WHO'S THE BOSS? The Issue of Authority Considered
By Ian Thomason
The majority of the articles currently available at 'Please Consider' concern the content of Christian belief. They deal specifically with issues of doctrine. Given the expressed aim and purpose of this website, this shouldn't be surprising. However, in the present article I will briefly consider the context of Christian belief, specifically concerning the foundational issue of authority. The topic is of primary importance to all Christians, given that it's a person's accepted and normative 'last-word', which principally determines his or her measure for establishing truth. I offer what a person believes to be true effectively determines the eventual course of the person's eternity.
My aim for the essay will be to reduce what is a very involved and complex topic to its most basic factor. This is to a comparison between external authority and internal authority concerning belief. My opinion is that the Revivalist groups have opted for a philosophy of authority, whether intentionally or otherwise, which isn't consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Defined simply, authority is "1. The right to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; the right to control, command, or determine1 ."
It may seem obvious to state that a person's chosen authority is fundamentally authoritative, given that it ultimately commands personal approval, and ultimately influences personal behaviour. The adopted authority, therefore, becomes the principal measure in determining one's attitudes (cognitive assent - 'orthodoxy') as well as actions (volitional assent - 'orthopraxis'). Or to put this a little differently, what one believes and how one behaves.
It's necessary to add a disclaimer at this point. An important assumption, one which underpins this essay, is that all of us accept the need to know what's true, so that we can do what's right. This implies an objective, or absolute, standard by which all thinking and action is assessed, considered and evaluated. Next, given the target audience of this site, the logical consequence is the assumption that we all desire to find ourselves operating within the parameters established by God. I've assumed that we all want to be conducting ourselves in a manner that's pleasing to him. Ultimately, it's assumed as a starting-point for the essay that God alone constitutes the final authority for the Christian.
Now we need to consider how all of this applies within a framework that's meaningful to each of us, given that, compared with God, we're finite and limited creatures.
External or internal?
The adjective 'external' describes something being or relating to the outside of something. An external, therefore, is from without. To provide a meaningful example of this concept, it might help to consider the relationship we have with our neighbours, and compare it with the relationship we have with our immediate families. We don't view our neighbours in the same way that we do our own 'flesh-and-blood'. For something to be described as 'internal' requires it to be, or to relate to, the inside of something. A person's thoughts derive from within the person. I'm sure this sounds simple and obvious, but I sometimes wonder whether we fully grasp the implications of the logic when we relate these concepts to the issue of authority.
When authority is considered, especially religious authority, it's very important to determine whether external or internal considerations come first. It's at this point that two closely related terms enter the equation, these being 'objective' and 'subjective'. For something to be described as objective is for it to be free from bias, and belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject. Objectiveness, therefore, is external to the person. The opposite position, the 'subjective', is described as proceeding from the person, therefore, as belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought. In short, the 'objective' is determined by an agency which is external to the person, whilst the 'subjective' is determined by the person him/herself.
Given that we'd likely agree that God is ultimately both the object and the subject of all authority, how would or should we see him in attempting to determine what's true and proper, from what's false and improper?
Scripture? Or 'immediate revelation'?
Both the Old and New Testaments provide a consistent witness to the fact that God interacts with us, and that he also communicates his will to us. The principal way that he's done this has been through the agency of 'special revelation'. Both Judaism and Christianity claim to being 'revealed' faiths containing 'revealed' truths in the truest sense of the word. The pertinent question that needs to be asked is this: how did God reveal himself then, and how does he continue to reveal himself now?
It's clear that God spoke directly to selected individuals in the past, and that they functioned as his principal spokesmen, communicating his will to a much wider audience. However, it's equally true that God occasionally spoke to the wider audience more directly as well. There are people who claim that Christianity should expect such ongoing and direct, personal revelation today. However, to make this claim is to disregard certain clear features regarding the nature of special revelation described by the Bible, principally the issue of its progressive aspect. Yes, it's true that God spoke to Moses directly, and that he passed on certain commandments to him. But it's also equally true that God enshrined his laws in written form. Apparently he did this to order to provide a permanent and authoritative record of his will. It was the written testimony that was viewed by the people as the normative one, and from the earliest of days (see Exodus 24:7; Deuteronomy 17:16-20, 31:9-13; Joshua 8:32-35; Nehemiah 8:1-10, et passim). It's interesting to note that the Israelites/Jews were, first and foremost, an aural rather than a literate people. As was common with aural cultures, the Israelites/Jews retained information by hearing and by reciting. In spite of this, God decided to give them written laws, thereby forcing them to progress towards literacy. And it appears that he did this to ensure they had a uniform, permanent and authoritative record of his will and requirements. This record then demanded obedience from the people.
We note much later, during the 1st century, that God still chose to speak directly to his chosen representatives - principally Jesus - but also to certain of his Apostles as well (note particularly, Matthew 17:5-8/Mark 9:7-9/Luke 9:35-36). When we consider these encounters, we discover that direct dialogue between God and his creatures (less Jesus, of course, who wasn't a part of the created order) was never normative, and was never widespread. The interaction between God and humans in the New Testament was in keeping with the Old Testament precedent. And, significantly, the purpose for direct and personal communication in the New Testament accounts was to establish the legitimacy of Jesus as the Christ.
