Authority in the Church

So that last post got me thinking about authority in the Church. When I think anout authorities I naturally think about normative texts. Texts are useful for certain things because they’re static; they don’t change their content or their minds (once the necessary textual work has been completed…) What texts do we hold to as authorities and how do we use them as such?

But, static texts don’t capture completely what the Church is about which is, well, Jesus. Jesus as the Head of the Body, our relationship to him as head, and our relationships to one another as fellow organs or what have you. How do or should communities moderate or mediate the texts that they identify as authoritative? How do community lines get drawn and for what purposes? How does one get a sense of “all Christians through time and space” and how do writings then find a back-door in as witness to communities and individuals within them?

In principle I find agreement with what I understand to be Andrewes’s summary: “One canon, Two Testaments, Three Creeds, Four general councils, Five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that Period determine the boundaries of our faith.” I’d be curious to see a list of exactly who the last include. Technically does Gregory fall into it–he seems to be at the borderline. I don’t believe Benedict is technically a Father. Bede is widely considered to be the last of the Western Fathers yet falls quite a bit past the deadline. And why four and not the full seven ecumenical councils?

Furthermore, as I mentioned below, how is authority reckoned, merely through contents–or does the logic and thought-processes of both Scripture authors and Fathers count?

Clearly this is not a simple topic but is at the heart of the current debates…

And how does all of this work out in practice?

Personally, I find that I tend to work with canons within a canon.

That is, when it comes to the Scriptures I tend to privilege
* The Psalms
* The Gospels
* Pauline letters, esp. Gal/Eph/Col
* Revelation
* Ezekiel

When it comes to the Fathers, I tend to privilege
* Benedict (whether he technically qualifies or not)
* Augustine (esp. on interpretive matters)
* John Cassian
* Vincent of Lerins
* Gregory the Great
* Bede
* Leo the Great
* Jerome
Not only do I have a very Western set of Fathers, but the astute will notice that Augustine, Jerome, Cassian, and Vincent are in the mix together despite disagreements–sometimes rather serious ones. I also have both popes sharing the acclamation “great” despite my rejection of papal claims. I used the word “organic” deliberately in the past post because I see our working through of these issues as a growing process, not necessarily something methodical or systematic.

How do you negotiate these things?

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4 Responses to Authority in the Church

  1. LutherPunk says:

    You have to quit posting stuff like this. I am trying to be exiled and I keep coming back, since I have no real self-control anyhow!

    The question of who we call Father is a pertinent one as I am finding myself increasingly shaped not by the fathers of the Reformation most often quoted in Protestant circles, but by Benedict and Evagrius Ponticus.

    I’ve been pondering muchly the role of Rules (in the moasntic sense) in the life of the parish, in spite of Luther’s well known disdain for monastics. I’ve learned more from prayer and study on the St. Benedict’s Rule than on any other document about how to be pastor.

    Finally, what of Scripture? Is it enough to say that we “prize” any particular canon within the canon? It seems to me that all of the controversies facing the Church Catholic today have little to do with the specific issues presented and everything to do with how we read Scripture and practice tradition.

    Finally (really I mean finally this time), I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. The more I know, the less I know. I feel like my life in the Spirit has been one in which I opened a treasure chest, and the deeper I dig through the loot the more precious things I uncover, each item more precious than the next. The problem with this is that I realize I cannot carry everything, so I must decide what to pick up and what to put back.

  2. Derek the Ænglican says:

    I’ve been pondering muchly the role of Rules (in the moasntic sense) in the life of the parish, in spite of Luther’s well known disdain for monastics. I’ve learned more from prayer and study on the St. Benedict’s Rule than on any other document about how to be pastor.

    You and me both…
    As far as Lutherans go, I like Bonhoeffer’s Life Together as an attempt to describe a modern Protestant attempt at a monastic sort of life.

    It seems to me that all of the controversies facing the Church Catholic today have little to do with the specific issues presented and everything to do with how we read Scripture and practice tradition.
    Absolutely!

    Your last paragraph so captures what I’m feeling.

  3. *Christopher says:

    I think this post is quite useful in thinking about how we privilege authors and texts and how these don’t always come to consistency. I really actually enjoy the fragments and fractions in savouring each of them, and I think the thing is that I first approach them as prayer and something to exhort and edify, rather than discursively or systematically–that comes later. The closest thing I can think of is lectio as a first approach.

    When it comes to the Fathers
    * Benedict (I think he qualifies; his theology is just outside of the regular way…and the Rule is quite beneficial for the average Christian in practical divinity)
    * Cassian
    * Augustine
    * Irenaeus
    * Gregory the Great
    * John Damascene
    * Maximos
    * Gregory Nazianzus

    As for Scriptures
    * The Psalms
    * The Gospels, esp. John
    * Pauline letters, esp. Romans/1 Cor./Gal./
    * Isaiah
    * Acts

    For whatever reason we’ve tended to require only the first four councils; I suspect that the seventh on icons is kept out due to our qualms about images as more than didactic than iconic.

    In talking with Dr. A, I was struck at how Bonhoeffer’s Life Together sounded so much like Benedict’s Rule in some aspects.

  4. Joe says:

    How do you negotiate these things?

    Prayerfully. That sounds glib, but there really is no other way. Even an infallible text is not the helpful without infallible interpreters (what the Romans have been saying all along).

    The problem really isn’t about the text though…the problem is that despite popular (or unpopular) opinion, we are not really a “people of the book.” Not in the sense of the Jews or the Muslims. We do not follow a text but a Person…one that never wrote down a damn thing (‘cept in the dirt). So authority for us has to stem from a relationship with that Person who is the Divine revelation. Tricky.

    Grace and Peace,
    Joe

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