Because of health issues, it’s been more than two years since I last contributed to this series. I'm grateful to be back! To follow the thread of my argument, you may need—as I’ve done—to read back through Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

We’re not born knowing everything or how to do everything. To get through life we must depend on the expertise of others—authorities. A true authority, we’ve seen, is one with the requisite knowledge, skill and character to be a trusted source of knowledge in a particular area. Once we find a credible authority in an area where it’s important for us to know the truth, the most reasonable thing we can do is listen to what they say and put it into practice.

Certainly, if we need direction for creating meals, operating computers, and learning languages, we need it for the most important project of all: living our lives. Learning to live well is a lifelong task, and following some ideas, persons, or patterns is inevitable. These in fact function as authorities for us, whether or not we’re aware of it. The question, then, is not whether we will follow some authority or other, in living our lives; as in every endeavor, it’s inescapable. The question is only whether the authority we do follow is a good one—whether it is actually qualified to be a trusted source of knowledge in this most important area.

In Matthew 7:24-28 (see Part One), Jesus compares “building” our lives to building a house. Living a meaningful, flourishing life, one that can withstand the inevitable difficulties and pressures that come our way, depends on having a rock-solid foundation. The only place to find such a foundation, according to Jesus, is in his words. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Any other foundation will ultimately collapse.

The authority of Jesus’ words

Put in the terms we are discussing, Jesus is claiming that his teaching is the truly authoritative source of knowledge we need for living a flourishing human life. What a statement!

Amazing? Certainly.

Audacious? Unquestionably.

Arrogant? It depends on whether it’s true.

Here we come to the heart of the question of the authority of Jesus’ words and of the Bible more generally. Let’s draw together what we’ve seen about authority and apply it to Jesus and to the Bible.

We distinguished in Part 2 between the authority of a person (Albert Einstein, for example) and the authority of an artifact (such as a map or textbook). The authority of a person is more basic. In a primary sense, a person (or group of persons) possesses the requisite knowledge, skill, or character to function as a true authority. If they write a text or create a map, the authority of that artifact will be derived authority, based upon the authority of the person or persons who “authored” it.

So the authority of Jesus’ words, his teachings, is based on the authority of Jesus himself. Jesus’ words are significant because they are his words. What Jesus says is authoritative only in so far as its source (Jesus) has the knowledge, skill, and character to be a trusted source of knowledge in these matters.

If Jesus is in fact the ultimate authority on human life and how to live it—if he uniquely and supremely knows what he’s talking about—it follows that his words are uniquely and supremely authoritative on these matters. His words are indeed “the last word.” What more could we ask for in building our lives?

Who is Jesus?

The central question concerning the authority of Jesus’s words, then, is: Who is Jesus?

I sometimes ask my students to describe my dad, based on what they know from the limited evidence of looking at me.[1] They usually describe him as tall and blond, German or Scandinavian, since that’s how I appear. Then I describe my dad as actually medium in height, with dark complexion—southern Mediterranean in appearance. The two descriptions conflict; they can’t both be true.

Which is the more reasonable to believe? My students’ guesses are utterly plausible, given their experience. But, if I am who I claim to be, there’s an obvious answer to the question, Who is the expert in the room on my dad? If you want to know what my dad is like, the reasonable thing to do is to listen to me. I’m the authority on that subject.

Now describe God. Who is he? What is he like? Many opinions are on offer; some are quite plausible, given the range of human experience. But the descriptions conflict with each other in fundamental ways. They can’t all be correct. How could we know which opinion, if any, is correct?

Moreover, if God created us and designed us to live and flourish according to a certain pattern, how could we know what that is? Is there a credible authority to consult on these matters?

Now suppose someone claims to have special, first-personal knowledge of God—in fact, claims to be God in human flesh—and, further, has sufficient credentials to support that claim. As in the earlier example: if this person is who they claim to be, there is now an obvious answer to the question, Who is the expert on the planet on God? If you want to know what God is like, the reasonable thing to do is to listen to them. They are the authority on that subject.

And, therefore, the authority on how human beings, created by God, may live a flourishing, meaningful life according to God’s pattern.

Of course, this is more than just a thought experiment, since “God in human flesh” is precisely who Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be and who his followers believe him to be. The point remains: Jesus’ identity is the ground of the authority of his words. If he is in fact who he claimed to be, the most reasonable thing we can do is to build our lives on what he has to say.

Although we can’t develop the details here, this point may be extended to the rest of Scripture. The Bible’s authority as the word of God is grounded in its source. Does it in fact come from God? Is it what God has communicated about himself, about us, and about how we are designed to live? If so, objections to the authority of the Bible such as that it is an ancient book (see Part One) lose their relevance. What matters is not how old it is, but where it comes from—who wrote it.

Questions and answers

My objective in these few blogs has been to clear the ground of some common misconceptions about what authority is and when it may be reasonable to follow it.

We’ve seen that following a credible authority—a trusted source of knowledge in a given area—is the most reasonable thing one can do. Whether it is reasonable to follow the Bible as our authority in life depends on what kind of book it is, whether it comes from God as his word, since, as the creator of all things, God is supremely qualified to provide knowledge about human life.

Of course, clearing the ground in this way is not yet to answer all questions about the authority of the Bible. But it does help us see where—and where not—to look for further answers.

If you’re unsure of the identity of Jesus, that’s the most important place to begin exploring. An excellent source for this is the newly revised, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World, by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, PhD (Thomas Nelson, 2017). It will also point you to further issues related to the authority of the Bible.

So what?

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” As he often does, Jesus offers us a stark choice—in this case, with the highest possible stakes.

Which authority will we follow?

[1] I stole the gist of this thought experiment from J. P. Moreland.