The Gift of Authority (Continued)

by Phil Johnson

[In parts I and II (Summer, 1991, pp. 4, 5) the author stated his purpose to praise the gift of authority. He proposed that the root of authority is the act of authoring. He observed that the verb root of the term is the Latin augere—to increase. All authority, he argued, comes from the action of authoring or giving increase and the residence of authority is the human person.

He described the development of personal inner authority as humans grow and mature. Thus, authority is not an abstract reality but a gift at work in the fabric of our everyday lives.]


There are other kinds of authoring, not of the teaching or learning type. An example is when we say, “I love you.” We are expected to and can say this on our own personal authority. Though not alone in teaching it, Christians teach that the basic, divine reality is love. When we love, we are authoring the most important thing, the thing that matters above all. Love is the reality that personal life depends upon and, as God apparently discovered, love depends upon personal life for its existence. It is for this very reason that God created humans.

Now, on what authority do I say this? It comes from deep within me, but it did not start with me. It came to me first from my parents who said they knew it because it was in the Bible. Authority for saying that God created persons out of and for love may be found in other sources, but it is found in the Bible. That much is true, whether I can prove the Bible is true or not. The statement that God is love, found in I John 4:8, is etched into my mind. I can never forget that statement. I understand what matters most in human life in light of that. Though I often lack the faith that love is so powerful, though I sometimes doubt whether I can love, though I know that often I do not love, and though my love does not guarantee wisdom, the Bible’s words about love permeate me. And, in so far as I can, I want this understanding as my aid and guide in life.

I understand from this that God created - authored - Adam and Eve because God who loves was looking for some lovers. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). And I understand how Adam and Eve gave birth to and nurtured their children (with mixed success). God’s compassion, understanding, and desire for love are made clear in the story of creation and, in particular, in the story of our human ancestors, Eve and Adam.

This act of God’s love reveals God’s compassion and the depth of God’s involvement with us. There is a high price for personhood and freedom—for love. The price is death. According to Christian understanding, God loved so much, was so drawn to personal life, that God enjoyed it himself for 33 years or so in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and personally paid the death price for it in the death of Jesus. The individuality of personal life is rooted in death and death, undergirds the granting of self-authority that creating an other requires, whether the creator is God creating humans or parents creating children.

God shows God’s feeling for Adam. We have God’s own words: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). How good a job God finally did to find a helper for Adam is revealed by Adam’s words of response when he first saw Eve. “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23).

Objections to the way we are proceeding arise from several sides. For example, I have heard those who say, “Wait a minute. What is this nonsense you are talking about? The Bible has absolute authority. You talk as if its authority is no different from any other authority.”

On another side I hear, “That’s part of the Bible that needs to be radically re-interpreted—perhaps even rewritten to some extent—so that we don’t understand God as a male chauvinist. At the very least, you ought to discriminate between the different accounts of the creation of woman in Genesis which you yourself have quoted.”

On another side I hear, “There is no reason to regard this book as different from any other book. It is of great value if properly understood in the light of myth, story, and philosophy—a spiritual classic whose value is made dangerous by insisting that it is the only right thing to go by. Therefore, do not act as if you have a direct quotation from God—God’s actual words—in Genesis.”

Whether or not any of these objections is valid, it cannot be mistaken that the words of the Bible and the story in it to which we have referred speak of the love of God.

Whatever may be the proper description of the Bible’s authority, it has authored to us here in the clearest possible way that God loves human beings and human life. God loves as a father watches over his children, as a mother nurtures her child, and as a friend loves a friend. If we catch faith in that, it doesn’t matter whether we have read it in the Bible or whether the Bible is accepted as an absolute authority. In fact, it does not matter much whether such a person, a person who lives in this understanding, has a Bible. Not everybody likes to read.

However, it is very handy to be able to show that the Bible really does say that God is love. As the source of news about activities of God and God’s people, it is of great value to have the stories, poems, and preaching the Bible contains. Christians revere this book, believing that in it they find the heart and mind of God revealed to them. Christians have borrowed the majority of these writings from Jews who wrote them and who revere them, too.

But, as Luther, another author(ity), says, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We humans, it appears, can make an idol out of most anything. It is quite clear in the Bible that making and worshipping idols displeases God and does not work well in the long run. The Bible can be an idol like anything else that is erroneously deified.

It seems to me that the Bible has authority about God only as it is transparent to God. The Bible is an earthen vessel. The Apostle Paul says that an earthen vessel can hold the treasure, which shows that the transcendent power belongs to God. (See II Corinthians 4:7) It takes the earthen and the human to reveal the divine.

