TERMS. Today I often see the term, “final authority,” used when there is a question of ethics and then one goes to the Bible to see what it says: although it might be about other ultimate questions. A “first principle” is defined as one’s starting point for all knowledge, not only an authority about ethical questions. It is the starting point for all knowledge of every subject and predicate term, and their correct categorical placements.
Some use “ultimate authority,” interchangeable with epistemology, which is how it is best used, but I will address it here, in the ambiguous way I often there it.
Starting point Vs Authority. Because the question of whether the Bible is a Final Authority on ethics is knowledge, means that the issue of one’s, starting point of knowledge, is a more foundational question. The Scripture, as our starting point for knowledge, tells us it is the final authority for things. This is in context of the bible defining and revealing knowledge for all ultimate questions to begin with.
The issue about ethics is that ethics is the conclusion from all the other ultimate questions that come from the Christian worldview.
See table below.
Systematic Doctrine – Systematic Philosophy
1. Scripture/ God’ self-Revelation – Epistemology / First Principle of knowledge
2. God’s absolute Sovereignty – Ontology / Metaphysics (Causality & Existence)
3. Creation of man. The story of the two groups of mankind – Anthropology.
4. Jesus as the Logos, man in the Logos image – Logic (Deductive). Intelligibility
5. Command to subdue the earth, pragmatics – Logic (Induction) Scientific method
6. Salvation by Jesus (Soteriology) – IF or How man needs improvement
Conclusion: (Ought to Do)
7. God’s Commandments/Religion – Axiology. Ethics. Morals
Ethics presupposes the ultimate questions of knowledge, metaphysics, ontology, anthropology, logic, soteriology and etc.. In this sense epistemology is greater, because without it, there is no knowledge of ethics to even discuss. Without a description of reality, then there is no context for ethics. Without anthropology there no need for ethics. Therefore, one’s ethics are true, if the whole philosophy is true.
Many fancy that their starting point for knowledge is more pure than they suppose. If you have more than one epistemology, which is giving you different premises than the Scripture, then your conclusion of ethics will be different. If your other starting point (your observations) allows you to use the invalid logic of induction, then again, your ethics will conclude different from a purely deductive ethic from premises in the Bible.
The point is that if the Bible is not your sole first principle for knowledge, then it is not your final authority either. If you add just a little bit of so-called, “common sense,” or your “experiences,” your “observations,” and “science,” then you have a dual or triple starting point of knowledge. This results in terms, propositions and logic different from the Christian starting point. If you say you will go to your final authority of the bible for an issue of ethics, then you will end up mixing information from these other starting points of knowledge. You will end up choosing the mixture of starting knowledge that will fit your personal bias in the conclusion. You are the final authority. The scripture declares that it is true and all other systems of thought are false. If the Bible says “this,” but your experiences, or common sense, or science contradict this by saying “that,” and if there is no exact measure in the bible to show how to precisely make them converge/work, then YOU must be the one to manufacture these premises. Your speculations and superstitions are the start. Your starting point is empiricism, and so you are the source knowledge. You are an atheist. You become a higher source of knowledge than Scripture. You are the universe’s ultimate authority.
Your starting point of knowledge defines and results in what your final authority is. If our starting point for knowledge is purely God’s revelation, then the result is that your final authority will be God’s Word, without bias and defectiveness. Kill the kingdom of self, and let the Kingdom of God rule your minds.
Vincent writes about this from a slightly different context, saying,
Suppose a given system of thought includes the following propositions: (1) X is a man, and (2) X is an accountant. If, in reality, (1) is true but (2) is false, how will a person know to affirm (1) and deny (2), unless he is already acquainted with X? Unless the system is completely true (or false), there is no way to tell which proposition is true (or false) without importing knowledge from outside of the system, and if one imports knowledge from outside of the system, then he would be evaluating the system in question by the second system from which he has gained the knowledge to evaluate the first.
That is, if worldview A is not complete true or false, then there is nothing within worldview A by which we can accurately judge a particular proposition within worldview A as true or false. If we bring in something that we know from worldview B by which we judge something within worldview A, then we are making worldview B to stand in judgment over worldview A. But if one has already obtained knowledge that is accurate, relevant, and extensive enough from worldview B by which to evaluate worldview A, then he cannot meaningfully learn anything from worldview A. He is judging it, not learning from it.
