Sunday, February 7, 2010

Authority for Determining Christian Belief and Practice

Authority is not a word we like very much anymore. Unless it comes to questioning someone’s authority. The modern western world is very good at doing that. But when it comes to respecting the authority of others, or recognising someone’s authority to tell us what to do, forget it. Instead of respecting authority, we’re more likely to criticise or ridicule it. Instead of obeying authority, we tell them exactly where we they’ve got it wrong.

When it comes to Christianity, we need authority. Christians are called to believe the right things and do the right things. And although God may be in the world, he isn’t sending out media releases or doing interviews on The 7.30 Report. So how do we decide our right belief and right practice (orthodoxy and orthopraxy)? We need to recognise of the authority of other sources to speak on God’s behalf.

Not everybody would agree with this. In fact, one of the stumbling blocks for people coming to religion is that they do not want to recognise the authority of anything or anyone else, other than themselves. They want to make their own choices about what to do. They want to work it all out without any kind of guidance from anybody.

Related to this is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some people prefer to rely either solely or partially on what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. They recognise God’s authority, but not necessarily the authority of other sources. The problem with this approach is that what God is saying to me may be different from what God is saying to you. How do we decide who is right?

I heard a pastor once say that if everybody is being led by the Holy Spirit, then there will be no disagreements in church meetings. And if anyone does disagree, then they’re not truly being led by the Holy Spirit. (As a person who tended to disagree, I got a little annoyed at this.)

But even though I believe his attitude was wrong, I think he had a point. If the Holy Spirit is guiding all Christians, then why do they disagree? Now if I believe God is telling me one thing, but it seems to be telling everyone else another thing, what do I do? Do I decide that God says different things to different people? Do I take the view that what God is telling me is more important than what it is telling everyone else? And what if the Holy Spirit seems to be guiding me differently than the way it has guided millions of believers through the centuries? What if it’s different to what the bible says? Am I the only one who has it right?

So unless we want billions of Christians, all with very different ideas about what it means to be Christian, and all convinced that their idea is the right one, we need some other authority to appeal to.

The bible is easily the most widely accepted source of authority for Christian belief and practice. God did not just create us and leave us alone. He interacted with us. And the bible is a record of what He has said and what He has done in the past. It is God’s word and divinely inspired. For some, this means it should be the only authority. Yet as history – and the many Christian denominations that now exist – shows us, people may read the bible and get some very different ideas.

Another source of authority is tradition. We do not just read the bible for ourselves and make our own decisions. We consider how Christians through the ages have interpreted the bible. We look at the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the past to help us decide on what we should believe and how we should act in the present.

I believe another source of authority should be the Church. Even with the bible and with tradition, there will still be many disagreements. The Church helps resolve those disagreements. And although I believe that the churches of different denominations can help guide the individuals within that denomination, I also believe that the Catholic Church is the only church that has the authority to speak to the body of believers as a whole. As with individuals, different denominations have different ideas about what it means to be Christian. The Catholic Church was the one church instituted by Jesus Christ and so would seem to be the church with the highest authority when it comes to determining matters of faith.

Authority is related to revelation. As we seek to determine what or who has the authority to speak for God today, we must look at how God has revealed himself in the past. The perfect revelation of God comes in Jesus Christ. Authority relates to power being invested in someone or something by another source. Jesus Christ was asked under what authority he performed his miracles. He did not answer, but we know that his authority came directly from God. In the context of Christianity, this investment of power should come from God or Jesus. Authoritative sources must not simply be made up out of thin air. We should consider where God or Jesus Christ have given authority to others.

Again, what immediately springs to mind is the bible. The bible is a written record of how God has revealed himself in the past. It is also a written record of Jesus Christ, what he said and did, what his purpose was and who He was. As most Christians agree that the bible is an authoritative source, I won’t spend too much time discussing this one. And yet the bible also helps us determine what else has authority.

It is worth noting that bible does not stop with the Gospel of John. It goes on. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see how the early church community developed and grew. And some of this involved working some things out. They could not simply turn to Jesus all the time and say well Jesus said this and so the way forward is plain. They needed to discuss things and come to certain decisions. And as we move past the Acts of the Apostles, we find many epistles, written to Christian communities. These epistles explain things and give advice. They talk about right beliefs and right practices. Those early churches often didn’t quite get it right. They needed to be pointed in the right direction.

When we use the letters in the New Testament as a guide for what to believe and how to act, we are essentially giving authority to the very beginning of Christian tradition. We recognise that people of the past have something valuable to say to people in the present. We learn from the theology of those that went before us. Now there is a difference between the epistles included in the bible and theology that was done afterwards. And I can see why some people would respect the first, but not the second. And yet it does seem to suggest that theology is an ongoing process.

