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Fall 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 2 · pp. 154–164 

The Authoritative Function of Scripture

Tim Geddert

This paper aims to provide a basis for the Christian conviction that the Scriptures are authoritative and to provide some reflections on what that conviction means. It does not aim to provide hermeneutical strategies for discerning what Scripture authoritatively teaches. The context for my proposals is the Mennonite Brethren conference of churches, from whose Confession of Faith I will later quote.

Scripture always plays a role subordinate to Jesus himself. Scripture points to Jesus. It preserves the teaching of Jesus. It explains Jesus.

I want to begin by examining an important but easily overlooked verse in the little-studied book we call Second Peter. Its three chapters contain the following:

Chapter 1. Here we find wonderful assurances that God has given us everything we need to pursue a godly life—divine power to live it and written scriptures authoritatively instructing and guiding us. It is a beautiful and inspiring chapter. And then there is chapter 2!

Chapter 2. This is really tough reading, filled with a long list of acts of divine judgment on false prophets, false teachers, angels who sinned, the ungodly people of Noah’s generation, Sodom and Gomorrah, blasphemers old and new, and finally Balaam. These divine judgments were pronounced by preachers of righteousness, God’s prophets, even a donkey. The judgments themselves include “chains of darkness,” floodwaters, fire and {155} brimstone, indeed hell itself. And then there’s the long list of reasons for all this judgment. False prophecy, destructive heresy, and depraved conduct are in just the first two verses. There are twenty more verses listing other sordid sins, acts of debauchery, and blasphemy. Tough reading, indeed!

Chapter 3. In addition to important teaching about the final Day of the Lord and a ringing call to holy living, chapter 3 contains two exceedingly important verses that bear directly on my topic here. How will Peter’s readers avoid all that “really bad stuff” in chapter 2? By attending to “the authoritative function of Scripture.” Though not worded exactly like that, 2 Peter 3:2 makes precisely this point.


Before examining 2 Peter 3:2, here is how Peter leads up to it: “Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking” (2 Pet 3:1 NIV). After all the doom and gloom of chapter 2, Peter turns to the positive goals of all this: to stimulate wholesome thinking; to steer clear of the awful stuff in chapter 2; and to grow towards the godly life referenced in chapter 1. Peter wants his readers to keep clear of the world’s corruption as they participate in the divine nature. He wants them to have a faith supplemented by goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection and love (2 Pet 1:3-7). How can that happen? What advice can Peter give to guide his readers on a journey toward those lofty goals?

Here’s Peter’s counsel: “I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet 3:2).

How will God’s people be kept on the right path? By calling to mind God’s prior revelation and being guided by that in the present. In this text there are three components, three movements, if you will: (1) the ancient prophetic words, (2) the teaching of Jesus, and (3) the apostolic tradition.

All of these we access today through Scripture. However, none of the three movements cited here started out by being “the inspired word of God.” Before the written word was the spoken word, and at the very center of it all has always been the Living Word.

Elsewhere in this letter Peter refers explicitly to Scripture; here he does so implicitly. He refers to remembering spoken words, remembering Jesus’s commandment, and remembering the apostolic tradition. There is perhaps no verse in the entire Bible that comes closer to defining for us what the Bible actually is, and what role God intends it to have in our lives.

When Peter refers to “the holy prophets,” he does not mean people speaking prophetic words in the early Christian assemblies. Peter is referring to the likes of Moses, Deborah and Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, {156} and Ezekiel. Prophets of old spoke authoritatively to God’s people in their generation. Their words were subsequently recorded in written form. Sometimes the prophets themselves were the writers; sometimes others wrote about them and their prophetic ministries. Eventually, spoken prophetic words became embedded within written Scripture. For Jesus and the early church, this was “the Bible.” We call it the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures.

Peter knows that “the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets” are no longer accessible as spoken words. They have been preserved as written Scripture. But in this form, they are considered authoritative divine guidance, no less than if the prophets were speaking those prophetic words in Peter’s day.

Of course, these Scriptures include many kinds of texts—narratives, worship songs, wisdom literature, etc.—but when Peter tells his readers to “remember the words of the holy prophets,” he is telling them to pay attention to the Scriptures—their Scriptures, that body of Hebrew literature which, by the time of Christ and the early church, had been canonized as Holy Scripture.

