Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I just posted this comment to a blog post over at the wonderful new Biblical Horizons blog. It's not all that well written, but it's probably one of the most coherent thoughts that I've ever had on the subject of authority. It also leads into a lengthy quotation from the Ballad of the White Horse that contains some of my favorite lines of poetry.

If I'm understanding the Catholic approach to baptism correctly, then the validity of the baptism would depend on the proper words being spoken (a Trinitarian formula must be used) and the "human response of faith" being present (I think...). One joins you to to the unity of the mystical body of Christ (faith) and one joins you to the unity of historical and concrete Christian church (formula).

Are we to assume that the formula of faith (one could think of this as a Trinitarian confession) implies the presence of faith? We need to have some observable basis on which we can say that we are brothers and sisters. And since I don't have a faith-o-meter on me, I've got to go by something a little more tangible. So perhaps we're supposed to assume that the church is right, even though we know that our leaders are not perfect extensions of the Leader.

We can't assume a complete disconnection between the church and the Church, so what must be assumed? Where is the overlap between the church and the Church? If we assume that the Spirit is the source of our unity, then the place of unity is the place of overlap. If this is the case, then we should put authority at the places of unity. What unifies the church, who unifies the church? Church councils? Church leadership? Church structure? Church teachers? Church creeds?

Now, of course this isn't prescriptive. When leaders are bad, people aren't necessarily unified by that leadership, and the authority decreases. But if you are that unifier, you have to be prescriptive, just not on the basis of that authority. In other words, I think the Catholic approach is pretty much right...except for when a leader claims he's right because he has the authority. Divine authority can strengthen you, but woe to those who try to rest on it.


Also, I think is true for political authority as well. No President can have some sort of divine assurance that whatever he'll do will be right because he was voted in (even if he got 100% of the vote). Authority can be seen from below, but is invisible when you're in the chair. Authority can be trusted from below, but only hoped and prayed for from above.

You want an example of what divine authority looks like? Witness King Alfred, when worried that England would fall to the pagans:

"Mother of God," the wanderer said,
"I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.

"The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.

"But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is for ever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?

"When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?"

And a voice came human but high up,
Like a cottage climbed among
The clouds; or a serf of hut and croft
That sits by his hovel fire as oft,
But hears on his old bare roof aloft
A belfry burst in song.

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

"And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

"The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.

"The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

"The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

"The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

"The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

"The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.

"But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

"Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"

If you rest divine authority, you will become as to the fanatics of East, who's rationalism buries them. If you dwell on hopelessness, you are bound for the despair of the Western cynics. If you have found the "joy without a cause, yea, faith without a hope", you have found inspiration.

Update: Over at Biblical Horizons today, a new post came up quoting Lesslie Newbigin on this very topic, and seems to move in the basic direction I look towards (community centered sense of Spirit and truth). It promises to be rather clearer (and definitely better written) than whatever I've been trying to get out.

If you'd like to consider the topic, start by trying to think of authority (one that includes issues like what you should do, what you should believe, etc) as essentially tribalistic. See if you can do this without sounding like a relativist at the end of the conversation. If you succeed, let me know, for that's where I'm looking. My entire post was an attempt to do this by relying on the description I've heard of authority by Catholics (which essentially sees unity and authority as two sides to the same coin).


  1. Not to quibble, but, as far as I understand Catholic (or, for that matter, Orthodox) ecclesiology, the Pope/leader can never claim he's right simply because he has the authority. Or am I misunderstanding something here?

  2. You also (I think) need (in addition to faith and formula) to have a baptizer who intends to do what the Church does when he baptizes.

  3. Ben,
    To the first point, I don't believe that the pope (or any controlling member of the hiearchy) is required to "argue out" the theological or moral point he wants to make or claim anything other than his own institutional claim. Perhaps I'm wrong, but papal infallibility just speaks about the pope defining, as pope, something on matters of "faith or morals" that should be held by the whole church. In doing so, he can just "claim he's right" (though this probably wouldn't fit with Benedict's character and is unlikely to happen as such). The whole idea, then, that we should look to the papal office for that kind of "infallibility" makes his authority entirely prescriptive (whereas, if we all just did look to the office, then it would be descriptive).

    If I think the pope is the center of Christian unity on earth, then I will listen to him (and trust him) completely. If I think the pope is the devil incarnate, I won't listen to him or trust him. And there are certainly positions between these two. But since there is not institutional unity among Christians today, then pointing to the institutionally unifying office and claiming its "infallibility" is no longer just describing his authority, but its ascribing (or prescribing) it.

    As such, this isn't me fighting with the pope. This is me fighting with the many silly Protestant converts out there (many become Catholic apologists) who seek to find some sort of divine assurance of correctness in Catholic hierarchy. They often do it with this sort of approach.

    Now this works perfectly well if you're willing to say that Christians are only those willing to recognize the authority of the pope (or are only those who are submitting to the will of the church, or some such approach). Then, the pope would be the source of unity for those people. But in this situation, there is no need to claim authority for the pope...he's got it. He is the unifier. And this was certainly true during many periods of history. But that type of unity doesn't exist today, so neither does the authority.

    Do you see what I mean? This approach to authority (one that is descriptive, not prescriptive) is not comforting at all. Then again, neither were Mary's words to Alfred.

  4. And to the second point, you're totally right. One must intend the same thing. And I think I said to much when saying that faith was required. I'm betting that faith is required for a baptism to be "efficacious" or some such word. Validity only requires proper matter (it's gotta be water), form (Trinitarian sprinkling or plunging), and intention.

