The doctrine of authority boils down to one primary question: How does one become convinced that the Bible really is the Word of God? Or, how does a person become certain that Scripture is the truth of God conveyed through the process of inspiration and that it thereby has the right to exercise authority over one’s life?
The rightful idea of authority has always been a battleground. At the start of the twenty-first century, illegitimate forms and expressions of authority range from the illegal and abusive exercise of authoritarianism or totalitarianism to the individual authority that emerges from a postmodern mindset of selfishness.
The appropriate approach to this discussion commences with a working definition of authority in general, especially legitimate authority exercised in a proper fashion. A representative dictionary definition proffers that authority is the “power or right to enforce obedience; moral or legal supremacy; right to command or give a final decision.” The New Testament noun most commonly translated “authority” (102 times)—exousia—carries a similar definition: “power exercised by rulers or others in high position by virtue of their office.”
Secular worldviews offer many approaches to authority, such as the following:
• Oligarchical: authority exercised by a powerful few
• Democratic: authority exercised by the people
• Hereditary: authority exercised by those in a particular family
• Despotic: authority exercised by one or more in an evil fashion
• Personal: authority exercised by one person
However, in a biblical worldview, original and ultimate authority resides with God and God alone. God did not inherit his authority—there was no one to bequeath it to him. God did not receive his authority—there was no one to bestow it on him. God’s authority did not come by way of an election—there was no one to vote for him. God did not seize his authority—there was no one from whom to steal it. God did not earn his authority—it was already his.
God’s authority becomes obvious and unquestionable when one considers three facts. First, God created the heavens, the earth, and all that exists therein (Genesis 1–2). Second, God owns the earth, all it contains, and those who dwell on it (Ps. 24:1). Third, in the end God will consume it all, just as he declared, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10).
To understand and accept God’s authority is as simple as accepting the fact of God himself. Romans says this best: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). This locus classicus lays out clearly the source of all authority and articulates the principle of divine delegation (see Job 34:13; John 19:11).
Numerous statements in the Old Testament explicitly testify to God’s authority. For example, Psalm 62:11 asserts that “power belongs to God,” and 2 Chronicles 20:6 reads, “O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you.”
The New Testament attributes the same authority to the Lord Jesus, who declared after his resurrection that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Paul affirmed that in the end, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). Jude wrote it this way: “To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 25).
Throughout church history people have argued that a number of sources establish the authority of Scripture. Among the most prominent are (1) rational evidences, (2) church authority, and (3) the Bible’s existential impact on the reader. As each of these is discussed briefly, it will become apparent that none satisfactorily makes the case for the authority of Scripture.
Rational evidences include conclusions that can be drawn by making observations of the text of Scripture and the facts of history. Archaeological evidences provide one significant example. The Bible makes many historical references to people, places, and events, and a significant number of these are verifiable by tangible evidence. Archaeologists have uncovered everything from the city of Jericho (with some evidence that the walls fell flat) to the Tel Dan stela (which mentions King David by name). These discoveries include artifacts that confirm the existence of historical persons and the occurrence of historical events mentioned in the Scriptures. Throughout the last several centuries, most of the charges of the Bible’s historical inaccuracies have been refuted through these kinds of findings. In addition, not one historical event or person in the Bible has been proven false. Even apparent inconsistencies have been answered in a way that confirms the historical veracity of the Scriptures.
Another rational argument entails the fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 53 alone gives abundant evidence that God revealed details related to the crucifixion that only he could know. This text was written approximately seven hundred years prior to the birth of Christ. Isaiah 44:28 also makes reference to Cyrus the king of Persia by name and even goes so far as to declare that he will be the one to give the order for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. This text was written more than one hundred years prior to the destruction of the temple. Daniel records the rise and fall of every major empire from Persia to Rome in such a way that it can only be explained by a divinely authoritative revelation from God to men (Daniel 7–8). Add to this the manifold prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled throughout the course of redemptive history, and the case becomes insurmountable in favor of Scripture’s inspiration and authority. These and other similar rational arguments can be used to affirm logically that Scripture is the authoritative Word of God.
A second potential source of authority for Scripture is the church’s authority. This includes the declarations made by church councils, early church fathers, and significant ecclesiastical bodies. The Roman Catholic Church is founded on this principle. In their view, the Bible is the Word of God because the Roman church has decreed it to be. The primary problem with this argument is this: Who authorized the church to make this kind of declaration? What is the source of the church’s authority? If the Scriptures are the basis for the church’s supreme authority (see Eph. 2:20), then such authority is invalidated because it rests on circular reasoning. If supreme authority relies on some other source, like apostolic succession, then proof of such authority must be given, but in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no true evidence for apostolic succession. The church can affirm the authority of Scripture, but it cannot be the ultimate witness to it.
A third argument for the authority of Scripture is its existential impact on the life of a believer. This idea includes the tangible impact on a believer’s life that always accompanies genuine saving faith. It has also been used in liberal circles to speak of the Scriptures as not being the Word but becoming the Word when it has an existential impact on a reader. In either case, this amounts to basing one’s conviction that the Bible is the Word of God on the practical or emotional effect that its content has on the individual’s life.
