July 13, 2010

A Question of Authority

Over at the House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv a discussion started concerning the so-called “supremacy” or “authority” of Scripture — particularly in relation to which leg of Hooker’s putative three-legged stool constituted the greatest “authority.” It is commonly asserted, for example, that reason cannot trump Scripture. This notion runs contrary to one of Hooker’s basic principles: that reason is a necessary implement without which Scripture cannot fruitfully be used. He also said,

The force of arguments drawn from the authority of Scripture itself, as Scriptures commonly are alleged, shall (being sifted) be found to depend upon the strength of this so much despised and debased authority of man? Surely it doth, and that oftener than we are aware of... Even such as are readiest to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of holy Scripture; what warrant have they, that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged? Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do?... That some things which they maintain, as far as some men can probably conjecture, do seem to have been out of Scripture not absurdly gathered. Is this a warrant sufficient for any man’s conscience...? (Lawes, II.VII.8)

So which is of the greater “authority”?

From my perspective, before such a question can be answered, we have to say what we mean by “authority.” I have long used the definition, “the capacity to issue commands with a reasonable expectation they will be followed.”

With that in mind, my view is that Scripture is not a source of “authority.” (Any more that “Reason” is — Reason is how we think, a tool, a method, not a “source of authority” in and of itself. As for Tradition, I’d say it is also not an authority, but a record of previous decisions, all of them subject to re-examination and change by the real authority — the church. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

So back to Scripture. It is — as it calls itself, or as it has been called for so very long — testimony or covenant. It is evidence presented for our acceptance, or something to which we agree to bind ourselves. The fact that our acceptance or agreement is voluntary rather than coerced indicates that this is not a question of authority, but of relationship.

As testimony, the Scripture functions in the way any good prophet or witness would — pointing not to itself but to God. It is a “ministering (ev)angel” and a servant of God sent to tell us certain truths about God. This is the whole point of “revelation.” But Scripture is not that to which it points. It is not God.

It is obvious that the Scripture does contain a number of commands issued with an expectation that they will be obeyed — and in many cases presented as the commands of God. But the interpretation and implementation of those commands — even those from God — are under the church’s authority. The church believes itself to be competent to amend or even to set aside some of these commands — even divine commands. (One of the things that brings discredit on churches — even some of the most fundamentalist — is their pledge of allegiance to inerrancy of Scripture or “sola Scriptura” combined with their manifest failure always to abide by “plain readings,” or their inconsistent or selective application of Scripture to situations and circumstances. I have no beef with Orthodox Jews who really do attempt to live by the Law as closely as they are able; or the few Christian sects who actually do attempt to live a first-century life of apostolic simplicity — but the demonstrable inconsistency of most evangelicals and fundamentalists is simply scandalous — in the classic sense.)

The fact is, most Christian churches do interpret and apply the Scripture — demonstrating their decisive authority over it. Various criteria have been provided for making such decisions over the years — beginning with the earliest understanding that Jesus himself had set aside the dietary commandments (a setting aside which Peter seems to have been unwilling to adopt until his vision of the sheet let down from heaven — a vision he soon came to understand wasn’t about food at all).

The Apostles later set aside the whole of the Law — for Gentiles — except for provisions either designed to maintain table-fellowship, or as part of the Noachide tradition (these are two prevailing theories — though I have argued in Reasonable and Holy that in setting aside the Jewish Law they understood that Gentiles still had to forgo things already forbidden under Gentile law, such as murder or adultery, but only felt the need to add to the list of forbidden actions permitted to Gentiles under their law, such as idolatry and eating blood).

The early and later church exercised its authority and further finessed these understandings. The Church of Rome has long, and rightly, and bluntly, asserted its authority over Scripture. Anglicans came up with the fudgy notion concerning authority in rites and ceremonies, but also in fact felt free to, and did, alter moral teachings — and to be fully above-board and frank, the “testimony” of Scripture itself does not make such distinctions concerning its laws. (Even amongst the Ten Commandments — the only portion of the Law considered to have been written with God’s own hand — the Law of the Sabbath is plainly “ritual.” And, in fact, the church felt free to alter the observance of the Sabbath by a day, and now scarcely holds a memory of the fact that, biblically speaking, Sabbath-breaking is a capital offense!)

All of this indicates that the real authority is the church — whether it wants to make this a matter of stated doctrine, as Rome does, or fudge it as Anglicans do. The church makes the decisions on the meaning and application of Scripture. And by “church” I mean any church that declares itself to be such. There is no “authority” to gainsay such actions, since the demise of the coercive power of a church in league with the secular arm of its nation or empire to require obedience on threat of punishment or death. Some may bemoan that fact, but that it is a fact is incontestable.

So, in short, I think the word “authority” should be retired when referring to Scripture. I prefer to stick with the classical Anglican understanding of “sufficiency” unto salvation, the end to which it was given by God.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Grant said...


The idea of Scripture being about relationship as opposed to authority makes me think of this:

Christians looking to Scripture as their authority, is like a married couple looking to their rings as their authority. (Maybe marriage license is better.)

