By Marshall E. Patton
Divine authority is the real issue at the base of all religious differences. In our dealings with modern religious cults we must prove that divine authority is established by the scriptures and by the scriptures only. Where there is no scripture there can be no divine authority. Our title assumes unanimity among us on that point. Let us hope that it does not assume too much.
A knowledge of how to establish divine authority; a recognition of the different kinds of divine authority; a clear conception of the nature of each, and a faithful application of such knowledge will necessarily result in our speaking the same thing with no divisions among us, but all being perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10).
Are there differences among us today? Then someone is at fault in one or more of the above mentioned matters. These faults must be found and recognized, otherwise we will remain hopelessly divided. The need of the hour is an objective study of these matters! When unanimity is attained here, honest brethren will make faithful application to current issues. This will resolve our differences; unity will prevail, and together we can march on to victory beneath the banner of the cross.
Until of late it has been axiomatic with us that scriptural authority is established in one or more of three ways: expressed statement, necessary inference, and approved example. Recently, however, some have added a fourth way, namely, by “principle eternal.” Then there are some who have not named other ways, but who do affirm that they exist. Those who so affirm should both name and prove these ways, otherwise faithful brethren will continue to deny them. I deny that there is a fourth way of establishing divine authority – by principle eternal or otherwise. Any principle to be divine must first be revealed of God. Questions: when, where and how can any principle be revealed unto us save in apostolic days (when), in the Scriptures (where), by way of either expressed statement, necessary inference, or approved example (how)? There is no other time, place or way for such revelation! If so, let those who so affirm name and prove it. Until this is done, I contend that scriptural authority is established only by one or more of these three ways.
The following illustrates the three ways by which scriptural authority is established:
(1) Expressed statement – “. . this do in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). This expressed statement establishes scriptural authority for observing the Lord’s Supper.
(2) Necessary inference – “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water” (Matt. 3:16). Although the Bible does not say that Jesus went down into the water when he was baptized, it does teach by necessary inference that he did just that. He could not have come “out” unless he had been “in.” By necessary inference the Bible teaches that the church was established on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ (Mk. 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:4). Other examples might be given. However, let it be observed that in order to establish scriptural authority the inference must be necessary. Herein is the mistake made by those who practice infant baptism. In the case of Lydia’s household they reason that she might have been married; probably had children; if so, it is possible that one of them was an infant, and although she was away from home, in all probability she had her infant with her. Hence, they conclude that an infant was in her household, and therefore, infant baptism. There inference is based upon assumption. Scriptural authority is not established by reasonable inferences – they must be necessary!
(3) Approved example – “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread. . . ” (Acts 20:7). This approved example establishes scriptural authority for observing the Lord’s supper upon the first day of the week. By approved example I mean Holy Spirit approved action on the part of Christians in the day of the apostles. In this connection the following references should be considered: Hebrews 13:7; John 16:13; Ephesians 3:5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Philippians 4:9; 1 Peter 2:21. Unfortunately, some have begun to question whether or not divine authority is established by approved example . . . It will suffice here to observe that “holy apostles and prophets” were “guided” by the Holy Spirit “into all truth.” The Holy Spirit guided Luke in revealing Acts 20:7. Unless the practice of Acts 20:7 can be shown to conflict with other plainly revealed truths, we must conclude it to be “truth” into which the Holy Spirit “guided” Luke – therefore, an approved example. Thus we can observe it on this day with assurance of divine approval. No man knows that the Holy Spirit approves any other day for its observance. To observe it on some other day is to do so without divine authority This is sinful!
Most students of the Bible know that there are two kinds of divine authority – general and specific. Yet, a failure to distinguish between the two and to understand clearly the nature of each accounts for much of the controversy over current issues. Therefore, it will make for simplicity if we take the time to learn how to distinguish between the two and learn clearly the nature of each.
The Nature of Each
The word “general” is defined by Webster: “Pertaining to, affecting, or applicable to, each and all of a class, kind, or order; as, a general law.” Negatively, “Not limited to a precise import or application; not specific.” The word “specific” is defined by Webster: “Precisely formulated or restricted; specifying; explicit; as, a specific statement.”