The problem with all these arguments is that they are all subjective. They leave it up to the individual to determine whether or not the Bible is truly from God on the basis of his or her own evaluative standards. While these approaches do provide supporting evidence for Scripture as God’s Word, they are inadequate as the primary or ultimate proof. That proof must be the testimony of Scripture itself.
The matter of authority is addressed frequently throughout Scripture. The descriptions of God and the titles applied to him demonstrate his absolute authority over his creation. He is identified from the beginning as the Creator of all things (Gen. 1:1). The titles Lord (Deut. 10:17) and God Almighty (Gen. 17:1) demonstrate his authority and power over all things. The nature of God expressed by his attributes equally affirms his authority. The Bible attests to God as the eternal, immortal, and only God (1 Tim. 1:17). He is described as omniscient (Ps. 139:1–6), omnipotent (Ps. 135:5; Jer. 32:17), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–12), and righteous (Ps. 92:15). His wisdom is unsearchable (Rom. 11:33–36). His sovereignty is over all his creation (Gen. 1:1; Pss. 89:11; 90:2), now and forever (Psalm 104; 1 Cor. 15:24–28). This authority is conveyed to man through God’s Word and is an unalterably authoritative message (Deut. 4:1–2; Prov. 30:5–6; Rev. 22:18–19).
THE TESTIMONY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Given the nature of God and his Word, he alone is qualified to establish and attest to Scripture’s divine authority. This is precisely what he does through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to a believer. According to the Bible, the Holy Spirit works through the Scriptures to confirm its reliability, giving the believer a certainty that it is the Word of God. Authority is derived from a spiritual ministry of the Holy Spirit—not a subjective determination by the believer.
How does the internal testimony of the Spirit operate? It begins with the objective statements made by the Scriptures themselves. The Bible is a presuppositional declaration from God to man. Even the Bible’s first verse begins with a statement of fact: “In the beginning, God created” (Gen. 1:1). Scripture makes no attempt to prove its truthfulness to the reader. It offers no lists of reasoned arguments as evidence. God’s Word simply presents the truth as truth, while both expecting and demanding the reader to accept it as such. This is not to say that there are no evidences corroborating what the Bible says as true. Scripture presents a great many historical, geographical, scientific, prophetic, and even experiential facts that can be confirmed. What is more, a testimony composed by more than forty writers over a period of fifteen hundred years that consistently gives the same message throughout, without contradiction or provable error, is a compelling basis from which to derive confidence in what it says.
However, man in his depravity will always fundamentally rebel against God’s Word as the truth expressing God’s right to exercise absolute authority over him. As Paul attests in his writings, this rebellion is natural since man is born spiritually dead in his sin (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 3:10–18; cf. Ps. 51:5), darkened in his understanding (Eph. 4:18), unable to submit to the law of God from the heart (Rom. 8:7), and unwilling to accept the things of God because they can only be appraised spiritually (1 Cor. 2:14). Only regeneration can come to the gracious rescue. When the Holy Spirit regenerates a lost sinner, he or she is “made alive” in a spiritual sense (John 3:3; Eph. 2:4–5). Along with this newness of life comes illumination—i.e., an enablement from the Holy Spirit to discern that the Scriptures are, in fact, the Word of God (1 John 2:20, 27). Jesus himself affirmed that the Bible is true (John 17:17). He also declared that a confident conviction of this fact is dependent on a heart that is willing to submit to God’s will (John 7:17). This requires a new heart that only God’s Spirit can provide (John 3:5–8).
The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit illuminates the believer so that he knows that the Scriptures are the Word of God. The biblical basis for this clarity is derived from two sources. First, the words of Scripture are self-attesting because they claim to be from God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21). Second, the Holy Spirit’s dynamic power applies the truth of Scripture, resulting in a confident assurance in the Word itself (1 Cor. 2:4–16). This ministry of the Spirit is actuated through the reading and proclamation of Scripture (Rom. 10:14, 17). That does not mean that all who hear or read believe (Rom. 10:14–21), but it does mean that those who believe do so because of the convicting and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
THE CLARITY AND SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE
Illumination is not a work of the Spirit by which the Scriptures come alive in some subjective way to each believer. It does not provide new special revelation to the individual believer over and above what the text itself says. It also does not guarantee that every word is immediately understood. This is where the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture enters the discussion. The Bible does clearly articulate God’s truth. It is not a collection of mysterious writings or sayings that require some revelatory key to unlock their true spiritual meaning. The Bible accurately reveals and clearly communicates God’s message. Nevertheless, readers still need to study to ensure that they understand the Word correctly (2 Tim. 2:15). Even the biblical writers had to study to discern the meaning of Scripture (Dan. 10:12; 1 Pet. 1:10–12). There are mysteries that are not fully revealed in Scripture (Deut. 29:29). While the overall message is clear, God has not revealed in his Word everything related to his mind and plans for redemptive history. What the illuminating work of the Spirit does provide is (1) a receptivity to the authority of God’s Word, (2) a conviction that it is the truthful Word of God, and (3) a capacity aided by the Holy Spirit to discern the true meaning of the Word of God.
