Those committed to Scripture’s divine inspiration and inerrancy understand that if the Bible actually is God’s word, then it must be the guidebook for living in relation to God and others. Throughout the centuries of church history, at least the Christian church has said that Scripture is God’s authoritative word, even if attending to its teachings and obeying them haven’t always accompanied affirming Scripture’s authority.
Ours is not a time of great respect for authority. Of course, those who possess authority expect compliance from those under their power. But for most people, including many evangelical Christians, personal freedom and liberty are avidly pursued virtues. So it is difficult for many in our day to comply with the demands of those in authority.
If submitting to an individual is deemed a marginal virtue (if a virtue at all), the idea of a religious authority one must obey is even harder to swallow for many of our contemporaries. This is especially so when the religious authority is a religion’s book. If one believes, for example, that the Bible is merely a human book written long ago, then it is easy to dismiss it as a book of little relevance and value in our day. The Bible presents a worldview, and it addresses matters that each person must think about, but how can it have a right to prescribe what we should think and do when it was written in times and situations so different from ours?
Still, those committed to Scripture’s divine inspiration and inerrancy understand that if the Bible actually is God’s word, then it must be the guidebook for living in relation to God and others. Throughout the centuries of church history, at least the Christian church has said that Scripture is God’s authoritative word, even if attending to its teachings and obeying them haven’t always accompanied affirming Scripture’s authority. In fact, the Reformers’ disagreement with Roman Catholicism, at least in part, was about who and what should be the final authority for Christians in matters pertaining to God and our relation to him individually and collectively (as the church).
Somewhere in discussing the evangelical doctrine of Scripture one will likely hear the phrase sola Scriptura! This is not a mere slogan, but rather a precise summary of one of the main issues of the Protestant Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, it was an age of authority. There were political authorities to whose whims most of the populace was subject. There were also ecclesiastical authorities, especially the Roman Catholic Church, its clergy, and its hierarchy, culminating in the pope. Church tradition was also held to be an authority, and of course, Scripture was believed to have some authority in matters of faith and practice.
Unfortunately, all too often clerical and papal authority, plus church tradition, trumped Scripture’s authority. When Martin Luther realized that his interpretation of key Scriptures and doctrines didn’t match those of the church, trouble was brewing. It is likely that other Catholic priests disagreed with the church on some matter of doctrine, but most dissidents kept silent. Luther’s temperament was different, but his revolt wasn’t simply a matter of having an aggressive personality. Luther’s study of Scripture convinced him that the church was wrong about some of the most important doctrines, like how to establish and maintain a right relation with God. In addition, by elevating church tradition and clergy, including the pope, above Scripture’s authority, the church all but guaranteed that there was little hope of correcting theological error.