in biblical usage, describes the absolute power and freedom of God, and claims that He is the source of all other authorization or power.
The word “authority” is used rarely in the Old Testament. In the English New Testament it translates the Greek exousia, a word for which there is no exact correspondence in Hebrew or Aramaic. The Greek “exousia” expresses both freedom and legal rights, and is used in the Bible in numerous ways.
Old Testament Two Hebrew words are translated “authority,” but occurrences are not common. Examples include
Proverbs 29:2, describing the rejoicing of the people when the righteous are “in authority;”
Esther 9:29, speaking of “full written authority” (RSV) Esther and Mordecai exercised;
Daniel 4:17, declaring that “the most High rules the kingdom of men” (RSV); and
Daniel 7:13-14, prophesying that eternal authority will be given to the “Son of Man.” God gave authority to humans over nature (Genesis 1:28), to husband over wife (Genesis 3:16), and to parents over their children (Leviticus 19:3).
New Testament “Exousia” is found in the New Testament in a variety of usages, although always consistent with the belief that “there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1 RSV; see
John 19:11). “Exousia” describes first the freedom of God to act (Luke 15:5;
Acts 1:7). Second, it signifies the divinely given power and authority of Jesus Christ as deriving from the Father (Matthew 28:18;
John 17:2), enabling Him to forgive sin (Mark 2:10), and signifying His power to heal and to expel demons, which He gave His disciples (Mark 3:15). Third, it describes the freedom God gives His people for salvation (John 1:12) and from legalism (1 Corinthians 6:12). Fourth, it denotes the authority God imparted to the leaders to build up the church (2 Corinthians 10:8;
2 Corinthians 13:10). Fifth, “exousia” signifies the power God displayed through agents of destruction in the last days (Revelation 6:8;
Revelation 9:3,Revelation 9:10,Revelation 9:19;
Revelation 18:1). Sixth, the word denotes the dominion God allows Satan to exercise (Acts 26:18;
Ephesians 2:2). Seventh, it describes the “authorities” created by God, both heavenly (Colossians 1:16) and secular (Romans 13:1;
As “exousia” denotes an authority manifested in power, translators sometimes render the word “power” (KJV,
Matthew 9:6,Matthew 9:8;
Matthew 28:18). “Exousia” sometimes denotes as well the sphere in which authority is exercised (Luke 23:7).
Historical Survey of Religious Authority The scriptural views of authority have undergone major shifts in interpretation in church history. The early leaders of the church were virtually unanimous in viewing the Bible as the primary source of revelation and authority. The church soon began ascribing authority to its tradition as well as to the Scriptures. By the fourth century church tradition was viewed as of equal authority with the Bible. The medieval church especially emphasized the church as the sole interpreter of Scripture, through its tradition and creeds, councils, and pope.
The Reformation rejected this duality of authority in Bible and church, claiming “sola scriptura” (“only the Bible”). The Reformers argued that all authority, even that of the church, is derived from the Bible itself, and valuable only as it is consistent with Scripture. The Anabaptists and early Baptists made this view of biblical authority the foundation for their theological beliefs, maintaining that all church doctrine and practice must be entirely consistent with the Bible itself.
The Catholic church responded to the Reformation with an increased emphasis on the authority of the church and its tradition, culminating in its assertion of papal infallibility in all areas of faith and practice in 1870. Vatican II, held in 1962-65, modified this position by balancing papal authority with that of the bishops and interpreting both authorities in a ministerial context.
The nineteenth century movement of “Liberal Protestantism” defined religious authority in yet another way, locating authority in man's reason and experience. The Bible was seen as normative only insofar as it is consistent with reason and personal experience, and people are to interpret it subjectively. The movement called “Pietism” alternately located religious authority in man's evangelical experience.
Conclusions It is the uniform witness of the Bible that all authority is located in God. People possess authority only as the Lord gives it (Romans 13:1). Religious authority derives from the authority of the Father, as that authority is revealed in the Son, manifested by the Holy Spirit, and given in and through the Bible to the church and the world. While each of the approaches to authority described in the above historical survey is still practiced and taught today, Scripture says all legitimate authority comes directly or indirectly from God.
Such a position will have obvious implications for contemporary Christian faith and practice. The church and its ministry possess genuine religious authority only as they serve the mission of Jesus in faithfulness to the Bible and in building up the church (Matthew 28:18-20). The Christian accepts the truth of Scripture as authoritative by faith, and the command of Scripture as authoritative in obedience, and so demonstrates love for the Lord (John 14:15).
James C. Denison