And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).
Authority is an interesting phenomenon – though not often what people may think. I remember the first few years of my ministry – fresh from seminary. There is probably no one in the religious world who knows more than a newly-graduated seminarian. I was no exception.
The first summer in my first parish (Anglican), I recall wearing sandals to Church. After the early service one elderly member of my parish who was never reluctant to speak her mind said to me: “I think your shoes are beneath the dignity of your office!”
I replied, “Jesus wore sandals.”
“You’re not Him!” was her terse response. And with that I had one of my first lessons in authority. Just because they’ve ordained you and put you in a position of authority doesn’t mean you have any. My years with this parishioner included walking her through serious health problems and a near-death illness. Before I left that parish my experience of authority was a very different matter.
There is an authority that has an “official” capacity. On paper you have all the authority you imagine. But the real thing comes from somewhere other than the paper. I believe that the authority of the priesthood is given in ordination – but the authority of the priesthood is nothing like what a young man imagines. The authority of the priesthood comes only from the Cross and anyone who would take a share in that authority must do so only at the cost of his life.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Phil. 2:5-11).
That is the true account of authority.
This same understanding is particularly true when it comes to the authority of Scripture. There is certainly an authority that lies within the Scriptures – but such authority is not a ready weapon to everyone who would seek to wield them. The story of the sons of Sceva in the book of Acts is a precise example:
And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded (19:11-16).
The authority of Scripture is Christ Himself – and the authority of Scripture comes only through union with Christ – crucified and risen. The authority of St. Paul (at least the authority to which he pointed) is not found in his apostleship – but rather in his weakness – his union with the crucified Jesus:
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30).
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
This, it seems to me, is a particular problem for those who would exalt a method of interpretation and the “authority” of the Scriptures over the lived reality of the Apostles and those appointed to succeed them – most of whom died a martyr’s death. The authority of the Cross, of a life lived in conformity with the crucified Christ, bears an authenticity in interpreting the word of God that is simply missing in various modern systems of rational interpretation. Where are the marks of the Lord Jesus in man-made rational systems?
Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17).
By the same token the word of God in the hands of someone who lives the crucified life has an authority that cannot be taken away. It is not subject to rational argument. In the years of the early persecutions of the Church, men who had survived tortures (those known as “confessors”), were considered ordained by their suffering and served as priests without ordination (The Apostolic Traditions attributed to Hippolytus of Rome describe this, as do the writings and controversies that surrounded St. Cyprian of Carthage). Ordination is a sacrament whose authority flows from the Cross.
With this in mind, it is always with fear and trembling that any of us should take up the Scriptures to use them with authority. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Scripture used as a weapon to bully the faithful or to crush opponents. The use of “spiritual” authority that is not the authority of the Cross inevitably does harm and brings no life.
Christ spoke with an authority that was somehow different than that of the Scribes of His day. I think the essential difference was that He spoke consistently from a love that would take Him to the Cross – indeed a love that had been “slain from the foundation of the earth.” It is the true authority of God always revealed to us in the Cross of Christ. To read Scripture in any other manner is to lose its authority altogether.