We have no great need to figure out exactly who canonized these books and by what criteria, nor to second-guess whether they made good selections. For us it suffices that Jesus accepted as authoritative those texts frequently called “Holy Scriptures” in the New Testament, though Jesus himself refers to them as “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

So how will Peter’s hearers be steered away from “false prophecy, destructive heresy, and depraved conduct?” Peter says, by remembering the words of the holy prophets—that is, by paying attention to the Scriptures. These provide authoritative guidance for faithful Christian living.


But that is only the first of three parts to his answer. The second movement is, remember “the command given by our Lord and Savior.” In the earliest church, for two or three decades at least, Scripture did not—indeed could not—include the New Testament. None of the books had been written. What the earliest church had were the teachings of Jesus, set alongside Scripture, as authoritative guidance for the church.

Jesus warned against allowing oral traditions to rival the authority of written Scripture. But he meant everyone else’s, not his own! For the early Christians, whenever they knew Jesus had addressed a topic, they considered the matter settled. Scripture and the teaching of Jesus—these were the twin sources of authority. If at times it seemed that there was tension between what their Scriptures (our Old Testament) said, and what Jesus himself had said, Jesus’s word was the primary authority. They knew {157} that Jesus had on occasion declared null and void explicit commands and prohibitions of the Old Testament. The most obvious example is recorded in Mark 7:19 where “Jesus declared all foods clean.” But other examples could also be cited. When that happened, Jesus’s word always took precedence over the claims of the Hebrew Scriptures. The early church never checked with the Old Testament to determine whether or not Jesus had “gotten it right.”

Jesus affirmed Scripture; he said it “cannot be broken”; he declared that its authors were “speaking by the Holy Spirit.” Our high view of Scripture can be best defended by saying: “We choose to believe what Jesus believed.” Even before there was a New Testament, the church considered the Old Testament authoritative Scripture because, among other reasons, Jesus declared it to be that. And yet that claim to authority was not understood to mean that everything commanded in those texts still needed to be practiced by followers of Jesus. This is a really important distinction to which we will return. Jesus, and later the Spirit-guided discerning community, decided which commands within the authoritative Scriptures needed to be obeyed and which did not.


Peter’s word to his readers also has a third movement: the words of the holy prophets, the command of Jesus, and then the apostolic tradition. With the passing of time there would inevitably be less and less clarity about what exactly Jesus had said—unless there were authoritative voices in the early church who could function as reliable, indeed as divinely authorized, bearers and interpreters of the Jesus traditions. Jesus did not leave things to chance. Part of Jesus’s purpose in calling disciples, in naming some of them apostles, in granting them authority over the “twelve tribes of Israel,” was so that Jesus’s teaching could be remembered and passed on as authoritative.

Peter’s point of view is this: “If you want reliable authoritative guidance for faith and life, go to the Scriptures; if you want to know what to do with those Scriptures, check with Jesus; if you don’t know what Jesus’s point of view on the matter was, check with the apostles. They are authorized to clarify these things.”

Jesus is at the center. Jesus must always be at the center. Before Jesus were inspired prophets, whose words became written Scripture. After Jesus were authorized bearers of the tradition who would remember and interpret and apply the words of Jesus for the later church. And just as the oral words of the prophet eventually became written words, so also the oral words of Jesus and the apostles became written words. These written words were not intended to supersede the oral words. Rather they were intended to preserve them and to teach God’s people how to apply them. {158}

That is the role of Scripture today. In Peter’s day the second movement, the teaching of Jesus, was a remembered tradition. And the third movement (the apostolic role in all this) was an ongoing reality. Within a few short decades both of these would be embedded in written documents, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, just as, long ago, the first movement (the words of the holy prophets) had become written Scripture. Peter may never have anticipated that the second and third movements he cited would ever become written Scripture (though I suspect he did). That, however, is exactly what happened. Later, the expanding church under the superintending work of God’s Spirit canonized these new writings to be a second authoritative body of Scripture alongside the one the church had always accepted.


I believe we have the precedent of the Old Testament, the authorization of Jesus, and the practice of the apostles all demonstrating that this development is precisely what God intended should happen. The reason that the Scriptures (Old Testament and New) provide authoritative guidance for the church is that God designed precisely this process as the means by which a previously spoken word, and a previously present Living Word, and a faithfully preserved apostolic tradition could continue to be accessible to later generations. In this way, all God’s people can, as Peter puts it, “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet 1:4).

