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Authority of New Testament Documents

Updated on July 22, 2013

Christians have the Bible as their sacred book. Most of the time, many Christians themselves did not have the reason for why they believe in this book. It is taken as granted that the Bible is the Word of God. If so, what is the difference between the Bible and other books? This is of a paramount importance especially for non-Christian that is wondering why Protestants are putting so much emphasis on the sufficiency and clarity of the Scripture as stated in the doctrine of sola scriptura. It is also the primary source for Christian faith and life. There must be something special that gives the New Testament its authority that surpasses other documents. In fact, there are many documents during the early church era, but why should we elevate these 27 books above all other documents as the Scripture? A discussion about the basis for the authority of Scripture will be presented.

Any discussion about the Scripture should start first with the revelation of God. The revelation of God discussed here will be specifically confined to special revelation, which means the disclosure of God’s truth through intervention from the supernatural to the natural world. This means that we are seeking for a containment of this full reality of God that is passed on to our generation. In the Protestant tradition, the Scripture is believed to contain this reality and revelation of God, which is deemed sufficient and clear to contain the salvific truth of Jesus Christ. These revelation from God in the Old Testament are given through prophets and written down either by the prophets themselves or by other people (some are of unknown origin). In the New Testament, the accounts is about “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14a, NIV), which we know as Jesus Christ. This revelation of God is made in the person and work of Jesus Christ, which is the final revelation of God. The New Testament contains the accounts of Jesus Christ and the events in the apostolic era. The words in the Scripture, therefore, are not merely words, for they are the gateway through which we encounter the reality of Jesus Christ centuries ago. We do not focus only on the words, for the words transcended beyond the words themselves. Here we will focus the discussion about the authority of New Testament, though not limiting ourselves on this extent.

The Apostolic Era and The Divine Inspiration of the Scripture

The apostolic era was special in the formation of Scripture. The canon of Scripture appeals to the apostles as the designated group of authorized bearers of the revelation of God. The apostles are the one to receive the Gospel directly from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Just like God the Father sends Christ to the world, Christ sends the apostles to preach the Gospel to the world. As the early Bishop of Rome, Clement, put it, “they were in accordance with the appointed order of God's will”.1 The apostles here are the one who has the first-hand experience of the reality of Jesus Christ himself, which includes the 12 disciples and also Paul who encountered Jesus during his journey to Damascus. The first century Christian was unique then, as the apostles are still alive. They are the main receiver of revelation of Jesus Christ that has received the power of Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).

The Last Supper
The Last Supper | Source

If there are prophets in the Old Testament, there are apostles in the New Testament. The prophets and the apostles serves as the foundation, and Jesus as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:18-20), “...therefore, the full and final revelation of God in Christ was given by the apostles”.2Just as in the Old Testament the prophets serves as God’s spokesmen, God uses the apostles in the New Testament as the bearer of truth. Paul is aware of this when he said that his writings are “a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). “From the “Thus saith the Lord” of the prophets to the “It is written” of the apostles, the biblical writers recognize that God has spoken and that the Scripture records for us His Word”.3 For this very reason, the Protestants did not accept the Apocrypha in the Canon, for they are not founded on either the prophets or the apostles. Granted, they may be beneficial and edifying to the Christian faith, but they are not inspired and are secondary to the Scripture. They could not be placed as the Canon, but they should be examined by the Scripture.

The writings of the apostles are inspired by God himself, which means that the Spirit of God guided the apostles to write or authorize the writings that God intended his people to have. Paul stated this explicitly in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that all the Scripture is God-breathed. Regardless of the debate whether the inspiration is on the the authors or in the writings themselves, we can be sure that the source of inspiration is one: God. Although the Scripture is multi-authored in this earth, it assembles into one whole writing authored by the triune God. By this method, God preserve the Word of God that is unchanging and eternal throughout the centuries. The words in the scripture that we read will transcend beyond mere words; it brings up the reality and revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh.

