By What Authority?

By What Authority?

On July 18, 1996, an early morning Bible-quoting contest turned ugly in Dadeville, Alabama, ending with one man dead and another fleeing justice. Gabel Taylor, 38, died after being shot in the face. Police are looking for a suspect who was comparing his Bible knowledge with Taylor’s. It was discovered that their disagreement arose because they were quoting different versions of the same passage. The suspect reportedly retrieved his Bible and was angered when he discovered that he had been wrong.

True story. And as sad as this account is, it is not the first time a believer has sought to defend his or her interpretation of Scripture with an angry tirade. We live in a chapter of the Christian story in America that finds many people defending the authority of Scripture in ways that do great damage to the cause of God and the people for whom Christ died. They are the kind of Christians we wouldn’t want to be linked to. Could it be they misunderstand the issue at stake?

As I read about the frighteningly awesome theophany (encounter with God) in Exodus 19, I have a hard time believing that God needs humans to come to His rescue. Someone would have to be a fool to mess with the God of a smoking mountain and thundering voice. I doubt Moses put a boundary around the mountain to protect God from people who would harm Him. God does not need humans rising in anger to take on those who suggest alternative ways of interpreting the Bible. God is not shaking in His boots over what we may say about Scripture. God does not shrink in the face of opposition. In short, God can handle His own battles.

However, many interpret such behavior as an act of loyalty on their part. This God who liberated them is precious; therefore, they defend any attack against His honor or truthfulness. But how? By shooting someone? By destroying them in a theological tirade? By firing them? How does Scripture instruct us to deal with them? If we are to respond to our enemies the way God responds to His enemies, we will lay down our lives for them. We will love them as God loves them. And we will speak truth in love, seeking to correct, but not to show off our knowledge or our angry power.

But the issue goes much deeper than this. When someone defends the authority of Scripture, what is he or she defending? The words in the Bible? The authority of the Bible to tell us how to order our lives? The unchangeableness of the text? A specific interpretation of the words of Scripture? What are we defending? And does it really need to be defended?

The Bible suggests that authority does not reside in words but in persons. In other words, the most important thing about the Ten Commandments is not necessarily what they say but who spoke them into being—God! The authority of Scripture is not the issue. The issue is the authority of the God who speaks to us in the Scriptures. The book itself bears no innate authority, but the God who is revealed in the book is authority personified.

We catch a glimpse of this in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus speaks to religious leaders and common folk about the new reign of God that is breaking in on them in His teachings. Matthew 5 contains a text about the fulfillment of words from the law and prophets. They are meant to be fulfilled, not defended. Lived out, not debated. Embodied, not protected. At the conclusion of the sermon, the response of the people is astonishment, because He taught them, not as one of the scribes, but as one having authority. Authority rests in the people who speak, not in the words they speak.

Authority, in the Exodus story, is the ability to deliver slaves from Pharaoh’s grasp, to part the sea, to make manna fall from heaven, to heal the blind, to forgive sin, to feed a multitude, to raise the dead. Authority is not about proving whether or not something happened, whether it is scientifically verifiable, whether the dating sequence is correct, whether or not it was written by Paul. We have invested ourselves in making biblical authority a matter of human debate and defense.

The best way to demonstrate the authority of Scripture is to know and be transformed by the God who is revealed in Scripture. Sadly, the debate over the authority of Scripture has sunk to the level of humans defending words in the Bible as absolutely true. It is not the words that we need to prove true. It is the God who inspired the words that we need to prove true by living under His authority as sovereign Lord of life.

Authority is not in the book but in the God who speaks to us in the book and through the book. We bear witness to the authority of Scripture by aligning our lives with its Spirit-inspired revelation. As people of one book, we participate in the world-shaping authority of God, which is clearly narrated in the book and thereby forms the Christian community.

Many will suggest that this is a liberal position, or a softening of the authority of Scripture. I disagree. To defend Scripture is one step removed from living in a vital relationship with God. The only text throughout the entire Bible that even comes close to suggesting that Scripture needs to be defended is the directive to young Timothy to guard the gospel. And these texts refer to a scandalous interpretation of the gospel of Jesus. Timothy is to tell the story right.

My fear is that we think we have done our part for God when we have defended placing the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall or championed the right to teach the Bible in public schools. These are issues of importance, but they are not how we affirm the authority of God in our lives.

Again, our concern is not to defend the authority of Scripture as a document, but to be transformed by bringing our lives under the authority of the God revealed in Scripture. A Baptist friend once asked me if Nazarenes believed in the inerrant, authoritative Word of God. I replied, “We go lots further than that. We actually bring our lives into compliance with the God revealed in Scripture.”

Today’s post is an excerpt from Dancing with the Law: The Ten Commandments.


  1. Excellent article brother Dan! I am a Trevecca Grad who founded a ministry that has the Bible as one of the fundamental building blocks of church planting, evangelism and discipleship. We provide thousands of scriptures in multiple languages to new believers in up to 20 countries. The sad example you gave is part of a very misunderstood attitude about “the Bible”. We occasionally get questions like, “Do you give out the KJV?” Many people have no idea of the tremendous work of Wycliffe missionaries and others who translate the Bible into other languages. We print and use the most accurate and available scriptures in any country where we work. Your point is exactly right, we want people to encounter the God of the Bible. Our goal is that people will “encounter” God in the scriptures, “engage” with Him as the Holy Spirit enlightens them through the Word and then “embody and enact” the truth of the Word through the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Discovering and exploring the Word of God should lead to discovering the God of the Word. The Bible is a powerful tool and as Jesus said in John 6:63 (NIV) “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” As you so aptly point out, it is not the authority of the tangible book, it is the authority of the intangible Author that touches us. Thank you.

  2. Floyd Laabs says

    Thank you for your post and your passion for living out God’s Word. Imagine what our world would be like if Christian’s were as passionate in their living out God’s Word as they are about arguing with each other.

  3. Lee Woolery says

    I appreciate this post and the work you are doing taking on tough issues! Same with doctrine in my opinion. Love this story that Timothy Smith regarding J.O. McClurkan in the early days of the “holiness movement.” It is a story that illustrates the way in which McClurkan’s views were in contrast to the popular theology of the American Holiness Movement.
    “At a holiness conference in the South, McClurkan expressed his concern that, in preaching the eradication of the carnal mind in entire sanctification, holiness evangelists might fail to stress sufficiently the human frailties of those who enjoyed this sanctifying grace. Dr. H. C. Morrison interrupted and took McClurkan to task for some time. After Morrison finished his reproof, the saintly McClurkan, known for his gentleness, rose quietly, pointed to Morrison, and said, “Brethren, that is exactly what I mean.”

  4. Tammy Thomas says

    I wish I could have said this as well as you, Dr. Boone. You have expressed my thoughts and feelings about this issue with eloquence and logic. Thank you and God bless you.

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