  5. I see what you mean, although the requirements for an infallible pronouncement are quite a bit more stringent than what you've said. It's not just the pope pronouncing on matters of faith and morals: it also requires (I think) pronouncement in concordance with the bishops and in line with Tradition. I'll check on that: but I know that there have only been two infallible pronouncements by popes since the doctrine was first articulated.

    I'm slightly confused by your distinctions on prescriptive and descriptive authority: maybe you could flesh those out a little bit more?

  6. Here's the quotation from the one of the decrees from the first Vatican council. It might not be complete, but it's what I was looking to.

    we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that

    * when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA,
    o that is, when,
    1. in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,
    2. in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,
    3. he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church,
    * he possesses,
    o by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter,
    * that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

    And this is one more definition that if I reject I should be anathema.

    The section also discusses "adhering to the tradition received" and "with approval of the sacred council", but those comments refer to the council making the proclamation, not to the pope. However, if the pope is (as the pope) defining something, I'm sure he would try to be in line with the historical church (because he would see the the office of Peter as unifying point of the church, past as well as present). But I don't think this is a requirement that he must be, I think that it's an assumption that he will be. And that seems problem to the doctrine itself, I think.

    Maybe I'll write a post where I try to focus on descriptive and prescriptive authority. Basically, I'll say that if I'm right in pointing towards descriptive authority, then it's not helpful to be referring to authority at all.

  7. Ben,

    Let me try again at the whole papal infallibility thing.

    If papal infallibility is based on the office being the unity of all Christians, then it is useless if true and false if not.

    If true (that all Christians look to the office of Peter for authority), then the office will be infallible. But if so, then claiming its infallibility doesn't do any good, because people are already looking to it as if it were infallible.

    If false, and the office of Peter does not act as the central point of all Christianity, then the claim of infallibility is not true, and the primary situation when it seems helpful (to use it to back up a point or convince a non-Catholic) is the very point where there is not unity.

    All in all, I've nothing against the pope or his authority, but I don't think that his authority is normally discussed in terms of a unity (definitely not an erodable one). Instead, its looked at as an authority because it's been declared as such, not because it's unifying anything. Do you see how my problem wouldn't be with the pope at all, but just with how his authority is described?

  8. I should also say that this same problem applies to the Bible and the approach to it by many apologetics people who want to start with it being inerrant and infallible and go from there. It also applies to any source of authority that people want to look to.

    It's like the Conch in the Lord of the Flies. It has authority when people actually pay attention, but when Piggy picks it up it's authority is barely a memory. Some might still point to it (and by pointing to it, point to a former time of order), but it's hard to deny that its authority is not what it once was.

    There's a lot more to say here (like how some symbolisms can have authority because they look forward to order rather than backward to the past), but by now you probably see what I mean when I describe this approach to authority as descriptive. It will describe an evil authority as well as a virtuous one. The virtuous ones, in pointing ahead to the telos (think Aquinas here) are everlasting ones whereas evil authorities (even if pointing to something good) can only look towards destruction. But I've said so much here, that I've probably gone off the rails at some point.

  9. Thanks for pointing to descriptive authority.

    Although it's interesting conversational material, you're right; I don't believe that dwelling on human authority in any form is very helpful. That's just one more thing to take our eyes off of the Way, Truth, Life.

    As for the overlap issue between the Church and the church, I've seen as much overlap there as I have in the "world". Yes. Just as much.

    And what gives me the right to make that judgment? Just this:

    They will know we are Christians by our love.

  10. Fair enough: like I said, I was a bit confused.

    Of course, your good Catholic would say that the authority and infallibility of the pope rest on the charism and promise given to Peter, just like your good Lutheran would say that the infallibility of the Bible rests on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Or something.

    And, Jim, I'd be careful: while dwelling on human authority (in the sense of worrying it to pieces in a monomaniacal sense) is probably not healthy, it's certainly not something to be ignored.

  11. Thanks guys.

    Jim: So would you critique an argument that would say the Spirit is the source of love, true authority rests in the Spirit, therefore the test of authority should be a person's love for others? In other words, is that what you look for when voting for a President, looking towards a church leader, etc...

    Also, one could (properly or improperly) stretch that argument further. In other words, if I see that the Muslims around me are far more loving than the Christians, that means that the Spirit is where the love is (with the Muslims) and that's where I should look for spiritual authority.

    How would you respond? Authority can't be ignored or forgotten. I just want it to come at the end of the discussion instead of the beginning (and that's also why I think we need to see what the fruits of the Spirit point to, not just their existence...but that's something else).

    If you want to see a bit more on my approach to unity, see here:

    Ben: Each group would say that authority rests in the Spirit (whether granted by charism/promise or inspiration, all these words come back to the the Spirit). And I can (and do) agree with both statements. But I agree to the extent that these things are the unifying principles of the Christian community. But both of these groups would not like how I talk about authority, because I'm under the impression that the authority of something can change, and they wouldn't like that idea.

    But then again, I'd be describing the situation, not suggesting that that's the way to go, so I don't think they'd be quite as mad at me in that situation. For me though, since I'm drawing on Catholic theology for this concept (of place of Christian unity = place of Spirit), I think it's a very big idea, and really draws together many disparate elements (from why councils mean something to MacIntyre's semi-tribalistic approach to ethics). And all in all, it allows spirituality to mysterious and authority to be earthy as well as letting me agree with Tom Wright and (I think) Thomas Aquinas at the same time. It lets me shout out the Vincentian canon happily while admitting that I'm confused when it comes to the confusions of life. It's a way to admit that the small, local spirituality matters as well as the fact that the global, universal spirituality matters while not conflating the two.

