Saturday, April 19, 2008

That Thorny Issue of Authority, Part 1

Authority does not seem such a thorny issue within various religious traditions. Within Protestant denominations, the highest authority is supposed to be Scripture (although in practice, it is whatever any given group uses to interpret Holy Scripture, e.g., The Westminster Confession, The Book of Concord, etc.) Within Catholicism, the highest authority is the pope.

It’s between and among these groups the authority issue becomes so troublesome. It is the chief difference between them.

Within Orthodoxy, as within Catholicism or Protestantism, authority is likewise not an issue. It's only an issue in ecumenical discussions.

Outside of Orthodoxy, our view of authority is scandalous to all alike. For us, the ultimate, supreme Authority is “the Holy Spirit in the Church.” Everybody agrees with this as far is it goes. But everybody else also wants to take it farther. For everyone else, there’s always an “and” or a “but”. But the Holy Spirit exercises that authority ”through _____ .” Your choices for filling in the blank are several, including but not limited to: “the pope”, “the Bible alone,” “Word and Sacrament”, “the local congregation,” or even “Joseph Smith and the prophets after him.” Everybody seems to want an external, material, “objective” ultimate authority.

The Orthodox, however, insist that the Holy Spirit (who is neither “subjective” nor “objective”) works with His Church not only through Scripture, sacraments, hierarchy, and innumerable other means, but also directly, in Person. He speaks to the Church corporately and to each member personally. In Holy Chrismation, He comes to dwell deep inside each Christian, in the most profound part of his being. And from there, He, Himself, sometimes through “means” but very often im-mediate-ly (without means) prompts, leads, warns, guides, pricks the heart, enlightens, teaches, sanctifies.

Outside of Orthodoxy, attempts at such an approach have both seemed and proved to be disastrous. It is too individualistic, we are told. It is a recipe for division, we are told, because each person is going to think his own opinion has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, and then what? When the Holy Spirit is alleged to have inspired all sorts of contradictory things, how will you show any of them right or wrong? How will you know your doctrine really is authentically inspired by the Holy Spirit? Haven’t you replaced one pope with millions of little popes?

Yes, I have to concede that outside of Orthodoxy all this appears to be true. Inside Orthodoxy, the reality is quite different.

The first and fundamental difference is that in Orthodoxy, doctrine is not something abstract, theoretical, academic. It is the verbalization of what’s happening “on the ground,” of concrete experience of her living Lord. Or, it is the putting into words of revelation in history, if within “history” we include us, today. Or, putting it yet a third way, doctrine is a direct outgrowth of our Life together in Christ, Who IS our Life. The more deeply one lives that life, the more quickly truth and falsehood become apparent: whatever nurtures our life in Him, whatever deepens and purifies it, is true; and whatever weakens or undermines that relationship with Him, or leads us away from Him rather than toward Him, is false. One perceives or senses these things readily, after he has lived the Christian Life for a while. Even those with no theological education, provided their hearts are with Christ, catch the whiff of error’s stench from miles away, while the sweetness of truth makes the heart leap, brings liberation and newness and growth and repentance and gratitude and peace and joy. (“Growth” and “repentance,” by the way, are virtually synonymous, since to grow into the new requires jettisoning the old.) So because it is our common life in Christ, life lived by the Holy Spirit, that produces doctrine, that spiritual Life is a common norm.

The second normative factor is deep respect for two facts about the Holy Spirit and revelation that should be obvious to every Christian. First, the Holy Spirit is not inconsistent; He does not reveal different, contradictory things to different people. Second, His ultimate, definitive revelation is Jesus Christ Himself. The Holy Spirit, although He may tell us many new things, such as to go here or stay away from there, repent of this and do that, is not going to reveal any new doctrine. Therefore, what He shows as Truth to me, if it is authentic, must accord with what He shows as Truth to all the other Orthodox everywhere, and has always revealed throughout the history of the Church. It will be deeply rooted in Holy Scripture. It will have been taught by the Fathers of the Church. It will reflect the prayers, the hymns, the worship of the Church. If not, it’s a fluke, an artifact of my imagination, a mistake. Orthodoxy accepts as Truth only what the Holy Spirit has revealed consistently, everywhere and all the time, and yes, especially as recorded in Holy Scripture.

In Part 2, I will try to describe the role of the hierarchy in all this, and what authority it does and does not have.



DebD said...

I had an email conversation with a LDS friend of mine about this subject. It was quite hard to explain the Orthodox understanding of Church Authority and Hierarchy. I'm not sure I did it justice.

p.s. I think perhaps you meant "singularly" rather than "similarly a non-issue"..unless I am missing the meaning.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thank you, dear Deb, for pointing out the ambiguity of my wording, which I have now corrected.

OOH, a discussion with an LDS friend, how interesting! Knowing you, I'm quite sure you did it very well.

123 said...

In Holy Chrismation, He comes to dwell deep inside each Christian, in the most profound part of his being.

Which makes us all 'christs' in the same way that God became man so that men might become 'gods'. This is very different (better, deeper) thing than mere membership in the 'priesthood of all believers'.

Just Mairs said...

Thanks for these posts on authority. You've cleared up some of my thinking and understanding!