Christianity: Sources of Wisdom and Authority

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In Christian theology the point of connection between humanity and divinity, and therefore the primary point from which we humans learn about divinity, is Jesus Christ. All sources of wisdom and authority should, according to traditional Christian Theology, be traceable back to Christ. 

There is of course debate not just on this point, but on how to interpret it. Traditionally through this gives us the foundation for the sources of Christian wisdom and authority that we will explore in this section.

The Bible

The Bible is the primary means by which Christians learn about Jesus Christ. The books that make up the Bible (Which comes from the Greek word for Library, or collection of books) are seen to provide the theological and historical context that the life of Jesus should be properly understood in relation to. In Christian theology Jesus Christ is God and the Bible is how we come to know him.

Development

The Bible as it exists now is the product of a process of Canonization, this is a term from literature that refers to the selection of some works, a Canon, that are considered special enough to be separated from a larger selection of works on the same topic or theme. The term incorporates ideas of making some works official, or universally recognised. The Biblical Canon, therefore is just some of the books that were selected from the many that explore a similar theological theme and belong to the same tradition. 

Icon of Emperor Constantine and the Church Fathers from the first Ecumenical Council

Controversy naturally lies in the process of which books are chosen and which left out, and how these decisions are made. But most scholars who study the history of this process, in terms of the New Testament at least, agree that this process was mainly organic. There were large scale meetings of the Church to decide which books to include, but for the most part, this meant recognising and officially agreeing upon which books were already widely being used by Christian communities.

The diversity of the works in circulation makes it hard to know what set some apart from others. These ‘books’ spanned different writers, languages, centuries, and even genres. Having said that, it would seem natural that there has never been perfect agreement over the proper Canon, and different Christian groups recognise slightly different Canons. It seems to be a safe bet, however, to see the deciding factor in the theological message of the books in question, and how far it reflected the theological underpinning of the Christian community, the Church, as interpreted by its leaders.

Structure and Purpose

The Bible is divided into Old and New testaments, made up of numerous books; which can be sorted into a few main genres. If we see these works as the foundation of a society then we can see these different styles of writing as aimed at different aspects or necessities that come with this process. What follows is a very brief overview of the main genres, it is by no means an exhaustive list and explanation. 

The Old Testament: 

The Old Testament is a relatively modern name given to the Hebrew Bible, the Canon of scripture that is central to Judaism. The main thing to note here in terms of Canon is that the primary disagreement over the Christian Canon lies with these pre-Christian texts. An Apocrypha ‘Hidden’ of 14 books that would belong in the Hebrew Bible except that they were written in Greek and so were considered ‘unclean’ by some early Rabbis. They are included by most older Christian Denominations, but excluded by most Protestant churches.

Law

The Law, or Torah, is central to the narrative arc of the Bible as it is how the relationship between Humanity and Divinity is defined throughout the Old Testament. The Jewish people are separated from the rest of humanity by the fact that they live in accordance with the Torah Law. This is the covenant which defines the community and is the basis for much of Abrahamic Theology; Abraham being the first to enter into this relationship with God. These books tell the story of how this covenant was formed and how it shaped the community. 

Histories 

The Histories in the Old Testament are the story of the people of God. The Story of their growth, suffering, enslavement, liberation, and struggle. Under famous kings like Solomon and David, as well as under repression from Egypt, Babylon, and others.

Prophets

This Genre is written from the fringes of the community, often taking issue with something that is being done wrong, and trying to show the way back into the right. These usually are written after the prophet who channels the voice of God, sometimes against his will.

John Sergeant’s Frieze of the Prophets Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea. Visit his site to see more of his work
Wisdom

Is a broad genre, and encompasses everything from what we would consider poetry to philosophy. It explores ideas and questions through metaphor, fable, and prose. Some of the most interesting books belong in this genre.

The New Testament: 

Gospels 

These are four accounts of the ministry of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. They are seen by many Biblical scholars not as straight histories, not because they don’t try to convey what happened, but because they are better defined by the theological message that they are trying to convey.

Acts (History) 

The books that focus on the Acts of the Apostles can be seen as the earliest history of the Church, the Christian community. How it spread, the challenges it faced, and the issues it encountered as it spread.

Letters / Epistles 

Epistles are the most numerous of the New Testament Genre. They are written by, or at least attributed to, early Church leaders. They are addressed to smaller communities of Christians, which is reflected in their titles, and offer guidance and teaching to the community based on the issues that that community was facing at that time. These early pieces of guidance and encouragement have been seen as authoritative by Christian communities since this time.

