Is the Bible Our Final Authority?
George W. Reid, Former Director
Biblical Research Institute
Silver Spring, MD
July 1990 The eighteenth century English philosopher John Locke’s contention that in every person resides a self-directed autonomy not to be abridged except by permission of the possessor appears to have won the day. First visible politically in revolutions in North America and France, it has become foundational to every segment of western thought. Contemporary extremists now challenge all kinds of authority, making leadership increasingly difficult if not on occasion perilous.
An interesting sidelight is such a philosophy’s impact on religious authority and morality. To a striking degree the idea that no one has a right to place limits on my personal desires and that my permission must be sought before any sort of limit can be set on my activities continues to bleed across into areas of life once thought to be the domain of God’s direction. As a result moral, behavioral, and even doctrinal beliefs now find themselves set by a polling of the community in search of majority opinion. Understandably, molding that opinion has become big business as smooth public relations programs ply the group in an effort to sway opinions, or at an even-less-commendable level, to generate the mood, possibly even an irrational one, that may sway people toward a desired end.
In such a climate it is hardly surprising that in the minds of many the idea of objective norms governing right and wrong seems an antiquated left-over from a less enlightened era. The basic source to be consulted becomes one’s inward opinion or feeling.
With these conditions prevailing, it is not surprising to discover that the Bible’s claim to be the expressed will of God is under heavy fire, even on occasion among Adventists. We must recognize the fact that the strongest force shaping Adventist opinion today comes from the surrounding social environment, something particularly true in industrialized countries. We can deny it, but the pastors in the field know full well its truth.
To observe this is by no means to dismiss the gravity of serious talk about authority, rather to underline the necessity of saying clear-headed things. General reassertions of a position, no matter how fervent, will not do. Adventists must undertake a reassessment of where we are and explore once more what authority the Bible will exercise. This includes the question of whether the message presented in the Scriptures will recapture the deepest wellsprings of the Adventist spirit and, if so, just how it can come to pass. Given the historic Adventist insistence on grounding all things in God’s Word, this question is of high importance. The erosion of biblical authority is so significant that it overshadows many of the issues being tossed about and, in fact, contributes to the discussions of some of those issues.
What kinds of sources are used to base religious authority? Varied proposals are set forth, ranging from an inner mystical force (typical of several Eastern faiths), human perceptions (often preceded by rational analysis), a religious organization (typical of certain cults centered on a single leader), a combination of Scripture and church tradition (characterizing movements such as Catholicism’s several branches) human experience as claimed to be under control of the Holy Spirit (as in charismatic groups), the Bible as authoritative Word of God (as claimed by conservative Protestants), and various blends of the above. Some, such as Mormons, subordinate the authority of canonical Scripture to later revelation. Of all these, Adventists have heretofore placed the Bible–the full 66 books–in commanding position. As Ellen White put it,
It would appear that this statement comes close to being definitive. But all is not this simple. Mrs. White is not here denying value to other channels of learning; instead she is identifying the Scriptures as the sole final voice in matters of religious faith. That she does not intend to limit the biblical voice to religious matters alone, however, is evidenced by her repeated commendation of the Bible as a source of historical information and bearer of the one authentic record of origins, surely of importance to science.The Problem of Biblical Discrepancies
Although Butler’s effort was abandoned, the threat continued to the believers, prompting Mrs. White to continue placing articles in print dealing with the Bible’s authority.
Her final sentence makes a remarkable assertion troubling to some readers. Elsewhere she defended the Genesis reports of the seven-day Creation and the Flood as literally true.
How can we reconcile all this with the previously-cited dictation statement from “Bible Biographies”? By reference to the context. There Mrs. White is addressing the idea that Bible writers were impelled to tell the whole truth about Bible characters rather than yield to the normal temptation to lionize, omitting unpleasant facts. It is in this matter that the writers were strictly guided by the Holy Spirit, not in their selection of specific words.
She was ready to accept the humanness of the language and the means of expression, yet retain her clear, resounding, unshakable confidence in the authority of that same Scripture. A few lines later she continued:
Amid the tensions of Minneapolis we see she could turn her mind to something that was more fundamental than the squabbling of the saints in conflict.
And again, “The Lord speaks to human beings in imperfect speech, in order that the degenerate senses, the dull, earthly perception, of earthly beings may comprehend His words. . . . He meets fallen human beings where they are.”–Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 22.
Given the limits of human access to data and comprehension, in this statement and others Ellen White is encouraging us to hold our judgment until we have sufficient information; to operate from a premise of faith, trust, and confidence, and allow God in His own good time, by His own good means, to open the doors of understanding. In the kingdom we are likely to find ourselves asking ourselves, Why was I so troubled over this? Under the explanation of the Creator Himself it will be seen to fit the pattern of His divine order, His divine plan, His divine Word, and part of all that He has communicated with us.