In any case this is a great addition to the various explanations of this issue. I think though that the real problem lies elsewhere. We must begin to ask why people cling to Scripture as authority when the notion is so plainly and obviously wrong by so much objective standard. Does it come from a desire for certainty? An attempt to justify other positions? A desire to avoid truly reasoning? At this point It seems clear that this wonderful explanation for why Scripture is no "authority" (let alone THE authority) will fall on deaf ears. The misconception of Scripture appears not to be the problem, but rather a result of a deeper issue.

Great post!

WSJM said...

This is a very good essay, Tobias. Thank you.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

You're welcome, Bill!

Erika Baker said...

I think you have shown conclusively that in traditional Anglicanism the authority is vested in the church.
But that’s not to say other religious groups cannot come to different conclusions.

If we give scripture the status of “something that has the capacity to issue commands with a reasonable expectation they will be followed”, then we have given it an authority over ourselves which we then obey. It is not an a-priory authority, no genuine authority ever is, but it is based in relationship, in this case ours with scripture.
That “the interpretation and implementation of those commands — even those from God — are under the church’s authority” is an assertion that people who prefer to grant this authority to scripture will not necessarily share. Some grant the church the authority to interpret scripture, some take it upon themselves. All would probably be aware of the danger that any interpretation, regardless of how it is arrived at, may be mistaken.
And granting scripture authority does not automatically result in fundamentalism. There is at least one previous long-standing contributor to Thinking Anglicans who grants scripture sole authority – and who is one of the most liberal people I’ve ever come across. She just cites different verses!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

[Reposting to deal with voice recognition garble!]

My point, though, Erika, is precisely that the people of whom you speak "grant" or "give" that "authority." In fact, it is they who are calling the shots. Ultimately the individual or the church can "walk away" from the putative Authority. And to me that's just not "authority" in any meaningful sense. At its worst, when it becomes hypocritical, is like the rule of Animal Farm.

I admitted that there are a few small sects who really do place themselves under Scriptural Authority. The problem I have is with those who claim to be under that authority, but who clearly are applying it very selectively. In scientific terms it would be like a scientist who only paid attention to the evidence that supported his conclusions and ignored everything else -- and I find that this is more or less what happens in the churches with regard to Scripture.

Erika Baker said...

isn't every genuine authority based on relationship and on our permitting it? Even God does not demand that we follow him but wishes that we would place ourselvels under his authority. For any authority to be meaningful and conducive to our growth it has to be something we grant.
And if I believe that the church has the authority to interpret scripture then that is still an authority I grant it to have over me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Erika, the authority of a police officer to arrest me for speeding is not something I confer upon him, or from which I am free to walk away.

Yes, one can both walk away from Scripture, and from any church that interprets Scripture in a way one doesn't like -- so the church does not have authority over the individual member (at least not in the way it had in those days I referred to, when it worked hand in glove with the secular power).

But what I'm talking about here is the authority of the church over the Scripture, not over the believer. Neither the church nor the Scripture has authority over the believer who does not choose to believe it!

Murdoch Matthew said...

Lovely statement from Hooker:

"What warrant have they, that any one of their five hundred sentences of holy Scripture doth mean the thing for which it is alleged? Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do?"

Conjecture or tradition. Amen.

Now, concerning your conclusion, define "salvation."

Fr. J said...

What it comes down to is the difference between an authority - which requires an active voice - and that which is authoritative. If we're using the definition that you've given to authority, then I agree that scripture is not an authority since it cannot actively ask me to do anything. It is a book. It can no more tell me what to do than a can of paint. Authority cannot be inanimate. It has to be living.

On the other hand, if we believe in the inspiration of Holy Scripture, that its writing and editing and compiling was breathed by God and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide its reading and interpretation today, then it is fair to say that scripture is authoritative. It not only sets the boundaries but provides the whole context within which the Church is able to receive direction from God.

As you note, Anglicanism has always maintained that the Church has authority over rites and ceremonies. Article XX also says that the Church has authority in "controversies of faith." That is a tremendous amount of authority indeed, given how many controversies of faith there are! The Church has this authority because of who the Church is, the Body of Christ with Christ as its head. But in the very same article, it says that the Church does not have the authority to “ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one place of scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” The Church’s authority is limited, and the source of that limitation is Holy Scripture.

So who is the real authority here? Well, God, of course. But the question is how God exercises His authority and how we are to receive it. And the historical Anglican answer, which mirrors the early Church, is that the Holy Spirit acts through the Church to guide the interpretation and application of Holy Scripture. Holy Tradition and reason are tools to that end. The authority exercised in the Church is a derived authority, a partial authority. Scripture is not under our authority. It is the primary tool which God has given to us to receive His own authority. Yes, Jesus disregards certain things and puts other things into focus. But Jesus is God. The Church is not God. Rather, she is a conduit through which God may act, always in concert with His written word.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Murdoch. As to your request for a definition of salvation, that is definitely too much for a blog-post comment! Even spelling out what the Anglican Divines meant is probably more than would fit comfortably here; though I suppose the Catechism's "victory over sin, suffering and death" is a god beginning. For myself, I tend towards a more Orthodox view (theosis, q.v.) than the Augustinian / Anselm model more popular in the West.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Father J., you raise some interesting points but I don't find them ultimately persuasive. It is good to refer to God and the inspiration of Scripture -- notions which I fully accept -- but my point is that in the actual working out of things it is the church -- imbued, we hope and pray, with the Spirit of God, so yes God is at work there as well -- that has the last word.

