Biblical Authority and the Christian Tradition
Scripture has played an important and authoritative role in the history of Christian churches, especially in the West.
Scripture is the revealed, inspired written Word of God. The authority of the Bible originates in the authority of God, Scripture’s divine author. Biblical infallibility constituted a central doctrine of churches in the West until at least the nineteenth century. Catholic and Evangelical Christians have believed biblical infallibility is a church doctrine.
Scripture’s Singular Authority (Sola Scriptura)
“First of all, you need to know that Holy Scripture is the kind of book that makes the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, since none of them teaches about eternal life except this alone.” So wrote Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Protestant Reformer. Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) infallibly tells us how we might be saved (Sola fide) and how we should live. Consequently, canonical Scripture is the sufficient “Rule” for faith and practice. Scripture is also norma normans (“the determining norm”) ruling over all human opinions, creeds, and traditions and natural philosophy or “science.” Scripture is not “normed” by any of them.
Scripture’s Divine Author
God is the divine author of Holy Scripture. The authority of Scripture originates from God’s authority: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2Tim. 3:16-17). Scripture’s human authors, using their giftedness, were inspired by the Holy Spirit: “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” ( 2Pet. 1:21).
Scripture’s Central Focus
Martin Luther wrote: “All of Scripture everywhere deals only with Christ.” Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the central focus of Scripture. Jesus Christ gives authority to Scripture. He told his disciples to search the Scripture in which they would find eternal life and which testified of him (John 5:39). He quoted Scripture in confronting the Devil (Matt. 4:1-11). He taught Scripture’s truthfulness, that is “till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18).
St. Augustine (354-431) played a key role in articulating the central church doctrine that Scripture is the “truthful” or infallible revealed written Word of God. In his own day he encountered critics who raised questions about supposed discrepancies in the Gospels. In response Augustine penned The Harmony of the Gospels In which he provided guidance regarding how the alleged discrepancies could be resolved.
Martin Luther indicated that he followed St. Augustine’s views in subjecting his faith to the Word of God alone: “I follow the example of St. Augustine who among other things was the first and about the only one who, refusing to be absorbed by all the books of the fathers and saints, wanted to be subject to the Holy Scriptures alone.” Luther cited with approval a letter in which Saint Augustine defended the truthfulness of Scripture:
It seems to me that the most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books, that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. If you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement, there will not be left a single sentence of these books, which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away as a statement, which intentionally, the author declared what was not true.
In a letter to Faustus the Manichean, St. Augustine set forth what Christians should do if they came across a supposed error in Scripture:
I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand.
Augustine’s guideposts became essential components of the “Lower criticism of the Bible”—that is, the initiative to establish the original writings of Scripture.
In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther took his stand on the authority of Holy Scripture (Sola Scriptura). He challenged directly the authority of the Roman Catholic Church:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience…May God help me, Amen.
Luther believed in the sufficiency of Scripture and that “infallible Scripture” should interpret “infallible Scripture.”
John Calvin (1509-1564), another Protestant Reformer, also affirmed Sola Scriptura and the infallibility of Scripture. He indicated that although there are good reasons demonstrating that the Bible is the revealed Word of God, Christians come to this conviction owing to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Calvin indicated the Holy Spirit accommodates Scripture to our understanding. Calvin urged pastors to focus their preaching on the Word of God. After all, it is “living, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12).” The Reformer William Tyndale (1494-1536) also cited Hebrews 4:12 in sending covertly his English translation of the Bible to England.
Not only did the Protestant Reformers concur with St. Augustine’s teaching about the “truthfulness” of Scripture, contemporary Roman Catholic theologians often did as well. When Erasmus (1466-1536), a Roman Catholic humanist and compiler of a Greek New Testament (1516), posited that Matthew might have made a mistake by substituting one name for another (Isaiah for Jeremiah), the Roman Catholic Johann Maier von Eck gently rebuked him: “Listen, dear Erasmus: do you suppose any Christian will patiently endure to be told that the evangelists in the gospels made mistakes?” Eck then referenced St. Augustine: “If the authority of Holy Scripture at this point is shaky, can any other passage be free from the suspicion of error? A conclusion drawn by St. Augustine from an elegant chain of reasoning.” For Eck, even one word misplaced constituted an error and subverted the authority of Scripture.
