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“Grand Scale Culture Wars” – Part 6 – Authority Validating Revelation

May 4, 2016

My observation is that we accept even ancient authority via a long chain of regress.  Without usually noting the steps, we see now what numerous people “authorized” us to see from way back.

You probably accept religious concepts largely on the basis of what some current “authority” believes (a pastor, certain authors or teachers, etc.).  You weigh and cull, but what you do hold onto is almost certainly based primarily on their presumed authority… either authority by position (Pastor, Professor, Bishop, etc.) or by your sense of their depth of knowledge and your trust in them.  Or some combination.

Now, how did they come to their beliefs? Basically the same way.  Even if quite scholarly and “independent”, they still leaned on the authority of others before them.  (We all do, so we need to choose carefully.) They distrusted some “authorities” but trusted others, based on a variety of factors.  These are often subjective and not much related to tests of truth, accuracy or objectivity, by the way.

There seems to be a serious misconception around: that a person, especially a scholar who studies biblical Greek and Hebrew, can interpret the Bible “fresh”.  They can work directly from the biblical texts to understand them… to pull out a set of consistent teachings supposedly deposited there. Well, theoretically they can.

But practically? Only to an extent barely above zero.  The texts are just too far removed, too extensive, and too diverse and often in conflict to do that.  The brilliant 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, didn’t believe a “systematic theology” was possible though he believed God was revealed in the Bible and studied it deeper than even most other scholars.  Even with his mistrust of “systematics”, he wrote a massive multi-volume “Church Dogmatics” in a similar attempt to order things.

The summary point here: the human drive for “three C’s” – clarity, coherence and consistency is a good thing, though not when a presumption of their existence is superimposed back on a library (a compilation after-the-fact) of ancient writings, the Bible.

So the best we can do is what I’ve said: look to prior authorities, who also looked to authorities before them. Let me quickly outline the main stages in the regression backwards to and slightly before the time of Jesus. (Many of the specifics within and between these general stages we are largely unaware of, and my list is far from exhaustive. The number of years given is just for interest and a general sense… very approximate.)


Starting Point: You or me today

Working Back: Start with contemporary authors and teachers.

Move to teachers of a generation or two prior.

They relied on key theologians (1 or 2 key names suggested) of somewhat distinct general periods (per common labels) such as:

Postmodernity (roughly the last hundred years, paralleling the realization that science itself contains “uncertainty”) – Length: About 100 years – Tillich

Modernity (Enlightenment to Einstein, early 20th century) and entrance of “historical criticism” of the Bible and study of religion comparatively – 200 years – Schleiermacher (vs.) Warfield

Renaissance, Reformation and Counter Reformation – 200 years – Luther, Calvin – Catholic and Protestant concepts of authority in conflict but retaining a common foundation

Medieval period / Holy Roman Empire – 900 years – Aquinas

Roman Empire and Roman Catholic Church / Eastern Orthodox (prior to separation) – 300 years – Augustine

Pre-Constantine (313) and Pre-Nicene Council (325) or “Early Church Fathers” (New Testament collection and Bible moving toward a “canon”) – 200 years – Origen, Irenaeus

“Apostolic” Age – New Testament writing begun and finished soon after – 50 to 75 years – Paul, Luke (mid first century to 90s or early 2nd century)

“Early Judaism” / Intertestamental Period – Overlaps with Apostolic Age but begins about 200 BCE (prior to “Rabbinic Judaism”, after “Ancient Judaism”) – 300 years

Why do I include this list? Because each period tends to carry a kind of authority of its own, often a revised/updated view of what authority itself is, in terms of knowledge or belief.  Is there is a general progression from authority by position or perceived supernatural powers (e.g., miracle working), to authority by broad knowledge, to the authority of the individual, seen as free and capable of an opinion “as valid as the next person’s”? I think that’s clear.  But even with today’s individualistic arrogance, we still look to some kind of previous authority, if mainly subconsciously perhaps.

