The Altered Basis of Religious Authority

FOR many people the question of religious authority is one of the most perplexing problems in our whole modern thought about religion. It is a perfectly natural human tendency to desire to find authority. We turn instinctively in any field to the person who knows, or who seems to know, what he is talking about.

Before the time of Jesus the Jews had their Law, the recorded deliverances of priest, prophet, and historian, which represented to them the total impress of their God upon the life of their nation, issuing in the Decalogue and the great mass of legal elaboration and interpretation which had accumulated down through the years. The appeal to authority on the part of the religious leaders was always to this body of accumulated tradition, to the historic cases of ‘thus saith the Lord.’

When Jesus appeared on the scene, however, He spoke in a very different manner. While He frequently referred to the historical background of the Jewish faith, and showed Himself completely familiar with the literary material in which that history was enshrined, He did not appeal to the Jewish Law as an authority. He spoke directly to the people, uttering truths and teachings which found such a response in the hearts and in the minds of His hearers that they at once and instinctively recognized Him as a competent authority in the field which He had chosen. Even the least learned of them could see at once the difference between the scribe, pointing back to Moses, and Jesus with His ringing ‘I say unto you.’

After the conclusion of the earthly ministry of Jesus, there were bound to be difficulties about this matter of authority. We find traces of that difficulty, and of the effort to solve it, all through the Book of the Acts and the Letters of Paul. We must remember that the very early Christian group were practically all Jews, brought up under the Law, and believing implicitly in all its ordinances. The question immediately came up with these people — did the old Law hold for them in all its aspects? What about the cases where Jesus’ words seemed to conflict with it? Was Christianity a new religious system, complete in itself, or was it to be regarded as a development of the old, carrying the body of the old along with it?

At first it is plain that the followers of Jesus for the most part continued to observe the Jewish Law, and to worship in the temple and in the synagogues. The real complication came, however, when Gentiles began to turn to Christianity. In a brilliant recent discussion of this period Dr. McGiffert, of Union Theological Seminary, points out that these early Gentile converts had behind them none of the traditional Jewish religious background. To them Jesus was everything, and His teachings the sum total of the new faith. Their difficulty was not at all in accepting so winsome a gospel, but in taking on with it the vast mass of Jewish tradition and observance. To many of them, Jesus was the Lord — and they knew little and cared less about the ancient God of the Hebrews. And so there shortly came to be two parties in the early Church, one party headed by Peter, which demanded that the new converts conform in every respect to all the requirements of the Jewish Law, including circumcision; and another party, headed by Paul, which claimed that for Gentile converts all this was not necessary, but that acceptance of Jesus as Lord, and the effort to live according to His teaching, were the essential basis of the Christian Church. Paul finally won his contention, and the Church stepped out into the Greek world, freed from the fettering bonds of Jewish legalism, though carrying over, through its acceptance of Jesus, that which was really essential in the spirit of Hebrew monotheism. At that point the basis of religious authority shifted from the Jewish Law to the teachings of Jesus.

The new Church developed a literature of its own — the Letters of Paul, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the rest. But during the period before this literature became generally accepted, and before the Church extended very far beyond Asia Minor and Greece, there was a time during which the Church itself did not yet appear as the source of authority, because it had not yet become sufficiently institutionalized or traditionalized. And it is during this period that we find the effort to restate the idea of Christianity so as to make it clearer and more acceptable, not to Jews, but to people whose intellectual background was that of Greek philosophy. John’s Gospel represents that effort. The authority of Christianity for this writer lies, not in a traditional body of law, and not solely in the words of a man, Jesus, but in an Idea proceeding from God, and expressing itself in the life of a man, Jesus.

The Church continued its westward progress. All roads led to Rome. The generations rose and fled away. The centuries rolled by. The Church developed as an institution, hardening into a form modeled upon Latin imperialism. In due time Paul was largely forgotten, and the Church harked back to Peter, the Rock of Christianity. The head of the Church at Rome came to be regarded as his successor by direct apostolic inheritance, the vicar of God on earth, endowed with the power of the keys. The legalistic tradition once more came uppermost, and authority rested, not with the Jewish Law, not with the teachings of Jesus, not with the Idea made manifest in flesh, but with the Church — an authority expressed in the papal decrees.

Again the scene shifts as the centuries intervene. Just as the Jewish Law became an increasing burden upon the Jews, so the requirements of the Church, arising to a large extent out of its temporal necessities, became a burden upon thoughtful men of the Middle Ages, until the time came when it seemed to some that the temporal outweighed the spiritual, and that the great organization was dying at the top from dry rot. This feeling burst into expression as the Protestant Reformation, a revolt against the assumption of power and authority by the Church. The Church of Rome went on its way little altered by these events. But there came into being a great protesting group, which followed Martin Luther in the declaration that the authority of religion lay in the Bible. This conception has dominated the Protestant branch of the Christian Church from then until now. Paul came into his own again, and upon his speculations as to the meaning of the life of Jesus, and of His death, there was built the magnificent structure of the Calvinistic theology, with its austere doctrines of salvation, of divine election, of eternal punishment — doctrines which have set their stamp upon the thinking of all the early period of New England, and which still linger in many of the hymns we sing, and in many of the ideas which intelligent people to-day have uncritically inherited along with the other antiques which came over in the Mayflower.

