Is the Bible the ultimate source of authority for Christians? Chris Goswami takes a look at how different denominations understand the role of scripture - and what we can agree on


Source: Photo by Kelly :

For most evangelicals (myself included), the Bible is by far and away the book that has most influenced our lives. It reveals God, shows us the way of salvation, and teaches us how to live.

I love to read, study and memorise scripture. But is the Bible our only authority?

Sola Scriptura

‘Scripture alone’ is a view held by many evangelical Christians when it comes to authority. For these Christians, the Bible isn’t simply an important authority in matters of faith, it takes priority, or even excludes, all other kinds of authority.

This view was born out of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, as a reaction against the authoritarian nature of the Church and its priests. It asserts that scripture is the highest - and only - infallible authority for Christians. Each individual believer can read and interpret scripture for themselves, with the Holy Spirit’s help.

But is this view right or wrong? Let’s summarise some differing perspectives:


The Bible is a foundational but not exclusive authority for Catholics, who have three sources of authority. Holy Scripture is one. The second is Sacred Tradition, meaning the oral teachings passed down through generations, and including writings from the early Church fathers. For instance, Paul encourages Timothy to pass on “the things you heard me say” (2 Timothy 2:1-2) ie not necessarily the things that were written down.

While the Bible is sacred, we worship Christ, not a book

The third authority is The Magisterium, the teachings of the Pope and the Bishops who provide clarifications and consistency. An example of this is purgatory - a temporary state of purification for souls who have died in God’s grace but with lingering imperfections. Purgatory is derived from tradition and theological reasoning but is not discussed in the Bible.

Critics of this view argue that this ‘triple authority’ undermines the primacy of scripture and puts too much power in the hands of church leaders, including the Pope.


I am often struck by the fact that Anglican churches spend more time reading the Bible than many evangelical ones. Each service can have up to four readings from the Old Testament, psalms, the Gospels and the epistles (or letters).

Anglicans try to maintain a via media, a middle way or a balanced view of authority. The CofE Articles of Religion state that scripture contains “all things necessary to salvation”, but they also value tradition and reason. An example of this would be Church structures. The hierarchy of the Anglican Communion, with bishops, archbishops etc, is not described in the Bible. Their roles, and the organisation of the  Church, were shaped by historical developments.

Of course, as with all denominations, there is a spectrum and some Anglican Christians and churches will hold scripture more highly than others. Critics comment that the challenge for Anglicans is maintaining balance. Often, the emphasis on tradition can easily overshadow the authority of scripture.


Strictly speaking, evangelicalism is, of course, a tradition, not a denomination. Not all evangelicals hold to sola scriptura, but many hold to some variation of the idea.

But critics point out several concerns. Firstly, if God really meant for scripture alone to be our only authority, it seems odd that scripture itself doesn’t say this. Although the Bible affirms scripture as “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), it seems to be silent when it comes to explicitly stating its own authority.

Secondly, the list of books that make up the New Testament (the Canon) was determined by people - the Church in the fourth century - guided by the Holy Spirit. So, to say that scripture has authority over the Church who defined it seems incoherent.

The emphasis on tradition can easily overshadow the authority of scripture

And thirdly, while this approach strongly promotes personal reading of the Bible, it leads to multiple interpretations and divisions, including over-literal interpretations, and can minimise the value of tradition and scholarship. For example, evangelicals hold widely varying interpretations of Bible passages regarding the role of women in Church leadership.

All scripture has to be interpreted and, when we do that, we introduce other authorities we may not be fully aware of, such as our own Church tradition, life experiences and so forth. Being human means we cannot leave these to one side. It’s important to ask: “what did Christians before us make of this passage?”

And so it goes on. We could talk about Methodists, whose idea of authority comes from the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”. This four-fold authority recognises scripture as primary, but also highly values tradition, reason and personal experience as sources of theological understanding. Methodists seek to discern God’s will, holistically, through all four of these.

Where does all of this leave us? Well before we all rush to defend our own corners …

Agreeing together

All our understandings of authority can be flawed - we are human after all – but Christians do agree that the Bible is authoritative and trustworthy; a compass in the world, a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119). Furthermore, the vast majority of Christians also acknowledge its unique “dual authorship”, blending Godly inspiration with human expression.

A well-rounded faith must be firmly rooted in scripture, but should also acknowledge the value, and the biases, of our traditions and our lived experiences. As Christians, our differences should make for good discussion and illustrate the rich diversity of God’s Church.

Lastly, let’s not forget that the Word of God, ultimately, is Jesus. So while the Bible is sacred, we worship Christ, not a book.

So perhaps the question is not whether our faith should rely solely on the Bible, but how the Bible can help us to open our hearts to Christ; to the entirety of God’s voice, including scripture, tradition, reasoned intellect, and the experience of God in our daily lives.