The Christian Principle of Religious Authority

IT IS often said that there is a crisis of authority today. It is, indeed, a time when values that have come down to us from the past are being widely questioned both in the world at large and within the church.

IT IS often said that there is a crisis of authority today. It is, indeed, a time when values that have come down to us from the past are being widely questioned both in the world at large and within the church.

Some find it surprising that this phenomenon is found in the church. But, as a human community responding to God's call in Christ, the church has not ceased to be human. It therefore inevitably reflects the ideas and aspirations that are widely current at any time; and our church is no exception.

Ever since men began to arrange their religious beliefs into a coherent scheme, or to commend them to one another in the form of logical or persuasive propositions, there has been a problem of religious authority. In politics the problem is What right has a government, or other duly constituted organ of administration, to en force the carrying out of its will on those who are subject to it? In religion the basic issue is simply this: Is there anything in religion that demands that a man think a certain way about religion and not an other? Is there a man, a society, a principle, or a document that has the right to prescribe religious belief?1 If so, how can we find it and recognize it?

Revelation as the Key to Religious Authority

In Christianity, revelation is the key to religious authority. The authority principle is God in self-revelation. The Christian evidence shows that religion is not man's search for God, but God's search for man. Man could not begin to search for God unless he had already found Him, or rather been found by Him. Without God, man could not even desire truth or goodness. It is not man who with great skill finds out God after a long and eager search. He flees from God, who as a good shepherd, goes out to seek and find him again. The whole Christian message is God's address, a Word, to mankind. It is His authentic self-revealing Word, and herein lies His authority. Jesus Christ is the self-revelation of God.

History as a Dialog

Jesus came from above. The ground had been prepared, to be sure. But the Incarnation cannot be explained by what went before. It must be joined by a vertical line directly with God. At a particular moment in time, God the Son, who came to reveal the Father to man, entered this world in a unique, unprecedented fashion and began to live as a man. A progressive preparation of long centuries preceded this event and gradually established the context for Jesus' coming.

The Old Testament looks forward to Christ. It is based upon the belief that God has chosen to enter into a personal relationship with man. Therefore He communicates with him, revealing Himself to him in spite of sin and the estrangement it means. In order to establish this personal relationship God called chosen ones, who experienced His presence in a special way. God took hold of the prophets, who claimed that they were not speaking on their own but were speaking the word of God (see Jer. 20:9; 2 Sam. 23:2). These prophetic messages were received as authoritative by God's people. God's directives to Joshua illustrate the fact very forcibly (Joshua 1:4, ff.).

The main concern of Israel's prophets was not to predict the future, but to shape it by making known to the people the purpose and will of God. The groundwork of their thought was the conviction that a divine plan governed history. There was a meaning in history, a divine significance in events, for what was taking place was the unfolding of the divine plan. They praised God for His word, a lamp unto their feet and light unto their paths, and they looked to the future because of their realization that the divine purpose in history would be achieved in due time. Their concept of history as a dialog meant that the divine plan could only lead either to deeper communion or to final estrangement. As we know, it climaxed in the final revelation of God's love—the incarnation of the Son of God. This was not merely a brutal historical event, like the crossing of the Red Sea. It is a unique way of divine self-revelation, a fresh intervention of God.

The Incarnation: God's Authoritative Self-revelation

The early Christians believed that God, whose effective rule was made clear by the Old Testament revelation, had spoken in a decisive, final, and challenging fashion in the event comprised by the ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. All the contributors to the New Testament testify to this firm belief: "God sent forth his Son . . ." (Gal. 4:4); "God . . . hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son" (Heb. 1:1, 2); "The Word was made flesh" (John 1:14). Jesus did not just bring God's message to man; He was the message. He was not just an other depository of the word among many others; He was the word; the Word in person, the eternal subsistent Word presented in its totality.

Having this authority, Jesus made the most far-reaching demands on men in the most natural fashion. That He looked upon His unique sonship as entitling Him to the throne of God, to absolute authority, is clearly shown in many of His declarations—e.g., "All things are delivered unto me of my Father" (Matt. 11:27), and the declaration He made after His resurrection: " 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me' " (Matt. 28: 18, R.S.V.). The Gospel according to John relates no less amazing statements, as "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Much more could be quoted. The Gospels are simply permeated with expressions like these. If there is anything more extraordinary than our coming to take words like these as a matter of course, it is that anyone should ever have uttered them. God's authoritative act in Jesus Christ received its final proof in the exaltation of Christ, a term that covers both the resurrection and the ascension.

The Unique Function of the Apostles

The apostles whom Christ chose to fol low Him and who were witnesses of the resurrected Lord occupy a unique place in the process of God's authoritative revelation. Their role is unique and unrepeatable.2 In their lifetime they experienced close, direct fellowship with the Man who is personally God. They did not simply receive a teaching, they experienced and believed in a Person whose words, gestures, and attitudes were manifestations of the divine. This privileged position did not exempt them from following Him in the darkness, from hearing and listening, yet all too often not understanding; and it was only when the Son of Man was lifted up into heaven and the Spirit descended upon them that the faint light erupted into brilliance. They now possessed the understanding of Christ. They were "servants of the Word," "Word" now taken to mean primarily the personal Word who is the Son.

