Chapter 1: By What Authority?

Know Your Faith
by Nels F. S. Ferré

Chapter 1: By What Authority?

Some moments of life are peculiarly luminous. Suddenly some truth strikes us with irresistible vividness and compelling conviction. What was vague becomes focused. What is secondary falls into place. Life itself takes on new meaning and our work, a more urgent purpose.

The New England Inter-Seminary Conference, dealing with "Authority in the Christian Faith," was such a luminous occasion for me.

The situation itself was simple. Several speakers had been asked to develop different views on the subject. It fell to my lot to summarize the results, to suggest a final focus, and generally to draw together the truths in the various views into "the extreme center," into "the harmony in contrariety," which is no compromise, but consummation.

Because this Conference helped me in trying to help the students, I am going to use it as a framework in the discussion of this topic. A concrete occasion often best illumines a general truth.

What does constitute authority in the Christian faith?

Our age in particular needs a straight answer to the problem of authority. If we meet this demand we shall also have done something essential to provide an answer to that other basic need of our age: motivation. We say that we know what is right, but do not do it. However, this is not the whole story. If there were more certainty as to what has the final authority to command our lives, would there not be a far smaller gap between knowledge of the right and the incentive to do it? Uncertainty and confusion drain the emotional springs for action. Clarity of faith increases the command of faith.

For decades the World Council of Churches, especially the Faith and Order Commission, has been studying the nature of authority in the Christian faith. Since its beginning, it has asked the various denominations to examine their own history to find at what point their particular strands of confession became unraveled from the total rope of Christian faith. Whenever a denomination made such examination, the general result of its findings was the insistence that its confession was the original rope!

Recognizing scant hope in this approach, the Faith and Order Commission meeting in Lund, in 1952, decided to appoint a new commission, "Christ and His Church in the Light of the Holy Spirit." Its task would be, not first of all to look back to find the original rope, but, rather, in the light and power of the Holy Spirit to gather both past and present into a creative Christian future in order to twist together again the various strands into a firmly spliced rope. Those of us who have worked on this Commission have come to see, beyond every denial, how central the problem of authority is for Christian people today. It was obvious, therefore, that the New England Inter-Seminary Movement had undertaken no small task in discussing this topic in one conference.

What the program committee decided to do was to have one speaker be the advocate for Christian experience as determinative for faith; another as advocate for the Bible; two more to discuss the Church as final authority. My own task, after these presentations, was to discuss all these standards and to evaluate them. All the candidates for authority were represented by distinguished scholars and church leaders who believed their respective approaches to be basic. In following the sequence of the Conference as a framework for our chapter, let us footlight the stage with a few observations.

In the final analysis, of course, God alone is authority. God is the final source of creation, the final power in control of all happenings, the final agent of man’s redemption, and the final determiner of destinies. The Koran (Ch. IV) states that "God is a sufficient witness unto himself." Barth thunders that nothing in history can take the place of God, that ultimately God is his own message and method. Tillich insists that since God cannot be known directly, all symbols that point to God must be "broken." This means that no creature can ever know as God knows; therefore, all knowledge of God is mixed with human imperfection.

Although God is infinite, the historic channels for his self-revelation and the human interpretation of this self-disclosure are both finite. For this reason, it is not enough for us to say: "God is his own authority. Let God be God." It is not enough for us to say: "The Christian faith is its own authority." The question is, rather, how can we recognize the human and historical channels of God’s authority? Granted that God alone is the authority of the Christian faith, how can we choose among conflicting claims to historic authority?

Before we proceed to discuss candidates for authority in the Christian faith, it is well to keep two facts in mind. The first is that Christian authority is not domineering. Jesus himself said that the kind of authority the Gentiles sought after, the disciples should shun. God never violates our freedom. He never makes us do his will. Bernard of Clairvaux, in writing to the Pope, stressed that "love has no lord." If God is Love, his representative on earth can never "lord it over" anyone. Therefore Eric Fromm’s accusation that Christianity represents an authoritarian character structure is false. The Christian faith is authoritative, but never authoritarian. Jesus calls his disciples not servants, but friends. Christian authority frees the person for fulfillment in fellowship. St. Augustine long ago defined the nature of Christian authority in saying that the service of God is perfect freedom.