The issue of context is a good point -- I have likened in the past the church's relationship to Scripture as similar to (though certainly not identical to) the relationship of our nation to its Constitution. (I realize analogies can be odious, but I hope this one has at least enough to it to make it useful.) Scripture establishes boundaries.

The problem is, in spite of what Article XX says, is that it is ultimately the church that will decide if it is ordaining "anything contrary to God's Word written" or expounding one place of Scripture in contradiction to another. (Note as well that "ordain" here has the weight of "require" -- it is not simply about interpretation).

One of the great ironies is that this Anglican refusal to recognize contradictions stood more or less contemporaneously side-by-side with the challenge to do precisely that with regard to annulling Henry VIII's first marriage: the Levirate law was (and is!) in tension with the incest regulation, and as it was beneficial to the Henrician program, the latter was favored over the former. (In spite of a previous papal dispensation and by means of some very creative eisegesis to make the incest regulation fit Henry's situation!) More on this here.

So I am left with my initial conclusion: it is the church that has the last word. And I do hope and pray that this really means God having the last word! And I would venture that the Church as Body of Christ has the authority committed to it to bind and loose, and that includes, demonstrably, acting contrary to the written word.

Marshall Scott said...

I think I recently thought out loud here about what is "authoritative" and what is "definitive." Reflecting on what Tobias and Fr. J have written, I still find that language easier to grasp.

Not that it changes anything. It simply rephrases the concept to be that the Church, with Christ at the head and inspired by Scripture, defines in what way any resource (Scripture, Tradition, Reason) is authoritative. Perhaps that seems to me to describe the functional aspect better.

As an aside, many years ago in wrestling with "authority" vs. "power," a CPE Supervisor used this definition: "power" is the ability to persuade (by whatever means). He also felt, as I do, that nothing is more persuasive, and therefore more "powerful," than love.

John-Julian, OJN said...

Yes, yes, Tobias

-- and the Church, indeed, defines not only what the Bible MEANS, but even what the Bible IS! Not only did the Church set the canon, but even now, the General Convention specifies what translation of the Bible is acceptable for liturgy!

Play on, friend...

Grant said...

To me this issue of authority stems from our desire to not be in charge and to avoid having to make hard decisions. We can end up hiding behind scripture, tradition, or reason if we want to bad enough. But the reality is that WE are in charge. If we say the church is the authority, to some extent we may be deluding ourselves into thinking that the church is somehow more than us. If we say God is the authority, we're left with the impossible task of discerning God's will with intellectual honesty. If we say scripture is the authority, we forget that we control scripture - from what's in it, to how/when we use it, to whether we use it. If we say reason is the authority, we forget that it is bound by our own human myopia which we can also hide behind.

The reality is that WE ARE in charge. We can't change that. Declaring scripture or anything else to be our authority doesn't make it so. Such declarations are merely self-delusions. What we can do is devise ways to be in charge in a positive and godly way...at least as best we can. (I'd say we've done a good job with the church, etc.) But in order to meaningfully be in charge in a positive godly way, I think we must first embrace the fact that we are in charge.

We are the authority! That's a bit of a scary proposition. We know we might (will!) get it wrong. We hope we'll get it right. But, if I remember things right there's also this part: We are not lost when we get it wrong. We get to keep going and try again. Indeed, we are loved in our failures as in our successes. We we can always improve. We are in this together, our lives in each other's hands. That is the knowledge we need to fully embrace our role and accept our own authority. And that knowledge and the resulting ability to embrace our own state of being is, for me, (with healthy dose of radical quality as the result of recognizing our common source!) Salvation.

(P.S. I'd love to read a post on "What is Salvation?")

Erika Baker said...


Your policeman only has authority over you because the country you live in has given it to him and by living there you agree to the country's right to confer this authority on this policeman.

So you have at least to say that "the churches" define and have authority over Scripture, because each church claims that authority for itself and individuals then join those churches whose interpretations are closest to what they believe.

This is still not an absolute authority but one claimed and only authoritative because sufficient numbers of people accept it.

Grant said...

Ummm...noticed a typo..."radical Equality." Not radical "quality." The latter sounds like a severly unhealthy undersanding of the imago dei thing...

God bless, All!

MarkBrunson said...

If reason cannot trump scripture, what you have is arrested development; a humanity that is forever in the magical thinking of childhood. That's insanity, not faith.

Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said...

Thanks for the posting. I do disagree though with the implication in the essay that Hooker relativizes the authority of Scripture to make it on par with Reason. I have been running a reading group of Hooker's Lawew at CDSP and based on the slow and deliberative reading of Hooker we have done with the Preface and the First Book, it is fairly clear that as a thinker within the Reformed tradition (he is clearly that), Scripture holds a primary place of privilege within his thinking. Yes, Reason and Tradition matter as hermeneutical tools, but the primacy of Scripture abounds for him. Unfortunately, I am away from my copy of Hooker right now, so I cannot provide exact citations.

Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the additional comments.

Marshall, good points. I like "definitive" -- and in that sense the "closed Canon" notion fits in.

Though as Fr. John-Julian pointed out helpfully the Canon itself is a creature of the church -- or rather of the churches, since there are different "Bibles" in different branches of Christendom. Thanks for the reminder, Fr JJ.

Grant, I think you are spot on in relation to the psychology. I see it as a stage of childhood -- even prior to adolescence (marked by rebellion) -- and short of adulthood which takes responsibility. This is not intended as a pejorative statement, but a descriptive one. It may be that those who approach the matter "as a child" are nearer to the kingdom; my problem is that the inerrantist / fundamentalist groups (with a few notable and admirable exceptions) do not redole with sweet innocence, but with anger, judgment, and separatism.

Erika, I don't disagree with what you say here -- there is no authority without consent of the governed. The early Christians went to the stake or the arena rather than burn incense to the Emperor -- so one could rightly say the emperor had no authority over them. But this is not really the topic of my essay -- which is about the authority of the church over the Scripture. Scripture itself cannot resist that authority -- though individuals and groups can object to any given church's exercise of that authority and rebel against it, as at the Reformation.

Grant again, thanks... will fix it. Perils of voice recognition!

Mark, yes -- arrested development. "Insanity" may be too much, though. It depends on how much one presses it, or clings to it in the face of reason.

Dan, a good note. I think Hooker unpacks a good bit of this in Book II. It is true he doesn't present this as a battle between Reason and Scripture; and he definitely gives the palm to Scripture in its primary and necessary (and sufficient) function of revealing truths of salvation which the light of reason or nature could not come to without it. But even the understanding of those truths in Scripture requires reason as "a necessary implement." It is not either/or but both/and -- with Scripture excelling in Revelation, and Reason excelling in Reception. In Book II he shows both Demonstrative Reason and Scripture as co-equal "authorities" over Tradition:

Therefore although ten thousand general councils would set down one and the same definitive sentence concerning any point of religion whatsoever, yet one demonstrative reason alleged, or one manifest testimony cited from the mouth of God himself to the contrary, could not choose but overweight them all; inasmuch as for them to have been deceived it is not impossible; it is, that demonstrative reason or testimony divine should deceive. (II.7.5) (Emphasis mine.)

However, this is again not really my point in this essay, which is about the authority of the church in deciding how the Scripture is to be understood and applied. And when "demonstrative reason" bumps up against something thus plainly shown to be false -- even in Scripture -- Reason must prevail, under the churches care, as indeed it often does, as when we move from the geocentric world of Scripture to a heliocentric world, and ultimately a universe (or multiverse!).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Oh, Grant, you meant your typo... no problem (though I can't fix it after all) ;-)

John Sandeman / Obadiah Slope said...

I wonder whether you dismiss article XX too lightly. Why would the church bind itself not "to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same" unless it accords an authoritative place to Scripture.
If I promise to uphold the constitution of my country and obey its laws I acknowledge their authority. If a candidate were to promise to to speak contrary to (say) a party platform (as their is an election coming on here). they acknowledge the authority of that platform surely?

John Sandeman

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Hello John / Obadiah!

When it comes to motives I can only speculate. As the actual behavior of the reformers (including Cranmer) is at odds with a "plain and literal reading" of the Article, I can only surmise that they, as so many, were capable of giving lip-service to a principle which they then felt competent (perhaps unconsciously) to ignore. The same goes for the constitutional or party analogy. Let me cite an example from my nation's history: Thomas Jefferson was able to affirm in principle, and declare, that "all men are created equal and endowed... with certain unalienable rights" while at the same time being a slave-holder. And he was aware of this tension or dissonance; as he also wrote, "I tremble when I remember that God is just." (I'm quoting from memory here, so if I've erred, please forgive.)

Another human characteristic that might explain this is idealism -- or at the extreme, romanticism. Putting a person or an ideal on a pedestal and then ignoring it is a well-known human mode of behavior.

Ultimately we are left with the incontestable fact that many who assert a primacy for Scripture will also find ways to undercut its putative authority (again, I think, often unconsciously). They do this by various means, and with differing criteria. Witness Luther's reaction to the Epistle of James (though he did at a later point come to a more generous and tolerant mind concerning the "epistle of straw").

As it stands, the final settlement for Anglicanism only reserves ultimate authority to those Scriptural texts that point us to salvation in Christ. And, of course, it is the church which determines which texts out of Scripture actually do so. So, contrary to the assertion of the Article, the church is the judge who weighs the "witness" of Scripture -- receiving that portion that "preaches Christ" but setting to one side much of the rest.

Again, I have no quarrel with anyone who actually wishes to attempt to live in full conformity with all of Scripture, and submit to its "plain reading." However, this is not the Orthodox or Roman Catholic position, nor really the Anglican. Few of the evangelicals or fundamentalists who make the claim they are doing so can be shown to be consistent in this claim, though there are some exceptions in a few small sects.