    What do you think? Have I gone off the bend? If so, at what point?

  12. Because I'm still not entirely certain where you are, I can't say where you are in relation to the bend. You are rather far from the 'Bend, meaning the swelling pit around Notre Dame--but I don't think that's what you were asking in the first place.

    And, well, as to the possibility that authority can change: I don't know. Honestly, I don't think so. As you noted, both Catholics and Protestants are committed to the idea that it cannot; ultimately, neither can offer a completely rational as to why not: it's a claim of faith.

    When you remove the guarantee of continued authority, things get...scary. There were times when neither the hierarchy nor Scriptures (at least, not Scripture commonly interpreted) served as unifying points for the Christian community. Put yourself in Rome in the second century, with Marcion's anti-church and the Valentinians, or Alexandria in the fourth century, with Athanasius contra mundum, or in the Monophysite east in the fifth and sixth centuries: if the legitimate constituent elements of authority (of Scripture, or Councils, or structures) can change, it seems likely that they would have. And it's no good pointing out that, ultimately, they did not--the fact that they remain rests either on the fact that they could not change or be abrogated (in which case you side with the traditionalists) or on a mere accident of history, in which case you're still against them.

    And, like I said, things get scary when you remove the guarantee of final authority: where do you go from there? You cited the ballad of the white horse as evidence for how the belief, though not comforting, is true: I think this is a misreading. There's a lot to be said for the joy of the giants--the joy without a cause, and hoping when things are hopeless--but not in matters of faith and belief. The men that drink the Blood of God may go singing to their shame--but it has to be the Blood of God, and they have to know it. I think this kind of certainty in authority runs like a red thread throughout all of Chesterton--from the image of children on a sea cliff in Orthodoxy, to McIan's unshakeable belief in the Church Triumphant, to Chesterton's railing against that blasphemous statement: "I might be wrong."

    The Church needs an authority, and one it can trust to endure. It needs a foundation. I've got my beliefs where that's located, eternally, but...well.

    Finally, I understand the appeal of a grand universal spirituality and a distinct local spirituality. I think it's out-an-out necessary, and I think it was one of the great glories of the early middle ages. And it's critical to avoid projecting ones parochial mentality upon the entire Church, and, as humans, we need to have our own particulars appropriations of the universal. But I don't think you can get away with keeping them completely distinct. After all, the local spirituality, if it's going to be anything other than heretical, needs to be a local expression or response to the universal spirituality. Does that conflate the two in some way?

  13. Ben,

    I'm not looking to remove the current places of authority, but to say that they can be moved. Why do I think they can change? Because there was a time when they did change. To my mind, there's a strong similarity here to the Temple. There was a time when the Temple was the place of the Spirit, the very place of God's authority on earth. Then later, there was a time when that changed.

    There are constants, but the constants are those of God, not of the structures in which see theology. At the same time, I think that the temptation here to claim that just because nothing human is unchangeable assumes that nothing human is authoritative is a big mistake.

    You're right that things are more scary in this approach ("I tell you naught for your comfort, naught for your desire...") if there is no attempt to order things. But that's exactly why we go out and try to order the society we're in. Nothing that I said would imply that we should destroy these sources of authority or that we should even disregard them. I would also say that certain authorities are more constant than others, or are more needed at certain times than at others (eg if the Bible was not available during a certain time for some reason, then more emphasis will inevitably be placed upon the teachers at that time...not because the Bible isn't authoritative, but just because we deal with what's available and what's working).

    I'm also not sure why what I've said goes against any of those examples in Chesterton, let alone the ballad. With the image of the children on the sea cliff, I just admit that new walls can be built and that old ones can wear away. This also connects with Chesterton's connection of the White Horse and the need for constant upkeep from generation to generation as an example of tradition, and it's importance. Just because I admit that a wall can break shouldn't stop anyone from believing in walls.

    And from what I'm saying, the Church is an authority unto itself. And we do (and should) trust it. But I'm pointing out that the claim of authority on unity (which I was told that the Church makes) demands an ambiguity of sorts.

    For example, the church tells me that this is the blood of God. Now I'm not going to listen if I'm not part of the church, but I certainly will if I am. I don't trust the church because it's some sort of independent spot of objective knowledge, but because I am part of it. As humans, we don't get that kind of divine objectivity. We know objective things, but we know them in subjective ways.

    Your examples assume that I'm putting down church authority, but in fact I'm supporting it. I'm supporting it because it is the church. What I am attacking is the idea of some sort of divine assurance that lies behind all this. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes the laws of logic as the only place where that kind of objectivity lies. Outside of reason itself, water flows because it's bewitched. In the same way, I don't mind the assumption that reason is objective, but the spiritual and the physical world outside of it (including the world of the church) is bewitched, and any pretending of divine authority is still pretending. It might be meaningful, and even necessary, at times, but I have a difficult time accepting a fundamentalist-type approach to objective knowledge of the divine.

    As far as the local-universal distinction, my problem was not that there isn't a universal, but merely that we (as the people of the church) don't have access to this except via the local. But of course, sometimes the local variations change over time. Sometimes they don't. Some bits of the local appropriation may put you line with orthodox Christian history and tradition, some may make you a heretic. Other times, you end up being in line with certain cultural traditions, etc. You certainly run the risk of conflating the two if you think that your local appropriation is the universal (ie if the church equates its own approach with the universal). There's only one situation where this isn't a problem, and that is when the person saying his approach is the universal one really is that unifying person the of the church, the place of unity. Now this makes sense when there is only one church completely unified institutionally and the headship of that institution is the office of Peter. But if the church breaks institutionally, then the institutional head is no longer the unifying head.

