After the Supreme Court handed down the notorious same-sex marriage case, I wrote a blog analyzing the decision and suggesting nine things Christians should do in response. The first one was to understand why the Bible is the ultimate moral authority for all mankind. Can you articulate why the Bible is the ultimate moral authority? Here are a few ways to explain the authority of Scripture:
1. Ontologically. Ultimately, the authority of Scripture presupposes the existence of God. If God does not exist, then His Word doesn't exist either. Before we can establish the authority of Scripture, we must establish the existence of its author. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of existence. The ontological question of God asks simply and profoundly, "what is the nature of God?"
God is not God if He is not defined as a being greater than any being that could possibly be conceived. Now, this great being can exist only in our understanding or imagination, or He could exist in reality, or He could exist both in our understanding and in reality. But if God is defined as a being greater than any being that could possibly be conceived, He must exist in both our understanding and in reality. It isn't as great to exist only in our imagination than it is to exist in reality, and isn't as great to exist only in reality than to exist in both our understanding and our reality. Therefore, God must exist in both our understanding and in our reality.
The question then becomes, how can we understand God if He is greater than any being that could possibly be conceived of in our mental capacities? Put simply, we could not unless God took steps to reveal Himself to us. If He exists beyond our comprehension, we could not understand Him without His revelation of Himself to us. Unless that revelation is spoken or written in such a fashion that we could understand it, the revelation would be meaningless and God would exist only in our speculation. Existing in reality and our understanding is greater than existing in our speculation, so God had to reveal Himself in a manner that we could understand.
Only now can we address the question of whether God revealed Himself in written and/or spoken word. First, the Bible claims that it was inspired by God (1 Tim. 3:16). God is not God unless He is the most powerful being we could conceive. That all-powerful being would certainly have the ability to manipulate human affairs in such a manner as to ensure that Scripture was written exactly as He wanted. Furthermore, God is not God unless He is the smartest, most knowledgable being we could conceive of. Therefore, anything God wrote would be based on infinite knowledge. God is not God unless He is more just than any being we could conceive of. Therefore, anything God wrote would be absolutely just and right. God is not God unless He is more truthful than any being we could possibly conceive of. Therefore, anything God wrote would be absolutely true. Any word written from the position of infinite knowledge, infinite justice, infinite righteousness, and infinite truthfulness can only be said to be infinitely authoritative!
2. Morally. The question remaining after the ontological proof of God's existence, His necessary revelation of Himself, and the authority of that revelation is whether the Bible contains the moral requirements of this great God. The skeptic will say that the moral code of Scripture was defined by the ancient Hebrew culture. This is known as the dependency thesis - that all morality inherently depends on cultural and sociological factors. Dependency invariably leads to one conclusion considering the variety of cultures in the world - that morality differs from culture to culture. This is known as the diversity thesis. However, observation suggests that morals do not necessarily differ from culture to culture.
For example, the unjustifiable homicide is wrong from culture to culture. The unjustifiable rape is wrong from culture to culture (in some cultures there is justifiable homicide and rape). If morality is relative based on cultures, then murder and rape are not always wrong, since a culture or individual might allow for it. Yet unjustified murder and unjustified rape are always wrong, so morality cannot be universally and absolutely relative. Even so, many relativists are absolute in their demands for moral relativity. They believe that we should never affirm our own moral values as absolute and that moral absolutists are absolutely and always wrong. Look at all the absolutes in that statement in favor of relative morality!
Ultimately, relative morality always leads to the notion that nothing has any objective value, including morals. All morals in this mindset are individual. However, we have already shown this to be morally unacceptable since it allows for the unjustified rape or murder. Since relative morality is morally unacceptable in that regard, there must be objective morals somewhere. Based on our ontological understanding of God, He must be the source of those morals. But why should we trust the Bible as the source of those morals?
3. Understanding Bibliology. A lot of people who attack the credibility of the Bible don't know anything about it. They may know what it says, but they don't have a clue how it came to be. We've already demonstrated how it was necessary for God to reveal Himself to us in word. The Bible says that "no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (2 Peter 1:20-21). What these men wrote is called an autograph. We have not found any of the original autographs, but we have found thousands of copies, what we call manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts contain what are called variants - slight discrepancies between different manuscripts of the same verse. Therefore, the academic field of textual criticism arose by which scholars in the ancient biblical languages try to ascertain what the original autograph said. The two basic rules of textual criticism are: 1) older manuscripts (those written closer to the date of the original autograph) are more likely to be correct, and 2) the best manuscript of a text explains all of the other manuscripts.