Revelation (Apocalyptic literature)

There is only one book in the New Testament that can be classed as Apocalyptic literature, and it is hard to classify. The evidence for this is that the genre is derived from this book. In a sense admitting that it is beyond categorisation. Apocalypse is the Greek word for Revelation, or uncovering. This is exactly what this book is aimed at doing. It is an uncomfortable and imaginative look at what is happening and will happen, animated by vivid theological imagery.

Authority – Word of God?

Christians maintain that the Bible is the Word of God. But what does that mean, especially when held alongside the claim previously stated that Jesus Christ is the Word of God?

In practical terms this question relates to the matter of Authority. When something or someone is an Authority it means that they can be trusted as a source of truth. That they have proven themselves to be a good source for truth and guidance. This complements the view that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. In this view Jesus Christ is God made flesh, the source of truth, and the Bible is authoritative in that is a universally recognised and trusted source of guidance to the truth of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus is God and the Bible is recognised by Christians as how we come to know Jesus.

Hermeneutics: Biblical Interpretation

Despite this agreement, there are different ways in which Christians argue that the Bible is authoritative.These largely focus on the question of Biblical inerrancy and can be grouped under the banner of Biblical hermeneutics, literally the science of interpretation. Christians may agree that the Bible is the inspired word of God and the one, arguably only, path to a relationship with Jesus, who is God made flesh. But this comes along with the historical fact of the Bible as a hugely diverse and at points seemingly contradictory work.

Christians disagree on how to understand the idea that the Bible is inspired. Does inspiration mean that the various Biblical authors were merely passive tools in the process of writing the Bible? If so then the Bible was properly the work of God. But if this is the case then how do we understand the points in the Biblical writing that seem to contradict either our experiences of reality or the rest of the biblical writings?

We could attribute them to human failings. In other words, the writers of the Bible, however inspired, still could and did make mistakes. This makes the human authors more active in the process. The problem for many Christians here is that it minimises the role of God, and if the work becomes more the product of humanity, then what is the sense in separating it from other human works that may contain truths about God as well?

Another point that needs to be stressed is the point about the intention of the writers. When we talk about the Bible having no mistakes do we mean that it is an accurate account of the creation of the world? If so, then how so? 

Truth and accuracy can mean different things depending on the context. Some Christians argue that the Bible can work as a scientific explanation of the origins of the world. In this way the events of the book of Genesis are an accurate historical record of the origin of life. This is a minority position, and a modern viewpoint. 

Traditional Christian theology has long maintained that the Bible is aimed at deeper truths. This can be seen as far back as the work of Origen (184-253AD). Genesis, in this way is true not because it is a factual recording of history but because the messages that it conveys through mythologised storytelling: At the origin of reality is a consciousness that cares for everything in existence; humanity is called to care for, hold stewardship over, the environment around it; and humanity has been historically bad at fulfilling this role.

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Worship and the Bible

Despite these challenges and questions, the Bible is the undisputed core of Christian theology. This is seen most obviously seen in its role as the source of the liturgy and its use in acts of worship. 

Liturgy varies between different groups, but it is universally true that entire ceremonies, rituals, and prayers are either directly inspired or lifted verbatim from the Biblical text. Most famously the Eucharist and the Lord’s Prayer. This is also true of the many worship songs and hymns which are often inspired or taken from the biblical text as well.

A central part of worship also involves reading passages from the Bible; traditionally one form the Old Testament and one from the New. This is usually followed by a sermon, where leaders in the Christian community will draw lessons that make it relevant for the lives of the congregation.

Outside of its use in liturgical worship, the Bible takes on personal significance as Christians use it for answers in personal and ethical decision making. This has been a possibility that was championed by the main actors in the Protestant Reformation who worked to translate the Biblical text into vernacular languages, so that anybody can read it in their own language and use its wisdom and teachings for help in their own lives.

The Church

In the same way that the Christian scriptures are traced back to Jesus Christ, so it is with the Church. In fact the two are traditionally held in a symbiotic relationship of sorts. Its foundation is often seen as the famous proclamation that Jesus made towards Peter 

‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ (Matthew 16:18 ESV)

The community that developed around Christ gave us the writers who composed the works of the New Testament. The leadership of the Church is also tasked with interpreting the foundational text. 

What is a Church?

That the Church is said to belong to Jesus Christ should come a no surprise, but this idea is taken seriously; a key metaphor used for understanding and talking about the Church is that it is the ‘Body of Christ’. It being an emanation and extension of Christ’s physical presence in the world.

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In this way Christians see themselves as extensions of Christ in the world, members of the body, contributing their various gifts to spread the Good News of Christs teaching, life, death, and resurrection. This is seen to be a key role for the Church to fulfill.

