The nature of biblical authority is a much-debated concept, not only between, but within traditions. Indeed it is a vital and pressing issue for anyone who believes that Christians do not live by proof-texts alone!
So, then what should we make of biblical authority as a doctrine the church must adhere to and live by? What does it mean to claim that the Bible is a primary authority to which our thinking about God, humanity, and the world must answer? All I can do is offer a modest, reductive, and incomplete proposal, which despite its limits, I think moves us in at least some sort of good direction.
First, to claim that the Bible is authoritative is principally to acknowledge that God has a history, and that we are not able to be in communion with God in abstraction for that history. To claim that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that it tells us truly what we need to know about God’s historical being-for-us. The Bible is authoritative because it tells us the story of God’s being and act in and for the world, a story in which we are participants. In short, the Bible bears authority because it provides the primary vista on the mode in which all humanity must be related to God: in the history of Israel and Jesus.
Second, to claim that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that all our speaking and acting must conform to the Bible’s own presentation of God’s desire and destiny for his creation. In other words to claim that the Bible is our authority is to make a profoundly ethical claim, namely that God speaks and we must obey him. Of course, it is simplistic and wrong to claim that the Bible tells us what to do about all issues moral. The Bible is not such a textbook. Rather, what the Bible does is bear witness to the end for which God has created the world, and thus invites us to participate fittingly in this ongoing drama. The shape of our lives in speaking, acting, and relating to others is ruled, not by a moral code of principles mined from the Bible, but from the grand narrative of Scripture which discloses the end for which God has destined us in Christ. In short, to practice biblical authority means to live, not moralistically, but eschatologically.
Third, to claim that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that the church is the community in which the Bible is situated and within which it is intelligible as Scripture. For a book of any kind to “have authority” in any real, empirical sense, it must be given authority by those who place themselves under it. We can certainly say that the Bible has inherent authority by virtue of God’s relationship to Scripture, but we must likewise say that it is the church’s Spirit-guided practice of according authority to Scripture that brings about the function of the Bible’s authority in any meaningful sense. Thus, to claim that the Bible is our authority is to claim that the church exists in a relationship with God in history which makes the possibility of biblical authority meaningful. For us to even claim that the Bible is our authority is to confess the fundamental claim of our faith. Namely that God has spoken to us in Israel and Jesus, and precisely from within this history, attested as it is by the witness of Scripture, we discover the truth about God and ourselves.
Finally, to claim that the Bible is our authority is to claim that our lives are to be lived in doxology before Scripture’s God, in continuity with Scripture’s own liturgical and theological trajectories. To claim the Bible as our authority is to claim that the identity of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as disclosed in the narratives, poems, discourses, prophesies, visions, and songs of the Bible is the one true God and that he alone is to be worshipped and glorified. Acknowledging that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that we must be found worshipping Scripture’s God, singing Scripture’s songs, praying Scripture’s prayers, telling Scripture’s stories, and obeying Scripture’s commands. Thus, the practice of biblical authority is at once liturgical and literary. The life shaped by the Bible is a life surrendered in worship of the Triune God of Scripture in which the songs of Scripture are offered up as a sweet and pleasant aroma to the God of Israel, Jesus, and the World.