In other words, if a worldview is not completely true, then on the basis of the same worldview, there is no way to tell whether a given proposition within the same worldview is true or false. But if you already know enough from another worldview to judge the propositions within this first worldview, then there is nothing you can really learn from it, since you already know what it can offer you and more. Of course, the worldview by which you judge another worldview must itself be completely true; otherwise, you will have the same problem again. Any worldview that is not completely true collapses into skepticism, so that it can know nothing at all.
Therefore, there is nothing to learn from a religious system that is not completely true. You can only learn from a system of thought that is completely true, and then use what you have learned from this worldview to evaluate another worldview, but never to learn from it. [Vincent Cheung. Proof of The Spirit. 2008)
“Since the Bible itself claims that every part of the Bible is true, to judge any part of it as false requires an appeal to a standard or authority that is foreign to the Bible. If a person rejects the Bible’s claim about itself, that it is inspired and infallible, when he judges that one of its propositions is false, then he cannot accept the Bible’s claim about itself when he judges that another one of its propositions is true. That is, if a person appeals to a nonbiblical standard or authority to reject one biblical proposition, then he must continue to appeal to a non-biblical standard or authority when he agrees with another biblical proposition…
If a person accepts one part of the Bible and rejects another part of the Bible by a standard or authority that is foreign to the Bible, then to him, the part of the Bible that he accepts is not true because the Bible says so, but because that standard or authority to which he submits tells him so. Therefore, he cannot justify his belief in the part of the Bible that he accepts because the Bible says it, but he must justify this belief by the epistemological standard or authority by which he evaluates the Bible. However, if this epistemology itself lacks justification, then his verdict on any part of the Bible also lacks justification, and what he says is worthless.”
[Vincent Cheung. Systematic Theology, 2010. pg. 111]
Vincent Cheung uses “Ultimate Authority” as interchangeable with first principle of knowledge, which is how it is best used. The above is how I often hear it used in an ambiguous way. And so, by saying, if your epistemology is the Bible, and if it says it is infallible and the ultimate authority, and all others are false, then the result is the Bible is your only source for all knowledge. In summary it means, if the Bible is your epistemology, then it is your only starting point for knowledge and if it is your only starting point, it is your only ultimate authority.
From Ultimate Questions.
Every worldview has a starting point or first principle from which the rest of the system is derived. Some people claim that a worldview can be a web of mutually dependent propositions without a first principle. However, even if a million liars vouch for one another, all of them are still liars. At least one reliable man would have to vouch for them. But if all of them are liars, a reliable man would not vouch for them, and their credibility falls apart. Likewise, a web of propositions would still need a first principle that supports them all. A true first principle would not produce a web of false propositions, and a web of false propositions would not be supported by a true first principle. Therefore, the first principle remains the crucial issue.
In a web of propositions, some propositions are more central to the web, the destruction of which would also annihilate the propositions that are more remote. But even the most central claims require justification, and a worldview in which the propositions depend on one another in a way that lacks a first principle is in the final analysis exposed as having no justification at all. The claim that a worldview can be a web of mutually dependent propositions without the need of a first principle is really an attempt at hiding the fact that all of the propositions in such a web lack justification.
Therefore, it remains that every worldview requires a first principle or ultimate authority. Being first or ultimate, such a principle cannot be justified by any prior or greater authority; otherwise, it would not be the first or ultimate. This means that the first principle must possess the content to justify itself. For example, the proposition, “All knowledge comes from sense experience,” fails to be a first principle on which a worldview can be constructed. This is because if all knowledge comes from sense experience, then this proposed first principle must also be known only by sense experience, but the reliability of sense experience has not been established. Thus the principle generates a vicious circle and self-destructs. It does not matter what can be validly deduced from such a principle – if the system cannot even begin, what follows from the principle is without justification.
It is also impossible to begin a worldview with a self-contradictory first principle. This is because contradictions are unintelligible and meaningless. The law of contradiction states that “A is not non-A,” or that something cannot be true and not true at the same time and in the same sense. One must assume this law even in the attempt to reject it; otherwise, he cannot even distinguish between accepting and rejecting this law. But once he assumes it, he can no longer reject it, since he has already assumed it. If we say that truth can be contradictory, then we can also say that truth cannot be contradictory, since we have abandoned the distinction between can and cannot. If we do not affirm the law of contradiction, then dogs are cats, elephants are rats, “See Jane run” can mean “I am married,” and “I reject the law of contradiction” can mean “I affirm the law of contradiction,” or even “I am a moron.” If it is not true that “A is not non-A,” anything can mean anything and nothing at the same time, and nothing is intelligible.