C. Wingate said...

It seems to me that when you say "Scripture itself cannot resist that authority", it would be more accurate to say that it cannot resist that power. Likewise, the church cannot resist my power to review official interpretations of scripture. This is where I run into problems with the word "authority", which carries a connotation of justification which I do not think the explanation being made can support. I don't think, unless one posits either some sort of infallibility or some absolute sense of loyalty, that one can protect the church's interpretations from criticism on the basis of using the scriptural text as a standard. Or in other words, the possible range of interpretations is not unrestricted, but is constrained by the text and by reason. The church's interpretations (keeping in mind throughout this that every appearance of "church" should be in the plural) lose authority precisely to the degree that they do not appear to be reasonably obtained from scripture.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

CW, it seems to me you are restating Erika's concern in somewhat different terms. remember, I am only speaking about the authority of the churches (and yes, the plural is correct) to make definitive interpretations. Yes, individuals within those churches can disagree. No argument there. For, in fact, ongoing criticism does take place, which is precisely why the interpretations and applications change. And far be it from me to suggest that authority implies infallibility, a notion I utterly reject! (See the post below with the quote from Trollope!) Call it power or authority, it is a capacity to act in a certain way.

As to your final assertion, the "authority over Scripture" (as I would put it) is not lost simply because some disagree with its exercise or dissent from it, or because the authoritative judgments are later revised or reversed -- as indeed happens. The point is that it is the churches that make these decisions, even amending previous decisions. (Of course, a church that keeps making unpopular decisions on Scripture may eventually lose most of its members -- but that is a very different sort of diminishment of authority than what I'm speaking about!)

Again, to return to practical cases: the church overturned the Levirate Law, rendering what had been a duty into a crime. The church (undivided) forbade the observance of a Saturday sabbath, also making it a crime. There is nothing "unclear" in the texts concerning these commandments, yet the church felt itself competent to countermand them.

The list of such exercises of authority is long, and it is because of that I find it odd that people seem to have so much difficulty acknowledging what seems so evident from both the historical record and the present day. Is this idealism or romanticism, as I've suggested?

Erika Baker said...

I don't think it's necessarily idealism or romanticism but the loss of power of those subjects.
We simply cannot imagine that they were ever of great consequence to anyone, because they are so settled in our day and age, and we therefore are not emotionally aware that out own hot button issues ought to be placed in the same long line of things the church previously changed its mind on.

June Butler said...

The church functioned as the Body of Christ long before anything like what we know as Scripture today existed. Scripture came out of the church. Perhaps, I oversimplify, as I often tend to do, but I can't see how the authority of Scripture could trump the authority of the church.

Anonymous said...

The discussion would be improved if it took account of the long history of (generally more) Protestant thought that avoids the kind of claim made in this essay that the church 'decides' what Scripture "means" to speak instead, in a more detailed, nuanced, and relational way, that the church recognizes the truth of Scripture. John Webster's recent book Holy Scripture would bring a lot of clarity here.

For my money, the meaning of Scripture has some relative stability while the issue of the truth of Scripture is really where the nettle is grasped. Scripture's authority depends on its truthfulness and, to my mind, it is much more fruitful, therefore, to discuss first order theoological statements about God, Jesus, humanity (a kind of lex credendi priority here, as I crawl back to a more Prot way of living and thinking)and to see the canonical process and ongoing application more as a recognition than a conferring of meaning and truth.

And, like Tobias, I think the word 'sufficiency' ought to be more in play.JOHN 2007

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Erika, I think it is not just those two subjects that are at issue. Fifty years ago (and last month for England) it was remarriage after divorce. These too will become settled in time. The point I'm trying to make, perhaps not clearly enough, is that to deny either that there has been this "long line of things" that have changed, or that such change is possible requires a kind of idealism or romanticism that takes no cognizance of reality.

GM, ah, but you were raised RC, as was I, so this is no mystery for us!

John Sandeman / Obadiah Slope said...

That I find it impossible to follow scripture (God's word written) or Jesus (God's word incarnate) does not undercut the authority of either. Romans 7 explores the dilemma that all of us face: progressive or conservative we cannot live up to our ideals.
For example I admire the high ideals that progressive Episcopalians set for themselves: I do not judge them for failing from time to time to live up to these ideals. There are times when I wish theological conservatives would lift their ideals to match. The Bible expects that we will struggle.
Dr Ashley Null ( with whom you have interacted before) is one scholar explored the implications of the articles for the authority of scripture. This is not the place to set out the argument, but simply to note that there are many Anglicans who see a stronger case for the authority of scripture as a whole reflected in the Articles.

MarkBrunson said...

Authority is derived from the teaching itself - Jesus taught as "one with authority, not like the scribes." To look to scripture to provide authority is leaning on a rotten prop. The scribes had scripture, so what?

I wish no council had ever been so stupid as to set a canon of scripture. What we have now is an idol.

Erika Baker said...

What I hear in conversations with people is, yes, we have changed things before, but they were never as important and therefore changing them was not a big problem. There is a complete lack of awareness of just how contested those issues used to be.

