Christians regard the Bible alone as the authoritative source of doctrine and practice. In this we are following the example of Jesus Himself. Whether debating with human opponents (e.g. John 10:34-36) or fighting the devil (Matthew 4:1-11), He evidently regarded Scripture as the final authority: “It is written…” always settled the argument, as far as He was concerned.
Our Bible consists of the sacred Jewish Scriptures (which Christians call the Old Testament) and the writings of the first generation of Jesus’ followers (the New Testament). Other Jewish and early Christian writings (such as the Apocrypha and the non-canonical gospels), however interesting and informative they might be, don’t carry any authority. We know next to nothing of how the Jews selected their Scriptures (only that they had to be written by people recognised as ‘prophets’, beginning with Moses; after Malachi, there were no more prophets). The books of the New Testament were included only if they were written by (or with the authorisation of) the apostles. Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” (Ephesians 2:20) The Bible contains their teaching, and so it should be the foundation of everything that Christians believe and do. Will anything ever be added to the Bible? No. Jesus is God’s final message to the human race; there is nothing more to be said (Mark 12:6; Hebrews 1:1,2).
Such is the importance of the Bible for Christians that it is no surprise to find that its authority has come under attack from several quarters. This is the age of the conspiracy theory, when it is almost taken for granted that any organisation or institution claiming ‘authority’ should automatically be assumed to be untrustworthy, or to have something to hide. The Church (and the Catholic Church in particular) is no exception. Several myths are currently popular. A surprisingly large number of people seem to be under the impression that the New Testament was not written until the third or fourth century after Christ (funny, then, that church leaders in the early second century were able to quote from it extensively in their correspondence). Others claim that the contents of the New Testament were not decided until late in the fourth century (at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397), and that the decision was highly arbitrary. In fact, the four NT gospels were widely acknowledged from early in the second century as the only reliable sources of information about Jesus; and there was significant debate about only a handful of the letters. The Councils did not impose a new and unfamiliar canon of Scripture on the churches; rather, they endorsed what the vast majority of the churches were already using.
What exactly is the Bible?
It isn’t a compendium of convenient proof-texts, even though that’s how many individuals (both believers and unbelievers) dearly love to use it. You can make the Bible appear to justify almost anything, if you try hard enough.
It certainly isn’t a textbook of science, let alone an encyclopaedia of all knowledge. So it should not be interpreted as being in conflict with science; it is looking at things in a different way.
It isn’t an historical work (in the modern sense) either, because it is not neutral. No author in ancient times felt obliged to be ‘unbiased’ in his approach. Information is included only if relevant to the overall purpose of the writer – and it may be arranged in order to make a point, rather than chronologically.
But even accepting all this, we may be disappointed if we expect to find in the Bible detailed pronouncements of what to believe and how to behave. There are no ‘pat answers’ to the great questions about evil and suffering. It is more descriptive than prescriptive. Although it does include many rules, a far larger proportion consists of stories, prayers, and examples of godly (or ungodly) behaviour – things that set the rules in context. And it contains very little systematic theology; by and large, it leaves us to work the theology out for ourselves. Serious readers of the Bible will not find themselves spoon-fed.
The Bible can be likened to a telescope. A large telescope is a wonderful piece of technology, and a lot of time could be spent taking it apart and discovering exactly how it all works. But if that’s all you would do with it, you’re missing the point: the reason for its existence is to show us the stars. It’s the same with the Bible. It’s a fascinating collection of ancient literature by any standards, but let’s not forget what it was written for: to introduce us to the living God.