Authority in the Body of Christ

I would interpret authority primarily in terms of the organic relation to each other of its parts and aspects. This, it seems, is the sense of Hooker's analogy to the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason. No one leg of the stool is the origin of support and the other legs dependent on it, but all three legs equally support and are equally necessary. So organs of a human body are all independently necessary, and are interdependent in complex and recursive ways. Each is to any other both its dependent and a source for it of something on which the other depends. The brain depends upon the blood pumped by the heart, but the heart depend on impulses from the brain in order to pump blood.

Any single, straightforward and causal derivation of authority in the Church, whether from scripture, tradition, or consensus of the faithful, will need to be so nuanced, interpreted, temporized and explained in relation to the others that the whole process will tend to look more and more like an organism. If it does not do this, its interpretation of authority will lose authority. Any interpretation, in fact, will tend to vitiate the straight-line explanation. On the other hand, of course, there are many Christians who find a fundamentalist authority appealing because it is simple and doesn't require interpretation, because it generates straightforward rules and regulations, that are easily used to test behavior. But this can never come to be the majority sense of Christians, because it always comes up against the complexity of existence and breaks down for a fair number of persons.

But what is authority, and whence does it derive, for a Christian? It seems to me to derive from the person of Jesus. He was convicting and converting. In his preaching and teaching, and in his death and resurrection, persons came to know and see the world differently, and so were led to act differently in the world in such a way that the world was transformed by transformed persons. There was a power in Jesus that did this. We believe it was the power of God. That power carried Jesus through cross and death to resurrection. That power was passed by that death and resurrection to Jesus' followers. John 21.21-23 describes Jesus as saying to his disciples, "As the father has sent me, so I send you," and then breathing on them and saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Luke says he told them, "Behold, I send the promise of the Father on you; but remain in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.(Luke 24.49)" The outward form that this power took became the various organs of authority in the Church down through history.

This experience of Jesus, the primary religious experience for Christians, was expressed first in the scriptures. But even to say "expressed" is to say that the experience was qualified in being described, for all description necessarily falls short of what is described, expresses part but not the whole. The experience required mediation in deed as well as in word. So there was initiation into the experience and remembrance of it in liturgy. The first Christians continued the meal which Jesus had with his disciples the night before he died, as he had invited them to do. And Jesus continued to be present to them in the meal, as he does to this day. The words of the Gospels may well derive from this liturgical continuation of Jesus, in that the Gospels collect and organize the remembrances of Jesus at these meals. The letters of Paul and the others also derive from the situations of the first Christians, when problems and quandaries, both of meaning and behavior, arose among them. Indeed, in First Corinthians 10 and 11, Paul is dealing with controversies concerning the meal itself.

These controversies and quandaries give rise to doctrine, as the first Christians moved toward a clearer self-definition. Eventually creeds arose out of this process, as did theological study, which continues to this day. Indeed this essay arises from the quandary posed by the question of where ultimate authority is to be found, and my attempt to evade a too-simple answer. The criterion of adequacy for all this is the consent of the faithful. Authority must be authoritative, must convict and convert as did Jesus. As the first Christians found themselves convicted and converted by Jesus, so in each generation people have need to be convicted and converted by their leaders. The teaching and interpretation, the words and deeds of liturgy must engage the faithful in such a way that they follow. Furthermore, what leaders say about the experience of God must fit with what the followers are experiencing, and must further fit the experience the faithful see in those among them who are visibly and perceptibly holy, whose lives give convincing evidence that they know God in a more intense way. Those whom the faithful follow are the "orthodox," those who lose the faithful frequently fade off into obscurity or peculiarity, and often their movement dies.

The problem with a single source of authority is that it is fatal. Take again the analogy of the organism. If the brain says to the heart, "I am not dependent on you for blood" and refuses the blood, the brain dies, the heart dies, and the whole person dies. A single source theology of authority fails to take into account the real lived complexity of the church's existence throughout space and time, and so eventually fails.

I suppose that the fundamental and fatal failure of the single source theology is that it is not fully open to interpretation, in that it predefines reality prior to its existence. And the process of authority is interpretation. For the experience of God does not come in a general form, but to specific men and women at specific times in their lives, and in specific cultures and historical settings. Religious experience, the presence of Jesus Christ among us in word and sacrament, in person and event, is known in partial ways because we only know in part. And any act of meaning has at least two aspects or poles, the thing experience and the one experiencing. So we bring to the revelation of God the person whom we are, with the capacities we have, and those aspects of ourselves qualify what of God we come to know. Further, experience does not happen in a moment, but continues, grows in our lives and is added to by God with more self-revelation to us.

So the words of scripture mean different things in different ages. So the creeds are re-understood, the doctrines redefined in new language for new ages. So the form and words of liturgy and sacrament evolve with culture and are translated to new cultures as they are evangelized. So new saints give new witness and the faithful evolve new consensus. All is change: what the change means is that God continues self-revelation.

Thank God that in the midst of this we have each other. Thank God for the communal form that the revelation has taken. For Jesus founded what became a church, and one of the earliest perceptions of it, Paul's, was as a body, an organism. A recent apt analogy for this is that of John Macquarrie in Principles of Christian Theology, in which he compares the operation of the parts of revelation and authority to the separation of powers in the United States Constitution. The consensus of the faithful is a communal process, the definition of Creed and doctrine is communal, and so is liturgy and sacrament. So is the recognition of the witness of saints. All of these act upon one another to "support and check each other,' and for the "redressing of errors and exaggerations.

The traditional teaching is that Jesus Christ is incarnate in this process, his Church. If this is so, then it is easy to understand why the organic image fits so well. There is the "single divine source," Jesus Christ, which is distributed among the parts and functions listed. But there is more to the image. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, in his work on systems theory, says of a living system or organism that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By this he seems to mean that an explanation of the parts will not add up to a full explanation of the whole. One has to explain relations as well. But even when parts and relations are explained there is more going than has been accounted for. There are two implications. The first is that if the source of revelation and authority is a living God, no full explanation can be given that will fully account for the reality. And how much the more then is a single source theology of authority defective. But the second implication is that there is more to God, and the Church, than we see. This accounts for revelation continuing, for authority and the church evolving. And we see also in the revelation the sense of more, of fulfillment, of a destination not only unreached but unseen, of a hidden end, both time and purpose, which is being realized in our midst though we do not see it.

Finally, all of this leads me to a caution. I am saying that we are communally dependant for authority and revelation. But I seems to myself to be speaking in very individual terms. That is the language and ethos of our culture in this time and place. So I need to caution myself to pay more attention to the communal dimension. The direction, perhaps, which we need to go in, in looking at the authority of God, is how we pay attention to one another, how we treat each other and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ and to those to whom we will go in mission. Communal understanding is the direction in which we will need to grow in Christ.