Relating things back to the time of Jesus Christ also answers the issue of legitimacy amongst church leadership. The Disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, people who knew him personally, were the first wave of Christians who went out into the world and began to set up Churches. Whenever the legitimacy of a certain Church or leader was called into question the issue was typically resolved by the principle of Apostolic Succession.

Apostolic Succession basically means that the Church leadership in a particular community can guarantee their own legitimacy by tracing the history of their church and its leadership to a particular Apostle who was sent out by Jesus himself. The most famous example of this is the church of Rome, which traces its history, and its leadership back to St. Peter; the first Pope.

However, this argument is not seen as convincing to a large group of Christians. Mainly because of the huge amount of time that has passed since the time of Jesus, which makes it harder to ensure that the proper message is still getting across. Perhaps the most significant crisis of legitimacy in Christian history, the Protestant Reformation, gave rise to a new method for guaranteeing for the legitimacy of Church leadership.

It is important to note that the concern here is the same; Christians were and are highly concerned that the word of God in Jesus is being properly communicated without being twisted to serve the aims of particular people throughout history. During the Protestant Reformation. Many groups of Christians in Northern and Western Europe felt that the Apostolic succession that had fed the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church needed to be replaced with something more grounded. In its place five principles emerged, known as the Five Solas.

The most important for this conversation is Sola Scriptura, or ‘By Scripture Alone’. This meant that the Bible came to be seen as the only true source of legitimacy for Christian teaching, and it came before the Church. The Bible was translated by Protestant leaders out of Latin and into the languages that most people spoke and read in. This essentially meant that every Christian could challenge and check the legitimacy of their Church leaders, ignoring appeals to Apostolic Succession. This was a fundamental challenge to the Roman Catholic Church; the change, however, can easily be overstated. Reformers like Martin Luther still pointed to the Church as having a key role in interpreting Scripture. And Churches that hold onto the ideal of Apostolic succession do encourage the Bible to be read by their congregants. The difference, in other words, comes from what they interpret ‘the Church’ to be.

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Growth and Division

As should be obvious, the issue of legitimacy among the leadership has been a constant throughout the Church’s long history. As a result, the history of Christianity as told through Church Growth and Division is a complicated one. Not something that it would be possible to cover here apart from in broad strokes. As previously noted, Christianity spread from modern day Palestine across the Middle East, into Africa, Asia and Europe initially through contact between highly educated but economically depressed groups; usually Jewish. Economically active slaves and women were foundational to the early church.

Ancient Schisms 

Christians went from a persecuted group to a privileged group in the Roman Empire. Ecunenical (Latin for universal) Councils were called in order to try to foster unity in the growing and disparate community. Most of the great schisms happen officially at these councils, and usually they were over the combined issues of leadership and doctrine. The word Catholic means universal, and the Roman Catholic Church traces its leadership back to St Peter, who is proclaimed the first Bishop of Rome and the founder of the Christian Church. The other ancient churches are therefore breakaways from this Roman Catholic Church:

  • The Schism at the Council of Ephesus in 431 saw the Eastern Church, which oversaw believers in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, break from Rome. 
  • The Council of Chalcedon in 451 saw the birth of what is now called Oriental Orthodox Churches, which includes ancient churches that spread from Ethiopia to India.
  • The last of these ancient Schisms, called The Great Schism or The East-West Schism saw the Eastern Orthodox Church, which currently is the dominant form of Christianity in Russia, split from Rome.

It is a continued point of contention as to how far the politics of the day shaped the theological positions that rose to dominance in different Christian groups. As said above, theological differences were certainly debated and are continued sources of disagreements. But it is also certainly the case that different opinions about Church leadership; especially how dominant the voice of the Pope in Rome should be, played a central role in the disagreements. After all, who gets to decide which theological position is correct? Another factor that played a role was undoubtedly the different relationships that different Christian communities had with the various empires and geo-political powers. Why should Indian Christians answer to a Papacy that was so closely tied to the Roman Empire?

Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

As stated in the previous section, discussing what a Church is, the legitimacy of these ancient Churches is often drawn from Apostolic Succession. The importance of Apostolic succession is that the Church’s legitimacy as an interpreter is that it was set up by people (The Apostles) who know how to interpret the Bible because they wrote it and personally knew Jesus. This changed with the Protestant Reformation, where new Churches arose that were built on various understandings of the ideal Christian community drawn from different interpretations of scripture.

