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AUTHORITY (Greek exousia). The legal and/or moral right to exercise power, or power that is rightly possessed. In the Bible God is presented as the ultimate, personal authority and the source of all authority. All exercise of authority in the created order, by angels or men, is therefore subordinate and derivative. The important statements of Daniel (4:34-35; cf. 2:21; 7:13-14) and Paul (Rom.13.1) point to the sovereign, final, and incontestable authority of God, Creator, Judge, and Redeemer over and in his creation. Thus, the Lord exercises power as the One with authority.

It is the basic conviction of all Scripture that “God is His own authority for the religious, and therefore the last for the race; and He is the only Authority man has in the end”P. T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority, p. 146. Throughout Scripture God remains forever the object of man’s authority, not the subject of man’s contemplation. The a priori in man is the capacity for owning God’s authority. To say that God is the ultimate authority in the realms of morals and faith is to be committed to the conclusion, which Augustine saw so clearly, that God’s authority and God’s self-disclosure are two sides of the same reality. It is in His revelation that God’s authority is to be found: revelation is, therefore, the key to ultimate authority (see Book of the Revelation).

In revelation God is seen as moral and redemptive, disclosing His authority. God’s revelation is demanding, urgent, and authoritative. God’s universal dominion over the world is His authority (cf. Exod 15:18; Pss 39:10; 93:1f., etc.). As Lord and King of all nature and history, God has the unchangeable right to exercise authority over mankind. The Bible makes clear His sovereign right to demand obedience, and to Him all are held responsible and accountable.



Old Testament

In the life of the people of Israel, the Lord exercised his authority through the authority he gave to king, priest, and prophet. It was the duty of the king to reign in righteousness and justice, of the priest rightly to order the worship and service of God, and of the prophet to declare the word of the sovereign Lord, whether the people would or would not hear. When the word of the Lord came to be written down as Scripture it was seen as authoritative because of its source (see Ps.119.1-Ps.119.176).

New Testament


Since God’s will has been given personal embodiment in Christ, the Word made flesh, He becomes at once the final court of appeal and absolute norm to which the moral life of man must be referred, and the sure word and ultimate fact in which religious trust can be reposed. Divine authority finds its focus and finality in Him. Jesus has power because He's been anointed by the Holy Spirit in order to perform the ministry of Messiah.

This is the reason why the gospels declare that His teaching caused astonishment because He taught as One having authority (Matt 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 20:2). The absoluteness of Christ’s authority in the sphere of ultimate knowledge of God is asserted (Matt 11:27), as is a like unique authority in the realm of a complete knowledge of men implied (John 2:25). Christ’s more-than-human authority is everywhere clear in the gospel records: it derives from His own nature as one within the Godhead, from His divine commission, from His fulfillment of the Father’s will, from His work on behalf of man.

As those who believed that Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of the Father, the apostles developed the theme of the authority of Jesus, presenting him as coregent of the Father and possessing authority over the whole cosmos (Eph.1.20-Eph.1.23; Phil.2.1-Phil.2.11; Col.2.9-Col.2.10). He is the “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev.17.14).


The authority of Christ is interpreted through chosen media. The Christ who is authoritative is the Biblical Christ, for He is the only Christ known. This presentation of Christ was secured by His chosen apostles. They had a unique position as “elect and providential personalities”Forsyth of the risen Lord. Their elaboration and interpretation of Christ was not an intrusion upon revelation, but part of its scheme. They were men inspired of the Holy Spirit to fill out to its fullness the revelation of Christ (see Inspiration). The apostles embodied the authority of Christ and from this point of view had no successors.

Other New Testament Authority

The New Testament also recognizes other forms of authority as delegated by God and Christ. There is the authority of the state (Rom.13.1ff.), of the apostles as unique pillars of the church and recipients of divine revelation (Luke.6.13; Eph.2.20), and of the husband as head of the family (1Cor.11.3). In each case the exercise of power is to be within the will of God, and the one exercising authority must be mindful that God is Judge. The possession of authority and power by Satan (Luke.22.53; Col.1.13) has been abused and will be punished.

Revelation and Authority

Christianity claims to be based upon divine revelation, to which reason and conscience must be subject. This does not jettison reason in apprehending the revelation or discovering truth. Reason itself, however, is not autonomous, for one cannot begin thinking—even to examining his own perceptions and thoughts—without making the act of faith that the things he is thinking about make sense. The distinction between natural and special revelation is not absolute. The concept of the revelation of God as Creator and the revelation of God as Redeemer is more comprehensive because all truth is from God and all truth must be grasped by men who have the gift of reason from God. Christians believe that men cannot discover truths behind God's back or without God's assistance and that there is no use in God's giving revelations to creatures incapable of receiving them. In contrast to claims of totally subjective revelatory authority, the Christian claim to historical revelation involves historical events and narratives as the actual form the eternal realities take.