But there is going on to-day a tremendous revulsion in the religious attitude of thinking people. We are not as ready as we once were to accept either antiques or ideas without critical examination and evaluation. We want our mental as well as our mahogany furniture to be genuine. And we don’t care to have anything put over on us in the name of tradition, either by a merchant or by a minister.

In other words, as the horizon of man’s knowledge has broadened, he has come to realize that he has been willing to accept a good deal, under the guise of sanctity, which will not stand the test of historical investigation. He throws out the sham antique which he bought in the callow ignorance of his early collecting days. And he likewise quietly discards some things which he was taught to believe in Sunday school when he was a boy. ‘There are about one hundred and fifty things,’ said a young man the other day, ‘in the Old Testament that could n’t have happened.’ He understated it.

The point is this. The basis of religious authority is again shifting. Intelligent people can no longer accept the whole Bible as it stands as having implicit religious authority. For we have learned through the study of history what the Bible is and how it came to be, and we have come to the point where each man must decide for himself in the light of his own best knowledge and experience what there is in that Book, what there is in the Church, what there is in the Christian faith, that is valid for him, in the light of conscience, in the light of his own best moral judgment, in the light of that little spark of the divine which God has lighted in his soul.

The final basis of religious authority for you is yourself, your mind working on all that has come down in the religious tradition of Christianity, and selecting and making your own those things which satisfy the requirements of your intelligence, of your moral judgment, of your spiritual hunger.

That is a big step to take if one has not thought about it. And yet, as a matter of fact, there are few people who have not unconsciously taken it long since in the practical application of their Christian faith to their workaday life and affairs. Is there anyone who accepts even the teachings of Jesus as his absolute religious authority, to such an extent that he is, to the best of his ability, applying every single injunction of the Sermon on the Mount to all his daily affairs? Yet the reader was doubtless surprised at the statement in so many words that the basis of religious authority is shifting from the Bible to the individual. Each one of us exercises his personal judgment constantly as to what portions of the teachings of Jesus are valid for him, in these days, under the conditions in which he is placed. And he exercises that right of private judgment far more in regard to other parts of the Bible than he does with regard to the Sermon on the Mount. He uses his knowledge of history and of science and of comparative religion to check up, to allow for mistakes, to discount exaggeration, to recognize the human element through which certain great divine truths have been expressed and handed down. He does, in other words, exactly what Jesus did with the history of His people as He knew it — he applies to it the test of intelligent study, and reserves the right to interpret it in the light of the best judgment God has given him. And the man who does that may speak as Jesus did, with an authority born of his own sense of religious certainty, and not as did the scribes, depending solely upon a traditional body of rules.

The modern man, therefore, who insists that he shall be free to use his private judgment in matters of religion, is coming directly back to the stand which Jesus took. ‘Ah,’one may say, ‘but this modern man is n’t qualified to judge. He is n’t the Son of God — he has n’t the qualities of mind and heart that Jesus had,’No, he has n’t. And that is why, save in the exceptional case, he is not trying to set himself up as a messiah. But he has enough of these qualities, if he will develop and use them, to serve for his own guidance in religion. No man is the Son of God in the exact way that Jesus was. But Jesus himself pointed out that every one of us is a child of God, with the divine spark in his breast. That is the very centre of Jesus’ whole gospel. And as such we are kin to Him to an extent that gives us the right, if we follow Him truly, to claim the Same privilege that He claimed, as to finding our own basis of religious authority.

Thus we have come back around the circle: the basis of authority passed from Jesus to the Church, from the Church to the Book, and now has passed from the Book back to the individual, taking his stand at the side of his Master in the earnest search for divine truth.

That is a large conception, and many will not accept it, but in that direction lies the solution of those difficulties faced by the man of to-day who sees a fundamental inconsistency between large parts of the Bible and his knowledge of the history and nature of the world, and who feels a certain incongruity between the total ideal of Christianity as preached in the churches and as practised in the ordinary affairs of so-called Christian people. The solution lies in the right of every highminded man to work out his own conception of moral and religious truth, preserving only those phases of traditional precept and practice which he can intelligently accept as valid, because they approve themselves to his own best judgment. The final basis for religious authority for each one of us lies in his own soul at its best, the spark of God within himself, whereby he recognizes truth and beauty, and comes to feel that he too, in his small way, may speak as one having authority.