I have been reading the Gospels during this season and was struck by how scripture is used by both Jesus and the religious leaders. (This is not a formal exegetical study; I’m simply reporting my overall perception based on a season of spending some time in the Gospels. I might be totally off base here.)
What struck me is how radically different their application of Hebrew scripture is, and yet their discussion never seems to turn to, “Your interpretation of scripture is wrong and mine is correct.” Whether it’s Jesus’ interpretation or action, the Pharisees’ question is “by whose authority do you do these things?” (Notice the question is “whose authority” and not “what authority.”)
In the Bible (at least in the New Testament – I admit that I didn’t look at every Old Testament reference) authority is always posited in a person and never in a thing. God has authority. Both Moses and the Pharaoh have authority, although their authority has decidedly different sources. Jesus, Pilate, and the Chief Priest also have authority. Particularly notable is that the crowd perceives that Jesus’ authority comes from within himself and isn’t passed down from another person. (“He speaks with authority!”)
It is striking that in the Gospels, laws don’t have authority. In his skirmishes with the religious leaders neither Jesus nor the religious leaders ever cite a law nor a text as their authority, but always a person. (And I have in mind specifically that the Pharisees don’t say, “We have the Scriptures!” Instead they say, “We have Moses!” From our American perspective – see below – we might say it’s the same thing, but it seems obvious to me that their sense of authority is personal, thus they use the euphemism “Moses” for the scriptures.) St. Paul (and other NT writers) are fond of quoting scripture, but they never cite it as the authority. Authority is given to Jesus Christ, who got it from the Father, and who, in turn, gives it to the apostles. Scripture is a witness to these things, but never cited as the authority in and of itself.
In America, on the other hand, authority is sometimes lodged in a thing rather than a person. The US Constitution has authority; articles of incorporation have authority, etc. Being once a Presbyterian pastor I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Book of Order of the PC(USA) has a great deal of authority as well.
I was reminded of this because of a scandal that is currently bubbling over in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. The archdiocese has a constitution which was duly approved both by the American church and the Synod of bishops back in Antioch (or more technically, Damascus). That constitution clearly says that the Archdiocese shall have multiple dioceses complete with diocesan bishops. But in a recent decision the Synod – including Metropolitan Philip, the administrative head of our Archdiocese – summarily dismissed the “authoritative” constitution that had been duly approved by both the American church and the synod, making Philip the sole Antiochian bishop in North America, and turning the other bishops into “auxiliary bishops” (still bishops, but only as extensions of the Metropolitan’s episcopal authority).
At first I was scandalized by the heavy-handedness of it all and the thoroughly Roman-style top down nature of it. (Forget conciliarity, which is supposedly the hallmark of the Orthodox Church.) But after the initial flurry, I’ve come to accept it as a perfectly reasonable decision making process (albeit a shockingly un-Orthodox decision). I’m still scandalized by the undermining of conciliarity for the sake of top-down bureaucratic order, but I suspect much of the fight here in the U.S. has to do with the pre-eminence of documents over persons in the American psyche.
And this brings me back to authority. The reason I’ve settled on the side of the debate that considers the decision process perfectly reasonable has to do with my understanding of authority. It seems obvious to me that in God’s economy, authority resides in a person and not a thing. But evidently most American priests and bishops take the decidedly American view of authority and believe it can reside in a thing, such a church constitution. In this view, the thing trumps the person or the synod (ie, a gathering of persons),
Now all this would be a merely academic exercise except for the fact that the question is, at its heart, theological. Orthodoxy’s central theological criticism of Protestantism centers on this very point. Protestants claim that scripture is their authority. The Orthodox point out that this is impossible because scripture is neither self-interpreting nor self-referential. Its reference point is God-in-Jesus-Christ, and its interpretive framework is the ecclesia or people of God.
Now this brings us into a rather arcane philosophical debate, and I don’t want to get trapped in the minutia of philosophical enquiry, so rather than defining what all that means precisely, I’ll offer an illustration. Throughout its 2000 year history (and this is also true to a lesser extent of the 1000 year history of the Roman Catholic Church) there has been a remarkable continuity and consistency in Orthodox teaching and practice. Of course Rome has been far more creative than the Orthodox Church, but even in that “creative” process, there has been remarkable unanimity across the church. (And please notice that I say “remarkable unanimity” not “complete unanimity.” Both communions have their internal dissenters and occasional schisms.)
But the 500 year history of Protestantism has been remarkably, I would even say shockingly different. For the sake of round numbers, we’ll round down and say there are 20,000 different Protestant denominations. The most commonly cited number is 20,800 that David Barrett listed nearly 30 years ago in the Dictionary of Christianity in America (InterVarsity Press, 1980). According to Barrett these can be divided into seven major groupings and 156 ecclesiastical traditions. (I don’t have a page number. This comes from seminary notes.) A United Nations statistical survey came up with 23,000 denominations in 1982.
Why so many different denominations with often contradictory views about very basic matters (the Godhead, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, etc.)? Nearly everyone I’ve read on the matter, whether Presbyterian theologians, academic historians, sociologists, etc. says it’s because Protestants believe the Bible is their only authority, and this turns out to be an impossibility. The Bible has many different interpretations (at least 20,800 by David Barrett’s accounting) and therefore what is authoritative is not the Bible, but rather the interpreter who claims his interpretation is correct. It is evident that the Bible is simply a footstool used to promote this private and personal authority. In short, I become my own private authority (in the name of scripture, but based on my personal interpretation of scripture that is a wee be different than anybody else’s interpretation) and the result is that people do “what is right in their own eyes” (Jdgs 17:6). It was a disaster for ancient Israel and it has been a disaster for Protestantism.
For centuries the church said the Bible was not self-interpreting and one needed a body of tradition and a community of worshipping believers in order to interpret it accurately. Then along came the Protestants who said, “No! The meaning of scripture is clear so scripture is our only authority.” 20,000 contradictory Protestant denominations later, it’s clear that scripture in and of itself is not clear and cannot be authoritative all by itself.
The same is true of the American constitution. There is a laundry list of institutions and practices that are not constitutional in the strictest sense of the word. But “constitutional activism” has become the norm, so all these “improvements” on the constitution, from the Federal Reserve to Homeland Security, have gotten the stamp of approval of the people who actually hold the authority over the Constitution: The Supreme Court. Even in America (despite our claims to the contrary), authority is not vested in a thing, but rather in people.
But this myth that authority can properly be vested in a thing rather than a person is strong in America. So Protestants insist it’s perfectly okay, and even admirable to figure it out all by myself, and Antiochian priests and bishops insist that the Synod and the Metropolitan (who carries out the authority of the Synod in America) have no authority to do what they did because a thing – a piece of paper – trumps the authority that any person or group might have.
“By whose authority do you do these things?”
“By whose authority do you do these things?”
Ultimately the Antiochians will get this sorted out. But it can’t happen until the priests and bishops quit trusting in a thing – a piece of paper – and again begin to grapple with the ancient religious leaders’ question: “By whose authority do you do these things?”
And the Protestants? Well that’s a different can of worms.