We imagine that life is made up of questions seeking answers. The opposite is also true: life is often made up of answers seeking questions. More troublesome than this are pseudo answers seeking questions, for the questions created by pseudo answers are inevitably pseudo questions. This, I suggest, goes far in describing the landscape of modern Christianity. For whatever the real question might be, what we see in modern Christianity cannot be the answer. Christian Rock music (to give only one example) is not an answer to a question: it is a fashion and a fad with no more substance than a hemline and less permanence than a tattoo. There are larger pseudo questions, some that have been around long enough to seem perennial. Such a question is the problem of authority.
Authority is simple if it is considered carefully. There can only be two sources of authority: God and the self. Ever other source is something the self accepts as authority. But in the end, we only do what we want to do or what, in view of God, we have to do.
The question of authority (in its many pseudo guises) is evident in the pages of the New Testament. The opponents of Jesus ply him with questions of authority. “By whose authority do you say and do these things?” It is a pseudo question which masks the simple assertion: “We do not want you to do these things.”
Christ is quite clear in His answers: “The Authority is of God and His will is the only thing I want to do.” He offers no other answer.
And His interaction with His opponents reveals the weakness of every other assertion of authority. The scribes and Pharisees assert Scripture, but, Christ notes that they pervert Scripture. Had they wanted to know God, the Scripture would have revealed Him. But they do not want this. He has much the same to say of the Sadducees.
In the primitive Church, as evidenced in Acts and the Epistles, the question of authority is also raised from time to time. Famously, in the Church in Corinth, there are rival attempts to assert the superiority of one Apostle over another. St. Paul rebukes the notion and unmasks it as a failure of love. There is no crisis of authority – only of love.
In the early centuries of the Church there are continuing crises that raise the question of authority. St. Ignatius tells his readers (early 2nd century) to do nothing that is not approved by the Bishop. St. Irenaeus points to the right-reading of Scripture as well as the Apostolic succession within the Churches. But in all the cases that arise, authority is not the real problem. The problem is that of the self and the manifold attempts to assert the self above all else – ultimately to assert the self above the revelation of God in Christ.
This is the dark problem behind the various crises of authority in Christian history. The Reformation, in which Scripture was pitted against Hierarchy and Tradition, was a raw debate about power – for it centered on the nature of the self and the question of which God.
The Reformation Self was ultimately an autonomous reader, the locus of all activity. The Catholic Self was more collectively based, hidden in layers of feudalism and hierarchy. Authority was the word used in the debates that raged across Europe for more than two centuries. It is not surprising that the same religious debate that dismantled the Medieval world, also dismantled feudalism and created the various nation states. For the nation state was the assertion of the King’s Self (and later Parliaments that usurped the King’s place of rule).
Orthodoxy’s great crises took place in an earlier time and a different place. The stability of Byzantium tended to moderate wholesale challenges to authority. The various heretical assertions (Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, etc.) have themselves as much to do with assertions of the Self as the later battles in the West – though none of them matched the radical claims of the 16th century.
But to a very great extent, the argument of authority within the Byzantine and Orthodox world turned inward rather than outward. The great debate, championed in the deserts of Egypt, were those of the Self versus God, without the use of surrogates.
As noted earlier, the only authority that exists is that of the Self and of God. And it is the authority of God, as the Sole Author and Sustainer of our existence that matters. The authority of the Self, is itself a pseudo-authority, created only in our rebellion and the false choices (gnome) that it creates. The only true solution to the problem of authority is repentance, the emptying of the self in the presence of the true and living God.
That repentance is, ironically, modeled first by God, who emptied Himself in the presence of our non-being and rebellion (Philippians 2:5-11). The centuries have witnessed repeated distractions from that single problem of authority. The general instinct of Orthodoxy is to step back from the constant bickering over authority. The mutual submission and conciliar life of the Church has been maintained with continuity for 2000 years.
The current proliferation of disparate Christians groups represents an extended distraction from the true question of authority. The assumptions of a rational approach to authority fail completely by the measure of proper, self-emptying repentance. The authority within Orthodoxy is not a rationally accessible deposit. It is not a magisterium, sola scriptura, nor the various codified statements and confessions of the Reformation. It is not, properly, the conciliar definitions and canons of the Church. The authority within Orthodoxy is the actual life of the Church as it is lived. This is the sole content represented in Scripture, the Creeds, the Councils and the Canons. And that life, when it is properly lived, is nothing other than the self-emptying repentance of persons before the Self-Emptied Christ.
Orthodoxy is truth-embodied. And though this can be described, no description is the same thing as the truth-embodied. An argument never approaches the true question of authority – it ultimately only distracts the soul and disguises the true and appropriate questions. The dogged resistance of Orthodoxy to various ecumenical overtures are found precisely in this organic instinct for the truth. For there are no propositions that can be accepted that would, in fact, make one Orthodox. And even accepting all so-called Orthodox propositions still fall short. For it is only the self-emptying life of repentance that has any standing. Its proof is found in a deified life.
That is an answer whose eloquence leaves us as “mute as fish.”