To keep this a reasonable, readable length, let me jump over the many steps in coming to our personalized set of beliefs (or doubts) and focus on that key authority base for most Christians (and indirectly, for everyone):

Who “authorized” what was written in the New Testament as “Scripture”? Or as historically accurate for those who believe it is such? 

We have to consider the answer in two parts: 1) “apostolic authority”, and 2) those who set up and pushed apostolic authority.  These I view as the pivotal people, with the pivotal concepts.  In this post, l will briefly cover mainly the concept of apostolic authority.

In terms of authoritative “sacred” writings or “Scripture”, we must first know that there was no settled “Bible” at the time of Jesus or Paul or the other New Testament authors.  There was no “Old Testament” so labeled.  And even the Hebrew Scriptures, often then called “The Law [or Torah – first five books of the Bible] and the Prophets” (with “Wisdom Literature” included as well) was not fully set.  It did generally follow what we have in the current “Old Testament” and Apocryphal writings (long included and still so in Catholic and certain other Bibles).

As to what eventually became the “New Testament” (never made “Scripture” within Judaism, of course), virtually all theologians, of various persuasions, agree its writers did not conceive themselves as writing Scripture in the sense they considered the Hebrew Scriptures. Many of the books most familiar to us, beyond the “Gospels”, were mere letters to beloved groups, covering largely contemporary and local issues.  Paul or other authors intended them to carry authority, yes, but not as equal to the authority granted Hebrew Scripture (by then translated into vernacular Greek, as spoken throughout the regions involved).

It remained to other, mostly post-New Testament writers to place the “divine” authority of apostleship upon these writings done from approximately 50 C.E. (or A.D.) to around 100 or perhaps as late as 120 or so.  It’s important to note that none of the documents carry dates of composition, and even authorship claims are often in question and sometimes falsely attributed to Paul, Peter, etc.  So precise dating is nearly impossible except that some of Paul’s letters can be placed within just a few year’s range.  The Gospels and Acts are some of the most debated (and important) as to dating.

St. Luke, the traditionally named author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, I consider the practical originator of the concept of authentication of teaching (or revelation) via “apostolic authority”, particularly as it would develop in early Christian history as part of establishing what is New Testament “Scripture” (our current “canon”).  Paul, a few decades earlier, used the concept in a similar way, but it was not as historically pivotal.  It’s not that Luke, in Acts, claims it for himself, certainly.  Not even that he speaks about it much directly.

But both he and Paul lay before their audiences the idea that connection directly with Jesus was critical for leadership authority. In Luke’s case, it was being with the living Jesus.  Now Paul almost certainly didn’t even meet Jesus alive and persecuted his followers for a while after his death. His claim of authority is based on “seeing” and being commissioned by Jesus via a profound visionary experience. (This was his famed “conversion”, though to a new sect within Judaism, not to “Christianity” which didn’t yet exist).

There are a number of thorny problems in the concept of “Twelve Apostles” (plus Paul).  It is far from clear that they were even designated as such by Jesus; and they do not include James, the clear leader of the Jerusalem “church” in most of its formative period. We’ll leave that discussion aside for now….  The traditional belief is that they carried special authority, founded a church, and ultimately conveyed, directly or through surrogates, accurate biographical and historical information about him.  I have not specialized enough in study of the formation of this concept to say this with certainty, but it sure appears that “apostolic authority” was developed and then leaned on historically through all the periods listed above for apologetic reasons: It gave a plausible way to place special significance and credibility on writings thought, early on (primarily 2nd century), to be authored by an Apostle or by someone close to an Apostle, representing his information and perspective.

In turn, it helped limit the number and theological diversity of writings that would ultimately be “church authorized” to become our New Testament.

Does this explanation of apostolic authority line up closely with what you have been taught or somehow picked up? Do you tend to find it credible, questionable, or what?

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