In my view, we do not ground our view of the Bible’s authority in particular convictions about how inspiration works, nor in carefully articulated statements of what we call “inerrancy.” We ground it in the centrality of Jesus and the ways in which he views the Hebrew Scriptures and prepares for the Greek Scriptures we now call the New Testament.

The center is always Jesus. It is ultimately Jesus’s own view of the Bible that justifies the claims we make about it. It is Jesus, the Living Word, whose life and ministry and teaching and atoning work become the core of all New Testament teaching and the lens by means of which we assess the ongoing relevance of the Old Testament. Each New Testament author, whatever other goals they may also have pursued, aimed centrally to do one thing: to help their readers understand what it means to put Jesus at the center as Savior and Lord, and as authoritative revealer and interpreter of the will of God.

We never deify the Bible itself. It is not an object of worship. It performs its God-intended function when it points beyond itself to the Jesus, the Living Word.

We might put it like this: {159}

  • Jesus is “THE WORD”—the Living Word of God.

  • Scripture is “The Word about THE WORD”—the divinely authorized presentation of what the Living Word of God continues to say to us.

  • All subsequent reflection on Scripture, all theological claims about it, all confessional statements, indeed all study conference papers are, at most, “words about The Word about THE WORD.”

God has never limited divine revelation and authoritative guidance to “Scripture.” Right from the start there was oral communication before there was written, and then oral communication alongside written. God spoke and speaks through nature. God spoke and speaks by the Spirit. God spoke and speaks through individuals and a community of believers. Supremely, God spoke when the Divine Word became flesh and lived among us.

But our access to all past revelations, and our basis for evaluating all present revelations, is now (though it has not always been) the Bible, the Holy Scriptures we call the Old and the New Testaments.

I believe Peter propels us in this direction by the important verse we have been examining. I believe he also anticipated where that whole trajectory would lead when he includes in his final chapter another often-overlooked statement about Scripture. In 2 Peter 3:16 we read: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures.” 1 During the lifetime of the first apostles, they were already aware of and collecting each other’s writings and referring to them as Scripture. And in the very sentence that discloses this little-known fact, Peter complains that Paul is hard to understand. Amen and Amen. And so is Peter, sometimes. And so are all the other authors of the New Testament. And precisely for this reason, we need scholars who can read ancient Greek; we need historians who can research ancient history and culture; we need translators who can make all this available to us in English; and we need Christian communities that ponder together under the guidance of God’s Spirit, what these Scriptures teach and how that should be applied. But if we do not start with a conviction that the written texts of Scripture preserve and interpret earlier revelation by God, especially the living, walking, talking, serving, dying, rising revelation of God in Jesus, we have little chance of avoiding all the stuff that Peter talks about in chapter 2.

The MB Confession of Faith says this about Scripture:

We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit guides the community of faith {160} in the interpretation of Scripture. The person, teaching and life of Jesus Christ bring continuity and clarity to both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ, and Christ is the One whom the New Testament proclaims. We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice. 2

This paragraph follows one clearly stating that God’s revelation is not limited to Scripture and never has been, and also clearly stating that the ultimate revelation of God is not through Scripture. Rather, Jesus is the supreme revelation of God. The primary significance of the New Testament is that it is our only reliable access to God’s revelation through Jesus, both to its content and to its significance.


And that introduces the next important matter. How does the authority of Scripture relate to our claims that the Bible is inspired and infallible? The Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith uses both of those terms: “We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God. . . . We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God.” 3

That the Scriptures were inspired by God is clearly taught in the New Testament and in particular by Jesus (though the reference at that time was to the Old Testament). One of the words used to speak of this is a word Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3:16: theopneustos, sometimes translated “God-breathed.” Some Bible interpreters refer to “plenary verbal inspiration” and propose that, whatever the human authors thought was happening, what was really happening was that God was directly supplying every word. This is not the only view expressed by the early Church Fathers, the Reformers, or even that influential group of conservative evangelicals who produced a document called “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.”

We should probably reserve judgment on the exact means of divine inspiration. I strongly suspect that God’s Spirit used various different means when inspiring prophets and apostles to understand God’s words and deeds and to compose texts that record and interpret these.

