The Authority of the Scriptures

The Church inherited from Israel their reverence for the Hebrew Scriptures and belief in its divine inspiration and in its abiding centrality and importance. This reverence for the Scriptures and belief in their divine reliability to teach truth is reflected in many New Testament passages. Thus, Christ says, “Assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass away from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt 5:18). The word here rendered “a jot” (or “iota,” the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to the Hebrew letter yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The word here rendered “tittle” is the Greek keraia, a “horn,” which refers to the smallest stroke of the alphabet, a mark which changes one letter to another (in English, the equivalent would be crossing a letter “l” to change it to a letter “t”). Christ here therefore teaches that the Scriptures were authoritative down to the smallest part.

In John 10:35, Christ said in passing that “the Scripture cannot be broken,” meaning that it is reliable in its entirety and cannot be false in what it teaches. In 2 Timothy 3:16 St. Paul wrote that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” The words here rendered “given by inspiration” is the Greek word theopneustos—literally “God-breathed.” The image is one of God breathing out the words of Scripture from his own mouth. Paul’s understanding of the authority of Scripture is echoed by Peter, who wrote regarding the prophetic scriptures that “men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). The Jewish conviction that their sacred ancestral literature was the work of God thus found abundant confirmation in the words of Christ and in the writings of the apostles.

It also found abundant confirmation in the early Church. All of the Fathers—without exception—believed that the Scriptures (which now included the writings of the apostles—i.e., the New Testament) were ultimately the work of the Spirit of God and thus were completely reliable and true. As such, the scriptures read in the Church formed the norma normata, the standard by which all truth claims were to be judged. The words of other men might err and need to be judged by others, but the words of Scripture stood above such earthly tribunals. They represented the words of God Himself, given by the Holy Spirit to men.

Thus St. Justin Martyr wrote,

Neither by nature nor by human reasoning is it possible for men to know things so great and so divine, but such knowledge can be had only as a gift, which in this case descended from above upon the holy men, presenting themselves in a pure manner to the operation of the divine Spirit, so that the divine plectrum1 Himself, descending from heaven and using righteous men as an instrument like a harp or a lyre, might reveal to us the knowledge of things divine and heavenly.2

St. Augustine held the same view of Scripture’s authority. He wrote,

I have learned to hold those books alone of the Scriptures that are now called canonical in such reverence and honor that I do most firmly believe that none of their authors has erred in anything that he has written therein. If I find anything in those writings which seems to be contrary to the truth, I presume that either the codex is inaccurate, or the translator has not followed what was said, or I have not properly understood it.3

In summary, the Scriptures, as the written Word of God, are therefore somewhat like the incarnate Word of God—both are 100% divine and 100% human, and both entirely without sin or error.


Footnotes

  1. A plectrum was the pick used in playing a stringed instrument such as a harp or lyre.

  2. St. Justin Martyr, Exhortation to the Greeks, chapter 8.

  3. St. Augustine, Letter to Jerome, 82.1.3.