From these definitions it is obvious that the difference between the general and the specific is simply this: The general includes each and all of the class, kind, or order under consideration, though not precisely stated or revealed. On the other hand the specific excludes everything save that which is precisely stated or revealed. The following chart illustrates this difference:
A failure to recognize the inclusive nature of the general has led some to affirm that we do many things with God’s approval for which we have no expressed statement, necessary inference, or approved example. I deny it! Question: Can expressed statements, necessary inferences, and approved examples be generic? If so, then they include “each and all of the class, kind, or order under consideration, though not precisely stated or revealed.” In the realm of the general it suffices only to authorize the class. All that is within the class, though not precisely stated or revealed is included! Upon this basis we claim divine authority for our meeting houses, pews, light fixtures, and other facilities that expedite our assembling together for worship (see D on chart). Because of this inclusive nature of general authority I contend that expressed statements, necessary inferences, and approved examples, either general or specific, “completely furnish us unto every good work.” To contend other is to open wide the flood gate of digression. The pattern will no longer be determined by divine authority, but by human judgment. This would make unity impossible. Surely we are not prepared for such a conclusion or its consequences.
Furthermore, a failure to recognize the inclusive nature of general authority makes “antis” and “hobbyists.” They try to make the general exclusive when in reality it is inclusive. This is the mistake of the anti-Bible class brethren. They try to make the general command “teach” exclude the class system. Why? Because it is not specifically authorized. They overlook the inclusive nature of general authority. A recognition of this on their part would solve this problem (see C on chart).
On the other hand a failure to recognize the exclusive nature of the specific accounts for digression. The idea of exclusion inheres in the very meaning of the word “specific.” Yet, our digressive brethren try to make the specific inclusive when in reality it is exclusive. They would make the specific “sing” include instrumental music. They overlook the exclusive nature of specific authority. A recognition of this on their part would solve this problem (see G on chart). Brethren, here is the truth between the two extremes of digression and hobbyism! Remember, however, that opposing that for which there is neither general nor specific authority does not make one a hobbyist or an anti.
General or Specific
This raises the question: How do we determine whether it is generic or specific? The answer is simple: When choice is divinely authorized it is general. If no choice is authorized, then it is specific. The meaning of the two words demands this conclusion.
Choice is divinely authorized, first, when something is necessary to execute the divine order, but that something is not revealed. Whatever is used must be a matter of choice, and is, therefore, a matter of expediency (see A on chart). This accords with the meaning of the word “general”: “Including each and all of the class, kind, or order under consideration, though not precisely stated or revealed.” Notice, however, that the expediency must be within the class, kind, or order divinely authorized. This also accords with 1 Corinthians 6:12. Expediences must first be lawful!
Choice is authorized, secondly, when two or more things are revealed and one may be chosen to the exclusion of others (see B on chart). Such are expediencies. For where choice is expediences are. And where expediencies are the general is. Thus we determine the general.
Unless choice is authorized, we dare not go beyond that which is revealed (2 Jn. 9). There is no choice in the realm of the specific. The specific excludes everything save that which is specified (see E on chart). For this reason we observe the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week to the exclusion of all other days. This day is authorized by a specific approved example, and is, therefore, exclusive (see F on chart). For the same reason we oppose the use of instrumental music in worship. “Sing” is specific, and therefore, is exclusive (see G on chart).
The differences among us over the current issues of “Congregational Cooperation” would be resolved immediately, if those promoting the “sponsoring church” type of cooperation would recognize the exclusive nature of the specific authority that authorizes one church to send money to another church. Like the time for observing the Lord’s supper there is neither expressed statement nor necessary inference authorizing such (i.e., sponsoring church). Both are dependent upon approved example for authority.
The New Testament examples that authorize such cooperation are specific (2 Cor. 8,9; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25,26; Acts 11:27-30)! It was always a church with “abundance” sending to a church in “want” that “equality” might be established (2 Cor. 8:13,14). The word “abundance” is a relative term and does not necessarily mean a wealthy church. Macedonia gave out of “deep poverty” (2 Cor. 8:23). Yet, they had “power” to give (2 Cor 8:3). Jerusalem did not. Hence, in relation “want” means inability to perform a work peculiar to the receiving church. “Equality” simply means freedom from such “want.” The context demands these conclusions (see H on chart).
If the authority for congregational cooperation is general. Then it is sinful to try to bind one type to the exclusion of others. However, if the authority for such cooperation is specific, then it is sinful to try to make it include any type save that which is specified (Gospel Guardian [3 & 10 May 1956], pp. 14-15).
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 13, pp. 386, 407-409
July 5, 1990