    I'm trying to say the same thing I did above. Is it making any more sense, or am I missing your critique?

  14. Also, I would think that a local spirituality isn't false because it's not universal. It's just that the authority of that tradition is limited to that locality.

    I think that the best counterargument against what I'm saying is that there were times when popes stood up for something against the many parts of the church because they thought they were standing for some standard that was true across times. If their authority extended beyond their own time, then it would be assumed that they're authority was a timeless one, and that authority could obviously not change.

  15. I think that using nature as an analogy explains what I mean fairly well.

    I live my life as though the laws of nature are constant, because they normally are. But I don't start an explanation by saying "the laws of nature are inviolable" because I also believe there are such things as miracles. One could argue that without the constancy of nature, the order of all existence is at stake. But of course, I don't think there's a problem with living as though gravity won't reverse itself. I do think there's a problem when you start the conversation by saying that God couldn't reverse gravity.

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  17. Wow! You guys can sure put the words out! I always get lost...but let me try to comment and hopefully what I say won't spur a ten page essay/rebuttal.

    Nick: I won't even try to spar over the whole discussion, because, frankly, I'm not sure that I completely understand all that has been said. On the topic of the changeability of authority, though, here are my thoughts. I see a difference between the shift of authority from the Israelite priesthood/the Law to the Word of Christ/God/the Apostles Inspired writings and any shift away from those things. So, if you follow, an abbreviated version of what I just said is this: I see a difference between Law -> Christ/Word -> New center of authority. So, in my view, the placement of authority has changed in the past, I agree with you there, but I see that it changed from Law(Scripture) to Grace(Scripture from Christ) rather than changing from temple or priests to apostles or any other form of human authority. I see human authority as servants to their "subjects" if you will. Christ laid this out fairly plainly in his life. The difference was he had the authority; he was the authority and yet he served. So as far as human authority goes, I see them as subject to Christ/God and his words which are scripture. Specifically, instead of calling the shots on doctrine, they should be serving as Christ served. Instead of being elevated by position, they should be respected because of their merit in Christ and experience. The younger should then follow their example instead of their command.

    1 Peter 5:5 ¶ Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all [of you] be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.

    Looking back at what I have said, I can see a protestant tilt. I also get a little nervous when I write something like this because it is easy to overlook scriptures that I haven't thought about(I haven't memorized the whole Bible yet). Besides that, you guys are so much more well read than I am. I sometimes can't follow some of what you say because I haven't read all the Chesterton and Catholic works and "Ballad of the White Horse" or whatever it was that you all have. So go easy on me and try to overlook or at least gently correct anything that you see contrary to scripture.

    Ecclesiastes 12:12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books [there is] no end; and much study [is] a weariness of the flesh.

  18. Mark,
    Thanks for your comments, bud. I'm always worried that people we see all the text I write and will be too afraid to take part.

    I have to admit that I really don't understand what you're saying. I'm going to try to repeat back to you what I think you're saying. Please correct me if I'm mistaken.

    There was a time when human authority mattered (ie Torah/priesthood) when we needed a mediator between God and man in the Temple. But when Christ came, he is the sole mediator between God and man (in issues of truth, sin, and everything else), and since any of us can directly approach Christ, we don't need any human authority to tell us anything, because we Christ will tell us what is true via the Spirit.

    I'm not exactly sure where subjection comes into it, but I'm guessing that you'd see the need for authorities to be servants as a moral one, for they should be doing so in order to approximate what Christ did. I'd be worried if you take the "serving" thing too far, because Christ did not let truth to serve falsehood. He declared certain things to be true and others to be false when encountered with the Pharisees and Sadducees. So I'm guessing that describing that servanthood as a moral implication if fair to what you're saying.

    Is that right?

    If so, there are some things I don't understand.
    1. We have access to Christ through the Spirit, so why do we need to worry about what the Scriptures say? They were put together by a group of men, not handed down by God himself, so why should we care?
    2. Who gets to declare that something is right or wrong? Are each of us capable with access to Spirit and prayer to discern heresy from orthodoxy? Why should you trust anyone's opinion when they're getting in between you and God when that's the Spirit's role?

    There's probably more questions to be asked, but I want to make sure that I understand your position before I ask too much more.

  19. I wouldn't say that I meant we don't need human authority, only that human authority is not in a position to define what scripture means(aka they're not the only ones to whom God gives His Spirit. This was not the case in the Old Testament Eg. Samson, Samuel, Abiathar, etc.). Another idea on doctrine is this: If the authorities do form doctrine of some sort, then it is also their responsibility to make sure that those beneath them understand WHY it is doctrine(in scripture) vs. just asserting it as a form to follow somewhat blindly.

    As to subjection, when approaching the topic of authority, one cannot leave it out, and notice that it says to be subject one to another, meaning, I think, that authorities must not be too uplifted in their own eyes but must be attentive to the needs of their "subjects"(aka teach them why doctrine is true).

    Reply to #1: Men such as Joseph Smith took that point of view. The problem there is that if you subvert scripture, you destroy the basis for our belief in Christ in the first place, since we have no eye-witnesses living today. The scriptures are our only source for an eye-witness account, our only rock to stand on, if you remove them we wouldn't even know Christ existed, much less any form of doctrine(true doctrine).

