[ Doctrine in Detail ]

Topic: I. Preparation

Lesson: B. Sources and Authority

Objective: To understand the basis for theological decisions and how to make decisions based upon the source and authority.

Who do you trust to for truth about God? Do you trust your self, a religious leader, a recognized church, a teacher? John Calvin has written, "Our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author." Institutes, I.7 Can we dare to trust anybody or anything to speak for God, with His clear, ultimate, and binding authority? Can we trust our current and eternal lives, our goals and ambitions, and our obedience to any voice which speaks for God? Lets look at the usual sources.

1. Philosophical

The human mind, using rational thought, has pondered the great questions of life and developed different answers. This is the philosophical method, with human intelligence being the source of ideas about God. Man was created in the image of God, is God revealed in our human reasoning?

a. Classic Questions. ("What is the meaning of life?") and Assumptions ("I think, therefore I am.") From only what can be known by ourselves, by logic and observation, classic thinkers have tried to answer these great questions of life. They have not had much success.

b. Stoic. "Suffer without complaint." "Grin and bear it." This was the philosophy of the ancient soldiers of Sparta, and like soldiers of many ages it is often mixed with a devotion to duty.

c. Fatalist. "What difference does it make?" "Why bother?" A fatalist may believe in a God or may not, but his view of God is of one who has no interest in our personal lives, Of course, the evolutionist may also dispair as life and our existence appears only as a chance occurance of random acts. Life has no meaning.

d. Epicurean. "Enjoy life to the fullest!" "Live for today." The Greek Epicureans found delight in feasting and drink. Since they do not understand that there is a final judgment, all that counts is today. Like the pagans of Biblical times, many today have decided to "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die."

e. Liberal. "Have a moral influence on society." "Seek the greatest good." Gifford Pinchot (Director US Forest Service, Governor of Pennsylvania) said, "The greatest food of the greatest number in the long run." This concept exists among 'moral' non-Christians as well as within the visible church. Seeing Christ as only an example, they apply their own standard of what seems to be the 'greatest good'. Some are quite noble and self-sacrificing for great social causes.

f. Spiritual. "Inner Light." God has given "Inner Light" to all men, and particularly to the Christian. Within and without the church, there is an emphasis on inner enlightenment. The question is, is this enlightenment tied to faith in Jesus as revealed in the Bible (as the Holy Spirit is)?

2. Ecclesiastical

In practical terms, most of us have been brought up loosely associated with some church body. Many people say, "I was brought up as a Catholic (or Methodist or Lutheran or ...). Most trust their church body to know and give the important answers to the answers of life. Does God speak through the decisions of our Church?

a. Authoritative Leaders. The Pope is perhaps the most visible authority of this type. Under the Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility, when the Pope declares that he is speaking from the 'Chair of St. Peter", his decrees are infallible and binding on all Catholics. Only exercised twice in history, the first time used to declare Papal Infallibility and the second time to declare the "bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary".

b. Church Bodies. The leaders or Apostles of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) claim Apostolic Authority. Doctrines, including Biblical truths, may be modified, revoked, or new ones established with the 'authority of God'. It is a great attraction that this group can "know for sure the mind of God" through the present day apostles.

c. Books of Doctrine. Some books seek to interpret the Scriptures, and may in effect supercede them. An example is "Science and Healing with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy, which has become a 'scripture' for the Christian Scientists.

d. Denominational Boards. In our day, many governing boards of denominations make rulings which interpret (or supercede) the Scriptures. Various protestant boards are answering questions such as "May a practicing homosexual be ordained?" in ways that we may consider contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible.

3. Historical

God has and does reveal himself in time and space. The historical events of the Bible tell us about God. Has this revelation continued throughout the history of the Church? Certainly the church as a whole has debated the important issues of the Christian life for 2000 years, what answers do they provide for us?

a. Events of Early Church History. When Constantine became emperor in 312 AD, he accepted Christianity as his faith and as a tolerated religion of the Roman Empire. By 380, Theodosius declared, "It is our will that all the peoples we rule shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans." This was enforced by the sword. Even to modern times, there is a strong connection between some governments and national churches.

b. Writings of Christian Leaders/Thinkers. Some concepts, such as Hell being ruled by a devil who torments the dead, are not taken from Scripture but from early books such as Dante's "Inferno". They often mix pagan thought and mythology with Christian teaching.

c. Events of Reformation Era. Because national churches registered citizens at the time of baptism, the Anabaptists disobeyed the civil government when they refused to baptize their infant children. The separation of Church and State is a resulting doctrine, made popular in this country by the various Baptist groups.

4. Scriptural

God has caused the Bible to be written in human language. The words of Jesus Himself are clearly recorded. Assuming that this is true, and that we can both trust and understand the Bible, how does this source relate to the other sources of religious knowledge? (We will closely examine these assumptions about the Bible in the next few lessons.)

a. Written revelation from God. Without clear revelation from God, all other methods fail. The written word is totally reliable, and reveals the mind of Christ. Critical matters, such as the method of salvation, cannot be understood by man apart from the revelation God has given in His word.

b. Interpreted by ???. It is an assumption of this course that each person is ultimately responsible for their own decisions. While the church has responsibility to encourage and teach, it is made up of individual believers built into one body. The Bible is understandable enough by ordinary people for them to determine God's will for their lives (with the help of the Holy Spirit).


a. Specific Faith Entrusted. "... I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints."(Jude 1:3b) This verse would indicate that the 'faith' is specific, and was something entrusted to the saints. The Philosophical sources available to all man, and which give different answers at different times, do not seem to meet this criteria. Whether this 'faith' is a growing body of doctrine and beliefs which can be added to by the Ecclesiastical and Historical methods is a matter of debate. Roman Catholics and some others claim the Church has authority to give further doctrines and beliefs which were not part of or implied by the teachings of Jesus or the Apostles. Conservative, evangelical Christians, as a general rule, consider the 'faith that was once for all entrusted' to be contained wholly with the Scriptures.

b. Test of Theological Truth. "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn."(Isaiah 8:20) Regardless of the influence of the philosophical, ecclesiastical and historical influences on Christianity, Isaiah warned that the ultimate test of truth is agreement with the written Scriptures. Although we have more Scriptures than were available to Isaiah, this is still the test of theological truth.

Written Assignment:

1. What are the 'sources of authority' for doctine in the church you attend? Which source does the church hold as most important?

2. How does this compare to what you believe are the valid sources and which source do you believe is the most important.

Reading Assignment:

Ryrie: Chapters 2-4

Key Verses:

"... I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." (Jude 1:3b)

"To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn." (Isaiah 8:20 )

Additional References:

"Our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author." ( John Calvin, Institutes, I.7 )

All Bible quotations are from the New International Version (NIV), (C)Copyright 1984 by the International Bible Society, used by permission.
Doctrine in Detail (C)Copyright 2002 by Ronald Miller, All Rights Reserved

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