The Bible claims to be our supremely authoritative guide to life. But isn’t it irrational, oppressive, or even dangerous to base our lives on an ancient book—any book—rather than to “think for ourselves”? My claim in this short series is that basing our lives on the Bible is exactly what thinking for ourselves leads us to do—if we’re thinking well.
A crucial first step in thinking well about the authority of the Bible is to get clear on what authority is, more generally. Let’s continue to follow Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:24-28 (see Part One for the full quotation) as our starting point. He wraps up a lengthy discussion of how to live well by telling a parable about a wise man, who built his house on solid ground, and a foolish man, who built his house on sand. When floods came, only the wise man’s house was left standing. The point of the parable is that if one’s life has an inadequate basis it will fall apart under the pressure of hard times, but with a good foundation one will be able to stand strong in the midst of difficulties and struggles.
And what is it that makes the difference? Jesus is clear that what determines the quality of our life’s foundation is our response to him and his teaching. The wise person, says Jesus, “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24).
This is a striking claim—and as vivid a picture of how authority works as we may find.
The nature of authority
What is authority? What does it mean to be an authority? Obviously there is such a thing as “card” authority, as I described it in Part One, where someone demands compliance solely on the basis of their position or power. Like the neighborhood bully or the guy with the card that says he’s in charge.
But not all authority is like that. In fact, quite often those people we consider authorities don’t have a position of power—or if they do, that’s not why we respect them and are glad to follow them. It’s because they also have something else, such as knowledge, expertise, and character. Those are the kinds of things we look for we look for in a true authority. I suggest, for our purposes, a definition of true or legitimate authority along those lines. Speaking generally, an authority is a trusted source of important truth in a particular area.
Let’s unpack this. Here are a few examples of authority, representing different areas:
- We view Albert Einstein as an authority in physics.
- A respected surgeon is considered an authority on surgical procedures in his field.
- Medical students are required to master the material in certain textbooks, those that are regarded as authoritative in their fields.
- Hikers and rock climbers use U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps as authoritative guides to the geography of the area they want to climb.
In each, very different case (and we could think of many more), whether it is a person or an artifact like a map or textbook, the authority is regarded as a trusted source of truth in a particular area, and treated as such.
There is an important difference between these two kinds of authorities, however. The authority of maps and textbooks is not as basic as that of persons. We trust artifacts as sources of important truth in a particular area because of their source: they were authored or designed by a person or persons we consider to be authorities. Texts gain their authority from their authors (notice the linguistic connection between ‘author’ and ‘authority’). This distinction will be important when we consider the Bible’s authority. For now, let’s focus primarily on the more basic form of authority, that of persons.
What makes someone an authority? What do true, legitimate authorities have in common, that marks them out as such? As I briefly suggested earlier, at least three things: knowledge, skill, and character.
INGREDIENTS OF AUTHORITY
An authority on a subject has unique, specific, and important knowledge about it. We look to Einstein, and not, say, to Jay Leno, for insight into physics. This is because of Einstein’s unique intelligence and lifetime of study in physics. Leno may be a nice guy, but he doesn’t have these credentials. Einstein knows special, important truths about physics, so we listen to him.
But it’s not mere “book knowledge” that marks out an authority. A true authority employs that knowledge skillfully in a wide variety of situations, including unique or unusual cases. Their knowledge and experience gives them special insight in diagnosing situations and being able to address them.
My friend, Pat, is one of those people. He is an automobile mechanic. Pat understands cars and is highly skilled at diagnosing and correcting what may be wrong with them. In fact, he often knows what’s wrong just by hearing the car drive into the shop. Pat is an authority on automobiles, which is why people come to him for help.
Character (“Moral Authority”)
A third important component of authority is character. In fact, we sometimes talk about “moral authority.” A certain level of appropriate character is required for any person to be an authority—we must be able to trust them to tell the truth. A surgeon who tends to work drunk or lies to you is not an authority, no matter how much knowledge and expertise he has. Word gets around, and we avoid those people like the plague, especially when our life is at stake.
But in some areas of life this third element, moral authority, is everything. It’s especially important when we’re looking for guidance in to how to live. What qualifies someone to be a trustworthy source of truth in that area? Here, again, we don’t look for mere “book-learning”; plenty of people are intelligent and well educated, but not wise. Indeed, some are “educated fools” whose lives we would never want to emulate. For deepest insights into how to live, we look for someone who actually lives that way—someone with integrity, moral authority. Character.
Response to Authority
A true authority is marked by knowledge, skill, and character.
Now, how do we respond to such an authority? What should we do when we find someone like that? Well, if they’re an authority in an area where we need to discover the truth, truth that’s important to us, then surely the reasonable thing is to find out what the authority says and put it into practice!
My wife, Debbie, went through some very difficult and mysterious health struggles for several years. We went to several specialists, but no one could figure out what was going on. Then we were referred to a specialist who was particularly qualified in these matters—the “doctor the doctors go to,” we were told. It took us nearly a month to get in to see him, by which time we were pretty desperate. But that first appointment changed our lives, and we both remember it vividly.
Within the first half hour, the doctor diagnosed the problem and set out a program of treatment. Although what he said was new to us, it rang true; it made sense of what Debbie was experiencing. We also had the evidence of the doctor’s knowledge, skill, and experience reflected both in his credentials and in his track record with other patients.
So we trusted him: we listened carefully to what he said, and we put it into practice.
And the difference it made was remarkable. That appointment was the turning point in Debbie’s condition and her return to health.
Now I suggest that, when we listened to what that doctor said and put it into practice, we were doing the most reasonable thing we could do. It’s not that we weren’t thinking for ourselves. We were thinking for ourselves; that’s why we were in his office! We desperately needed to know the truth about Debbie’s health, and we had good reason to believe that this doctor had the knowledge and expertise to help us find it.
We didn’t just consult the first guy we met on the street. We investigated; we looked for someone who had the solid credentials of an authority in the field. We certainly didn’t surrender our minds or stop thinking. What we did is open our minds to crucial information that we needed. We were thinking well for ourselves.
If a true authority is a trusted source of truth in a particular area, then the appropriate, reasonable response to that authority is to trust them—to listen to what they say and follow it.
And this is just what Jesus calls for in response to his words about how to live our life: the wise person, he said, “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24). Jesus is calling us to view him and his words as our authority.
Is that reasonable? It depends on who Jesus is, and whether he has the knowledge, skill, and character to speak authoritatively on how we should build our lives.