Christianity Sources of Authority and Right Doctrines

Both Christianity and Islam teach obedience to God's authority and man's properly constituted and delegated authority. From the former spring what the theologians will construe and articulate as right doctrines in all their glorious diversity; from the latter spring what the statesmen and politicians will establish as right order. The fundamental paradigm in both Islam and Christianity is that man's authority should flow from God's authority.23 (Practice does not always follow theory!)

In Christianity, obedience to God is primal. As the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1905-88) showed, the whole of history may be interpreted in terms of fidelity and infidelity to the Deity.24 Sin is specifically a stark 'No', to the covenanting God of the Old Testament. Adam's disobedience in the face of God's sublime authority sought to refashion his relationship with God without the latter's authority and 'outside the grace and the space given him by God'.25 That primal negative of Adam is a direct challenge to an 'as yet unveiled, unalienated face of the God of grace'.26 By his disobedience, Adam engineers the incomprehension about, and alienation from, God of himself and subsequent generations.27 Lack of respect for God's Order and Authority results in the terrestrial disorders consequent upon the Original Sin.

Etymologically, the English word 'authority' implies 'growth'.28 But that growth within the Christian framework of the development and exercise of authority was neither easy nor straightforward. Its ideal exercise is pro bono populorum,29 or what the Islamic jurists would term maslaha (common good, public interest or weal).30 However, the dispute over authority in Christianity was one of the earliest to vex the nascent religion.31 In this, too, there are marked parallels with early Islamic history and the quarrels over leadership and governance between Sunnls and those who became characterised as Shl'ites.32 Major cracks appeared in the body politic of Christianity; some may be characterised as epistemic breaks in the sense beloved by Michel Foucault,33 for they were profound, wide-ranging in consequence and long-lasting in effect:

By 800, popes had been telling people for centuries that they were the successors of St Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and, as such, were the supreme arbiters of God's will on earth ... Where Charlemagne's view of the descent of religious authority went God-Charlemagne-pope, the papacy's went God-pope-Charlemagne.34

The year ad 1054 saw a major break between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The causes were complex and diverse but included, inter alia, the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and, perhaps even more significantly, the refusal by the East 'to recognize the universal authority and jurisdiction of the pope'.35 It was politics and, in particular, the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade36 that cemented the divide between ex patre et filio and ex patre per filium.37 Politics and doctrine supped from a similar cup of discontent and produced, from the separate authoritarian stances taken by the East and the West, scandal and disorder rather than right order and agreed doctrine.

Later in the Middle Ages, moreover, popes such as Gregory VII (1073-85) and Innocent III (1198-1216) developed further the papal view of who exercised divine authority on earth, inventing the concept of secular authority as a means of emasculating kings and emperors of the religious powers which their predecessors, after late-Roman models, had all claimed.38

Leaving aside the various major and minor heresies which had afflicted the early Christian Church, it is 1054, rather than the European Protestant Reformation39 several hundred years later, which constitutes the definitive, classical or archetypical fracture in Christian unity and authority. It is this which, in its age, called into question, with the mutual anathemas and excommunications,40 the ancient concepts and definitions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy for that Church. And if 1054 was the defining event for that fracture, then 1204 was the validating fact: 'The occupation of the Byzantine empire by colonists was a direct consequence of the crusading movement, but there was nothing religious about it'.41

The great doyen of Crusader historians, Sir Steven Runciman, characterised the Fourth Crusade as 'The Crusade against Christians',42 and made this the title of an entire book's chapter within a section designated 'Misguided Crusades'. On the significance of this crusade, he wrote eloquently; modern Crusader historians consider Runciman to be somewhat dated in the light of the huge quantity of original new research which has been produced on the Crusades over the last few decades, but his narrative is worthy of quotation here for its very eloquence and style which nobly emphasise the importance of this fracture in Christendom:

The sack of Constantinople is unparalleled in history. For nine centuries the great city had been the capital of Christian civilisation ...43 There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade .. .44 In the wide sweep of world history the effects were wholly disastrous . Meanwhile hatred had been sown between eastern and western Christendom. The bland hopes of Pope Innocent [III reg. 1198-1216] and the complacent boasts of the Crusaders that they had ended the schism and united the Church were never fulfilled. Instead their barbarity left a memory that would never be forgiven them. Later, east Christian potentates might advocate union with Rome in the fond expectation that union would bring a united front against the Turks. But their people would not follow them. They could not forget the Fourth Crusade. It was perhaps inevitable that the Church of Rome and the great eastern Churches should drift apart; but the whole Crusading movement had embittered their relations, and henceforward, whatever a few princes might try to achieve, in the hearts of the east Christians the schism was complete, irremediable and final.45

The divisions were reflected in the exercise of authority, with an authoritarian and centralised West confronting a more collegial East. And, in the West, matters crystallised at the Reformation, with the disputes over authority assuming 'strictly doctrinal significance'.46 While the Protestant reformers agreed that human authority was necessary for good ecclesial order and mission, it was not directly derived from Jesus Christ in the manner taught by the Roman Catholic Church, nor did it have the same possible consequence of infallible dogmatic proclamation.47

The Orthodox Churches preserved a kind of via media between these two poles, accepting the magisterium of the episcopate and inerrancy but tying this kind of authority to the synaisthesis or '"general consciousness" of the church', placing a particular emphasis on conciliar infallibility, discerned in a post facto fashion.48 On the one hand, then, the Reformation churches generally reject the idea of an ecclesial magis-terium in the name of the principle that scripture is its own interpreter and always produces anew its own correct interpretation. Doctrinal authority in the church is simply human and is judged by its fidelity to 'the sovereign authority of the holy scriptures'.49

By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christ bestowed on the leaders of His Church 'the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals'.50

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) put it thus in their Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, known as Lumen Gentium:

The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith (cf. Luke 22:32) - he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.51

It is, of course, a truism that the ability to enforce - spiritually, morally or even physically - a particular item of what was perceived to be 'right doctrine' was - and is - dependent upon the acceptance (or otherwise) of the legitimacy of a particular authority. Thus a diverse interpretation of the bounds of authority, and those who exercise it, unsurprisingly and logically bespeaks the possibility of a variegated development and interpretation of those traditional sources, guardians and accepted guarantors of Christian 'right doctrines' in a given age, scripture and tradition. Their manifestly diverse fruits and exegeses were and are the product of those fractured magisteria of which we have just spoken.52

J. N. D. Kelly confirms that by ad 450 the Bishop of Rome had achieved a position of Western episcopal dominance which had been precisely and formulai-cally articulated. History had helped in the process, as had the fame and antiquity of Rome itself.53 One thinks, for example, of the role of Pope Leo I 'the Great' (reg. 440-61) in negotiating the release of captives held by Attila the Hun.54 It was easy to see how a popular respect or admiration could clothe the papacy with a divine authority or aura. And, as Kelly points out, 'the student tracing the history of the times, particularly of the Arian, Donatist, Pelagian and Christological controversies, cannot fail to be impressed by the skill and persistence with which the Holy See was continually advancing and consolidating its claims'.55

The case of Arius and Arianism is particularly instructive in terms both of what was perceived to be 'right doctrine' and the exercise of authority: it is to this that we will turn in a short while. Two points, however, deserve to be surveyed here. The first is that the claim of primacy for the Apostle Peter and his successors has been subject to frequent challenge by those outside the Roman Catholic Church. A single, albeit antiquated, quotation will illustrate this neatly. A certain Dean of Canterbury, Dr Frederic W. Farrar DD FRS, wrote as follows in 1897:

That St Peter was a leading Apostle - in some respects the leading Apostle - none will dispute; but that he never exercised the supremacy which is assigned to him by Roman Catholic writers is demonstrable even from the New Testament ... Peter had ... primacy of order, but not a supremacy of power. Such a supremacy our Lord emphatically discountenanced ... He was eminent among the Apostles; - supreme he never was.56

The historical and doctrinal consequences of such a view for the development of the Papacy and papal authority are obvious.