Skeptics tend to latch onto this point, arguing that we cannot bet our eternity on a book that has variants. What they fail to explain is that in reality only about 10% of the Old Testament is even disputed among these scholars, regardless of whether they are atheists or Christians. Most of those disagreements focus on spelling or grammar that has no affect on the meaning of the text. Furthermore, there is no doctrine of the Christian faith that rests solely on an Old Testament Text on which scholars disagree what the original autograph said. In terms of the New Testament, the reliability factor goes up substantially. Almost all scholars agree on over 99% of the original words of the New Testament authors. As with the Old Testament, no doctrine of the Christian faith rests solely on one of the few words on which scholars disagree.
In determining what ancient texts make up Scripture, the rules are quite stringent. As to the Old Testament, we want to know what Jesus considered Scripture during His life on earth. The Old Testament canon (literally measuring stick) - those books that were authoritative Scripture of the Old Testament - were settled in roughly 164 BC. The Hebrew and English Old Testaments are identical save two features. First, the Hebrew Old Testament is in a little different order for no important reason. Second, the English Old Testament breaks up some of the books. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the minor prophets were one book, 1 & 2 Kings were one book, and so forth.
As to the New Testament canon, three rules were applied to determine whether a book was authoritative Scripture. First was the Rule of Faith. For any writing to be considered Scripture it had to conform to the doctrines and faith established by Jesus. Second, the writing had to have demonstrable apostolicity. In other words, the author had to be in direct contact with Jesus and be an apostle (literally messenger). These authors had a divine imperative to write Scripture. Finally, the writing had to be universally accepted by the early church as authoritative Scripture. The apocrypha - books found in the Catholic Bible that are not in the Protestant Bible - are books that are lacking in one of these three areas.
Often times, people ask why there are so many English translations of Scripture. Scholars often translate Scripture for different audiences and purposes. Furthermore, Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic don't always translate well into English. So translators are constantly working to make sure that the text as it was written is translated such that the translation communicates to modern audiences that which was intended when it was originally written. There are basically three kids of translations: 1) functional equivalents - translations that are as close to a word-for-word translation as possible, 2) dynamic equivalents - translations that are more thought-for-thought translations, and 3) paraphrases - translations that paraphrase the original manuscripts and offer commentary as to modern understanding and application. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches, and it is often a good idea to have one functional equivalent, one dynamic equivalent, and one paraphrase to read when doing more in depth Bible study.
Consider for a moment how this collection of ancient writings, written by at least 40 different people on three different continents over the course of thousands of years could all tell the same story that points to Jesus Christ. Consider the high standard of a writing making it into Scripture. Consider the accuracy to which scholars have determined the original words of Scripture. Consider that there are thousands more manuscripts of Scripture than there are of Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey - which is universally accepted as authentic. Then consider again the necessity of God to reveal Himself in word and His ability to manipulate human affairs such that every word of Scripture is exactly as He wanted it. Scripture is authoritative!
4. Understanding Hermeneutics. Inasmuch as many do not understand the origins of Scripture and its reliability, even fewer understand how to read Scripture and apply it to their lives today. As such, they claim it isn't worthy of trust as an outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant collection of ancient writings. But once we understand how to interpret Scripture, we quickly see that there are timeless truths that are as applicable today as they were thousands of years ago.
This is what we call hermeneutics - the art and science of interpreting Scripture. It is a science insofar as there are some rules to interpretation that when followed properly produce a good interpretation of Scripture. It is an art in that as the cultural underpinnings of society change, so do the means by which we must communicate what Scripture means. Communicating God's truth a thousand years ago was different than communicating truth today, and communicating truth today is different than it will be ten years from now. This is because culture instills in us certain presuppositions about how life is and how it is supposed to be. The problem is that the presuppositions two thousand years ago are much different than the presuppositions of today.
As a result, the first step in hermeneutics is an active effort to lay aside those presuppositions and approach the text as it is. In doing so, we can take the second step in hermeneutics - understanding the historical and cultural background of the text. Who wrote the text? Who was he writing to? Where did these people live? What were they facing? How did they live? When was the text written? All of these questions are essential to understanding the meaning of the text.
The third step in hermeneutics is to determine what the text meant when it was written and to whom it was written. This is why it is so important to understand the historical and cultural background of the letter. In this step, we ask what did the author hope to accomplish? What did the various figures of speech mean to the original audience that may not make since today? Understanding the impact the author was trying to have at the time helps us identify the timeless truth that the author's statements were founded on - the fourth step in hermeneutics. Often times, understanding the timeless theological truth varies in difficulty between the different genres of Scripture. Understanding the timeless truth in an epistle is relatively easy many times - the authors flat out speak the theological truth. It can be more difficult to spot in narrative literature sometimes. Ultimately, these timeless truths are the first goal of hermeneutics.
If understanding the timeless truths of Scripture is the first goal of hermeneutics, then the second goal (and final step) of hermeneutics is to understand the modern application of that truth. How should we live in light of the truth of Scripture? What does God want me to do with this information? How must I change? As you can see, by going through the proper procedures of Bible interpretation, we find timeless truth that we can apply today. Scripture is not irrelevant - it is authoritative!
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.