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?

  • Evangelos

    Clement did not have the arrogance to claim he was writing Scripture. No one author who ever wrote what later came to be treated as Scripture ever thought they were writing books that would some day be considered equivalent or superior to the books of the Old Testament. Their only goal was to instruct and inspire their congregations (as Paul) or as to deliver an account or an apology for the deed that Jesus did (as in the Evangelists).
    Furthermore, the only reason the books of the Bible were compiled the way they are is out of repeated usage; there was no one council that said “these are the books of the Bible, worship them, kiss them, and swear on them because this is exactly how God dictated them”. The more direct the connection the author was thought to have to Jesus himself, the more authoritative they were because they we the closest anyone could get to a codification on paper of Jesus himself; this is why we don’t have the letters of Clement, before the Book of Revelation (which is another can of worms in and of itself!). But they were by no means the only source of the spiritual authority; they had a special place in the understanding of the Christian faith but they were certainly not treated in the same way they are in many sects of Christianity today. Without the oral tradition that had given rise to the texts, the writings of others who could interpret them within that tradition, and the continuing authority of a collected people called a Church, they are less than useless. Later on, iconography would come to take a similar level of revelation as Scripture as, in the words of the 7th Ecumenical Council, “they did with paint what Scripture did with words”.

    My point is: if a person imagined they were writing Scripture because God told them too, either they existed centuries later than the early Church or they were not likely to be taken seriously by Christian bishops.

  • Evangelos

    Rereading my comment, I don’t think I’ve really gotten the Orthodox understanding of Scriptural interpretation quite right (as I often do when . If you’re still glancing at Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog, he has a nice post today relating to this topic. He is a better authority to talk about inspiration and reading the Bible as Orthodox than me.
    P.S. I’m trying to make my way through your posts on unconditional love, it’s just taking longer than I hoped. Keep up the good work!

  • Dan Fincke

    Thanks so much for putting in the effort to wade through my lengthy remarks on unconditional love! I hope the experience is not of time-wasting repetition but continual insight!

    I think your comment above is very impressive, both sensitive and thought provoking—particularly because when I first glanced at it I assumed it came from Shawn Wamsley (whom I quoted above) himself!