    Reply to #2: There are those who believe that scripture can only be interpreted by the church authorities. I do not fall in with that group. The scriptures, though vague in some areas, are very clear in most of the essential ones. Any "doctrine" outside those areas is not a necessary doctrine.(I know that sounds radical.) Yes I believe the Spirit teaches us to discern these things, only we must not be blinded by sin, and we must be humble, for God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud. He also says that if any many lacks wisdom, let him come to God, who gives to all men liberally and does not chide...but we must come in faith, not double-minded.(Paraphrase of James, I believe) Opinions don't matter, frankly! If they can convince you that the scripture means what they think it means then what can you do? But we must beware of any gospel but that preached by the apostles. They even went as far as to say that if they taught another gospel, then they should be rejected. We can help each other to understand truth, but we do not define it! Remember when approaching the mediator subject, that "There is one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus."

    Hope that helps and that I didn't introduce any new heresies by mistake. Oh and by the way, remember also that people tend to think on different planes and therefore what I think is a perfectly clear explanation may or may not make it through to you.

  20. Nick:
    Love is an excellent test for any action, or role. There seem to be fewer leaders with any love; this is probably because most real lovers become servants and aren't driven by leadership aspirations. (although, sometimes, they're pressed formally or informally into the office of leadership because of their love)

    I too have witnessed the phenomenon of extraordinary love in many people who don't trust Christ as their savior. This is probably because the universe was designed to operate on and in love. Love works. There are many reasons why people hate and fear, but many more reasons to love; it makes sense to live in love no matter who or where you are.

    This is where I depart from the concept of earthly spiritual authority: human love, no matter how selfless, is corrupted by our human selves, and can never match up with the Love of Christ. Christ, our High Priest, Mediator and Redeemer is our spiritual authority, along with the teaching, guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit. This trumps all and every human authority (no matter how loving, "inspired", "divinely appointed", servant-like etc.)

    I give thanks for the many people who have discovered the benefits that come from living in love. (they do make the world a better place, to a certain extent)I also pray that they would come to know the Source of that love.

  21. Jim:
    Thanks for the comments. I like the bit about people who might not know the Source of love recognizing its goodness. I'm with ya on that.

    And I (and I think each of the other young men in this discussion) would agree with you that authorities can be corrupt. Augustine (a man who certainly believed in the authority of the Church) himself thought that certain bishops had special places in hell waiting for them. But love, even corrupted love, is still love. I might have a broken hand, but it is still a hand.

    But I was looking for thoughts on arriving at and speaking from (or to, or for) authority. You talk about love being "an excellent test for any action, or role". So how do you apply this in your life? When you look for a surgeon, do you look for someone who is loving or someone who is a good surgeon? Or maybe you were thinking about spiritual authority. So how do you determine whether someone is teaching the truth or not? Do you start by asking if they are loving? But we already said that loving people don't necessarily know the truth, so just having love doesn't necessarily evaluate one's ability or right to teach something. So how do we approach these issues? Do we assume that each of us can make these decisions on our own? Do we need to look to trusted advisers to help us (and if so, how are we going to decide who can do so)? Maybe we should look back to tradition to guide our interpretation? Maybe we should listen to the leader of our church and assume he (or she *sigh*) is right. What about using books that tell us what is right, and if so what book(s)?

    Do you see what kind of questions I'm trying to get to? I'm not going to discount the importance of love to Christian life and Christian leadership and truth and authority. But to make it the controlling factor seems... problematic. Also, since human love is complicated (or corrupted) by the circumstances of our lives, we can' evaluate someone else's love properly.

    I guess I'd just like to be able say that an imperfect authority is still an authority and is still, to some extent, authoritative. An imperfect love is still a love and is still, to some extent, loving. Any expectation of "immamentizing the eschaton" in our day to day lives (in spiritual authority as much as in political authority, I think) is just one more way of falling into the footsteps of the fanatic (see previous post for a discussion of the fanatic and the poet).

  22. Nick,

    I had missed the cut of your original comments: I understand better, now: I misunderstood, fairly drastically, what you meant by the changeability of authority. Theoretically, I have no trouble at all with a miraculous alteration of authority; after all, the medieval Church is practically littered with the stuff. Thanks for the clarification.

  23. Ben,

    As Chesterton would approach it, the continuity of nature is the magic itself (water is bewitched), not the alteration. In fact, if "magic" is so deeply ingrained into the natural world, then any alteration thereof isn't miraculous, but normal. If things began to order themselves differently, then we try to make sense of how it's changed and move on.

    In the same way, unity and authority are tied. One must accept the order in which one lives, but there is no guarantee of that order providing me with some bit of divine assurance. I am a human and I must live as one, with the best understanding I can muster. My point was with the nature analogy was not that any alteration must be miraculous, but simply that a change in authority does not put down order, but lifts it up. And of course, all unity is found the Father above, where all authority is. As the church institution is quite human, it's authority can change (because it's under the order of God, and God changing how something works would not negate the concept of order at all).

    The world might seem scarier at those moments because I don't have some sort of perfect knowledge, but why would we expect our knowledge to be perfect? Imperfect knowledge is still knowledge. And its that imperfection into which we "gaily go".

