The Authority Cycle and Finding Our Way Back

“Always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of a reconfigurations is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbitrator of correct belief, action, and control. So long as that question remains unanswered, the lens of the common or shared imagination through which we view life in our own time and place is so opaque that we stumble and fall over and over again. The Reformation, when it finally and fully arrived after 1517, was to answer the question almost immediately. Sola Scriptura, scriptura sola. Only the Scripture and the Scriptures only. Luther and the reformers who followed after him would build their reformed Church on that principle, joining it in good time with the concept of the priesthood of all believers. No more Pope, no more magesterium, no more human confessor between humanity and Christian God, only the Good Book.” – Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, 45-46

The cycle:
In the first century the authority of the apostolic teaching and ministry was directly related to the authority imparted to them by Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Within a few hundred years and the cannonization of scripture, authority shifted to the authority found in scripture against the heresies the cannonization and councils were enacted to combat. It wasn’t long after that when people recognized the church itself as the authority with prayer and sacraments only being accessible through priestly (authoritative) intermediaries. Scriptures were kept in Latin in order to maintain authoritative hegemony over the people. From the 1400s-1500s this process started to unwind in backwards order and it started with translating the scriptures into the language of the people. Once that was done, the Reformation had the needed tools to further reverse the locus of authority from the church and the priests back to the Scriptures, that people could now actually read for themselves. I believe there is a new movement underfoot that is trying to take that back even a step further to where this whole process started – to recognize that if we have any authority to do or say anything that it ultimately goes back to the Christ that the Scriptures themselves point to. We have come full circle.

The future:
One of the things that has driven the final turn from scripture to Christ is postmodernism. We have come to grips with the reality that being 100% objective is not as attainable as we once thought. That doesn’t mean we cannot ascertain with certainty what truth is, we just have to be more aware of what goes into the process of receiving, reading, interpreting and applying the text. We have come to grips with the fact that reading requires interpretation. Interpretation then doesn’t readily come from a perfectly objective reading of scripture but is also easily influenced by our biases (cultural, linguistic, social, theological, etc). What that tends to do, if we aren’t careful, is undermine the value, importance and place of the Scriptures in the life of the church. We can only be pointed back to Christ to the level that Scripture is able to provide it. So the scriptures still need to hold an authoritative position in the church with the ultimate goal of finding Christ in them. It is important that we get a handle on this…understanding where we have come from, where we are and where we are going.

In addition to changes in our attitude toward scripture comes changes in culture. The world has changed and so has its view on the position of the authority of both the church and the scriptures for their lives. Churches are currently in an authority crisis partly because we have to adjust to a world where Christianity no longer holds the dominant position it once held in Western society and we are struggling to see ourselves more from a biblical and Christ-centered perspective in contrast to a world that has clearly rejected both. Making that shift if going to be vital to the well-being and growth of the church in the years to come and, I believe, is at the heart and soul of many of our most significant issues (including our declining numbers).

I am excited to say that a generation is rising up who will be able to embrace the things that need to be embraced in order to make this shift. The difficulty and challenge will be helping this generation not be so immersed in the surrounding culture that cultural accommodation short-circuits their identity in Christ. One of the real dangers I see looking ahead for the church is the elevation of emotion and feeling as the ultimate authority. We have to recognize there is a place for emotion and feelings without allowing them to trump our call to holiness and righteousness.

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