The biblical revelation comprises the utterances of prophets and apostles and the record of the life and teaching of our Lord, which have authority because they are inspired by the Spirit of God (2 Tim. 3:16). For Christians, the biblical writings transcend all other claims to religious authority. Some claims to the authority of church tradition and the episcopacy (including the papacy) have been made, especially in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, but these have been played down recently in favor of discovering biblical and early church roots of authority for faith.

Post-Reformation Perspectives on Authority

At the Reformation, the Bible as the Word of God interpreted to faith through the inner witness of the Spirit was reestablished as the norm of faith and practice in Protestant and evangelical churches. The magisterial Word of God was moved to center as the judge of the faith and life of the church, not the church as the judge of Scripture. The canonical Scriptures without supplement from church tradition were seen to be self- interpreting and complete.

The Reformed and Lutheran theologies of the Word were complemented by the Anabaptist personal religion of the Spirit, in which English and American evangelicalism and independency have their roots. Their view that the church is essentially nondynastic, nonterritorial, and a spiritual democracy of believing people has profoundly influenced Western Christianity including rejection of the enforcement of church sanctions by civil powers.

The evangelical principle entails Word and Spirit in which the authoritative Word of God is the chief agency of the Holy Spirit and the chief function of the church. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the Word to be revelation, and it is the Word that makes revelation historic and concrete. Theology is not the mold but the image of the church's spiritual life. Political democracy recognizes no authority but what it creates, but the church as a spiritual democracy recognizes no authoritative principle but that which creates it as Christ's body, namely the Word, the Gospel, and the Spirit under Jesus Christ's lordship.


The authority of God expressed in Christ and filled out by His chosen apostles is perpetuated in the written Scriptures. Although Christ wrote no book, the Scriptures are the product of His continued activity as ascended Lord through the Spirit, and as such they possess a like authority with Him. “The Holy Spirit and the Apostles became correlative conceptions, with the consequence that the Scriptures of the New Testament were indifferently regarded as composed by the Holy Spirit or the Apostles”A. Harnack, “The Origin of the New Testament,” ETh [1925], p. 49 n.. This brings the Spirit into relation with the Word, for the authority of Christ is mediated through the Word by the Spirit. This duality of Spirit and Word must be maintained, for herein lies the Christian principle of authority.

Authority exists independently of any appropriation of it. It must be recognized and received if it is to become decisive in experience. Faith is the mode by which authority is appropriated. In the context of the duality of Spirit and Scripture, faith is the illumination of divine authority by the Spirit and the recognition of divine authority in the Word. A real authority is effective within experience, yet it is not the authority of experience, but for experience. It is an authority experienced. A certain authority spills over to church and creed because of their relation to Christ in His Word. The church is the community of those who have appropriated the authority of Christ within experience, and the creeds are the church’s confession of its experience of Christ’s authority. The individual experience of the believer, the community experience of the church, and the formalized experience of the creeds are not authorities in their own right. They all possess a derived authority, an authority which is real only insofar as it derives from God’s revelation in Christ, and has its authentication in the Scriptures known and understood through the Spirit.


  • B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (1893, reprint 1948).
  • P.T. Forsyth, Faith, Freedom and the Future (1912).
  • P. T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority (1912, reissue 1952).
  • H. Cunliffe-Jones, The Authority of Biblical Revelation (1948).
  • J. W. C. Wand, The Authority of the Bible (1949).
  • G. W. Bromiley, “The Authority of Scripture,” NBC (1953).
  • N. Geldenhuys, Supreme Authority (1953).
  • B. Ramm, The Pattern of Authority (1957).
  • R. C. Johnson, Authority in Protestant Theology (1959).
  • H. D. McDonald, Theories of Revelation (1963), especially chapters 8, 9.
  • H. D. McDonald, “The Concept of Authority,” Faith and Thought: Journal of the Victoria Institute, vol. 95, No. 2 (Summer 1966).
  • idem, The Principle of Authority (1952).
  • J. Oman, Vision and Authority (1928).
  • H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (1954).
  • L. Hodgson, For Faith and Freedom (1956).
  • H. von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries, 1969.
  • B. Mickelson, “The Bible’s Own Approach to Authority,” in Biblical Authority (ed. Jack Rogers), 1977.
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