In New Testament times, and in accordance with Jesus' own example, Scripture served as the principal 'herald' through which God's message was imparted to people. Jesus constantly referred to written Scripture to establish his identity and his role, and to defend his teaching. His disciples followed his example and did likewise. Certain of the spiritual gifts (notably prophecy) played2 a subordinate, albeit important role in the ongoing communication of God's will to the Church. However, the content of these messages was always tested against the bedrock of God's written Word. Again the Apostles followed Jesus' lead, enshrined as it is in the statement: "...it stands written!3"
Personal experience? Or God's written Word?
My rather lengthy introduction leads us to now consider what stands at the heart of the issue of authority. Is our accepted, normative 'last-word' God's revelation in-scripturated? Or is it our experience of God's revelation as it's outworked in our lives? Are we saved and secured as a consequence of what God's said he's done? Or, are we saved and secured as a consequence of what we personally experience for ourselves?
These are very important questions, and they have eternal implications.
First, I believe it's necessary to qualify the 'black-and-white' statements that I introduced above. It would be a mistake to conclude that we must view the above statements as being 'either-or' rather than 'and-both' propositions. So I'm not suggesting that a person must embrace one of the two options as if they were extremes, at the expense of the other. Rather, I am suggesting that that one of the two options will, or should, exercise a direct priority and dominance over the other in determining truth.
In proposing this, we must now reconsider the question of objective fact, versus the subjective grasping of what we hope is objective fact.
Observant readers will already have noted that the majority of the articles at 'Please Consider' consistently include statements that are prefaced with the adjective 'biblical'. It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that this has been intentional. Is British-Israel a biblical doctrine? Can we conclude that the statement "one must be baptised by immersion in water in order to be saved" is biblical? Is the Revivalist position on salvation itself biblical? By using this particular word as we've done, Drew and I call attention to the importance of having a Scriptural basis for all Christian truth claims. So, when the question is asked, "...is speaking in tongues biblically supportable?" we can rightly answer, 'yes'. The important fact that must then be established, however, is whether or not the objective truth of this statement is equally a subjective truth in the lives of all Revivalists. Certain articles at this site clearly demonstrate that we would answer this secondary question with a very emphatic 'no'. Whilst the truth of supernatural 'tongues speaking' is an established biblical fact, the truth-claim that all Revivalists share this supernatural gift isn't. To support this position, we would point to biblical passages that clearly indicate that this won't be the case4. In developing this theme further, to state that the ability to speak in supernaturally acquired tongues/languages is a valid proposition is fully biblical. However, to state that one must speak in supernaturally acquired tongues/languages (never mind the naturally acquired substitute), in order to give evidence of a saved state, isn't biblical. It's not biblical because the Bible nowhere teaches this particular dogma. A misinterpretation and expansion of a biblical proposition, doesn't endow the resulting statement with the same authority as the biblical proposition when properly interpreted.
Moving now from the propositional to the experiential: Drew and I have had numerous conversations with Revivalists from all three major denominations, both pastors and 'folk', concerning the biblical validity of the shared Revivalist 'salvation message'. The recurring theme that we've noted time and again goes something like this:
"...I was told by someone in the [insert RCI, RF or CAI], that if I repented and was baptised, that I would receive the Holy Spirit speaking in tongues. I did all these things and I did speak in tongues."
Disregarding for a moment the possibility (perhaps even probability) of 'self-fulfilling prophecies' in the Revivalist experience, what we immediately identify is the domination of the subjective truth/experience over the validity of what's stated as an objective truth - the personal experience over the biblical proposition. It's quite possible, and even probable in many cases, that a lot of Revivalists do, in fact, receive the supernatural gift of tongues. Both Drew and I believe this to be true of us. However, and this is an important qualifier: to link the reception of a biblically valid gift, which was authentically received, to a 'truth-claim' which parts company with the biblical teaching, isn't valid. The appropriate action would be to link the valid experience with the biblical context that the experience is supported by in Scripture. So to state that 'speaking in tongues' is the evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit in God's saving act isn't biblical. It's not biblical because the Scriptural context for the experience isn't valid. What we've often faced is the situation where the Revivalist experience (which may indeed frequently be a biblical one, albeit not the same as the one that is claimed) is used to establish and verify the unbiblical Revivalist 'truth-claim'. Having received the gift of tongues is then promoted as being the sign of having received the Holy Spirit.
Scripture nowhere advises that a personal experience, any personal experience, form the basis for a Christian's faith, or the basis of authority for a Christian's faith. Scripture, correctly interpreted, was and remains the normative measure of truth and authority for the Church corporately, and the believer individually.
Given that we are all fallen human beings, it wouldn't be spiritually safe or appropriate to be placing the 'me' (internal/subjective experience) as the authoritative centre of what is true or isn't true. We must follow the example established by Jesus, and followed by his apostles, by committing ourselves to the external/objective yardstick that is the Bible?
1. The Macquarie Dictionary, rev. 3rd ed., 2002, s.v. 'Authority'.
2. And we would suggest, continues to play
3. Gegraptai in Greek, which is translated (imprecisely) as "...it is written..." 63 times between Matthew and 1 Peter
4. Note the thrust of 1Corinthians chapter 12