  24. Nick--

    Are we talking around each other here? Whether one views a miracle as an interruption or a normal occurrence is (or at least can be) a matter of semantics: the highly different definitions of the miraculous given by Lewis and Chesterton remain complementary ways of describing the same phenomenon (by way of confession, I find Chesterton's fairy-tale view of the world--and view of fairly tales in general--one of the weakest elements in his system of thought). And I'm still struggling to understand what exactly it is you're saying, both theoretically and pratically--just like I'm unclear on what precisely you mean by terms like "perfect" and "imperfect" knowledge, or by calling the church a "human institution." Made up of humans? Made up by humans? Your thought is ranging far beyond the comparatively narrow confines of my mind here, and the electronic print media is adding to my confusion: sometime we'll have to sit down face to face and hammer some of this out.

  25. Ben,

    I think we probably are talking in circles a bit (largely one of the challenges of the blog comment forum). And, as always, we'll probably mostly agree with one another.

    On Chesterton, we might disagree as I found his argument that the laws of nature aren't logical in the same way that an argument is logical rather compelling (even though one could make a connection between the nature of logic being tied to mathematics and quantum mechanics discovering integers rooted into physics, and this would certainly make the question an open one in my mind).

    And sorry about my use of terminology. I'm not sure how to express it efficiently. Essentially, I've been thinking in the past several months that one of the challenges in living the Christian religion is the fact that we rarely see perfect Christianity.
    We rarely see Christian communities acting fully Christian. There is some kind of break (or tension) between life as we know it and life as we know it should (and shall) be. This is where my thoughts on imperfect and perfect things come in. We look towards the latter, but live in the former. However, the authority issue often assumes that "perfect" thing has become fixed somehow. That is where ideas of inerrancy, infallibility, etc come into play. We look towards and hope for these things, but just like with other things, we only catch a glimpse of the perfection, a blinding flash of insight. It seems to me that there's often a danger of pushing something that still exists in the "imperfect" category over into the "perfect" category, thus giving me a false sense of assurance that I am right (or in the right).

    This is where I was using the knowledge issue as a mediating ground between Chesterton's comments on the "men of the east" and the "men signed with the cross of Christ" and the Catholic/Protestant claims of infallibility. Chesterton's comments were fighting against fate and predestination as controlling ideas, against that perfect knowledge of the future, arguing instead for the Christian's "going gaily in the dark". Now obviously, he was not suggesting that these men knew nothing (they knew Christ, after all), but what they knew about the day to day decisions was not fixed. There was never assurance that they were going to win, that they were right in fighting, that their decisions were right. The only thing that was assured was that right and wrong answers did exist. In other words, their knowledge (though not null) was imperfect (ie they don't know if they're making the right decisions), not anything perfect (like the men of the East, who for Chesterton represented the iconclastic Greek Orthodox, Muslims, and perhaps even Protestants as well as pagans). Even so, they were right to act on that imperfect, incomplete knowledge and do the best they could with it.

    In any case, I'm sure that this is as clear as mud, so hopefully we'll have that face-to-face sometime soon, though you might have to be the one driving this time, unless you happen to be in Bluffton during Seth's homecoming next weekend. Hope your studies are going well.

  26. I was thinking about spiritual authority, although by "any role" I did mean any role. As you showed, a test for love isn't necessarily a test for truth. But knowing and having that love within us, we can listen to someone's teaching and tell whether it's true or not.

    I'm a firm believer in the power of Holy Spirit. Christ said "It's actually better for me to go away, so that I can send the Comforter." I guess you could say that even having Truth walk with us is not as good as having Truth within us.

    No, I wouldn't look to tradition, have blind faith in an earthly leader, or consult some book. King David said that, by hiding God's law in his heart, he wouldn't go astray. How much better do we have it now? We not only have His law, sitting on our bookshelf in 4 different translations, but we are literally possessed by the ultimate Teacher.

    You're right; we can't accurately evaluate someone else's love. The human heart is, above all things, deceitful. St. Paul said: "I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself...It is the Lord who judges me...therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes, He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts."
    (1 Cor. 4)

    Please don't confuse judging someone's heart with discerning the truth; even demons can speak the truth. (Remember when St. Paul was glad that Christ was being preached, even though it was with selfish motives.)

    This is why we are reminded to "speak the truth in love"; the two can be separated.

    If believing in the Spirit is immanentizing the eschaton, call me a fanatic.

  27. Jim,

    I would probably disagree when it comes to the Spirit's informing you about the truth or falsity of a particular statement, at least until I have reason to think otherwise. When I've seen people point out errors, it's always been because they reasoned out why the other person was wrong (or they pointed to some authoritative source), not because the Spirit moved them. Then again, I've not been a Christian for all that long. Please note that I'm not denying that it can't happen, but I am saying that it doesn't seem to be a primary method of critique.

    I like the comment about having "Truth walk with us is not as good as having Truth within us". Even back in Deu 30, Moses saw this, noting that having the law is not as good as having it written on our hearts.

    When talking about "judging someone's heart", I was noting that when choosing a leader, choosing one on the basis of love would be difficult, if not impossible given our lack of knowledge of their heart. In an analogical situation, when a minister preaches error, it's not seeing his love that tells anything about the truth of what he says.

    At the same point, you made the comment about having "love within us", which I think is a wonderful direction to go. Essentially you need to develop an "epistemology of love" as NT Wright describes it. However, using an epistemology is an act of reason, not a movement of the Spirit, and needs to be approached as such.

    You're pointing out that truth and love are not coextensive. I agree. That's why I was disagreeing with your former comment, where you seem to suggest that love is a good "test" for truth and authorities.

