Yes, I know; the Bible condemns the way I am living,” said the young man on the opposite side of my desk. “But those verses you just read—don’t they reflect the popular culture of the time? And aren’t you applying them according to your own set of values?”
“The problem with Mario,” said one of my colleagues when I told him about this conversation, “is that he accepts the Bible only as long as it approves of his behavior. He wants a cafeteria-style religion where he can choose what he likes and ignore the rest.”
Mario and my colleague were, obviously, on the opposite sides of a very old debate about Bible authority. And yet, without realizing it, both were saying the same thing: each was accusing the other side of interpreting the Bible according to their own opinions and ideas.
Bible authority is not as simple as it may appear, because after we say “Yes,” we believe in it; we need to ask how to interpret and apply what the Bible says.
The first part is clear: Number one in the list of Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs is a ringing affirmation: “The Holy Scriptures are the . . . infallible revelation of [God’s] will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines.”
Nineteenth-century Adventist hymn writer Frank Belden, more poetic but equally emphatic, wrote:
“What says the Bible, the blessed Bible? This should my only question be; Teachings of men so often mislead us, What says the book of God to me?”
One day Jesus was talking with a “lawyer,” a man whose whole life was dedicated to studying the law of God and teaching it to the people, and He asked this man, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26, NIV). It is clear that Jesus was upholding the authority of the written Word.
The apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV).
Like the old saying: “God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.”
But we really can’t stop there. We have to consider, first of all, the nature of the Bible. As Paul says, it is “God-breathed.” Any sincere approach to Scripture brings one into contact with divinity. “The word of God is alive” (Heb. 4:12, NIV). It vibrates with the presence of its divine Author. But God, out of compassion, takes a humble approach. He stoops low to whisper in our ear. He speaks to us in human words.
There is an Incarnation principle at work here. The mysterious combination of humanity and divinity that was present in Jesus is seen also in His written Word. He entrusts eternal, infinite truth to human authors, translators, scholars, and preachers: we have a “treasure”; we’re “jars of clay” that disclose God’s “all-surpassing power” (2 Cor. 4:7, NIV). The “treasure” is God’s message, a story for which the angels never cease to praise Him, and of which the redeemed will study and sing for eternal ages; a message of “all-surpassing power” because, through it, God is reconciling the universe to Himself. This is far, far beyond amazing. No words can ever begin to describe it. And it is Paul’s incredible anomaly: this treasure, placed in rough clay pots! With his familiar transparency and sincerity, Paul reveals the various strands that were interwoven in making the book First Corinthians. The first strand is perhaps the most surprising:
Hearsay: “Some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Cor. 1:11, NIV; see also 1 Cor. 5:1, NIV). “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent, I believe it” (1 Cor. 11:18, NIV).
Personal recollection: “I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius. . . . (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else)” (1 Cor. 1:14-16, NIV). “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor. 2:1, 2, NIV).
Readers’ personal recollection: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called” (1 Cor. 1:26, NIV; see also 1 Cor. 9:13, NIV).
Spirit-revealed truths: “These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10, NIV). “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (verse 13, NIV).
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord)” (1 Cor. 7:10, NIV).
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23, NIV).
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3, NIV).
Personal opinion: “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment” (1 Cor. 7:25, NIV). Paul’s “judgment” is “because of the present crisis” (verse 26). Elsewhere he says, “It seems to me . . .” (1 Cor. 4:9, NIV).
Tradition and customary practice “I praise you . . . for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2, NIV). The “tradition” here concerns covering the head, or not, during praying or prophesying. Anticipating some disagreement, Paul adds: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God” (verse 16, NIV).
The Bible: “It is written” (eight times). Like Timothy, Paul had known the Scripture from his earliest years. He breathed and lived it. Its message shaped his values and his world view. He quotes it directly and indirectly. Eight times in First Corinthians he says, “It is written,” and then cites the words of the Bible. He quotes from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. In addition, there are at least 20 other points where he quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to Scripture, e.g.: “God is faithful, by whom you were called” (1 Cor. 1:9). This is similar to Isaiah 49:7: “The Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel . . . has chosen you.” Paul may be intentionally quoting Isaiah, or simply using language that is the most familiar to him.
In addition to citing Bible instruction as authoritative, Paul refers extensively to Bible history. He reminds his readers about the water that flowed from the rock, the manna in the wilderness, the cloud that covered and protected the people, and the apostasy at Baal-peor. “These things,” he says, “occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. . . . [They] were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:6-11).
So how much of First Corinthians is inspired and, therefore, authoritative? Is it only the snippets where Paul says, I received this from the Lord? Is it that, plus the words he quotes from the Old Testament? This brings us to the question What is inspiration, and how does it work?
God gives the prophets a message. They may receive it in a specific vision or not, but, through the work of His Spirit, He communicates to them a focus, an understanding of the message He wants them to transmit. He guides them to comprehend, absorb, and correctly interpret the other inspired writings.
Although He does not usually dictate the message verbally, neither does He stand back passively as they speak on His behalf. If He sees they are in danger of saying something that is seriously misleading, He is able to intervene. The prophet Nathan approved of David’s idea—building a temple. But that night God instructed Nathan: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in’ ” (1 Chron. 17:4).
God looks out for the integrity of the message, but He does not always intervene to correct insignificant details. The story of Jesus casting out demons near Gadara is told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew tells us that Jesus healed two demon-possessed men, whereas Mark and Luke say there was one. Similarly, Matthew says Jesus restored the eyesight of two blind men in Jericho, whereas Mark and Luke tell about only one. This should not be our point of contention, because we do not believe in verbal inspiration. We need to ask: What is the Spirit’s message? It is that Jesus is there for us, that He has power over demons and can open our eyes. He has the same power today and is eager to use it on our behalf. People were rebuking the blind man (or men). The disciples were terrified and ran away from the demon-possessed man (or men). But Jesus responded to them with love. He met their needs and drew them into the circle of His care. That is the message, and that is how inspiration works.
So how much of 1 Corinthians is inspired? All of it. Not just the parts where Paul says he received something from the Lord. Light from heaven filled his heart and mind and soul. Guided by the Holy Spirit, he had absorbed the message, and it influenced everything—his teaching, writing, living, and suggesting about what He thinks God wants us to understand. What we, his readers, need to do, is to pray, look for the message under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and, with reverence and respect, apply it to our lives.
The Bible writers need not have had 100 percent accurate information about everything. Their humanity does not shake our confidence in their divinely inspired message or lead us to question its authority: that is not how inspiration works.
Some people see this approach as a slippery slope. They are afraid that if we do not believe in unerring word-for-word inspiration, there is no stopping place, and we shall plunge over the cliff into skepticism. We believe, however, that guided by the Spirit, we can avoid hermeneutical extremes: We do not require women to use a head scarf when they pray. We do not try to keep our children from marrying “because of the present crisis.” We are neither disrespecting Paul nor disobeying the Bible in this. Our aim is to understand the principles of the message, asking God for wisdom to apply them in practice.
An overly literalistic approach is literary legalism. We parse beyond reasoning, fighting about definitions more than the authors who wrote the words. We fail to see God smiling; we miss the love He has written on every page.
That is the problem with a strict, legalistic approach to Bible authority, and it is also the problem with Mario and his friends. They have not seen the smile of God behind the commandments. They see them as forbidding , restricting , limiting. They are not understanding them as an immense blessing, designed by God to help us avoid a flood of troubles. If they could see Bible authority in its true light, their hearts would be filled with intense love for God, and they would render joyful obedience to its sacred principles. This approach leads to far greater faithfulness and obedience than legalism.
And this is the approach that truly does uphold the authority of the Bible.