Correctly Interpreting The Bible: Authority and the Testaments — Jon Mitchell, Editor (Editorial: January/February, 2019)

The editorial in the last issue started a study on whether it is possible to correctly interpret the Bible. It examined the necessity of doing so (Matt. 7:21-23; Heb. 5:9; 2 Tim. 2:15), the false notion that truth is not absolute, the need to heed the entirety of God’s Word (Ps. 119:160), and the benefits of researching the definitions of biblical terms in the original languages when necessary.

We will now continue our study by examining the concept of biblical authority. Jesus was asked about the authority He had to teach His doctrine (Matt. 21:23), a legitimate question even if it was asked with illegitimate motives by the religious leaders. It’s a legitimate question because God tells us to have divine authority in everything we do and say (Col. 3:17). Thus, biblical authority is very important to properly interpreting Scripture. Authority is a foundational precept of Christianity, for without it we have no basis for anything we believe, teach, or practice individually or congregationally.

For example, consider the basic fundamental trait of Christianity which is prayer. We all know Christians pray…but how do we know to whom to pray, for what to pray, or even to pray in the first place? Ultimately, we know to pray (Col. 4:2) to God the Father (Matt. 6:9) about numerous topics (Matt. 6:9-13; 1 Tim. 2:1-2; etc.) because God’s Word tells us to do so. If not for the Spirit-inspired Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:19-21), we wouldn’t know how to pray or even to pray to begin with (Rom. 8:26). Thus, we get our authority to pray from God’s Word.

In fact, every divinely pleasing thing we do as Christians is done by authority which comes from Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Paul said that Scripture equips us for “EVERY good work.” That means if there is a work out there which we don’t need Scripture to give us authority to do in some way, it is not a good work as far as God is concerned. Sure, we might think it a good work…but God’s thoughts aren’t ours (Is. 55:8-9; Prov. 14:12). So again the need for biblical authority is apparent.

Yet how do we get that authority? Studying Scripture reveals three ways in which God’s Word gives authority. The first would be through a command, a direct statement of something which can or cannot be done (e.g., John 13:34; Acts 2:38; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 4:3).

Sometimes biblical commands are general in nature, not limited in scope, area, or application. For example, the command to “go” (Matt. 28:19) is general nature and would authorize all methods of transportation in our efforts to evangelize since God did not specify just how we are to “go.”

On the other hand, sometimes biblical commands are specific in nature, like when God specified gopher wood as the type of wood Noah was to use while building the ark (Gen. 6:14). For this reason Noah would have disobeyed God by using pine wood.

In like manner, a specific command may itself have a degree of general authority which would open up the use of aids not specifically mentioned in the command but which nonetheless are suitable for carrying out that which is authorized. For example, peruse the instructions God gave to Noah about the construction of the ark and you will see more examples of how specific God was in His requirements (Gen. 6:14-16). However, you will find no mention of God telling Noah to use tools such as hammers, nails, saws, etc. Yet, we know that the ark was not built miraculously in that it took decades to build it (Gen. 6:3). Thus, Noah must have used construction tools to build it, tools which God did not mention in His instructions. Did Noah go beyond what God had authorized? No, because when all was said and done Scripture says twice that Noah “did all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22; 7:5).

The second way God’s Word gives authority is through approved examples. The divinely inspired Paul taught not only through command, but also by example (Phil. 4:9). In fact, he encouraged others to imitate him and follow his apostolic example (1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:1), something which the early church did with all the apostles (Acts 2:42; Phil. 3:17; 2 Thess. 3:9). They did so with good reason, considering that the apostles were inspired by the Spirit of God (Eph. 3:3-5). So when we have an example in Scripture which meets with apostolic approval, we know there is authority for the practice. To illustrate, we meet on the first day of each week to partake of communion because of the example set by the early church with the apostles’ approval (Acts 20:7; cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17).

The third way God’s Word gives authority is through necessary implications. These are neither explicitly stated nor specifically exemplified, but rather are necessarily implied by the clear meaning of the language used by the inspired writers, so much so that one could only logically draw a particular conclusion. Jesus made a necessary implication in His teaching of the existence of the resurrection of the dead to the unbelieving Sadducees (Matt. 22:31). He quoted what God said to Moses at Mount Horeb (Ex. 3:6) about currently being the God of Jewish patriarches who at the time were centuries in their grave (“I AM the God of Abraham…Isaac, and…Jacob”) to necessarily imply that God is not “God of the dead, but of the living,” i.e., that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still existed after their deaths.

We do the same thing, probably without realizing it. For example, we cite John 3:16 as biblical proof that God gave His only begotten Son because He loves all of humanity. Yet the verse doesn’t actually say that. It actually says, “For God so loved THE WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son…” We necessarily infer that “the world” refers to the entire human population rather than the physical planet because of what is specifically stated in other passages (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). In like manner, students of the New Testament know that there is no specific command which states, “Thou shalt not punch thy wife in the face.” However, none of us would say that spousal abuse is therefore permitted in the New Testament. Why? Because of the necessary implications we make from certain passages (Matt. 7:12; Eph. 5:28-29).

A study on authority and its relationship to correct biblical interpretation would not be complete without examining the differences between the Old and New Testaments (covenants). Unlike the new covenant whose laws apply to everyone (Matt. 28:18), the old covenant applied only to Israel (Deut. 5:1-3), serving as a “guardian” to Israel until Christ came (Gal. 3:24), after which its laws would not longer be applicable (Gal. 3:25; Rom. 7:1-6). Those attempting to obey some of its commands would be obliged to obey them all, and would fall from grace (Gal. 5:3-4). Yet it still has value to the Christian (Rom. 15:4) by instructing us about God (cf. Ps. 19:1; 23) and His interactions with man (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-11).

However, correct biblical interpretation requires recognition that its laws given to Israel which regulated their theology, worship, eating habits, holy days, etc., do not apply to Christians today unless we read of those same regulations within the new covenant. For example, all ten of the commandments given at Mount Sinai are also found in the New Testament except for the one concerning the Sabbath Day. Both Testaments command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 13:9). Other examples could be cited.

Yet, while we read of Israel worshiping God through animal sacrifices and instrumental music in the Old Testament (Lev. 1; 2 Chr. 29:25-30), we do not read of Christians commanded to worship in the same ways in the New Testament. Rather, Christians are told that Christ is their sacrifice (Heb. 9:26). We are told to sing praises to God while “plucking the instrument” (the literal definition of the Greek word translated “making melody”) of their heart (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

Interpreting the Bible correctly requires constant study (Ps. 1:2; 1 Tim. 4:13, 15-16). Proper understanding doesn’t come overnight; in fact, continual study will always be required if for no other reason than we will forget some of what we’ve learned (2 Pet. 3:1-2). These two editorials provide only a generalized overview, but it is my hope that they can serve as a good starting point in our efforts to no longer be spiritual children “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14; cf. Heb. 5:12-14; 6:1-2).

— Jon

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