Leaders of the movement: most famously Martin Luther, Huldrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Richard Hooker working in different places and in different languages, inspired followers who broke away into different Churches, or denominations. These movements were backed by kings and princes who wanted to have more control over their lands, without the oversight or influence of the Papacy and the other great families of Europe. Most famous here being Henry VIII of England. Also fundamental was the new technology of the Gutenberg Press in the 1400s, which allowed for the rapid production of books that helped the spread of new ideas and arguments.

By the mid 1600s Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism and Anabaptism had all arisen as separate denominations, each following their own interpretation of the Bible and having the support of different power based in Europe. These denominations continued to grow and splinter over the course of what have been called ‘Great Awakenings’. The result was that Roman Catholicism has historically been more closely tied to Southern Europe, and has thus been spread through the world alongside the missionaries of Spain and Portugal. The Protestant Churches are more closely tied with Northern Europe, and has been primarily spread through the missionaries of Britain, the Netherlands and other countries.

Ecumenical Movements

There is obvious theological disagreement at the core of these different church denominations, these disagreements have often been used as excuses for open conflict between different groups. However, especially in more recent years, Ecumenical Movements, that is attempts to bring these different denominations closer together, have become more common. The most famous of these is perhaps the World Council of Churches which was established in 1948.

Leadership

There are some universals when it comes to how leadership is understood in Christian communities. The leaders of the Church are supposed to offer guidance and answer questions in an attempt to help their followers to better live their lives like Jesus Christ did. Pastoral Care, attending to the needs of the people in the community, is a fundamental part of leadership in all Christian traditions. This often extends to the wider community; charity, education, and healthcare are common contributions that Christian communities make to the wider society that they find themselves in.

However, having said this, different Church denominations are organised differently in their leadership. These different methods for organising the hierarchy reflects a different understanding of what a Church leader is. 

A key theological shift within many Protestant Churches is the understanding of Sacraments. As previously explored these are key milestones in the life of a Christian. For some of the older Churches they enact a change on the individual, making it possible for them to enter into a relationship with God, and therefore possible to enter heaven. One of the key functions of the Church and its leadership is therefore holding the ability to perform these Sacraments. This is where we find a difference in how the Church leadership is understood. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, it is only the Priesthood, the leadership, that can perform these rites. This means that upon becoming a Priest, there is an ontological change making them in some way different from other people. 

The various Protestant churches have varying understandings of the significance of these Sacraments. Connected to this are various understandings of Church leadership. This often meant reducing the distance between the Priesthood and the average believer. Martin Luther introduced the concept of the ‘Priesthood of All Believers’, which stands in direct opposition to the idea that Priests are somehow above or separate from the rest of the Christian community. In this understanding, anybody is seen as able to perform the sacraments, to lead worship, and to attend to the needs of others in the community. These theological differences spill over into one of the major debates that is ongoing in the global Christian Church.

Angela Berners-Wilson was one of the first group of 32 women Priests to be ordained into the Church of England in March 1994

Women in Leadership

Since the earliest Christian communities Women have played an essential role in Church leadership. However, it has traditionally been argued that they are unfit to serve in a leadership role. This argument has usually been based on the idea that Women have different skills that are more suited to a supportive role in the community, or pastoral care that does not require them to be made Priests. Others have argued that the Priesthood should seek to emulate Jesus Christ, who was a man, therefore being is woman is in disqualifying for the position.

These arguments persist across the Christian world. The Roman Catholic Church and most Orthodox Churches still do not allow Women to be ordained into the Priesthood. However, the same is not true for most mainline Protestant Churches. Who point not just to how much Christian communities have relied on Women in leadership positions in the past, but also point out that there is nothing that makes women unsuited for the position.

The movement to allow Women to play a greater role in Church leadership is something that continues to slowly grow.

What Would Jesus Do?

Central to this section has been the idea that Jesus, as the Word of God, is held up by Christians as a model for practices such as love for others, forgiveness, servanthood, reconciliation and social justice, all of which are essential to establishing the Kingdom of God. Jesus is seen as humanity perfected by divinity, and image for what we could be.

Sometimes issues facing Christians are too big, or too small, for the traditional Sources of Wisdom and Authority to be useful. In these situations it is common to turn directly to Jesus with a question that for many cuts to the core of any issue: What Would Jesus Do?

This approach puts the individual at the forefront of their relationship with the divine. It also reminds them that the ultimate responsibility for their actions lies with them. As a result, the ability to engage all the faculties; reason, experience, conscience, when trying to solve moral dilemmas, is a fundamental skill for a person. The development of character, of becoming the best version of humanity, is the aim for a Christian, so that this becomes easier. 

The development of a good character, of allowing God into our lives, not to replace but to improve our humanity, so that we can become a point in the world that shares that light with others.

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