The other reading is "no, we have never changed anything, we have simply corrected errors introduced earlier".

Whether this denial is deliberate or genuinely due to a lack of understanding I don't, of course, know.

I think one of the problems is that we believe that our own view is somehow "obvious" from Scripture and we're all very good a bible mining those verses that support our view.
Once a sufficiently large number of people subscribes to a particular reading that reading then becomes "obvious" to the point that all alternatives become quaint, un-Christian or irresponsible, definitely no longer to be taken seriously. And as they are no longer taken seriously, it's easy to forget how powerful they once were.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

John/Obadiah, I'm not talking here about individual or ecclesiastical failure to do what Scripture demands --- though obviously all have fallen short! I'm talking about the authority of the church to set aside explicit commands of Scripture.
I well remember my interaction with Dr. Null and even linked to it above. I think he is an apologist for a position that doesn't stand up to close examination. I leave it to others to judge how persuasive his argument is, but I will say here that his "stronger case" is precisely an example of the sort of idealism I'm referring to -- an idealism reflected in the Articles (and if that is Null's point I agree), but that in actual practice the church (including Cranmer and his associates) did impose its/their authoritative judgment on Scripture. I've given a few examples, which I regard simply as historical facts -- instances of this exercise of authority -- do you dispute the facts?

Mark, an excellent point -- Jesus is harshly critical of those who have the Scripture but fail to understand what it is pointing to (i.e., Him). At the same time he recognizes their authority ("they sit in Moses seat, so do as they say" --- just don't do as they do).

Erika, I'm not sure why you are introducing the historic perspective; as I'm not particularly talking about any presenting issues of our own time. Even the decision that something is "not that important" creates a hierarchy within Scripture -- one which even the reformers actually recognize. My point is that on which they make decisions is "in Scripture." So the criteria, and the judgment, are external to Scripture -- thus in the hands of the Church. That's really all I'm saying. With very few exceptions Scripture itself doesn't say, "this is the law but you can disregard it if you like because it's really not that important." (Jesus did say this about the dietary laws, but the laws themselves don't say that!)

But yes, you are correct that eventually the church's authoritative changes or rulings from generations ago (though at the time many of them were just as controversial as our present concerns) become so widely accepted that people forget both the fact that they are operating "contrary to the plain reading of Scripture" but also that the matters were once highly contested. I comment on the changes to the regs on usury in R&H, for example. Almost no-one holds to the biblical standard today.

Erika Baker said...

I mentioned it only because of your sentence: "and it is because of that I find it odd that people seem to have so much difficulty acknowledging what seems so evident from both the historical record and the present day. Is this idealism or romanticism, as I've suggested?" and your subsequent comment that " I think it is not just those two subjects that are at issue"

I must have misunderstood you. Apologies.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Erika. I think the the difference is subtle -- I am referring to the historical record, the fact that the church has over time set aside portions of Scripture. It seems to me you are speaking more of a historical perspective or on attitude towards those changes -- either, as you say, they were either trivial or corrections of errors. Those views are in themselves part of the idealism or romanticism I'm referring to.

I say that because the historical record shows that at the time the matters at word considered trivial -- the debate on usury for example was very intense, and people like Luther and Calvin did not mince words! Thus I strongly disagree (not with you!) with the people who say, "the things we changed were never as important... no big problem." As to those who claim either no change or mere correction, I agree with you that it is either denial or ignorance.

Erika Baker said...

I think what I'm trying to say, very clumsily, is that people locked in the debate today do not see that the church has set aside parts of scripture. Those who claim that the church does not have that authority and that the authority rests in scripture alone, will not recognise that the church exerted precisely that authority before, but will interpret the church's actions in a light that make it appear to have conformed to scripture, not to have re-interpreted it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes. Erika, that is exactly it. I think we are saying the same thing in different ways, but that is exactly the dynamic at work in those who deny that the church has the authority that Roman Catholics and Orthodox -- and classical non-Calvinist Anglicans -- have no trouble at all asserting.

C. Wingate said...

Tobias, I think I would assert contrawise that the church does not have authority to make interpretations which cannot be reasonably derived from scripture-- at least, I will recognize no such authority! That's what comes back to my distinction between power and authority: the church can make any fool statement it wants, but (at least for an Anglican, if not Roman Catholic) to retain the expectation that anyone care about its interpretation, it has to fulfill other constraints. Look at Acts 15, for instance. I don't think the approach of saying "well, the apostles discarded Mosaic law, so we can make equally sweeping emendations" is good enough. That's not the argument made at the time; the expectation in having a council after all was that the arguments had to be persuasive. I would add that the argument wasn't whether the law would be thrown out, but whether it would be imposed on gentile converts. If the Episcopal Church were now to say, "well, we were wrong, everyone needs to get circumcised and so forth" (not that there's any risk of that!) I would expect some darn good reasoning behind such a demand, and more likely that not I would refuse the claimed authority, just as I now refuse the authority that says I should remember (for example) John Muir as a saint.