Scripture’s Authority and Tradition
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman Catholic Church defined her doctrines and practices. The council decreed that Scripture and Tradition constituted equal sources of revelation. It also stipulated that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was the “authentic” biblical version.
In 1588, the year the “Roman Catholic” Spanish Armada bore down with troops to invade England, William Whitaker (1547-1595), an Anglican Professor at St. John’s College Cambridge University, published Disputations on Scripture. In this volume he critiqued the arguments about biblical authority defended by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), an accomplished apologist. 1) Whereas Bellarmine claimed that we must add “Tradition“ to Scripture in order to understand fully what constitutes our salvation, Whitaker replied that the Bible is “sufficient” in providing us with all we need to know about “faith and practice.” We do not need “Tradition” in this regard. 2) Whereas Bellarmine claimed the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome was the “authentic” version of the Bible, Whitaker replied that the Bible is infallible in the inspired “original” biblical writings in Greek and Hebrew.
Martin Luther had earlier proposed that many Roman Catholic theologians misconstrued the Christian faith because they did not know Greek. He was grateful for the recent recovery of that language. In 1394-1395, Manuel Chrysoloras from Byzantium had begun to re-introduce knowledge of Greek in Florence, Italy.
…it was also a stupid undertaking to attempt to learn the meaning of Scripture by reading the exposition of the fathers and their numerous books and glosses. Instead these men should have given themselves to the study of languages. But because they were without languages the dear fathers at times belabored a text with many words and yet caught barely an inkling of its meaning; …For in comparison with the comments of all the fathers, the languages are as sunlight to shadow. Since then, it becomes Christians to use the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book.
Whitaker continued his critique: 3. Whereas Bellarmine believed that the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible was infallible, Whitaker retorted:
The Latin Vulgate is most certainly and most plainly corrupt. And the corruptions I speak of are not casual or slight, or common errors, such as the carelessness of copyists often produces in books, but errors deeply rooted in the text itself, important and intolerable. Hence is drawn the weightiest argument against the authority of this edition.
By contrast, the originals of Scripture were without error:
They [the biblical writers] wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, as Peter tell us, 2Pet. 1:21. And all Scripture is inspired of God as Paul expressly writes, 2Tim. 3:16. Whereas, therefore, no one may say that any infirmity could befall the Holy Spirit, it follows that the sacred writers could not be deceived, or err, in any respect. Here, then, it becomes us to be so scrupulous as not to allow that any such slip can be found in Scripture. For, whatever Erasmus may think, it is a solid answer which Augustine gives to Jerome: “If any error, even the smallest, be admitted in the Scripture, the whole authority of scripture is presently invalidated and destroyed.”
The translators of the King James Bible (1611) appreciated Whitaker’s teaching on biblical authority. Likewise, many Protestant theologians endorsed his articulation of the infallibility of Scripture. European Christians often looked to Scripture as the authority for their understanding of faith and practice as well as profane matters.
Scripture and “Biblical Criticism”
In the seventeenth century some Christians believed that the biblical texts they had in hand were infallible. A number of scholars, however, thought otherwise. They pursued Critica Sacra, the attempt to re-establish the “original” texts of Scripture from extant documents. In his Histoire du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon, often hailed as the “Father of biblical criticism,” described this latter program:
One is not able to doubt that the truths contained in Holy Scripture are infallible and of a divine authority, since they come immediately from God, who in doing this used the ministry of men as his interpreters…. But in that men have been the depositories of Sacred Books, as well as other books, and that the first Originals [les premiers Originaux] had been lost it was in some measure impossible that a number of changes occurred due as much to the length of time passing, as to the negligence of copyists. It is for this reason St. Augustine recommends before all things to those who wish to study Scripture to apply themselves to the Criticism of the Bible and to correct the mistakes (fautes) in their copies (Augustine Book 2 of Christian Doctrine).