The second fact to keep in mind about Christian authority is that it can never become so much a matter of sight that it no longer remains the occasion for faith. We are bid to live not by sight, but by faith. If the authority which commands us can become so clear and definite that faith is no longer required, that authority is no longer Christian. Authority in the Christian faith must speak to the inner man in such a way that the more solution is offered the more faith is demanded. Only he who is justified by faith shall live, writes St. Paul in Romans, but we often forget that justification is not only of life but of knowledge as well. In discussing experience, the Bible, and the church as candidates for authority in the Christian faith we know at the outset that Christian experience cannot be communicated except by being shared, that the law of the Bible is not of the letter but of the Spirit, and that the church cannot be an institution that compels, but a community that frees.


The first candidate is experience. Let it present its credentials! The immediate claim of this aspirant is that no one can get outside or beyond his own experience. What is not real for us in experience is accordingly not real. The final judge, therefore, is experience. Besides, every clinching of conviction is within ourselves. The click of conviction is unexceptionally a matter of personal experience. How else can the Christian faith be real to us except as we know it, feel it, or do it? But knowing, feeling, and doing are all matters of experience. Even faith is a response, a commitment, or a trusting, all of which are kinds of experience. Thus we can never get outside our experience, in the first place; and, in the second, whatever convinces us must gain the assent of our experience.

If, moreover, we try to go beyond our own experience, we ascertain what others believe the authority of the Christian faith to be. As John Dewey used to say, we affirm what we believe can be confirmed. But such appeal beyond our own experience is recourse to the experience of others. What they have experienced as real they communicate to us, and thereby is opened to us a larger experience. As far as we can, of course, we ought to seek authority as widely as possible. In theory, at least, or in intention, we ought to collect man’s total experience both in the past and in the present. The systematic interpretation of this total experience -- what the speaker on this subject called "comprehensive coherence"-- should then become the best standard for the authority of the Christian faith. One of the other speakers at the New England Inter-Seminary Conference appealed also to Jesus’ frequent employment of experience as witness to his message. Faith for Jesus, for that matter, seemed to be a matter of trusting the power of God in one’s own experience.

Experience as a candidate for authority in the Christian faith makes a strong case for itself. No interpretation that leaves out experience can be wholly valid. All the reasons introduced for the importance of experience are authentic and inescapable. Nevertheless, experience is not the main or primary channel in human history for authority in the Christian faith. The main grounds for rejecting it as the chief channel are two:

First, experience cannot be the criterion for authority in the Christian faith since experience is itself under judgment. It is our experience that needs authority. It is our experience that needs judgment. It is our experience that needs to be changed. We who have the experience are in need of salvation. How then can the experience we have be the authority for our faith?

But suppose that we do not speak of experience in general, but of Christian experience. What then?

Secondly, then, it is no longer our experience as such, but our Christian experience which becomes our authority. Our Christian experience is of Christ. Therefore, it is not our experience of Christ, but our experience of Christ that counts. Authority then does not lie in experience, but comes through experience. Experience is the channel, of course, no matter what the content. Religion has to become personal in order to be real. There has to be experience of Christ for genuine convictions to conquer our lives. But Christian authority is not in experience but for experience; it is not of experience but through experience.


The Bible as a candidate for authority in the Christian faith is also strong and should be listened to with respect. In the first place, Christianity is a historic religion, and the Bible is the only record it has of its historic foundation. What other authority can there be for a historic religion than its original title deed? In the second place, the Bible is the most open, public, and objective standard possible. It is written once for all. Besides, the Bible does not vary from age to age as do the nature of personal experience and the interpretations of the Church. In the third place, the Bible is the authority that all Protestant denominations accept. Why not utilize the fact of this practical source of unity? In the fourth place, the Bible has proved itself capable of inspiring endless creative variety. To accept the Bible as the authority of the Christian faith, therefore, is not to accept merely some static dogma that lays the dead hand of the past on the fresh life of the present.

Nevertheless, in spite of the place and power of the Bible in Christian authority, we must reject this candidate, too, as the main channel of authority of the Christian faith. We do so for the following reasons:

The Bible is not meant to be a textbook for Christian theology, but a source book for living faith. Barth is right in teaching that the Bible becomes the Word of God only for faith. The Bible itself maintains that the letter kills while the spirit gives life. If the Bible were a textbook we could now live by sight; since it is a source book we must keep living by faith.

Even before we started examining our candidates we pointed out that any authority that makes for sight instead of faith is wrong by the very nature of the Christian kind of authority. The Bible plays a leading role necessarily in the authority of the Christian faith. When it is used as a source book, it becomes the means of the Spirit that gives life, but when it is used as a textbook, it can become the letter that kills.

Jesus asked: How can you understand my words when you do not hear my Word? Only when Christ as the living Word of God’s love is accepted, can the words of the Bible find their proper context.

