Certain Bible commentators and teachers are sometimes used as authorities. What qualifications do they have to make them so? It sometimes seems like they are given the same authority as the Bible. Is this the case?
This is a very important question, one that should be asked of anyone who holds up someone as an authority on scriptural interpretation. There are many that are acting today as authorities whose qualifications really should be questioned. Furthermore, we would do well to determine the basis of a supposed authority’s opinions. Where simple questions of Scripture are concerned, they should be able to give a relevant scriptural reference. For more complex questions that deal with matters of specialized learning, relevant references and evidence should be made available. Too often people make statements with great confidence that can be easily shown to be in error. We should strive diligently to avoid this as it can bring dishonor to the Lord and undermine our own credibility.
“If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority”John 7:17
The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able [or, “qualified” (NIV)] to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). So, faithfulness is the first requirement. But, to judge faithfulness assumes that we ourselves are faithful. How devoted are we to know and practice the truth? “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (Jn. 7:17). For example, when we examine the lives of some prominent teachers of the nineteenth century who I often cite as authorities on Scripture, men such as J. N. Darby and William Kelly, we see a true devotion to the Lord and His truth. Faithfulness entails more than diligence. There must be a willingness to hold the truth. The warning in Revelation to the church in Philadelphia is to “hold fast what you have” (Rev. 3:11). Many today have learning and diligence, and they may be good teachers—devoted to the truth in many ways—but they give up here or there some truth that seems unpalatable to them. Most often these truths involve ecclesiastical or eschatological truth.
In addition, the teacher must also be qualified or competent. There must be knowledge and the ability to explain the truths of the Bible. The men previously mentioned were scholars of the first rank. Now, this is not obvious because they all felt that it was wrong to make much of men, especially themselves. They wanted to be known as simple believers who made much of Christ. This is where the name “Plymouth Brethren” came from. They insisted that they were simply “brethren.” Others that knew them observed that some of them were from Plymouth. Hence, they became known as “brethren from Plymouth.” So we must infer their abilities from what they wrote and a very scant amount of biographical data available in letters and the like. Nevertheless, reading the writings of J. N. Darby and F. W. Grant and those who walked with them (I do not say “followed” because that would be considered an offense by them), it is evident that they had considerable knowledge of languages, the classics, history, science, and philosophy. Darby, Kelly, and Grant all produced their own translations of the Scriptures. The “New Translation” by Darby is still used today and is considered by some modern scholars to be a worthy reference. Those I mention were well-read. They quote from well-known scholars from the early days of Christianity down to their own day for support and critique. Thus, they really do deserve the title of “scholar.”
Finally, I certainly hope we never give the slightest hint that the writings of any man, however gifted, could stand next to God’s Word. We simply seek to use the best helps that God has given to us (see Eph. 4:8–16), deferring always to His Word as the ultimate authority.