The implications of incarnation are not usually drawn out thoroughly and radically enough. At the very moment we say “the transcendent power of God,” we must think as small as we think big if we are to catch the full meaning. Krister Stendahl, in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, pp. 45, 46, says that by “we” in “We have this treasure in earthen vessels. . .” Paul means himself. He is speaking about his own weakness as the earthen vessel that reveals the transcendent power of God. Alongside the human weakness of Paul, a small thing, we need to think of the human conversation we just had, or the way the widow was helped, or how the prisoner was visited, or the way the child was played with, as well as of the glories of the firmament, the beauty of churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques.

In our age, we face, I think, the need to see how the idea of the transcendent personal God is in harmony with a universe which, for all we can tell, has arisen from what is within it. Creation seems to have grown from the inside out.

I submit that the Bible is an authority by not being an authority in any coercive or obligatory sense, just as Jesus became king by refusing to be a king. The Bible has authority because of its long history as an authority and because it gained that authority through its participation in the natural development of authority, rather than through some divine or universal quality it possesses in principle which other authorities do not have.

The Bible has become an authority—a source of increase, a source of understanding, a source of news—by virtue of its limitations. It is limited to paper and ink. Because it is limited to paper and ink, its contents can be known to any person who can read the language in which the copy he or she might have is written. The Bible is an accessible authority. Few people who could read this journal —note, I say could, not, do, expanding the number greatly—would be unable to find a Bible in a day or less if they wanted to.

The Bible is limited to a certain time and space. It was written in the Middle East between about 1000 BCE and 150 CE. It is limited because no more can be added. These limitations reinforce its particularity and incarnate character.

The Bible is limited by the limitations of its various authors. By virtue of that, it has authority. Every author writes as an actual human being. He or she was a person like ourselves. Though “inspired by God,” as one writer says, he or she (or they) was not a scribe taking supernatural dictation. This is an earthen vessel. Therefore, transcendence is possible.

There are many more limitations of the Bible which ensure its authority and its uniqueness. It is a wonderful gift, an authority by which many lives, not only Christian, are informed and enriched.


Is the Bible different in kind from any other authority? Superior in principle to any other writing?

Authority grows in many ways. Homer, Plato, the Torah, other writings in the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Zen stories, to list a few, have become great authorities in the world, and they have been used to establish various structures of authority based upon them, including governments. Divine authority has been claimed for many of these writings and stories, as well as for many others.

It is well known that Christians have and do claim divine authority for the Bible. Many Christians, as a corollary, are convinced that the claims of others to similar inspiration of other works of literature and speech are false. The Upanishads. for example, are not works of divine inspiration according to many Christians.

How do these Christians claim to know that the Bible is divinely inspired? On what authority do they think they can establish its preeminence, its difference from all others in kind? Because, some say, the Bible says so. “All scripture is inspired by God . . : (II Tim. 3:16). When it is observed that such evidence, even if it is true, is a tautology which could not stand as proof in a court of law and that it is like saying my word is true because I say it is true, a frequent response is: “We know by faith.”

For many years I have been convinced that this method of establishing the divine source of scripture and the grounds for its absolute, ultimate authority does not hold water.

There is an “internal” case, however. When someone reads the Bible and is informed by it, that one is experiencing actual authority—something is being authored to him or her. When a community of people is informed by and blessed by this source and establishes the practice of reading it for themselves, for the next generation, and for anybody else they can convince to read it, actual authority is experienced and it grows. The authority continues and remains vibrant as it is experienced freshly and internally by a living person.

Though this experience of the Bible’s authority is a real experience, an argument based upon it which says that the Bible is unique in kind, necessary for all, and requires absolute allegiance as the highest truth, does not hold water, either. Or to put it more positively, such an acknowledgement is not required for persons to be authored to by the Bible or for a community to use it as a guide and an authority. If we let go of the need to establish the Bible as the ultimate and only divine authority in theory and allegiance, it becomes possible to appreciate more adequately the wonder of its actual authority.


In this discussion we have barely touched on the gift of the authorities of law and of government without which our lives would be chaos. These forms of authority are much more lasting than any one person’s authority, but they are temporary and limited, too. To paraphrase Jesus, they “were created for humans, not humans for them” (Mark: 2:27). And, we haven’t even mentioned the authority of songs that author very deeply to us. There is much more to praise about the gift of authority, and this tribute to the gift is a mere word to open up conversation about it.

Authority, both from within and from without, that is, from ourselves, one another, and creation, is one of the greatest joys of humans. Authority sustains daily common life.

By virtue of this gift, we are human and partake of the life of the spirit. By the gift of authority, we have the power to imagine. We have the authority to be right and to be wrong. We can be mistaken and learn from it. From the gift of authority comes the power, whether we use it or not, to say “no” when no must be said and “yes” when yes is the Praise be to God.