Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Authority

In Roman Catholicism, ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice resides in the pope. Among Protestants and other children of the Reformation who don’t like to call themselves Protestants, ultimate authority is accorded to the Holy Scriptures. (If pressed, Catholics and Protestants alike will tell you God Himself is the ultimate Authority, but they mean either insofar as He acts through the pope, or insofar as He has inspired the Bible.)

There are large problems with both of these forms of authority, problems apart from the fact that in each case, 500 years was more than enough to prove them simply unworkable. The papacy has shown itself, over and over again, too easily and grossly corruptible, while “Sola Scriptura” is the poison pill that has divided its adherents into almost countless denominations and sects, as each subgroup of them holds to its own interpretation of the sacred texts. The other problems are summarized by the fact that both these forms of authority are external. Being external is considered by many people a good and even necessary thing, as they do not trust what goes on in their hearts. But that is precisely the nub of the problem: why don’t they? From sad experience? What has happened, then, that the Holy Spirit in their own hearts no longer leads them into paths of truth (hence, of unity), so that they turn to a man or a book to do this? Why does their practice in effect deny what St. Paul wrote: “But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)?

An external authority means an artificial, unnatural authority, one that must be imposed upon a person, and that in turn means the person upon whom it is imposed quite naturally chafes under it. He (rightly!) has a notorious tendency to rebel against it – and in the process, to try to discredit pope or Scripture.

You can’t discredit the Holy Spirit in the Church and in her children. He is pure Goodness, pure Truth, pure Love; He is now your highest principle and your best, new self in Christ. You can’t deny the Truth He discloses in your heart, either, for now He has made you yourself a firsthand witness of that Truth (Christ), has made you, therefore, your own authority, and no longer someone who merely relies upon the word of another. That is the surest Authority there could ever be, but simultaneously, the only Authority that leaves you free, utterly free. That’s why the Orthodox don’t speak of binding anybody’s conscience; our consciences are never bound at all. We need no coercion to profess what is flowing into our own minds from our own hearts, where the Holy Spirit lives and guides.

You can disregard the promptings of the Holy Spirit, but you still cannot but acknowledge the Truth against which you are acting, and you always know it as your own Truth. You always know that in acting apart from the Holy Spirit, you are not merely violating some external precept, but are tearing your own self apart. But if you are true to Him, hence to yourself, “if you remain in My word,” says Jesus, then “you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Every other authority, whether man or book, puts you into servitude; the Holy Spirit alone makes you free.