    Finally, believing in the Spirit isn't immanentizing the eschaton (which means expecting now to be made perfect, as if we're currently living in the perfect order of Christ). On the other hand, trying to find some perfect authority is, since the perfect authority won't come to fruition (ie God's kingdom won't flood the world) until the eschaton. The fanatic expects perfect knowledge, perfect reason, etc right now and often makes the mistake of assuming that if he had perfect reason, he'd act perfectly. Believing the Spirit makes you neither, though expecting divine illumination just might.

    What do you think about this format, though? Is it difficult to communicate clearly via these comments? The sheer volume of words I've spit out on this one post (including comments) suggests that I'm not doing so hot.

  28. This format is a little difficult, and I'll admit that I'm not following your responses to others, just to me.

    I think we can disagree about discernment in the power of the Spirit....

    There is a danger in separating love from reason, spiritual leading from reason, or any inner experience from any other. I don't believe that we are divided soul and mind, just physical and metaphysical. Obviously, these two are very connected (thinking of the physical brain/metaphysical thought connection) and effect one another greatly, but that's a whole different issue, and one that many people are mislead about. If you'd like to spar about it, I'm open.

    I do expect divine illumination. In fact, I depend on it. Let me qualify that by saying: our fallen human selves often distort and corrupt the divine illumination. For this to work, we must be tuned in, abiding, communing, however you want to say it. It also helps to know our own weaknesses and favorite self-deceptions and be on guard.

    There are few people who do this well, as you have noted. I've seen people with excellent theological educations and extraordinary grasps of logic fail to see the truth. Contrast this with the simple child who not only sees the truth, but lives it out day to day. The wisdom of God is in fact foolishness to humankind.

    I'm a big advocate of child-likeness, just like my Savior :)

  29. Jim,

    How does your thought that soul and mind remain undivided affect your approach to the Spirit and/or authority?

    On "divine illumination", my problem was not with the idea that the Spirit reveals, but with the assumption that when he reveals I will understand perfectly (ie perfect knowledge). I have to admit, though, that most of the people I've talked to who've mentioned receiving messages or signs from God almost always have incredible surety that it was a sign from God and that they understand it perfectly. Though they (and I, most likely) would say the same thing as you (that we must tune in to God), the practice would differ greatly. I've also found that many young people who are depending on this can easily become confused and frustrated when they don't feel as sure as the person next to them. On this, I've found some helpful wisdom from Dallas Willard, who focuses his thinking on the process of becoming "tuned in, abiding, communing", etc.

    My point is not that divine illumination is dangerous, but that the expectation of clarity is. Few people live life expecting everything to make sense. The few that try either break and become nihilists or become unbreakable and become fanatics.

    Does this help? Do you see where my concern lies?

  30. I do see where your concerns lie.

    Probably the main problem that your seeing is an "all or nothing" mentality on both ends of the spectrum. People go through life thinking that no one can be sure of anything; direction-less, drifting, relativistic. Others, the ones you describe as fanatics, try to be sure of too many things.

    There are some things that we need to be sure about. Will we ever question those things? Yes. In fact, we should. There are many many things that we may not be sure about. One person may be sure about a detail of his or her life, where another is feeling no clear direction. That's OK.

    Let's ask for clarity, expect it, and when it doesn't come, use our God-given reason and intuition (and advice from those who are much more practiced at this) to make the decision while abiding in Him.

    We need to resist the urge to drag every morsel of Truth to it's logical extreme and start following it to its illogical paradox.

  31. Jim,

    The challenge is that people tend to have difficulties, I think, thinking of the Spirit in anything but an all or nothing mentality. I've heard rebuttals to inerrancy challengers sound like "if the Bible isn't completely true, then it isn't true at all". This is a common mindset we build into our cultures when it comes to issues of authority.

    We can ask for clarity, but expectation sounds like it goes too far. If there's even the slightest chance of clarity not coming, why expect it (back to an all or nothing argument)? It seems that we should lead our lives looking for answers, but if those answers are not forthcoming, then we do the best we can without them.

    For example, a person who expects clarity is likely to search the scriptures, looking for answers to a question that might not be answered in the text. The fanatic here demands an answer and uses whatever text he can to justify it. The satyrist realizes that the Bible doesn't answer all questions, and thinks that it must not answer any. It seems to me that a proper approach would be to admit that maybe the problem isn't in the answers but in the question. Maybe we're asking the wrong questions.

    Now of course this can't be the end of the Christian life because understanding the Biblical questions can only provide you with the framework to try to answer your own, but it is a start.

    In a similar way, instead of expecting answers, we can use these opportunities for self-critique and contemplation, taking time to evaluating the questions.

    Now of course, what I'm saying here is much more general than above. We recognize the authority of reason and intuition, of mentors and traditions, of doctrines and creeds. But the question is about how to do it properly. How do we give the church authority without falling into the all or nothing duality you mentioned. How do we do the same for our own sense of reason? For our interpretation of the Bible, etc... You seem to be saying that we should pretend these authorities are absolute (ask for clarity, expect it, etc) until they screw up, and then we should move on to the next possible authority. Am I understanding you rightly here? Then how, moving along these lines, do we choose which authorities we recognize? And how do we do this without falling into that earlier all or nothing trap?

    And I love your last statement, for that characteristic is the very life of the nihilist (the fanatic follows it to his own logic).

  32. Hey Nick,

    I think I have a pretty good picture of what you're trying to say by now. I still have some questions though, if you don't mind. Firstly, if authority is descriptive (coming at the end of the line rather than at the beginning) and based on Christian unity, what kind of unity should we be looking for? I think the phrase you used is "the center of Christian unity." How do you define this? Is it something in which EVERYONE in the Church can agree on, or is more like something in which MOST everyone in the Church agrees on. Something different? Do tell.

