Talking Biblical Authority with Dr. John Woodbridge – An Interview (Part One)

Professor-John-Woodbridge-Trinity-Biblical-Authority-and-Evangelism-200x300Most Christians claim that the Bible is their number-one authority but may not understand the rich history behind their claim, let alone the powerful implications it has for evangelism and pastoral ministry.

To help us all understand implications of biblical authority for mission and church life, I sat down with my former professor church historian Dr. John D. Woodbridge of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

Woodbridge is the author or editor of dozens of books including Biblical Authority (which will be re-released in March 2015), Scripture and Truth (co-edited with D.A. Carson), Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (edited with D.A. Carson), and Church History, Volume Two (coauthored with Frank A. James III).

Over the next few days, the Leadership Resources Blog will ask Dr. Woodbridge a few questions about biblical authority relating to our ministry training pastors in biblical exposition.

What is biblical authority and where does the idea come from?


Cover of Woodbridge’s book re-released by Zondervan

Dr. John Woodbridge: Biblical authority is related to the idea that the Bible has authority over all of our life and faith and practice because the Bible comes from God. In other words, biblical authority is related to God’s authority.

Consequently, in the presentation [at the EFCA Theology Conference], we cited statements by Protestants and Catholics that biblical authority stems from the fact that God is the author of Scripture and that the Scriptures are to be obeyed and that they contain what we need to know about our salvation. The distinctive difference between what some Catholics and Protestants think about biblical authority stems from what happened at the Council of Trent in 1545-1563, when the fathers of Trent said that the Bible does not have all we need to know about our salvation. And so at the council of Trent in 1545-1563, the fathers of Trent argued that tradition is of equal authority with the Bible. Catholics would say that the Bible is authoritative, but doesn’t have all we need to know about our salvation. So, from the Protestant point of view, not only is the Bible authoritative because God is its author, but the Bible is an infallible rule for faith and practice. All we need to know about our salvation, and all we need to know about how we are to live our lives is in Scripture.

Leadership Resources: It seems like the “Scripture plus Tradition” position undercuts 2 Timothy 3:15-17, which says the Scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation and are completely sufficient. Those who hold that position say, “The Scriptures help—but they aren’t complete.”

Dr. John Woodbridge: Yes. There was a famous Counter-Reformation Catholic named Robert Bellarmine who specifically said that the Bible is not sufficient. And so Protestants argued, “No, the pope is not infallible, councils are not infallible, nor is tradition—it’s the Bible.”

The first followers of Luther were called evangelicals. But after 1529, the second Council of Speyer, some Lutheran nobles protested against the Council of Speyer, and said, “You’re going after Luther.” And this is where Protestantism comes from, since the evangelicals protested against the attack on evangelicalism. They chose “the word of God abideth forever” [from 1 Peter 1:25] as their biblical line.

The Protestants have really been people of the Book for the reasons we indicated: it’s authoritative with God as it’s author; secondly, salvation is found there—we don’t need tradition. The issue that comes up in terms of debates on the issue of biblical authority is that later on people would take the expression “in matters of faith and practice” and say, “Well, that means the early Protestants thought that only the material that regarded faith and practice in the Bible that was infallible.” But the purpose of the statement about “faith and practice” was in discussion with Catholics. The same Protestants believed the Bible is totally infallible.

The early Protestants believed that the Bible is authoritative on more than matters of faith and practice because from it they got their views of politics, economics, art, science, and so forth, just as Protestants today do.

The authority of the Bible from an evangelical point of view is related to biblical inerrancy, which means that the Bible is infallible for faith and practice, but also includes history and science as well. When we talk about science, though, the claim is not that the Bible is a scientific textbook. The Bible speaks in ordinary language. If the Bible actually had God’s physics in it, we would be totally frustrated. While God’s physics is not there, the Bible, in passing, does tell us the truth about the natural world and the truth about history. Often people who move away from biblical inerrancy have often been impacted by belief in naturalism of the Darwinian sort or have been caught up in higher criticism. For that reason sometimes people put a limitation on what infallibility is, but that was not what the expression originally meant in the 16th century.

Part Two in this series discusses how biblical authority impacts missions and evangelism, and mentions Billy Graham, the first edition of “Christianity Today,” and Louis Zamperini.




Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Father. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.