The real problem behind all this for those who adhered to the various forms of Christianity can be articulated very simply: did, or could, a 'fractured' authority lead to a 'fractured' (i.e. 'denied') salvation if the 'wrong' authority were chosen and the 'wrong' path were followed? And what, or who, ultimately, decided about the 'rightness' and the 'wrongness' of the path? How did the would-be believer identify what the Muslim would term al-sirat al-mustaqim (the straight path)?57 An error over a temporal, temporary ecclesiological authority could lead to a permanent loss of infinite, eternal salvation. As Montgomery Watt put it, talking of the bitter, early disputes in Islam between the Khawarij and the Shl'ites:

The Kharijites, not convinced of the infallibility of the [Shl'ite] leader, saw rather that he might make a mistake and thereby lead the whole community into a course of action which would cause them to forfeit their status as people of Paradise.58

In the Latin Roman Catholic Church, authority derived from, and depends upon, the following paradigm: salvation is pursued by an institutional Church which claims Jesus Christ as its direct founder and which is led by a human, papal 'successor' (one might compare here the Islamic khalifa) possessed by the dual charisms of (1) a silsila (chain) of succession going back to the Apostle Peter himself and (2) infallibility:

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam (Matthew 16:18 'Thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my church').59

In terms of pure soteriology, the paradigm at first espoused the exclusivist doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus ('No salvation outside the church'), an axiom often attributed to the Council of Florence (1439) but predating that Council by more than 1,000 years.60 The axiom was clearly a part of the Christian mediaeval tradition: it was mentioned, for example, at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and in the Bull Unam Sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (reg. 1294-1303) of 1302.61 Later, in more modern times, that axiom would be revised, revoked or, at least, reinterpreted, depending on one's stance.62

The paradigm, then, discloses a situation in which salvation depends on a Church, an institutional, divinely founded custodian of what are considered to be 'right doctrines', led by a Leader, an individual custodian of those doctrines who claims God-given authority. The logic of all this dictates that a 'flawed' or potentially 'flawed' leader, or one whose authority is questioned or whose credibility is undermined in any way, may be a positive danger and thereby preside over a 'denied' salvation. Instances of this range from the vicissitudes of the Avignon papacy63 to the accusations levelled, in modern times against Pope Pius XII (1939-58) that he did little to help or protect the Jews from persecution, deportation or death during the Second World War.64

What is perceived as an unduly severe exercise of authority could also attract equal opprobrium from the Church's critics. Good examples from recent times in the Catholic Church include the prohibition on the ordination of women to the priest-hood65 and the wording of the Vatican document Dominus Jesus66 (which described 'the followers of other religions' as being objectively 'in a gravely deficient situa-tion'.67 These factors contributed to an enfeeblement of personal papal authority in the twilight years of the Polish Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), a pontiff already enfeebled by the debilitations of Parkinson's disease in old age, as well as other ills whose origin went back to a failed assassination attempt in 1981.68 Cornwall put it thus:

Countless millions of Catholics are walking away from a Church that has lost touch with ordinary Catholics, their problems and spiritual aspirations . the ultraconservative articulation of Catholicism's claims of exclusive truth, the papal demonisation of the West and the oppression of Catholic advocates of religious pluralism all signal an ominous rejection of history's leading proven experiment in the coexistence of religions under democratic auspices. That rejection encourages fundamentalism within Catholicism and within non-Christian faiths.69

In Cornwall's view, there is a true crisis of authority here. But the issue is broader than just the confines of an institutional and institutionalised Church. He points to the violence bred from Islamic fundamentalism and warns of parallel problems and dangers resulting from Christian and Judaic fundamentalism.70 For him, the conclusions are logical and stark: a breakdown of authority may provide a vacuum for such fundamentalism and its confrères, extremism and violence.

Our second brief point, before we turn to Arius and Arianism, is the following: reading the above, the casual observer may be led to suppose that the differing concepts of authority, and thus differing interpretations of doctrine flowing from those authorities, are irreconcilable. Yet a genuine eirenicism has emerged, and some progress has been made by ecumenical theologians: in recent times, 'the dialogue which has advanced furthest towards agreement on the problem of authority is certainly the ARCIC [Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission]'.71 Related topics such as the Petrine verses in scripture and papal infallibility have also been studied; and, though no absolute convergence has been reached, a clarification of attitudes to the exercise of authority has been achieved.72 Language clearly has a role to play: thus, while in the past the papal claim to universal primacy by divine law or right was not considered to be acceptable to the Anglican Communion, it is now possible to affirm such primacy as part of the divine plan 'in terms which are compatible with both our traditions'.73

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