The Purpose of Authority

Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.  That’s what God is in the business of doing.  That is what his authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like ‘authority of scripture’ that is what we ought to be meaning.  It is an authority with this shape and character, this purpose and goal.

N.T. Wright – “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?”

Perhaps a small reason why I’m concerned with orthodoxy and authority is somewhat related to what N.T. Wright is getting at here.

  1. I can understand that it makes people squeamish to talk about “authority.” That runs into all sorts of other questions about power, by whose authority we live, how diversity and pluralism fit within that authority, etc.
  2. I can also understand that questions of orthodoxy and authority together make people concerned, because it can seem immediately like I (or others) are concerned with controlling others’ lives. That’s concerning for plenty of good reasons, not least of which is the abuse of power by ecclesial authorities over the last, well… forever.

But! Surely, there is some way in which Scripture and “proper” theology ought to guide us into deeper understandings of God, God’s character, and the telos of human beings.

In other words, let’s just assume a couple of things: God exists, God has revealed himself via nature, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and in incarnation.

If we assume such things to be true (big claims that need to be examined, I know), then it is reasonable to assume that human beings were created for a purpose. If that is true, then my goal as an individual human being ought to be to figure out how to discern God’s character (Is he capricious? Is he loving? Is he aloof?) and how to discern the purpose for which I am made.

Which brings us back to the original point. If we’re seeking these things, we’re trying to poke and prod at “orthodoxy” (right thinking). We’re trying to get closer and closer to the truth of things, to make sure that our understanding of reality and the world and God and humans is accurate. To my mind, that’s why looking at what the church historic has taught is vital — not because they were always right or always did it right or were not corrupt in all the ways human beings are corrupt. It’s vital because we need to take in the whole of the experience of the (very broken) church, to whom is given the task of carrying on the faith that has been passed down.

While it might make us squeamish to seek orthodoxy, we all already have a set of principles or stories we think give us the right way to view the world. And we tend to try to live accordingly. For my own faith, choosing historic orthodoxy — affirming the creeds and the authority of God via Scripture — is a method for discerning the human condition and how humans can and should be liberated. That’s the purpose of authority.

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