By what authority?

Jesus entered the temple, and, as he was teaching, the chief priests and elders of the nation came up to him and asked: ‘By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you this authority?’ Jesus replied, ‘I also have a question for you. If you answer it I will tell you by what authority I act. The baptism of John: was it from God, or from men?’ (Matthew 21. 23,24)

Jesus’ authority is predicated on God’s authority. Biblical authority is predicated on God’s authority. Jesus declines to answer the question posed by the chief priests and elders. He poses instead a question they find it impossible to answer – clever move. But the question of what authority Jesus has remains unanswered. What amazed the people was not Jesus’ authority - the people were amazed at his teaching because, unlike the scribes, he taught with a note of authority. It’s the teaching, not the authority, that is fundamental.

Last week I decided I needed to confront the question of authority for myself. My ideas about God, Jesus and the Bible, the ideas I am writing about – by what authority do I hold so passionately to my convictions about what God has to be like at the existential end of the spectrum, and Christian understandings of gender and sexuality at the other, more pragmatic end?

Biblical Authority: the Problem

I Googled for an answer and the most helpful answer that came up was an article from 1991  by N. T. Wright (or the blessed Tom in his populist mode). He sets out the question posed by authority very helpfully:

“When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations.  They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation.  ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these.  This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible.  Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?  Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

“As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’.  Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed.  Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed.   One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.  

"Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels.  He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it.   As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.”

Let me tell you what Tom says about God’s authority, in brief. God’s authority is invested in the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the Bible, but primarily, it’s invested in stories.

  • Though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture
  • In the New Testament, we discover that authority is ultimately invested in Christ.  Then, perhaps to our surprise, authority is invested in the apostles.  We are forced to say: authority, according to the Bible itself, is vested in God himself, Father, Son and Spirit.
  • The writings written by these people, led by the Spirit, are not for the most part the sort of things we would think of as ‘authoritative’.  They are mostly narrative; and the problem is, how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative?  Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation.  It is wielded in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.  We must look, then, at the question of stories.  What sort of authority might they possess?
  • And what is the purpose of this authoritative story? “God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.” I like that, Tom Wright!

God is the ultimate authority, but his authority is only revealed and defined and made ‘authoritative’ in the secondary locales of authority – Son and Spirit and Bible and story – and the last of these is, of course, the least definite and the most liable to misappropriation and distortion.

IF . . .

What follows are the thoughts, notes that arose, as I then began to track back to the roots of any authority I might claim for my own theology and exegesis.

If there is God and with God, core truth and reality, then this authority is what my digging around and my excavation of ideas and personal awareness and my faith-seeking endeavours will find. It’s either there or it isn’t. But it is always an act of faith and a matter of decision, a personal decision, based on our parameters and core values and ideas about truth.

Our personal ideas about God will have come from our own birth and family context and local faith tradition, from the texts of that tradition, its history and teaching, and the culture of our local church, our denomination, and our society. Faith traditions are subject to the process of evolution. Human ideas about the nature of reality based on scientific endeavour and the nature of being human, as well as our ideas about God, have always been and always will be in the process of evolving.

It seems to be difficult to recognise this truth – that the basics of faith and core ideas about God are as much subject to the process of evolution as everything else. The human idea of God is entirely related to and dependent on what we now know about the process of evolution.

It is hard for the institutional church and for individual Christians to register the transient nature of faith and constructs of God, as they evolve over decades and centuries and millenia. We become attached to ideas as static entities rather than fluid constructs.

Ideas about God and Jesus and core truths of faith become unexamined or hard-to-examine evolving elements of our ‘religion’. Religion denotes the human attempt to define and codify and ‘fix’ the evolving, complex, diverse, personal experiences of faith.

The core truths therefore require examination and the core text, the Bible (for Christians) and especially the Gospels and Epistles, have to be interrogated, given what we now know about the complex formation and construction of the text.