After describing “lower biblical criticism,” Simon proceeded to advocate what became known as “higher biblical criticism.” He denied that Moses wrote the Pentateuch in its entirety. He indicated that inspired “public scribes” interjected passages into the Pentateuch not written by Moses. He claimed that his approach answered the criticisms of the Bible’s authority proposed by Baruch Spinoza in his highly controversial work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). The government ordered the 1,300 copies of Simon’s book be burned.
During the so-called “Enlightenment” (1680-1799), various forms of biblical criticism countering the traditional view of Scripture’s authority sank deep roots in European countries such as Germany, France, and England.
Despite stiff criticisms of the Bible by English Deists in the eighteenth century, the orthodox view of Scripture’s authority remained the “popular opinion” among English Protestants in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his posthumous Letters of an Enquiring Spirit (1841), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a fierce critic of biblical infallibility, printed a skeptic’s report to this effect:
I have frequently attended meetings of the British and Foreign Bible Society, where I have heard speakers of every denomination…and still have I heard the same doctrine—that the Bible was not to be regarded or reasoned about in the way that other good books are or may be…What is more their principal arguments were grounded in the position that the Bible throughout was dictated by Omniscience, and therefore in all its parts infallibly true and obligatory, and the men whose names are prefixed to the several books or chapters, were in fact but as different pens in the hand of one and the same Writer, and the words the words of God.
By the 1880s, however, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) and J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), the Bishop of Liverpool, bemoaned the fact that many English were abandoning their belief in the authority of Scripture. They had been impacted by Coleridge’s criticisms, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories which discounted the Bible’s account of creation, biblical higher critical studies and the like. A number of American newspapers commented on the same loss of confidence in biblical authority taking place in the United States especially between the years 1880 and 1900. In 1881, A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary published the influential article “Inspiration.” They affirmed that the doctrine of biblical infallibility constituted the central church tradition of western churches.
In Germany biblical critics and theologians from David Strauss (1808-1874) to Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930), denied the orthodox view of biblical infallibility. By contrast in 1893, Pope Leo XIII, in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, “On the Study of the Bible,” re-affirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s commitment to biblical inerrancy. The Pope supported his teaching by quoting St. Augustine.
By the onset of World War I (1914), many secularized Europeans no longer esteemed Scripture as a significant authority. Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin’s most avid advocates, pointed out that the replacement of revealed knowledge by natural knowledge was a dominant trait of intellectual life in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, atheistic naturalism had gained a hegemonic control over the curricula of many universities in both the United States and in Europe.
At Vatican II (1962-1965), the Roman Catholic Church abandoned her former commitment to biblical inerrancy and indicated that the Bible was infallible for faith and practice but not necessarily for matters historical and scientific. In evangelical circles, a similar phenomenon took place in which some theologians limited the authority of the Bible’s truthfulness to matters of faith and practice but not history and science.
A number of leading historians claimed that a belief in biblical inerrancy was a wayward doctrinal innovation of Fundamentalists. But many Evangelicals disagreed. They responded that biblical infallibility is taught in Scripture itself and represents the central tradition of western churches. Like St. Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin, they believed not only that Scripture is the Word of God, but it is a rule for faith and practice as well as history and science. They agreed with J. I. Packer that after hearing pastors preach, parishioners should be able to say, “I heard in the sermon what the Bible says.” They agreed with Luther that Psalm 1 provides an understanding of what the blessed life is: it is meditating upon the law of God. And they also agreed with the Westminster Catechism that their chief goal in life should be to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
- Carson, D. A., ed. The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
- Woodbridge, John D. Biblical Authority: Infallibility and Inerrancy in the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.