Biblical Authority

I have written previously about the call of the apostle Paul for unity in the church.  He instructed early Christians to believe and practice the same things (1 Corinthians 1:10).  The Bible clearly teaches that the denominational model is not what Christ had in mind for his church.  So how have all of these denominations come about?  Why do we have so many different groups offering contradictory doctrines?  It all boils down to a failure to understand the concept of biblical authority and a failure to establish biblical authority for everything that is believed or practiced. 

Two extremes based on scriptural silence

Some argue that unless the Bible specifically forbids something that it is acceptable for us to do it.  They believe that anything is allowable unless there is a “Thou shall not” in the scriptures concerning it.  In other words they view biblical silence as permissive.  In Leviticus 10:1-2 the Bible tells us of Nadab and Abihu the sons of Aaron who took fire from an unauthorized source that God had no commanded and used it to burn incense. The command from God was that the fire used to burn incense was to be taken from the coals under the altar.  God did not need to say “Thou shat not” use fire made by rubbing two sticks together, from flint and stone, from a Bic lighter, etc…  By specifying exactly what he wanted everything else was excluded by default.    In 2 Chronicles 26:16-19 King Uzziah had decided to go into the temple and burn incense.  The priests confronted him and told him that he had no authority to do this and that only the sons of Aaron were authorized to burn the incense.  They recognized that God did not have to specifically forbid the king from burning incense because by commanding that the sons of Aaron were to do so everyone else was excluded by default.  Thus we see that the lack of a specific command not to do something does not automatically make it acceptable.

On the other hand there are those who argue that unless the Bible specifically commands to do a thing that it is not allowed.  They believe that nothing is allowable unless there is a “Thou shall” concerning it in the scriptures.  In other words they view biblical silence as prohibitive.  In Acts 4:34-37 we find that many of the early disciples sold all their possessions and gave them to the church.  There is no “Thou shall” command in the New Testament commanding them to do this.  Peter told Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:4 that they should not have lied about how much they sold their land for because it was their own and up to them whether to sell it an how much of the proceeds to give and that  their error was in lying.  Though there was no specific command for any of these early Christians to sell all of their possessions and donate them to the church it was certainly acceptable to do so.  In Genesis 8:20-21 we find that after exiting the ark that Noah built an altar and offered sacrifices to God and that the Lord was pleased with them.  However, God had not commanded Noah to make such a sacrifice. 

The middle ground of truth: Specific and Generic authority

As we can see from scripture both of these extremes contradict the plain teaching of the word of God.  The truth lies between the two. God has said that we are neither to add to his word nor are we to take away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:18-19).  The permissive silence argument takes away from God’s word by ignoring his specific commands and the prohibitive silence argument adds to his word by binding prohibitions upon his people he has not commanded.  Instead when God has given a specific authority on how, what, when, and where to do something we are obligated to follow his specifications exactly and anything else is to be excluded, otherwise we are at liberty to use our best judgment.  For instance, when Noah was commanded to build the ark he was told to build it of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14).  This is an example of specific authority and it excluded the use of oak, birch, pine, or any type of wood other than gopher wood.  However, God did not tell him how to cut down the trees so Noah was at liberty to use an ax, saw, or any other type of tool to accomplish that task, this is an example of generic authority.  Noah was told to make three stories in the ark and thus could not have stopped at two or built four or more, again this is an example of specific authority.  However, as far as we know, God did not say how many rooms to put in each story or how many animal stalls and so Noah was at liberty in these areas, this is an example of generic authority.  It is important that we understand the difference between specific and general authority when establishing biblical authorization for our beliefs and practices. 
How authority is establishd:  CENI

Besides understanding the concept and proper role of biblical silence in interpreting the
Bible it is also necessary to understand how God specifically authorizes what we believe and practice.  He does this in three ways: by direct command, authorized example, and necessary inference.  This is often given the acronym CENI.  I have often been asked to show where in the Bible it mentions CENI.  While the acronym will be found no where in scripture the concept of commands, examples and necessary inference is clearly taught.

Direct Command

I’m sure we all understand that when God has given us a direct command we are obligated to obey that command.  In 1 Corinthians 14:37 Paul has just written to the Corinthian church and instructed them on how to conduct their worship assemblies and tells them that these things are commands of Christ.  Paul also urged the Thessalonians to continue walking in the commands of God that he had delivered to them (1 Thessalonians 4:1-2).  So we see that Christ has indeed given direct commands for things we are supposed to do and teach.

Authorized Example

Another way in which the Bible gives authority is through example.  Paul wrote to the Philippians urging them to follow the example that the apostles had set (Philippians 3:17). Paul again tells the Thessalonians that they are to follow his example (2 Thessalonians 3:9). Peter tells us that Christ left us an example of how we ought to live and act (1 Peter 2:21).  So how are we to know when an example is binding and when it is not?  For instance the Bible tells us that Judas, an apostle, went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5)?  Is that something that we are to bind as a part of our worship to God?  Of course we realize that we are not supposed to follow this example.  A rule of thumb regarding examples is that when we have an example related to a generic command that this example is binding.  For instance we have a generic command to partake of the Lord’s Supper but there is no specific command as to how often.  However, in Acts 20:7 we see an example that the early church did this on the first day of the week.  Thus we realize by their example how the Holy Spirit inspired apostles were leading them in fulfilling that command and that we must follow this example in our practices today.

Necessary Inference

Most people easily understand the first two concepts of commands and examples but have problems with the concept of necessary inference.  A necessary inference is an inescapable conclusion based on facts.  Jesus used necessary inference when debating the Sadducees about the resurrection.  He inferred from the fact that God said “I AM” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that God is not God of the dead but the living that therefore Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were living thus there must be a resurrection (Mark 12:18-27).  In Hebrews 7:1-10 the writer infers from the fact that Abraham offered tithes to Melchizedek and the lesser pays tithes to the greater that Christ’s priesthood is greater than that of Aaron.

One thing we must be careful not to do is establish doctrine based on unnecessary inference.  This is when the facts might be explained by more than one conclusion.  For instance, some have read John 21:22 where Jesus, answering Peter’s question about what was to become of John, and inferred from Christ’s answer that John would not die.  However, another inference that could be drawn from this is that Jesus is simply telling Peter to mind his own business.  Many times one of my children will come whining about something one of their siblings is doing and I will respond, “What difference does it make to you?”  Similarly Jesus is simply asking Peter what difference it makes to him even if John lived Christ returned.  We must take care to avoid such unnecessary inferences.

By recognizing these biblical principles of specific and generic authority and various ways by which that authority is established many misunderstandings and misinterpretations of scripture can be avoided.  This would result in less division and more unity among those professing the Christian faith. 


One Response to “Biblical Authority”

  1. 13 Church-of-Christ CENIs Authorizing Women to Speak in the Worship Assembly (Commands, Examples, Necessary Inferences) – Authentic Theology — Steve Gardner's Divinity School Blog Says:

    […] “Biblical Authority,” The Gospel Defender (February 2, 2007), accessed June 2, 2018. […]

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