“The Chicago Statement” to which I just referred was composed in 1978 by more than 200 influential evangelical scholars, including a few Mennonite Brethren. It played a significant role in a powerful movement that at the time was referred to as “the Battle for the Bible.” It was a serious attempt to define and defend what the document called “the inerrancy of the Bible.”

As far as I know, no national conference of Mennonite Brethren churches has officially endorsed these particular “words about the Word {161} about THE WORD.” We are not required to agree with the Chicago Statement in order to be considered faithful Mennonite Brethren. That is not because we have a “lower” view of Scripture. It is rather because, for many, “inerrancy” has become something of a “code word” with as many negative connotations as positive. Both the movement and the document aimed to endorse a “high view” of Scripture. But neither the movement nor the document was without its dark side; neither of them produced only good fruit.

I suspect far more people have endorsed the document than actually examined it. It uses 1,755 words to explain what “inerrancy” should be taken to mean when it is applied to Scripture. About half of those words are dedicated to defining the “loopholes” we are apparently allowed to exploit without giving up the claim that the Bible is inerrant. “Please sign on,” the document apparently invites, “even if you are convinced that the Bible sometimes makes spelling mistakes, is sometimes only approximately accurate, sometimes exaggerates, sometimes quotes people whose viewpoints are wrong, sometimes doesn’t say what actually happened, but rather what appeared to have happened, etc.”

Those who endorse the document are aiming to defend a “high view” of Scripture and of its reliability. I am in favor of that. I am not in favor of the dark sides of the movement; and I am not in favor of taking advantage of all its loopholes and thus treating the Bible is though it were filled with countless inaccuracies, all the while labeling it “inerrant.”

Our Confession of Faith avoids the term “inerrancy” and does so deliberately. At the time Article 2 was formulated, not only “the Battle for the Bible” but also “the battle for the correct definition of inerrancy” was, for many, a painful memory or even an ongoing controversy. The framers of the MB Confession were concerned that calling the Bible “inerrant” might communicate to some people that only those who sign on to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy would be considered within the boundaries endorsed by the Confession. They chose a word with a similar meaning, but with a lot less scholarly baggage—infallible.

We confess that the Bible is infallible. That means that we can trust the direction the Bible leads us when we properly use it to discern the will of God. It will never lead us astray. It is trustworthy. If we still go astray, it will be because of our unfaithfulness, or because we have not properly discerned what the Scriptures teach.

Put another way: when the discerning community, guided by the Spirit, properly interprets the Scriptures, and in doing so discovers God’s point of view on the issues addressed within it, then the teaching of Scripture (thus discerned) represents what we are obligated to believe and required to practice. In still other words, it is our infallible guide for faith and life.

Claiming that the Bible instructs us infallibly is not to say that we {162} interpret the Bible infallibly. We should be more than cautious in claiming that our discernments are always properly conducted, that our ears are always correctly attuned to the Spirit’s nudges, that our exegetical and hermeneutical strategies for interpreting and applying Scripture are flawlessly conceived and appropriately applied. For all these reasons, we should be humble about the conclusions we reach and generous with those among us who reach different ones. The truth is that diligent study by Bible scholars committed to the Bible’s authority has often failed to produce agreement on what the authoritative teaching of Scripture is on the topics it obviously addresses. And if that is true of those topics, it is all the more true of those topics that it does not obviously address but on which we seek God’s perspective.

We need to guard against the assumption that if someone does not understand inspiration or inerrancy or infallibility—or for that matter, precisely what the Bible teaches on a given topic—in precisely the way that we do, then they do not consider the Bible authoritative. Not so! At any rate, my own basis for confessing that the Scriptures are authoritative is not that I hold to a particular view of inspiration or inerrancy, but because Jesus regarded them as authoritative.


I want to end with three additional claims about the Bible’s authority. First, “authority” doesn’t always mean the same thing.

It is not hard to understand what that word means when we read the Ten Commandments. If Scripture as a whole teaches that these are mandatory divine laws, then we bow to the authority of Scripture precisely by submitting to them as mandatory divine laws. But what about Matthew 1:14? If all Scripture is the authoritative Word of God, then that must also be true of Matthew 1:14: “Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud.” (You might think I am joking. I’m not.) Matthew’s genealogy has powerful teaching value on a range of important topics. Who is Jesus? From where did he come? For whom did he come? It is as rich a passage as any in Matthew. But to say that Matthew 1:14 or even the entire list of names in Matthew 1:2-16 is “authoritative” somehow sounds strange. What does authoritative mean? What does it obligate us to do or to avoid?

