All humans are subject to authority. Even the most rebellious, anti-authoritarian individual submits himself to some type of authority. As Evangelical Christians we must answer the question “What authority will we cling to?” Specifically, what is the authority we will finally submit to as we are increasingly shoved to the margins of society? Should we fall back on Pre-modern concepts of authority, hang on to Modern tenets of authority, or accept Post-modern denial of ultimate authority? During these three eras of Western history, the grounds of authority have shifted numerous times, always with consequences for the Christian understanding of knowing and arriving at truth.
Pre-Modern World Early Christians rebelled against Roman imperial authority by declaring that Jesus and not Caesar was Lord and that the teaching of the Apostles was authoritative in their lives. They believed this to the point of persecution and even death. Whatever the prevailing philosophies may have been and whatever fierce temporal power Rome possessed, none of it stood up to the ultimate authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This meant that truth, meaning, and any explanation of the working of the cosmos was grounded in religious authority and specifically the revealed word of God.
As the Canon of Scripture was being recognized by the early church, religious authority began to shift from the oral tradition to the written Gospels and Epistles, but not completely. There was still dependence on the “tradition” (understood as teaching) of the Roman Catholic Church, which it was essentially on par with the authority of Scripture. Still, regardless of emperors, disagreements between bishops, fights between popes and kings, and competing pagan religions, authority for all of life rested in the revealed will and word of God in Scripture and through the Church.
This does not mean that religious authority was not challenged. The extent and legitimacy of Church authority was often questioned and usually with devastating consequences for the questioner. Generally speaking, however, these were not rejecting the ultimate authority of Scripture or the Lordship of Christ, but differed from ecclesiastical authorities on interpretation and meaning in matters of political governance, science, and the nature of Scripture.
The Reformation changed the understanding of religious authority to a significant degree. Although Protestant leaders understood authority differently, they argued for either the authority of sola Scriptura or suprema Scriptura. Creeds, confessions, and patristic or medieval writers could inform and assist in Scriptural interpretation, but in no way were they authoritative. In every case the Bible superseded any church tradition or any proclamation from an ecclesial leader. In matters of nature, science, and the workings of the universe, it was still God’s creation. Truth was still God’s truth and was to be discovered through reading and understanding his written word.
Ever growing secularization meant a shift in authority. Knowing, finding the truth, and the authoritative grounds for declaring what was true moved from what was external to humans (the religious and the revealed) to what was internal and inherent in humans, namely reason and experience.
As Western civilization moved from the pre-modern to the modern age, the locus of authority moved from the supernatural (revelation and religious authority) to autonomous human reason. Belief in God was certainly still a possibility, but it was to be grounded in rationality rather than in the necessity of divine revelation. Knowledge, truth, and all of reality was to be discovered and explained by reason and by the scientific method.
Empiricism sees humans as born with a mental tabula rasa or blank slate. All that is known is based on experience through the traditional five senses. The world can be and must be observed neutrally and dispassionately, the data measured and analyzed, and then certain, objective knowledge is possible. All ideas and concepts are dependent on experience, and thus all knowledge must also be dependent on experience. Authority rests on human senses and human ability to somehow objectively process and interpret the data received.
Modern Authority and the Christian
To rely on reason and experience for knowledge to some degree is not a bad thing for the Christian. First, the rational processes of the mind, logical analysis, rational explanations and proof, and the dynamic of doubt and questioning is part of what it means to be human. It is also part of what it means to be a Christian believer. We want our faith to be reasonable and to make sense. We want to be able to explain our faith with coherence and logic. We can and do rely, however, on our God given reason as a secondary or derivative source of authority and not the primary or ultimate source. For one we are fallen human beings and cannot fully trust either our reason or our experience. And, there are aspects of our belief that involve mystery and faith, explanations of which come not from our human reason but only from revelation, and to one who is “spiritual.”
Similarly, human experience – what we see, observe, and measure – is also a source of authority for truth to a certain degree. This is how we do science. We observe, sense, and measure the world. The data is analyzed and interpreted. We gain further knowledge of reality. Experience cannot be, however, our only nor our primary source for knowledge and our ultimate authority for truth. Empirical observation takes place in a fallen world by fallen human beings. It can inform, adjust, and confirm knowledge and truth, but cannot be our ultimate authority in determining truth.
Post-modernity is a reaction to the failure of Modernity; that is, the certainty of Modernity, and its faith in science and technology, led to two World Wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, pollution and ecological disaster, and the depersonalization of human beings. This means, says the postmodernist, that objective and absolute truth is a myth and that to claim such an absolute truth or metanarrative is oppressive and an act of violence. Truth? Authority for making any claims over life, morals, and ethics? For the postmodernist such “authority” is found in two sources.
Culture and Community
The post-modern rejects the notion of absolute, objective truth, whether found in reason, experience, or even revelation. The postmodern is also not nearly as concerned about the autonomy of the individual. The community, the social group of language, values, and beliefs, is most important. Therefore, “Truth,” or better said, truths are relative and are constructions of culture and community. There is no objective truth “out there” to be discovered and then imposed oppressively over all people. There are, instead, many relative truths that are part of and constructed by different communities and cultures, none of which are to be imposed on other communities and cultures.
The Enlightenment Empiricist believed certain, objective, and absolute knowledge or truth could be arrived at through observation and experience. To the post-modern this is maximum hubris, an indisputable criticism after the disasters of the twentieth century. For the post-modernist knowledge and truth are still grounded in experience, however it is not the same experience of the Empiricist. The Empiricist sought knowledge outside of himself, objective and certain. He discovered it through keen, scientific observation. For the post-modern experience is subjective, personal yet grounded in community. It is developed or constructed in community through deeply personal experience. Truth is therefore niche truth. Different communities build their own truths and never consider that theirs is above, better, or “truer” than another. Much less should it ever be imposed on another person or community.
Post-modern Truth and the Christian
The mistake many Christians make is to automatically reject the relativism and pluralism of Post-modernity and uncritically hang on to many tenets of Modernity. There is much in Modernity to hang onto; however, the post-modern is right to criticize the hubris of the Modern human. The belief that humans could be objective and grasp, out of their own reason and experience, objective knowledge and truth is not Biblical. This confidence, rather, was grounded in a belief in the innate goodness and objective abilities of humans, which simply overlooked or rejected the Biblical doctrine of the fall. The Post-modern, although taking it too far, does remind us to be humble and to take into account the real influence of culture, experience, and perspective as we seek, verbalize, and pronounce truth.
But Post-modern relativism is not the only alternative. There is a truer and safer ground to be had.
Next week: Part 2: The Church at an Authority Crossroads