Also, as far as scripture is concerned, the gospels, seeing as how they are the only record of Jesus' words that we have, have authority as a standard against which the church can certainly be measured. The church has the power to contradict Jesus, and the power to claim that it isn't contradicting Jesus, but I at least reserve the power to recognize the contradiction and deny the authority of the contradictory statement.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

CW, you are of course free to maintain that position, but it is not the position of classical Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. You may be right that some will reject those churches and go off to a more amenable protestant sect. You have history as witness to your case. (Though in fact most of those sects are as "revisionist" -- just in denial about it. There are exceptions, as I've noted.)

As to Acts 15, Hooker cites it as a perfect example of the church's authority to override scriptural divine law -- not in the action of the apostles (since they could rightly say that Gentiles never were bound by the Jewish law) but in the action of the church later to disregard what the apostles themselves did (explicitly at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit). Thus the Western Church no longer requires abstention from eating blood -- which as I am growing tired of having to point out -- even to Ashley Null -- was not, in the Scripture, a dietary question of Mosaic vintage -- but a "creation ordinance" going back to Genesis, repeated in the law, insisted upon by the prophets, and demanded by the apostles of Gentiles. There is more about not eating blood in Scripture than there is about same-sexuality, and more consistently, and clearly. But the West, beginning with Augustine, abrogated this divine law, and Hooker reaffirms the right of the church to do so.

Now, you are perfectly free to say the church, including the Judicious Hooker, was mistaken to do so, and choose voluntarily to follow this law with the punctiliousness of an Orthodox (Jewish or, I assume, Eastern) housewife -- who will always break an egg into a bowl in order to determine that it hasn't got a spot of blood in it. (Just as you are free to un-observe John Muir, or anyone else denominated an "optional commemoration.") And you do have the power to disagree with the church when he does things you don't like --- but that doesn't mean the church hasn't done those things; which is my point.

C. Wingate said...

Well, Tobias, the Roman/Eastern position relies on infallibility: the church's authority is absolute because it is (within the bounds deemed to matter) absolutely correct. However, since you (personally) are disloyal to that church, you are wrong, end of discussion. Borrowing Roman authority in order to defeat review of church theology defeats church authority anyway. Or conversely, I can take (and to some extent, I do take) a strongly Vincentian position and insist on agreement greater than that of our own bishops alone.

It seems to me that you are in essence arguing that the church cannot be held to any theological standard, because the only standard is what the church holds. My reaction to this is to say, "then don't bother making a theological argument to me, because you don't have to care whether it's any good, because you've already set aside any sense of obligation to persuade me." You seem to me to be asserting something akin to a kind of infallibility, and it has the root problem of any infallibility claim: it's only useful when you're wrong.

Let me try to put it in other terms: you seem to be arguing against a position which is trying to put scripture in the position of dictating to the church inarguably. I agree with you that this position is wrong, and we share many of the reasons as to why it is wrong. But I think you are overreacting and setting up a position that says that the church can make scripture to say any arbitrary thing, obligating all to agree with what is said. I'm saying that the situation is intermediate to those two, and that the church is bound to scripture, but not in so specific and legalistic a manner as the other side would hold.

C. Wingate said...

One last thing: same-sex marriage is not my argument in this, so it's a little unfair to saddle me with defense or refutation of it. But it seems to me that the argument for such marriages acknowledges an authority which is neither scripture nor the church itself, but rather a party insisting that sexual relationships are of the same ilk regardless of the sex of the participants. At that level this particular issue seems really to be decided over the matter of whether, for the church, the authority of scripture trumps this other authority.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

CW, I'm afraid I've lost the thread here, as you seem to me to be arguing with points I've not made, and in fact denied. You appear to me to be arguing about the authority of the church over the believer, which I've said again and again isn't my issue. One last time, I am arguing (indeed not arguing, but simply pointing to the fact) that various churches believe themselves to have authority over Scripture; and that there are others who deny they have such authority who nonetheless appear (to an unbiased observer) to exercise it.

In your third paragraph you sum up what I am attempting to say, and agree, for "many of the [same] reasons." You then go on to impute to me a position that I do not hold, and explicitly reject. Your "intermediate position" is the one that Cranmer tried unsuccessfully to limn out. The problem being that once you rule over one portion of Scripture, or create rules to allow for determining which elements (i.e., rites and ceremonies, civil enactments) you demonstrate the church's authority to do so.

Re your additional note, I am not asking you to defend or refute anything. I simply offer it as an example of something the various churches feel themselves less free to amend. I was simply comparing it with the matter of blood-eating, not introducing a new topic for debate.

John Sandeman / Obadiah Slope said...

History like Scripture is interpreted and read. You and I would agree on that. Our difference is whether the church can set aside what it believes Scripture to be saying to us today. I would suggest we distinguish (yes, by reading and interpreting) between what scripture may say to others (for example the Israelites) and to us or humanity in general.
Where a church says "we believe scripture says xyz but we will do poq instead", Article XX comes into play: "it ought not to decree any thing against the same".

Christopher (P.) said...


I see what you say. But the point is that, in your example, the church no longer believes that scripture says xyz. Or rather that xyz doesn't mean to us what it meant to others, and specifically what it meant to the the church in the past. And so the issue goes to one level up, a meta-level--"how do you know that it doesn't mean that any longer." And it is no more easily solved at that level.