How does this divine inspiration be understood? Aristotle distinguished several categories of causality, and two of them that are useful in this issue are instrumental efficient cause and principal efficient cause. The example of this is when someone is writing something on a book, the pen serves as the instrumental efficient cause whereas the person himself is the principal efficient cause. “God, the principal efficient cause, so motivated and inspired the biblical author, the instrument efficient cause, that the author's potential for writing intelligible language was used for purposes, and to write materials, which the author alone could not have done”.4 This does not undermine the potentiality and freedom of speech/writing of the speakers/writers. God puts his words in the mouth of prophets in the Old Testament, e.g. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:9), but it does not mean that when the prophets are prophesying they enter into an unconscious trance state. There is a discourse between God and Jeremiah in Jer 1:9-19. In the same way, God inspires the New Testament. Scripture is written by human hands with God as the ultimate source.

One may argue that there may be errors or contaminations in the Scripture during its transmission in history. Although there are no indication of wondrous preservation of the manuscripts, we have discovered multitude of copies of biblical manuscripts. However, if we believe that the whole Scripture is God-breathed, then it is not difficult to readily accept that God protects and maintains the Scripture in its historical transmission from any errors and contaminations.

The Exhortation to the Apostles
The Exhortation to the Apostles | Source

Canonization of the Scripture and Sola Scriptura

The early Christians receive the letters and gospels written by the apostles book by book during the “open canon” era, which is the apostolic era. At this time, these documents has been acknowledged as authoritative on par to that of the Old Testament. Although the writings has not been canonized, it is already “from the time of Irenaeus [ca. 180] down, the church at large had the whole canon as we now possess it.”5 The church underwent the process of canonization mainly due to 2 reasons: first is due to the Gnostic Gospels and second is to recognize and preserve the primary saving truth that God has given through his apostles. The scripture is canonized as the standard of measurement on which the derivative or reflection of it must be measured.

God is responsible for inspiring the writings, whereas His Church is responsible to discover and recognize them as the Scripture. Granted that God gave authority and canonicity to the Bible, the question remain on how we recognize what God has recognized. The process of canonization is done by the early fathers through several criteria, mainly it's apostolic relation and the truth that the writings bore. Geisler lists five questions that lie at the heart of discovery process of the canons.6 First, whether the book was written by a prophet of God. Secondly, we should ask whether the writer was confirmed by acts of God, such as miracles. Thirdly, we should examine whether the message tells us the truth about God, as commanded by Moses in Deuteronomy 13:1-3. Fourthly, did it come with the power of God? For example, Moses gives us the test of truth for prophet's predictive power in Deuteronomy 18:20. Lastly, they should be accepted by the people of God. True canon will immediately be discovered by the people of God in the corresponding era. These principles applies to Old Testament and New Testament alike, where for the New Testament we adhere more for the apostolicity of the documents, i.e. whether the documents were written by the hand of the apostles themselves or authorized by the apostles. Ultimately, however, we should recognize that the whole process of canonization was under the divine providence of God. The Holy Spirit has guided the churches to recognize God's Word.

Even though the New Testament was not yet written after Jesus' death, the apostles had God's Word in the heart and mind. God gave them the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13) and they served as the writer, bearer, speaker, and guardian of the Truth. The writings that they leave us and the Tradition that they taught to the people are the Truth. The Tradition are, however, deemed as derivative to that of the Scripture, in accord to the principle of Sola Scriptura. In fact, it is quite a challenge to bring the Tradition in its purest form, as they are not well preserved in writings. Those writings that is not written or authorized by the apostles are to be rejected.

The principle of Sola Scriptura does not mean that we isolate the Scripture from other things; no, it is never intended to be so. White defines this doctrine as "Scripture alone as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church."7 This means that we can have other source of faith other than Scripture though they are fallible and should be examined under the Scripture. In the Old Testament, Moses wrote down the law and ordered the people to read the and follow them (Deut. 31:9-12), where these words will give them life (Deut. 32:46-47). Paul also taught Timothy about the sufficiency of Scripture that will lead to salvation through faith (2 Tim. 3:15). Protestants give primacy to the Scripture alone, for the Scripture is the one that established the church. This is the case that happens to the Berean church. Paul commended the Berean for checking what he taught to them whether it agrees to the Scripture. He placed a primacy on what is written as Scripture as compared to what he said. Human beings may fall, but the Word of God stays forever.