  33. Lance,

    I'd imagine that Christian unity looks like love, joy, peace, etc. Also, I've greatly enjoyed the direction that Thomas Aquinas takes in describing the nature of this community as one of friendship (I'd like to post a little on this when I read enough to say something worthwhile). Also, the Vincentian canon is rather similar to what I'm saying.

    You're other question was about whether we all have to agree, or just most people. I would say that in Vincent's approach, these were things that people believed, not necessarily agreed to (though he also equivocates between ALL and MOST). I say this because theology can be terribly complicated, and there are a lot of things that people couldn't necessarily understand that are yet true. There are things that I believe that I don't understand and if someone cold-called me, I would certainly not agree to support. But I believe them nonetheless.

    However, even so, I think people can get the false impression that this suggests we should take polls to find out what everyone believes. This is where I would wish to add on to Vincent's approach (note that I'm not ascribing any idea of poll-taking to Vincent.

    The descriptions are the goal of Christian community, not necessarily its current state. It is in the attempts to try to live out the Christian life of community, of sacrifice, of servanthood, etc that one begins to approach the unity from which authority springs. It is in our attempts to live rightly (this would include thinking rightly, I believe) that the Spirit can start to be seen and the beginnings of authority discovered. There are the unique times of revelation, when the Spirit comes separated from these elements, but from the NT witness, I think that we can see that the primary place of the Spirit is in community.


    I think I screwed up earlier when talking about the nature of scripture. I said something that made it sound like anything absolute doesn't fit in the world, but thinking about it more, this would obviously eliminate absolute existence as well as absolute truth (neither of which I would want to imagine, let alone try). My desire was to talk about authority as it pertains to interpretations (to which my argument still applies I think) not about things that already exist (of course, an interpretation becomes a thing whenever set, then the interpretative process begins again). Revelation itself, just as nature, is absolute in its existence as itself, but my issue with authority begins with interpretation, for we have no access to reality except through interpretation.

  34. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  35. Sorry, Jim, but I didn't want your email address to be available for searching spammers. We'll continue our conversation over email and hopefully that will help.

  36. So, I may be asking you to explain something that you have already explained somewhere above. For that, I'm sorry. But, what is the specific process in which I go from recognizing and partaking in the unity of a Christian community (seeing and living in the friendship or love, joy, peace, etc.) to putting my chips in a pot and describing something or someone as authoritative?

    Also, and I'm not sure that this really even matters, but I'm not seeing much of a distinction between agreement and common belief. I'm definitely on board in the fact that you and I believe things that we don't completely understand and wouldn't really even support by argument. For example, take a look at Trinitarian doctrine. (I should probably just speak for myself here, but I'm not going to.) Even though we don't really completely understand the Trinity and probably wouldn't be able to make a good argument for it, we still both affirm it (common belief) and agree that it is true (agreement). Isn't agreement an inherent byproduct of common belief and vice versa? Let me know if I've misunderstood what you were saying.

  37. Lance,

    So your question is "How do I come to trust someone?"

    I'd probably split this up into two sections.
    1. Become part of the given community.
    2. Come to trust in them.

    Now of course, these two lines of thought aren't separable, but I do think that they can be thought of as two different things.

    1. When looking in on and taking some part in the Christian community, seeing the friendship, I think a person would be attracted to it conceptually. They might think how nice it would be to become a part of that. They might be in grave need or could be in grave excess. Either way, they know there's something they want and have some reason to think that it's somewhere within these people. It can also take place when a person comes into a community, and people realize that that person "has" something. Both situations lead towards a person wanting to be part of the community. I would also note that this is rarely pure (I'd like to quote from a Scrubs episode here, but we can save that for later), but there are few beginnings of relationships that are.

    2. It is inevitable that as a community tries to live together certain people in certain fields are going to be thought of as experts, or authorities, within that given field. Sometimes this takes place gradually as you find you can trust a certain person. Other times this takes place when you see other people you trust trusting that certain person. Other times you're just looking for someone, and the person you happen upon can be that certain person. This is complicated, and the vision of unity and authority is rarely completely shared. For example, when I was in Sunday School, there was a certain teacher that I came to trust. It wasn't because he was a teacher (because there were some teachers I didn't trust) and it wasn't because I liked him (we didn't always get along amicably), but it was because I found that his judgment to be thoughtful, even to the point that I trusted his judgment far more than the people at the pulpit a couple hundred yards away. Yet, to the boy sitting beside me, he never saw the teacher in the same light and never came to trust him that way. If you see this happening over time, growing and developing, you can see how an individual can have a great authority over a great number of people.

    (1 and 2). There's also a simple way for the whole process to occur. You have some desire to be part of a group, you join the group and identify yourself with it. When part of the group identity is recognition of a common authority, then you will naturally take on that authority as well. This can happen in conflict or in concert with #2 above (maybe I should call the other one 2a and this one 2b).

    Also, there's great room here to start in on getting a fuller understanding of Paul's concerns in 1 Cor 1:10-17, but we can talk about that later.

    Does that give you some idea of how an individual can become part of a group and find authority structures within it (either ones that you find or ones that are already part of the group identity)?

    And on agreement and common belief, I thought that common belief was more general than agreement, though it definitely includes agreement. In other words all common agreement is common belief, but not all common belief is common agreement. In other words, I agree with you.

  38. Thanks. We can talk more about this later.