Every statement of scripture, when it comes to be "read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested" is interpreted at the juncture of the specific words with the rules and assumptions of the community that interprets them. Those rules and assumptions can change! The regulative rule--the meta-rule--is that we stay under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and for that we make further assumptions, such as, first, that that's a good rule, and we know what the Holy Spirit is, and next, that the church polity is such that the Holy Spirit can find expression there, that the people of the church have a spiritual discipline that allows/promotes the same guidance of the Holy Spirit, and similar things. All these assumptions are done in faith, within the assumptions of the believing community. And those who think that this means that the church departs from "the plain sense of scripture"--well to me it only means that the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has found that the church then was not sufficently under that guidance, that the church then was wrong, and that the church now is right. All this to be done "to the best of our knowledge and ability" and with as much humility as can be mustered.

Now I'm personally not much of a revolutionary. Don't believe in overturning things quickly and certainly not without a lot of reason and a lot of prayer and discernment. But the "rule" that "the church has always taught this, this way" seems to enshrine a sense that the Holy Sprit moved then, but not now. And similarly, "to remain Catholic, we must teach the way that the RCC and the Orthodox teach," again seems to enshrine the Holy Spirit's work to only some communities, on the basis of pedigree or size, and not allow the Spirit's work to be seen in others. And further, it's not really possible, and hasn't really been done, which is Tobias's point.

Divorce seems to be a good test case. The church (I speak of TEC) allows divorce, even though Scripture "forbids" it, because it looks to the deeper sense of what divorce means. Jesus did the same, when he questioned the motives of the Pharisees. And to the church, now, divorce may free up the work of the Spirit, and so may ultimately promote love of neighbor and love of God, more than staying married. Yes, that's to privilege one part of scripture over others, but, to me, that "rule" goes more to express the Gospel than the rule that marriage is indissoluble. And that's what my church community holds. And indeed, different communities--Anglican, RCC, and Orthodox--treat divorce differently. Why not other issues as well?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

John/Obadiah, this is a subtlety too far, for me at least.

It seems to me that saying, as the church has, "Scripture required X of the people of Israel; this requirement was repeated by the Apostles and the early church; but we now see that for reasons A, B and C the requirement has lapsed and is no longer relevant to or binding on the church or humanity in general," is precisely what I'm calling an exercise of authority. Again, the examples are numerous, but the food-as-blood prohibition (again, not addressed just to Israelites but to all of humanity, personified in Noah, according to Scripture) is a very clear instance of this authority. Augustine and Hooker both say that "Yes Scripture says this, but the reasons it was said have lapsed, so it is no longer needed." Of course, the Scripture doesn't spell out those reasons -- they are inferred. The plain text, going back to Genesis, makes no such provision for a temporary edict to a particular end, but an absolute prohibition for all time.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Christopher (P.). This is the very process of "authority under the Holy Spirit I am describing -- and I do not believe the exercise of authority is infallible. We can mis-hear the Spirit as easily as mis-read the Word. As you note, the application of the Summary of the Law is the best touchstone.

As to mis-readings, "food-as-blood" above should obviously be "blood-as-food." So much for infallibility.

June Butler said...

Tobias not infallible? Woe is us all!

Closed said...

As our friend Caelius pointed out long ago, the Vincentian argument fails by irony. At the very least it is mitigated and does not serve well as an overall. The fact is Vincent (of a supposed semi-Pelagian view as follower of John Cassian and more probably of a more Eastern Orthodox view) proposed his argument in response to Prosper among others, arguing for the Augustinian position. Augustine was an innovator in this sense, and yet, he has greatly impacted us.

Closed said...

I would add one other thought that moves us beyond Scripture-over-Church or Church-over-Scripture ways of thinking: These are Christ's Book and Christ's Church. Both are intricately bound up in one another to witness together to Jesus Christ. By its being proclaimed the one convokes the other together, and by the other being convoked together in the proclamation, we hear the Word speak to us today!

It is a thoroughly liturgical way of placing both. And it means interpretation happens within the context of a proclamatory community connected with those come before rather than in isolation, means that there is a certain contingency and wrestling with Scripture and one another.

As I have understood it, sufficiency speaks to that the Scriptures are good for their intent, proclaiming Christ, but Christ's proclamation requires us to discern and wrestle with appropriation of Him to our own lives together.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I have long seen the Vincentian Canon as aspirational rather than demonstrable. I think Newman came to a similar conclusion.

I am all for moving beyond this discussion. I think the points have been made with adequate clarity.

I like the idea of a "liturgical incarnation" in which the word proclaimed and preached is joined with the presence of Christ "in the hearts of his faithful people and in the holy Sacrament of the altar." Then it becomes the marriage it is intended to be, the Holy Spirit as marriage-broker / midwife, and Christ is born again. To then turn back to arguing whether husband rules over wife or vice versa seems to have missed the point.

C. Wingate said...

I have thought about this over the weekend, and now upon re-reading your initial statement I see that you have defined "authority" precisely as I would define "power". I believe that those who assert the authority of scripture do not mean it in that sense.