Scriptural Authority In The Early Church

Shawn Wamsley makes some interesting and illuminating claims about patristic understanding of what made their texts authoritative. Below is just an excerpt.  The entire piece is worth reading:

The derivation of authority does not originate from the occasion of their writing or the exact syntax of words and vocabulary.  Rather, their authority is derived from concepts and the individuals who delivered them; the most important of these individuals was Jesus Christ and the Spirit through which his words were communicated.[7] This is also the perspective through which the early fathers would have seen the authority of documents in the first two centuries of the church.  Without having established a doctrine of inspiration, their notion of authority was derived from an office, much like the authority afforded a prophet.The important distinction is still that the Spirit led the endeavor, however.  Interestingly, though, inspiration was not the trump card that the modern church would think.  Clement, a contemporary of the apostolic writers claimed that Paul wrote with “true inspiration” and then makes a similar claim for his own letters, though he does not go as far as equating himself with Paul, though they had received the same Spirit of inspiration.  Clement sees that there is a stark contrast between his authority and that of Paul, apostolicity.[8] Ignatius claims to write according to the mind of God, but will not command other churches that are under the authority of other bishops because he lacks the apostolic authority of someone like Peter and Paul.[9] The major concern was that the document displayed at least proximity to apostolic authority, because it was believed that a post-Pentecost community would display a wide range of gifts, including prophecy[10], but not everyone was called to be an apostle.

What’s most puzzling to me is Clement’s claim to receive the same “inspiration of the Spirit” without being as authoritative as Paul, and Ignatius’s claims to write with the “mind of God” but not have authority over bishops’ jurisdictions.  That sounds to me like there’s some cognitive dissonance between the incredible presumption to speak in a divinely revealed way on the one hand while respecting his own political limitations and need to defer to coequals and superior powers within the church.

If you’re really speaking for God, why the worry that there would be anything contradictory in what you’re doing that God wouldn’t tell the other bishops or the apostles themselves to command too?  I mean, if you have such an elevated office based on your authority from God, why would there ever be a conflict between what God is commanding both you and the others he is inspiring to say and do?  It looks to me like the realities of personal fallibility and real life disagreement by people not commonly “inspired by God” made a practical difference.  And it seems obvious to me that if “God” couldn’t guarantee all his alleged spokesmen were on the same page in all circumstances, then it’s likely they weren’t his spokesmen in the first place.

All the claims that God was simply working with fallible human beings wants the best of both worlds—an unjust level of authority beyond that allowed to normal human evidence-free speculation with the readymade excuse for all the errors—they’re just humans.  Either you are humans like the rest of us and your speculations need to be backed up by appeals to commonly accessible and affirmable reasons and evidence or you’re being guided by God and you should not have all the signs of disagreement, human political deference, and culturally and psychologically limited grasp of the truths you’re talking about.

It’s too convenient to rationalize all the fingerprints of these people’s normal, uninspired sources of insight (their own imaginations and hubris) as God “condescending” to their limitations and not giving them exact word for word, syntax perfect accounts of what he wants them to say, while at the same time demanding that they be treated as ultimate authorities who speak for God.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.