I bring an a priori set of values and ideas to this process:

  • Do the values enhance mutual human flourishing?
  • Do the values inhibit or damage mutual human flourishing?
  • Are the values congruent with constructs of God that co-inhere/coincide with the highest human values of love and the sacredness of all life?
  • Any faith community or faith commitment of value has to be pursuing goals and a path to the goals which enhance the flourishing of the individual and the individual’s wider community and the global and universal community.

For me, deference to and worship of a false God or a God with unhealthy values and attributes results in damaging, unhealthy spiritual teachings and practices.

Step 1, therefore, is to evaluate Christian history, teaching, dogma, ethics and practice to discern what is healthy and unhealthy, creative to or hostile to human and global flourishing.

God, and God’s authority are both human constructions. This does not mean they are not true or do not express ultimate truths which people authenticate though their immersion in a spiritual path that seeks to explore and internalise divine, sacred teachings and values according to each particular construct of the one God. Faith ideas and spiritual practice are chosen acts of faith through which people commit themselves to a life path of spiritual, ethical, moral and practical transformation.

This begs the questions: what does Christianity teach? What did Jesus teach? What does God desire?

Some of the core ingredients of the teaching relevant to my a priori values might be: unconditional love, doing justice, seeking the kingdom, truth, prayer, open hearts, the wisdom of the beatitudes.

The Bible is the story of the evolution of faith following, first, the Israelites, and secondly the Christian community that evolved dramatically and somewhat rapidly from the Jewish community’s roots. The Bible contains stories of human awareness of how the divine other, God, has been encountered by those people as they have in turn been encountered by the universal, infused, divine energy in creation. It’s a two way process.

Over time, the location of the divine or imagery of the divine has changed, from nature and natural phenomena, to more current experience of the divine as integral to life, to human feelings and experience.

Science in general and scientific exploration and discovery in the current era contributes to our understanding of reality and the ways in which matter and space-time are constructed and organised.

Life sciences have developed our understanding of how we human beings function, with ideals and values, with a capacity for destruction and evil, the Id and ego, the unconscious, and characteristics such as projection and introjection, as well as the human tendency to anxiety and depression and idealisation.

I started by looking for underpinnings of the basis of authority, Ultimate authority belongs to God, says the tradition, but the only authoritative witnesses are the Bible and Jesus and the story narrative, and as a result, the whole thing becomes circular.

People used to accept author on these terms without question, simply because they were told God is the ultimate authority and the teaching of the church is true. In our democratic but fragile western cultures where those in authority are rapidly losing respect, and where belief in theism or deism no longer works for the majority, trust in the idea that God has authority because the church or bishops or Jesus or the Bible say so loses any authoritative edge it once had, especially in matters of gender and sexuality.

Authority resides, as the conversation with Jesus in Matthew 21.23-27 reflects, in those who speak (and teach and live and exemplify) authoritatively. We have to check our internal witness and our intuition to decide whether or not we will grant authoritative status to this or that person.

The authority structures of the church are still founded in a legal system that presumes to have authority. Action can be taken against people who contravene the rules, teachings, dogmas and canons. Some people are good at referencing Biblical or historical authorities and writing detailed arguments to demonstrate why x or y is a transgression of an element of the three-legged stool basis for Anglican authority based on scripture, reason and tradition, but it is, of course, based on a particular understanding of the codes and rules – and it is relative, subject to our questions and judgements.

My authority is primarily experiential and intuitive, encountered at best in the present moment, in lived experience, immanent, physically, bodily experienced, practical, situational, in the belief that immersion in the divine present changes us and our life and relationships and provides the evidence or authority for truth.

 The Christian church in part still believes in and worships a God who can rescue people and intervene in response to prayer as if God is an object capable of intervening and moving things around.

I end with three practical questions:

  • How is it possible to integrate the practical wisdom and experience that comes from silent, reflective, contemplative, body-centred spiritual practice into a church still addicted to authority as an extrinsic reality?
  • How is it possible to integrate this into the church system, into the life and worship and teaching in local congregations?
  • How does grace and unconditional love live with the church’s addiction to an authority that resides in the elusive presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the reliable/unreliable witness of the Bible?