The Bible also attests to its sufficiency (Ps. 19:7–11). It is a light to one’s path (Ps. 119:105). It is more reliable than even the most amazing spiritual experiences (2 Pet. 1:19–20). It is able to lead a person to saving faith (2 Tim. 3:15). It instructs the religious elite as well as the common believer (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:37; Phil. 1:1). It was given by God to parents to instruct their children (Deut. 6:6–7) and is able to bring even a child to saving faith (2 Tim. 3:14–15). Paul wrote that all Scripture is given by inspiration and that it is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
A closer look at each of these four features reveals the full sufficiency of Scripture to equip a believer in living out the Christian life. The first term, “teaching,” means that the Bible instructs the believer in how to live, in what to believe, and in what God expects of him or her. It is related to content and doctrine. This concept fits with Jesus’s injunction in the Great Commission that new disciples be taught to observe all he commanded (Matt. 28:18–20). The Scriptures instruct God’s people in how to live in obedience to him.
The second term, “reproof,” shows the Scripture’s purpose of admonishment. It has to do with pointing out where a person has erred or departed from what God requires. Scripture is able to judge the heart when a believer has deviated in doctrine or practice from the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Heb. 4:12). The next term, “correction,” is the companion to reproof. The Bible not only shows a person where he is wrong, it also identifies the corrected attitude, belief, or behavior that he should put on in its place (Eph. 4:20–24).
Finally, “training in righteousness” indicates that the Bible shows how to put its teachings into practice on a daily basis with illustrations and examples (Eph. 4:25–32). Between the Scriptures and the indwelling Holy Spirit, the believer needs no additional revelation to be informed on how to live the Christian life. Pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11–12) are supplied to assist in the process of spiritual growth unto maturity, but even their ministries are founded on and informed by the all-sufficient Word of God (2 Pet. 1:2–3; cf. 1 Pet. 5:2–3).
GOD’S AUTHORITATIVE IMPRINT ON SCRIPTURE
This truth principle can be fleshed out in a syllogistic fashion with the following argument:
1. Known truths:
a. Scripture claims to be the Word of God.
b. God is authoritative.
2. Conclusion: Scripture is authoritative.
Both the ontological basis (God is) and the epistemological basis (God speaks only truth) of the Bible’s authority are established in Scripture (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 119:142, 151, 160). Thus, the very nature of God and the veracity of God’s Word are determined not inductively by human reason but deductively from the testimony of Scripture (cf. Ps. 119:89; Isa. 40:8).
The objection is often raised, “If the Scriptures were penned by men, there is the highest likelihood of error in the writings!” This is countered with the following observations:
1. Human participation in the process of biblical inscripturation is not denied.
2. The idea of formal dictation is not required, although it occurred at times.
3. The background of the human writer is not eliminated.
4. The power, purposes, and workings of God the Father through God the Holy Spirit are not limited.
5. There is a perfect balance between divine initiation and human participation in the writing of the Scripture’s autographa (or original manuscripts).
However, when all is said and done, Scripture is first and foremost “the Word of God,” not the “word of men” (Ps. 19:7; 1 Thess. 2:13).
Since the origin of Scripture can ultimately be explained by divine inspiration (Zech. 7:12; 2 Tim. 3:14–17; 2 Pet. 1:20–21), as defined above, the authority of Scripture is directly derived from the authority of God. Those who do not acknowledge God’s authority in Scripture are condemned (Jer. 8:8–9; Mark 7:1–13). On the other hand, those who rightfully honor and submit to God’s authority in Scripture are commended (Neh. 8:5–6; Rev. 3:8).
Thus, the man of God—that is, God’s herald—is to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). This declaration places the authority not with the preacher but rather with God (see 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Paul admonishes Titus to speak the Word of God with all authority (Gk. epitagēs, i.e., like the authority of a military commander), such that no one is exempt from obedience—not even the proclaimer himself (Titus 2:15).
The outworking of God’s authority in Scripture can be summarized by a series of negative (what it is not) and positive (what it is) statements:
1. It is not derived authority bestowed by humans; rather, it is the original authority of God.
2. It does not change with the times, the culture, the nation, or the ethnic background; rather, it is the unalterable authority of God.
3. It is not one authority among many possible spiritual authorities; rather, it is the exclusive spiritual authority of God.
4. It is not an authority that can be successfully challenged or rightfully overthrown; rather, it is the permanent authority of God.
5. It is not a relativistic or subordinate authority; rather, it is the ultimate authority of God.
6. It is not merely a suggestive authority; rather, it is the obligatory authority of God.
7. It is not a benign authority in its outcome; rather, it is the consequential authority of God.
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 100–107). Crossway.