The late 19th century was a tumultuous time for Christians, as historical-critical scholars began to question the integrity and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. One such man was a baptist theologian named William Newton Clarke. Clarke grew up believing in the trustworthiness and infallibility of the Bible, but as he encountered the skepticism of the critical scholars, his convictions wavered. Eventually, he rejected the inerrancy of Scripture, instead making the ultimate authority his own religious experiences. The Scriptures contained the experiences of the apostles in their encounter with Jesus, but did not provide an objective and infallible authority for the Christian life. William Newton Clarke was one of the first liberal baptist theologians, and influential in the development of protestant liberalism in the 20th century. Clarke made his own experiences the authority, not Scripture. (1)
Compare Clarke with other late 19th century Baptist figures, like James P. Boyce and Basil Manly Jr. who helped create a confession of faith called The Abstract of Principles. In the Abstract these men affirmed: “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.” For them, the only authority was the revealed word of God in the Scriptures.
Choosing An Authority
Every human being has to choose their authority. Some choose reason as their authority, letting their own intellects and logical arguments guide their lives. Some choose experience as their authority, letting how their emotions and senses direct their course. Some choose tradition as the ultimate authority, letting the heritage of the past dictate the present. Though we all gain knowledge of the truth through reason, experiences, and traditions, none of these suffice for the ultimate authority. For that we must make the authority of our life revelation. The final authority to our lives must be the revealed Word of God.
In Christ, we’ve been given the written word, the Scriptures, which authoritatively testifies to us the living word, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures declare that Jesus is the authoritative Son of God. His word carries weight and authority. There is no one like this Jesus. No teacher, no philosopher, no preacher, no leader has ever spoken like Jesus has.
The Authority of Jesus
In Mark 1:21–28, we are told of a time Jesus’ spoke at the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus was just at the beginning of his ministry, and a buzz was begging to stir about this new rabbi. As the news spread that Jesus was going to be teaching at the synagogue that day, a large crowd assembled to check out this new teacher they’ve heard so much about. Mark doesn’t tell us the specific message of Jesus that day, but he does give us the crowd’s response: utter amazement. “They were astonished at his teaching” (Mk 1:22a). It was unlike anything they had ever heard, and Jesus blew away any expectations they may or may not have had. Mark tells us why they were so amazed: “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk 1:22b)
The Scribes were the authoritative Jewish teachers, the masters of the Law. They wielded power, authority, and influence over Jewish life. Yet, as the crowds listen to Jesus’ teaching, it’s of a different quality from anything they’ve ever heard before. The scribes spoke with derivative authority, Jesus spoke with actual authority. The Scribes were well researched scholars who made the Law their expertise. They were fluent in the debates of different schools of thought. They could quote the Talmud. They could give the ins and outs of rabbinical debates of the day. Their messages and teachings were filled with footnotes, citing authoritative sources outside of themselves.
As I’m currently pursuing my doctoral research, I can attest that when I’m writing an academic paper, no one cares what I think. If you are writing for scholarship, you have to cite your sources. You assemble a legion of scholastic authorities and footnote them to support your argument. That’s the sort of things the scribes had to do, but not Jesus. Jesus didn’t just speak of the Law as a scholar, he spoke of the Law as the author. He is the authority.
Look to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7, the great teaching discourse of our Lord, and there he speaks with absolute authority. He quotes the Scriptures and says, “You’ve heard that it was said, but I say to you…” Who does that? If you and I spoke that way we would be rightly discounted as arrogant fools, but Jesus spoke with authority like this. He spoke as one who actually had it. If you read the Gospels, and read the record of his teaching, we are left amazed at not only what he says, but how he says it! This is no mere ordinary teacher of the Law. This is the author of the Law himself. Though the crowds didn’t fully understand it, there was something very different about Jesus. The reason for their astonishment is now evident to us: the Word of God stood incarnate before them, speaking and teaching with divine authority.
Living Life Under the Authority of Christ
This section for Mark’s Gospel is vital for us as we live out our Christian lives and disciple others. Are we helping others recognize the authority of the teachings of Christ? Do we devote ourselves to the careful study of Christ’s teachings? Do we cling to every word of the Scriptures, bringing our lives in alignment to its truths? The Bible is the revealed Word of God, the Spirit inspired book filled with the authoritative teaching of God. The only proper response to the word of God and the authority of Christ is simple—we must read, believe, and apply. Jesus’ word carries authority over us. As you pick up the Scriptures (hopefully every day!), you are constantly bringing your life in line to the teachings of the Scriptures. You are listening and heeding the word of Christ.
The crowds were amazed, but they still didn’t fully understand Jesus’ true identity. Christ is not only the authority of the universe, he is the author of the universe. Now that the true identity of Christ has been revealed to us through his life, death, and resurrection, we hold in our hands the revelation of God, the written Word of God. With the Bible in our hands, we are confronted with a question: will we submit to the authority of Christ? You can be amazed at Jesus all you’d like. You can be captivated by his teaching. You can hold him up as an example to follow, but if you will not bend your knee to him and call him Lord, your sins are not forgiven. True faith expresses itself in submission to the authority of the savior.
If you are a Christian, you are under the authority of another. Every other avenue to knowledge—reason, experiences, and traditions—must be brought under subjection to the authority of Jesus’ word given to us in the Bible. As Christian’s we’ve given up the rights to our own lives. We submit ourselves to the authority of Christ, by submitting ourselves to the word of Christ, the Scriptures.
(1) For a fascinating autobiographical journey of Clarke’s relationship with the Bible, see William Newton Clarke, Sixty Years with the Bible: a Record of Experience (found online at https://archive.org/details/sixtyyearswithb01clargoog)