This does not mean that theology needs to recreated for each new generation. Nor does it mean that we return solely to the bible to discover a theology for a new age. Instead, our theology must be built on the theology of others. Making decisions about right belief and right practice did not end after Jesus’ resurrection. Nor did it end after the last word Revelation was written. In fact, if it had, then we wouldn’t even have a bible to use an authoritative source. We also wouldn’t have the Church we have today. The first 500 years included a lot of differences and problems that needed to be worked through. And one of reasons why Christians believe the things they do today is because the people around then spent a lot of time resolving those issues.

I cannot finish this post on authority, without discussing where Jesus specifically gave authority to others. In Luke 9:1, Jesus called together the 12 apostles and gave them power and authority. It is very important that we think of this in deciding what or who has authority to act on God’s behalf today. Some people believe that the authority given here relates to all believers. Yet it seems important to me that he only gave authority to his apostles, not all his followers.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that I do not have a good understanding of this verse. And I tried looking for some kind of commentary on it, to get a better idea of what it actually meant. However, I couldn’t really find anything that was too helpful. But I am guessing that this relates to the authority given to the Church. Well in my opinion, it seems to. Maybe I might try and find out a bit more about that and do another one of my ‘I have no idea what I’m talking about posts’ a bit later.

But my ignorance here actually brings us to an interesting point. Because I have a verse in the bible and I’m not quite sure what it means. So what do I do now? Wait for the Holy Spirit to explain it to me? Search the rest of the bible in the hopes that I might find something that will shed light on it? Talk to people at my church – with the realisation that what the Catholic Church says about this verse is very different to what the Pentecostals would say about it? Check commentaries of other theologians to see what they have to say?

I can speak to other Christians, but in doing that, I may face differing opinions. What if one person says it means something, but another person says it means something else? How do I decide who is correct? I must then ask myself what basis they are using for their interpretation. If one person’s interpretation comes directly from the Holy Spirit, but another person’s interpretation comes from years of studying theology, do I treat both interpretations as equally valid?

So it seems that, although God speaks to us through the bible, we do need some form of further explanation to help us reach conclusions about what the bible is actually saying. And because there are many different explanations out there, we need to decide which explanations are correct. This can’t be simply a matter of choosing the one we like the best – tempting as this is to do. It must take into account the authority behind the explanations we receive? Do they link back to an authoritative source? Or are they simply one person’s opinions?

(Image details: Calling of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio Domenico (1481). Image is in the public domain.)


  1. Excellent reflection on authority. Yes, it has got a bad name in some circles, sometimes because those wielding it haven't done a great job. The ideal it seems to me is to be authoratative without being authoratarian.

  2. Hi Brendan,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that the abuse of authority is one reason why we don't like authority very much anymore. But it's certainly not the only reason.

    I think it must be hard trying to be authoratative without being seen to be authoratorian. Especially as I think our ideas of what is authoratative and what is authoratarian has changed.

    Authority is something I struggle with, with my own children. They question my authority a lot more than I would have dared question the authority of my parents. Yet I hope that they have more respect for authority than many other children their age.

    It's hard trying to find a balance between bringing up children to respect authority and not demanding too high a level of obedience.


  3. Hi Liz,

    That was a very well constructed and written post.

    Re: Not understanding certain passages of Sacred Scripture. St Thomas Aquinas compiled the Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain). He collected much of what the Great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and other venerable and holy men had to say on each line of the Gospels. It is available online.

    There are other collections of books which are not available online such as Fr Toal's Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers (which is similar to the Catena Aurea). I did have a copy, but donated it to the church library when I closed my magazine down. There is also a collection of the Nicene and anti-Nicene Fathers, but it's huge and would cost a mint.

    Here is the link to the Catena Aurea commentary on Chapter 9 of Luke:

    Here is the link to the Catena Aurea online:

    Understanding Sacred Scripture does require that we follow tradition and go to the saints. Our Lord had to open the Apostles' understanding for them. Then they explained what they had learned to those that followed them. And so on.

    One of the reasons the saints writings are so good to source is because the process of canonisation includes a strict examination of everything a saint has written, and it has to be free from error.

    But again, I thought that was extremely well written.

    David ...

  4. Hi David,

    I'll make this quick because I am not feeling too well tonight. In fact, I wasn't going to reply at all until tomorrow. But then I thought I'll just leave a message to say I'll reply later. But now I'm here, I may as well reply properly.

    Thank you so much for that link. I'm only had a quick look at it at the moment. But it looks very helpful. I never even dreamed that anything like that existed. I can see me returning to it quite a lot.

    The point about Jesus opening the Apostles' understanding is a good one. I wrote this post because I was thinking about the authority of scripture. And that didn't even come to mind.

    I didn't realise that the process of canonisation included examining everything a saint had written. That certainly seems to give those writings more authority than the many Christian books that don't undergo any sort of approval process.

    I remember having a conversation with a friend, where she was telling me the Catholic Church was wrong about something. And the reason she thought it was wrong was because all these authors or televangelists said something different.

    And thank you for saying it was well written. I am not sure whether I agree with you, but I accept the compliment.




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