Many parts of Scripture are “authoritative” in a different way than those parts that are obviously intended to declare something right or wrong. There are of course direct commands in Scripture that we are clearly expected to obey. There are others that we are clearly not expected to obey (e.g., when Paul says “bring the parchments” [2 Tim 4:13]). But there are also many texts that were never intended to command or {163} prohibit anything: they give us glimpses of God’s character; they lead us to worship; they help us recognize our need for God; they provide us with models of faithfulness and unfaithfulness; they assure us of God’s love and good plans for us and for all creation. All these diverse texts are “authoritative” in the sense that they are authorized by God to perform their intended functions, and we are expected to submit to the ways in which they do that.

Elsewhere I have proposed that the Scriptures function sometimes as a window, sometimes as a portrait gallery, sometimes as a mirror, sometimes as glasses. 4 Different kinds of Scripture have different roles to play and, depending what those are, the idea of “authority” will also be quite diverse.

And that might actually help us solve some dilemmas. The Old Testament authoritatively addressed the people of God and obligated them to follow many laws. Among these were detailed food laws. And then Jesus came along and “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). So, what do we do with the Old Testament laws? Do we go back and erase them, declaring them non-authoritative? Not at all. We change the status of those texts from exercising one kind of authority to exercising another. No longer do they obligate us to follow what they command and prohibit. But they remain an authoritative record—perhaps we should say, “an authorized portrait”—of how God expected those people in that situation to live. The authority remains, but not the obligation.

If this seems like a minor tweak to my previous claims, maybe it is not. Maybe this is a radical proposal. Which other topics besides kosher food laws should be treated the same way? The Bible preserves an authorized record of what was expected at one point in salvation history. This authorized record (and in that sense authoritative) may well reveal something that was important for God’s covenant people to practice at some point in their history, but is no longer, now that the situation has changed. But now I have clearly wandered into the field of hermeneutics, so I will retreat to another proposal, perhaps just as uncomfortable.

Second, sometimes “the biblical viewpoint” seems just plain wrong (at least from the perspective that now shapes our reading). Take the example of marriage. We speak sometimes of aiming to practice the “biblical view of marriage?” Which one? The one where polygamy is condoned? The one where widows under particular circumstances are required to marry their brothers-in-law? The one where wives are treated more like property than partner? Or course not. The “biblical view” is not every view found somewhere within the pages of Scripture. The “biblical view” is the one that corresponds to the declared will of God. It’s the one that Jesus authorizes by declaring “but it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt 19:8) when his opponents are getting a bit too clever {164} with their concordances. Not every view found in Scripture represents the Bible’s authoritative teaching for us—only “the biblical view” discerned in Scripture as a whole, and particularly in the model and teaching of Jesus.

Third, when we speak of “the authority of Scripture” we should probably acknowledge that this is shorthand for what we really mean.

God is our authority. The Word made flesh—that is, Jesus—is our final authority on the nature and the will of God. Scripture always plays a role subordinate to Jesus himself. Scripture points to Jesus. It preserves the teaching of Jesus. It explains Jesus. But the final authority is actually Jesus.

When Jesus sent forth his chosen apostles, “[he did] not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth will be given to the books that you will write.’ He said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth, has been given to me.’ ” 5 Jesus is our final authority, indeed, to the end of the age (as he said).

We declare that the Scriptures are authoritative, but what we really mean is that the authority of God, the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, is exercised, among other means, through the Scriptures that bear witness to Jesus. That, I propose, is what Jesus himself claimed for the Scriptures, what the apostles claimed for Scripture, what the historic Christian church has always claimed, and what the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith claims.


  1. Italics added for emphasis.
  2. Confession of Faith of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2018), 4.
  3. Confession of Faith, 4.
  4. Tim Geddert, All Right Now: Finding Consensus on Ethical Questions (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2008), 29, 30.
  5. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, rev. ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2011), xi.
Tim Geddert (PhD, Aberdeen) is Professor of New Testament at the Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California, where he has served for over thirty years. This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the Equip 2019 Study Conference on October 23, 2019, at the Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church in Waterloo, Ontario.

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