It is common among evangelical churches to include something like “The Bible has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct” within their doctrinal statement. We claim that the Bible is authoritative, at least in what we believe and how we live. But just what does that mean? My answer to that question has shifted significantly over time. This article will look at what this expression means to me today.
A Set of Directives
For some, the primary value of the Bible is as a rule book. The Old Testament is filled with laws that God gave to the nation of Israel, along with many admonitions to follow them. And much of the Old Testament relates the blessing that will come with obedience and the punishment that will come from disobedience. The New Testament also contains instructions for living as a follower of Jesus. As Christians, we are expected to live in a certain way. And it is the Bible that provides that instruction.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV
The passage above provides a good basis for seeing the authoritative nature of the Bible, containing instructions for how I should live. The Bible is useful for teaching. For rebuking when I stray. For correcting errors in what I believe and practice. And for training me to live a righteous life. Without question, the Bible gives me instructions for living as a Christ follower. And, according to Paul, both the Old and New Testaments are useful for that. There is no source of instruction for us that trumps the Bible. Where the Bible is silent, we may look elsewhere. But when the Bible speaks to something, it becomes the standard we live by.
Defining Our Beliefs
A second aspect of the authoritative nature of the Bible has to do with our belief system. What do I believe about God, creation, humanity, sin, salvation, eternity, etc.? We actually use many sources other than the Bible in shaping what we believe. But the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of faith.
For me, there is no question that God has inspired his word. And in matters of my faith, it is authoritative. I am fascinated by science. And when I am interested in understanding how things work, I turn to science books. But when I want to know the one who makes them work, or why he did what he did, I turn to the Bible. The same is true for history. While the Bible contains some history, its primary value is in helping me to see what is going on behind the scenes. I will read a history book when I want details of ancient life. But I turn to the Bible to know and understand the one who is guiding history to his intended purpose.
What is Authoritative?
But even in matters of faith, there is the challenge of correctly understanding what the Scripture is teaching on a topic. Discussion of the sovereignty of God, for instance, is a matter of great debate within the Church. The Bible affirms it. And I know of few believers who would deny it. But there is still a lot of debate as to just what is meant by the sovereignty of God. It is important for me to recognize that my understanding of these topics is not authoritative. Nor is what any other human has to say about it authoritative. It is the Bible itself that has that status. I need to constantly return to it with a measure of humility.
Molding and Shaping Our Worldview
Those are the primary uses that many make of the Bible. A rulebook for life. And the definition of a belief system. Do what the Bible says, and believe what it teaches, and all will be well. And I have been guilty of, at least implicitly, acting that way. But I have come to see that there is a much greater way that the Bible is authoritative in the life of the believer.
Blessed is the onePsalm 1:1-4 NIV
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Meditating On the Word
In this first psalm, the psalmist compares two people. The first is one who invests time in God’s word. While the second is wicked, rejecting God’s instruction. The first will be prosperous. While the second is on his way to destruction. The contrast between them is great. But, is the difference simply that one obeys and the other does not? Or is there more to it?
Many believers today are uncomfortable with meditation. And there are several reasons for that. Some view meditation as associated with Eastern religions, like Buddhism, where meditation is an emptying of self. To them, meditation can seem like practicing one of these other religions.
For others, meditation involves too much time or effort. It is much easier to see the Bible as just a black-and-white set of rules. Read the rule, follow it, and life is good. Investing the time and effort to fully digest what the Bible says is the work of a lifetime. Something that only professional clergy or scholars can afford to do.
But the psalmist does not limit meditation on the word of God to a limited few. Rather, all of us should meditate on God’s word. Take the time to chew on it. Delight in spending time with it. Allow it to shape the way you think and see the world around you.
A worldview defines how a person views the world around them. A worldview will interpret and give meaning to what you experience around you. And everyone has one. While you may not be able to fully articulate your worldview, it is there nonetheless. Your worldview is shaped initially during your formative years, mostly by your parents and teachers. As time goes on, your friends and the media play a bigger role. Your own nature will also impact how you see the world around you. An optimistic person will naturally see the world differently than a person who is more pessimistic. Even if everything else is the same.
A significant contribution to a person’s worldview comes from their community of faith. That community may be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even atheist. But we all have one. And our worldview is directly affected by it.
For all too many Christians, the contribution of our faith community to our worldview comes from what we hear taught at church or discussed among other believers. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But there is a much better source. And that is the Bible itself. Not what other people say about the Bible. But personal time spent in the Bible. As the psalmist says, blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who meditates on it day and night. That person is like a tree planted by the river whose roots grow deep.
Investing time in meditating on God’s word enables us to have, not just a Christian worldview, but a biblical worldview. A worldview shaped, not by what I hear other Christians talking about. But what the Bible, through long hours of meditation, has taught me.
The Bible As Authoritative
And, it would seem to me, when we talk about the authoritative nature of the Bible, its ability to shape my worldview is more significant than as a rule book or a source of dogma. When I make the Bible simply a rulebook, I limit its scope. Much of the Bible is not directive for living life. And following a set of rules does not engage all of me.
But when I meditate long and hard on the Word, allowing it to shape my worldview, its impact is much greater. All of God’s word is useful in shaping my worldview. And my worldview impacts everything I think, do, and say. The Bible is most authoritative when I am allowing it to fully conform my life and worldview to itself.