Authority - a personal view

by Richard Martin

from Signs of the Times, No. 25 - Apr 2007

Jesus and authority

Jesus became famous in Galilee through his miracles of healing. But did he appeal to those miracles to give authority to what he claimed? Personally, I would say "no" - there were many occasions when Jesus healed somebody and then said "say nothing to any man." eg. Mark 1:44, 3:12, Matthew 9:30, 12:16. This is surprising: one would have thought that Jesus would welcome the publicity of people "gossiping the gospel". We conclude that the reason for Jesus' words in these verses is that he wanted his words to be taken seriously not because they had the authority of miracles behind them, but simply because they had their own innate, convincing authority. Also when Jesus was asked for a sign to substantiate his bold claims, he simply sighed and said (according to Mark 8:12) "Why does this generation seek a sign? No sign shall be given it." He wanted the weight and force of his words to speak for themselves.

Jesus frequently quoted the scriptures when he taught. Did he appeal to those Scriptures to give his teaching authority? Again, personally, I would say "no". When he was disputing with the Sadducees about the resurrection, he refuted their doctrine by quoting Exodus ("I am the God of Abraham... " Mark 12:24) and then remarking that God is not a God of the dead but of the living. The words "I am the God of Abraham... " were from the Old Testament; the words "God is not a God of the dead... " were not - they came from Jesus. Was Jesus using the Exodus verse as his authority? I say that he was not . The scriptures, of course, were central to the culture of the Jews. They would all quote verses from it every day to provide pithy support for some point that they were making - in the same way as we quote Shakespeare. We in our culture, might quote "I am a man more sinned against than sinning" (King Lear) in order to defend ourselves from some minor criticism. Shakespeare has not the slightest degree of authority, but he is very convenient and satisfying to quote. And in the same way Jesus quoted Exodus because it led him on to what his real point was - that God was the God of the living, not the dead. Ergo, the dead rise. These words carried their own conviction.

He obviously placed a great emphasis on his teaching for its own sake: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31) and woe betide us if we are ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation (Mark 8:38). They still possess conviction and give hope, after 2000 years. We may doubt some of the recorded miracles, we may have reservations about the scriptures, but still we find Jesus' words arresting and challenging.

The church and authority

"How can you prove the existence of God?" People wrestled with this problem for centuries. It gradually emerged that we needed something solid to start our argument on - something which all agreed upon and were certain about. This would be our authority. From that basis we could build our argument. Finally it came to Descartes to declare that this something solid was our existence . And how do I know I exist? Because "I think." This, for Descartes, clinched it. He was certain that he existed because he was a thinking person. And from the solid basis of his existence he could, he thought, begin (like Euclid) to deduce other things, finally reaching the existence of God.

However, today we are not so convinced that our thinking proves our existence. For all we know, somebody might be (without our knowing it) manipulating our brains by means of electrical signals, and giving us the impression that we are thinking, when we are not really thinking. This suggests that it may not be wise to base our confidence on the fact that we are thinking.

Should we continue our quest for certainty? Personally, I would say "no - we can be certain of absolutely nothing". In practice, this turns out to be less catastrophic than it at first seems. We manage to live very well on a diet of trust. We cannot prove that our wives love us, but we have total confidence in them nevertheless. We might be wrong! But we comfortably live our lives as if we are right. We trust in an innumerable collection of ideas... The temperature is 20°C - the thermometer tells us so. That sound I can hear is a bird. There really is a meal steaming on the plate in front of me. The sun will rise tomorrow morning. We cannot prove any of them, we trust in them, and are not frightened that they may be wrong. But if we can be certain of nothing, we have no authority to back up our arguments for the existence of God!

In a recent conference on science and religion, the speaker several times mentioned "scientific facts". These could be regarded as our authority because everyone accepts them. But he had also emphasized the fact that scientists liked to use the phrase "I could be wrong"; they had learned to be open-minded, receptive to new ideas - they had been shown to be wrong so many times in the past. So in the discussion the question was raised "if a scientific fact is something established and certain, how can that be consistent with the idea that we could be wrong?" And so we began to explore the definition of the word "fact". Someone linked it to the idea that what we really believe is by definition something we would stake our life on. So a possible new definition of "fact" emerged. A fact is something subjective, not objective. A fact varies from person to person. A fact is to me something I believe so strongly that I would stake my life on it. But it is not something I can use to prove that I am right and you are wrong. It does not give me the authority which I need in order to be dogmatic!

Jonathan Clatworthy said in a talk he gave at an MCU conference at St Deiniol's Library:

The other tradition says we don't have certainty, and therefore there is a place for human reason to discover new insights, to apply old insights in new ways for new situations, and even, from time to time, to establish that some elements of the inherited tradition are wrong.

The kinds of reason we use are wide-ranging: not just deducing truths from biblical texts, but imaginative reflection on the best way to meet new situations, communal assessment of instinctive responses, and whatever other processes seem to help.

Because nobody has certainty, the search for truth is a social activity. Within the community, each of us contributes and receives, as together we learn. It is important that the believing community, the church, should be wide enough to encompass many different points of view.


If the church has to search out the truth (e.g. in modern ethical dilemmas, or a re-examination of old dogmas), and to proclaim the truth to the world,

  • Our search for truth cannot be just an examination of the Bible to find a text which apparently fits our circumstances, although that is part of the search.
  • The search for truth must include, to quote Jonathan Clatworthy again,
    imaginative reflection on the best way to meet new situations, communal assessment of instinctive responses, and whatever other processes seem to help... and must be a social activity. Within the community, each of us contributes and receives, as together we learn.
  • Therefore the whole church must take part in the process. It must train all its members to be articulate about spiritual and ethical matters. As the Bible says, "All shall know me, from the least to the greatest" - the process should not be for clergy only. And the end-product must not depend upon any external authority but ideally should be self-authenticating. "These truths are self-evident", says the American Constitution. This should be our ideal.
  • The process can be compared with the workings of Parliament. When a new issue emerges, there is a debate about the way forward. The issue is examined from many angles, and finally a decision is made. But that decision can be reversed after some years if it turns out to be unsatisfactory.
  • As for proclamation, it's no use trying to convince people outside the church by using the Bible as our authority. What we are urging must carry its own conviction (the reaction of those people is partly irrational and our love for them has a very large part to play). On the other hand, those same people may already believe quite a lot (possibly truth mixed with superstition) which could be useful to build on. The church must exploit this - but to do so it must listen to the people.

Richard Martin is a retired physics teacher. He organizes the meetings of the North West regional group of the MCU.