It is wrong to assert that the authority of the Scripture comes from the church as the church serves as the manifestation of God in this earth. The Scripture is authoritative not because the Church declares them to be so, but because the Scripture is inherently authoritative as the eternal Word of God. “The Christian church looks to the Scriptures as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith, and the church is always subject to the Word, and is constantly reformed thereby.”7 God's Word establishes churches, and not vice versa. We as the church are only recognizing the Scripture as God’s Word. Before the Scripture is canonized in AD 382, the congregations already had these documents, and it had been and will always be God's Word. The authority of the Scripture is determined by God and not by man. This is in accord with divine inspiration of the Scripture: it is God who chooses to inspire the Scripture. Hence, the Church acts as the effect, whereas the Bible (God’s Word) is the cause. God’s Word is the pillar of the Church and not vice versa. Even though everyone did not admit that Jesus is the son of God, he is still the son of God. In the same way, even though God's Word is not canonized, it is still the canon. And “God’s Word is His Son Jesus Christ...The sovereignty of this our God is therefore the sovereignty of the Word of God.”8 We should not separate God and His Word, for they are one. God has spoken through his own son (John 1:1-2).

Authority of the Scripture

So far we have presented the divine inspiration and canonization of the Scripture. The line of argument for the authority of Scripture goes as follow: God preserved his revelation that contains the salvific truth sufficiently and clearly through the direct writings or authorization of writings by the apostles, which is to be recognized faithfully by the church. It comes from God, to the prophets and the apostles, and to the churches. Hence, the authority of the Scripture traces its source directly from God, for all authority comes from God. It is beyond question

that the phrase “authority of scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for the “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.9

Would this be a circular argument? None at all, since we do not claim that the Bible is authoritative because the Bible tells us so, nor do we claim that the Bible is divinely inspired because it tells us so. The Bible is authoritative because it is anchored in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is a real living figure. History plays a role here to find out the accounts of Jesus and the apostolic era. We can build a cumulative case whereby we are surrounded with myriad of facts that points towards the birth of Jesus Christ, crucifixion, resurrection, apostolic era, canonization of Scripture, etc. One has to draw a reconstruction of the events based on these facts to make sense of the reality of facts in the history.

Authority however, does not mean that the Bible is self-explanatory. What matters most after the authority is about the interpretation of the Bible itself. It does not mean that whatever interpretation we have on the Bible is authoritative; the interpretation itself needs to be judged under the authority of the Bible. The interpretation of the Bible serves as elaboration and reflection of what is already sufficient and clear. “I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it, at his pleasure.”10

In contrast to other divinely claimed books, the Bible is composed of many books that is written for many centuries. It is more than just a book: it is a written story of how God make his salvific act in the course of human history. It is authored by God that acts throughout human history. As its authority comes directly from an eternal God, it is authoritative for eternity, in the past, present, and future.


  1. I Clement XLII, The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 1 (London, 1952), tr. K. Lake, LCL.
  2. Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), p.534
  3. James R. White, Scripture Alone (Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), p.20
  4. Paul J. Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p. 12.
  5. B. B. Warfield, “The Canon of the New Testament: How and When Formed?” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 1, Revelation and Inspiration, ed. E. D. Warfield, W. P. Armstrong, and C. W. Hodge (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), pp. 454-55.
  6. Geisler, pp. 80-85.
  7. White, p. 28.
  8. Karl Barth, God Here and Now (New York: Routledge Classics, 2003), pp.15-16.
  9. N. T. Wright, The Last Word (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p.23.
  10. J. Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, in Calvin's Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 84-85.


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