to preserve something as simple as His Word, how can He preserve anything else, much less our souls for eternity?
God reveals His eternal power and divine nature in creation (Romans 1:20) and His moral law in our conscience (Romans 2:14-15), but this knowledge doesn’t save us from the penalty of sin. It only condemns us and shows us our guilt and our need for a Savior. Without the authority of the Word of God to depend on, we’d have no hope. We’d be utterly lost. But in the richness of God’s grace and mercy, He gave us His Word so that we might know Christ, the image of the invisible God, and by believing in Him, we may have life in His name (John 20:31).
From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture reveals the perfect nature, character, and ways of God. It also shows us the truth about our sin-filled nature and the new nature God gives to all who repent and believe. Apart from submission to the authority of Scripture, we’ll base our beliefs and actions on our feelings, experiences, and the most convincing communicators. Our beliefs would ping pong with each new fad, trial, or triumph. We’d never land in a place of confident rest, forced to continually sift through the latest “new revelation” from Christendom’s most popular stars—the type of leaders Peter warns about in his New Testament letters.
Those who trust in and submit to the authority of Scripture, however, devote themselves to it. As they study God’s Word, it pierces their soul and spirit and performs surgery on their thoughts and the intentions of their hearts (Hebrews 4:12). His living Word transforms them into the image of Christ and gives them the desire to obey God and the power to do what pleases Him (Romans 8:29, Philippians 2:13, Hebrews 13:20-21). This work will not happen apart from submission to His Word. Anyone who doubts Scripture’s authority will never surrender to it. They’ll be like Pilate who stood before Jesus and said, “What is truth?” and then walked away without realizing he’d seen the truth (John 18:38 NASB). They’ll remain ignorant and imagine they have the authority to determine truth for themselves.
Sadly, in churches around the world today, many pastors and professed believers have compromised on the authority of Scripture. They’ve given in to culture’s cries and formed a low view of God’s Word. They’d never admit it, but they’ve bought the lie that truth is relative. They’ve lifted the banner of culture and ignored God’s clear word, calling evil good and good evil. In order to support their twisted theology, they must dismiss the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and proclaim God never meant for us to take His Word literally. In so doing, they’ve passed on to the next generation Satan’s Garden temptation—the sin of doubting the faithfulness and authority of God and Scripture. “Did God really say?” In the beginning, God spoke, and He still speaks with His divine authority through His Son on every page of the sacred Scriptures (Hebrews 1:1-3).
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” Isaiah 40:8 NASB.
Photo credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Sergio Yoneda
Jean Wilund is a former frustrated Bible reader turned geeky Bible lover. She’s passionate about helping women discover the fun in serious Bible study and a deeper love for God.
She’s a member of the Revive Our Hearts ministry writing team and enjoys answering your questions about the Bible and the Christian life on her YouTube channel and website JeanWilund.com. Connect with her also on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.