Thus the authoritative act of God in Jesus Christ led to an authoritative proclamation. Where the prophets had said, "Thus saith the Lord," the apostles added, "We preach Christ crucified and raised, ac cording to the Scriptures." Under the inspiration of the Spirit they transmitted that which they had received, not through men, but by a direct revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12). Everything was given in Christ, in His word, His deeds, the historical accomplishment of the Incarnation mystery. But following that, everything had to be exposed and handed over to man kind. This development took place under the movement of the Spirit, just as the doctrinal development in the Old Testament whose essential medium was the prophetic word. The exalted Lord who originated the message was also controlling its transmission. As mentioned earlier, the apostles occupy a unique position and fulfill a unique role in the process of divine revelation. Paul expresses it most clearly when he declares that the household of God is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph.-2:20).

An Increasing Need for an Objective Written Deposit

There came a time, however, when the early church felt the need for an objective written deposit. What had taken place at the Incarnation and had been shared in by the apostles and the apostolic community was never to be surpassed, but neither was it to cease until the return of the Lord. As the first community shared in this personal relationship with Christ in the Spirit, so all Christians till the end were to participate in the experience of the apostles, that is, the experience of Christ in the Spirit as Redeemer and Lord, Christ as supreme authority. It was precisely in order to ensure that the Spirit and authority of Christ would be recognized—that a trustworthy deposit was constituted. The Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostles to be witnesses of Christ, also inspired the sacred writers who set the apostolic tradition down in writing.3 Sacred Scripture became "the normative externalization of the normative faith of the apostolic Church." 4 No wonder that the Biblical writers claim unique authority for these inspired documents! Observe, for instance, the way in which they expect those who received their preaching of the gospel as true, also to accord to the written preservation thereof the authority of divine revelation, and therefore, of normative authority (see Gal. 1:6-12). The apostles' written word has real authority, even to the point that the writer's command as expressed in an epistle determines the character and limits of Christian fellow ship. What they write is to be recognized as constituting the command of the Lord (see 2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Cor. 14:37).

Why Are the Scriptures Authoritative?

Let us never forget it: Jesus Christ is the very center of our religion. Our Christian religion is not in the first place the acceptance of a creed and the following of a moral code. In its innermost essence it is, as in the case of the apostles, a commitment to a Person. Being a Christian means surrender to Christ and accepting His authority. But the only Christ we know is the Christ of the apostles and of their writings. We cannot find Jesus unless we read the Scriptures. This is the basis of their authority. The antithesis that tends to be perpetuated in some quarters between the authority of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures is false and artificial, and one we must refuse to entertain. The Bible is the authority for a Christian, but not because it was written by religious geniuses. It is binding upon us because it is part of the process of revelation, because it shares in revelation and therefore in authority. It is authoritative because it is the written word of God leading us to the living Word. It is Jesus we seek when we read.

It should be clear, however, that we can declare the authority of Christ and of the Scriptures in a purely intellectual manner. We may give intellectual assent to these positions and have intellectual convictions. But it is only when the authority of the Spirit is recognized and comes to bear upon us that those things affect our lives and our ministry; that they become real and alive and powerful to us. In the light of the apostolic experience there is no room for an appeal to Christ and the Scriptures in isolation from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In the matter of religious authority the Spirit and the Scriptures are insolubly conjoined. We must receive not only the truth but the very capacity to receive and to understand it.

A Personal Commitment in Knowledge

In other terms, the Christian faith is a personal commitment to God through Christ as our authority. It is a personal union in knowledge between God and a participating subject in the process of God's self-revelation. At the same time this personal commitment of Christian faith would be meaningless without a doctrinal con tent. It is indissolubly linked to a doctrinal content. The apostles knew it better than anyone else. Opening themselves to the work of the Spirit, they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and final authority, and they were transformed by their en counter with Him. Their scriptural words are an invitation to enter with them, through the doctrines they unfold, into the mind of Christ. What is needed among us, their descendants, is not less emphasis on knowledge in favor of something else, but to the contrary, more knowledge, deeper knowledge of the will of God as expressed in the written Word, where alone we can find Jesus. And in that knowledge there is assurance and eternal life.


1. Clearly pointed out by Bernard Ramm, The Patern of Religious Authority, Grand Rapids, 1963, p. 12-16

2. On the significance and uniqueness of the aposolate, see Oscar Cullmann, "The Tradition" in his volume The Early Church, Philadelphia, 1965, pp. 75 ff.

3. On the concept and use of the term apostle in early Christianity, its significance and its application to Paul, as well as to the tweleve, see Hans Küng, The Church, New York, 1967, pp. 344-355; Oscar Cullmann, op. cit., pp. 72 ff.; .and R. R. Williams, Authority in the Apostolic Age, London, 1950, pp. 42-51.

4. Karl Rahner, "Ecriture et tradition," in L'homme devant Dieu. Melanges H. de Lubac, Paris, 1964, p. 219.

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July 1970

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