‘Christians believe in the authority of Scripture’.
But what does this mean?
Christians believe in one God and we believe that this one God is revealed to us in God as the Father, in God as the Son and in God as the Holy Spirit. But how does God reveal himself to us?
While we believe that the existence of God as an intelligent force is revealed in the Universe which God created, the Universe alone cannot reveal the way in which this personal God interacts with humankind. This is revealed in history, in the unfolding story of how God relates to people and how people relate to God.
Christians believe that God’s interaction with people is revealed through Scripture or the written Word – that is, the Christian Bible of the Old and New Testaments. We also believe that God is active today: that people can know God and relate to God today. But we believe that the textbook which sets out God’s plan for humankind, God’s guide book on how we should live, was written thousands of years ago and still remains true today.
That is what we mean when we say that Scripture has authority. The Bible contains truths which God wants us to understand, principles by which God wants us to live and instructions which God wants us to obey. It does not need to be updated because what it says is eternal; what it asks of us holds true for ever.
The Bible is a complex book, made up of many separate ‘books’. These were written by a large range of different kinds of people – by historians, poets, theologians, editors, visionaries and philosophers, by kings, fishermen, farmers, doctors and prophets. Their writings are the authoritative Word of God because God inspired them to write. This does not mean that God suspended their personalities and ‘dictated’ the words. It means that they wrote under the inspiration of God. They were people with a special relationship with God which meant that by using their own gifts and abilities and understandings, they wrote what God wanted them to write so that the mind of God and the actions of God could be understood through their human writing.
God’s dealings with us human beings happened in two great eras or ‘Testaments’. The Bible puts it this way:
‘In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son…’ (Hebrews 1:1-2)
God’s old relationship with people ‘in the past’ is told in the first section of the Bible, called the ‘Old Testament’. God’s new relationship with people ‘in these last days’ is told in the second section of the Bible, called the ‘New Testament’.
The Old Testament, originally written in the Hebrew language, reveals God as Creator, as Law Giver and as the God of his chosen people, the people of Israel. It tells the story of the decline of God’s people as they drifted away from God. The New Testament, originally written in the Greek language, reveals God as God of all people of the earth, as the Father, sending himself as Jesus, his Son, to be born on earth, to live, die and rise again to restore all people to himself.
The New Testament writers often refer to Scripture as being inspired by God but of course the New Testament did not exist before they wrote. The Scripture to which the New Testament writers looked back is the Old Testament. While we now must view the Old Testament differently, it does not cease to be inspired. It must simply be understood in a different and greater way as the writings which led to the coming of Jesus. When the New Testament writers say the Old Testament is inspired, they are particularly thinking of this fact. They are thinking of ancient writings which prepared the way for Jesus and which in particular foretold his coming.
Supremely, the New Testament is authoritative because it and it alone tells the story of Jesus, God’s Son. It also tells the story of the first Christians and their understanding of Jesus. In the first centuries after Jesus, Christians agreed, through the Church leaders, on which writings were inspired, that is, which writings were authoritative. The writings which they knew to be inspired by God were the accounts written by the eyewitnesses of Jesus and by some of the first Christian leaders who were their contemporaries.
We regard these writings as authoritative because only through them can we encounter the story of the flesh-and-blood Jesus and only through these New Testament writings can we grasp the understanding of Jesus as God that was gained by Jesus’ contemporaries. Through their eyes, their thoughts and their personalities, we can come to know God and God’s will for us – how we can enter into a relationship with God, how we can live in that relationship with God and how we can die, still in that relationship, which can and will take us to be with God forever.