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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

The authority of the Bible

David Parkin
9 August 2018

At a service of Ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacraments within the United Reformed Church a number of questions are asked of the ordinand including:

“Do you believe that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people?”

and to this question the ordinand is expected to reply “I do.”

There are wide differences of opinion among Christians regarding how the Bible may be seen as the Word of God, and this may be evidenced from the various translations. For instance, the Preface to the New International Version states:

“the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s word in written form. They believe that it contains the divine answer to the deepest needs of humanity, that it sheds unique light on our path in a dark world, and that it sets forth the way to our eternal well-being,”

whereas the translators of the New Revised Standard Version are not prepared to be so dogmatic:

“in traditional Judaism and Christianity, the Bible has been more than a historical document to be preserved or a classic of literature to be cherished and admired; it is recognised as the unique record of God’s dealing with people over all the ages… the Bible carries its full message… to all persons and communities who read it so they may discern and understand what God is saying to them.”

Few perhaps would now hold that God in some way dictated the Bible, that those who wrote the words did so by the sacred equivalent of automatic writing, but many would argue that God, through the working of the Spirit in the minds of authors, editors or compilers, ensured that the result was without error. But if this is the case the problem then arises as to whether this accuracy extends to the various translations. To take one illustration — in the Authorised Version, Deuteronomy 33: 27 reads:

“The eternal God is thy refuge,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

words that have been of great comfort to many people, particularly in times of great distress, and this understanding is maintained by others including the Revised Standard, Good News and New International versions. Yet several recent translations (New English, Revised English and New Revised Standard) change the sense completely, the New Revised Standard Version reading:

“He subdues the ancient gods,
shatters the forces of old.”

These are difficulties to be faced in the inerrant reading of the Bible. By way of contrast, in What is the Bible? John Barton writes: “The Bible is not a book written by the hand of God which dropped from heaven. It is a compendium of human responses to God’s input into the human situation.”

What then is “The Authority of the Bible?”

To the person who believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God then it may be sufficient authority that “the Bible says”, and to seek to apply its teachings to any situation or matter of conduct. But for those who cannot accept this then the authority of the Bible comes from its pointing beyond itself to the God who inspired its writing and to his “salvation history” supremely in Jesus.

For Christians the authority of the Old Testament lies in the belief that the God whom they worship was, and remains, the God of Judaism, the God who spoke words of promise through the writers, editors and compilers of the Old Testament — people who were not Christians (who could not have been so) but who developed a deep understanding of the nature of God. The authority of the New Testament lies in the belief that it is this self-same God who is revealed in the witness of the early church to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The authority of the Bible is the authority of God who speaks through it to God’s creation. It is through its promise and its witness that readers are enabled to hear the incarnate Word of God — Jesus who became the Christ.