Furthermore, there is, in fact, no developed doctrinal unity in the Bible. The Bible is the record of God’s great deeds in raising up a people unto himself. It is the story of a people who were called by God and the response they made to God -- good, bad, and indifferent. It is the recitation of the lives and teachings of great prophets; and, in the fullness of time, of the Son of Man. But there is no one doctrinally developed system in the Bible. If we ask about man, even a specific question concerning man, such as what precisely is the image of God in man, the Bible has many answers. If we ask about the very heart of orthodoxy, the doctrine of the Trinity, there is no doctrine of it in the Bible. If we seek to find one interpretation of Christ, doctrinally developed and clear, we shall be profoundly disappointed. Theologians read back their own versions and distort or disregard the other material, but honest competence will know that while the Bible is universally accepted within the Christian churches, the churches do not in fact interpret the Bible in the same way.

Therefore, whenever the Bible has been made the final authority in the literal sense, or in the sense of the open, public appeal to it as objective authority, there has arisen in the church division upon division. Human nature is such that when a strong leader becomes convinced of the supreme importance of one teaching or of one strand, he makes that one the most important; and since such definiteness and such focus as act to differentiate certain believers from others are very dear to human nature, one new sect after another is founded. Thus the Bible in becoming the basis for endless creative variety also becomes the occasion for endless conflicting difference. The Bible therefore needs within it a pattern and a spirit of unity that goes beyond its objective use in merely being available to be read and interpreted.

Thus the function of the Bible is to be a mirror both for the individual Christian and for the people of God. In it we see our ordinary world in the light of a new world. We see our common words and deeds in the light of the living Word. We see ourselves, at the same time, both as we are and as we ought to be. The reason for this double vision is the presence of God in Christ showing up life in general. Christ is the love of God come to full fruition in man. He is, as the New Testament calls him, "mature manhood." Therefore it is not any specific documentation in the Bible that is authoritative, nor even the Bible in general, but rather human experience and human history interpreted in the light of Christ. Therefore, it is still Christ who constitutes the authority of the Bible. Is it anything less than the full picture of the universal love of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ that is the authority of the Bible? The Bible is itself under the authority of the pattern of God who is the personal Spirit who is holy Love. The Scriptures tell of him as they point forward and backward to their own fulfillment in the Incarnate Word.

Even so, it is not the biblical Christ of the past that is the standard, but the living Christ who bids us look less back to Jesus than up to God. Christ is the pattern and the power of God’s love drawing all men unto himself only when he is lifted up. The historic figure of Christ "after the flesh" is fulfilled by the "Lord who is the Spirit." The Christ of love who once came in the fullness of time is now the Living Lord who comes fulfillingly to each and all as we press forward into the endless future.

We never catch up with the Christ. While he walks with us as God’s presence in our lives, he also walks before us as the eternal resource of God for our lives. The authority of the Christian faith is Christ before and beyond our experience through the Book that testifies to him. The Book is a powerful means giving us the picture of the Christ. The Bible provides the pattern of God’s love. The picture, however, needs the power of Christ’s presence. The pattern needs the reality of the Person.

Thus again we have as authority not the Christ of the Bible nor in the Bible, but the Christ who has come to us through the Bible and still can come to us through the Bible. Christ is God’s love enmanned. He is God as Love become flesh. He is a human being fulfilled by the presence and power of God.


The third candidate for authority in the Christian faith is the church. At our Inter-Seminary Conference two outstanding churchmen, Roman Catholic and Episcopal respectively, espoused the cause of the Church as the main channel of authority of the Christian faith. The Catholic position is that an authoritative revelation of Christ requires an authoritative organ of interpretation and application. The final heresy then becomes the refusal to submit to the official voice of the church in matters of faith and morals. The Catholic representative, in his great outgoing spirit, spent most of his time showing that the Roman church does respect and guard the individual conscience. Protestants should therefore be careful not to caricature the official position of the church with regard to authority.

The Anglican scholar gave large credit both to experience and to the Bible, but stressed that in actual churchmanship, decisions become, in the last analysis, either a matter of thin individualism or of listening to the long wisdom of the mature church and of co-operating with the total community in its faithfulness to the inner heart of the Gospel. The church therefore represents the corporate judgment of the believers, not infallibly, but authoritatively.

For the church as authority it should be said that the church at the heart of its being is the embodiment of the eternal purpose of God in human history. God created the world so that we might learn to become mature members of the kind of community that Christ offers us, the open, creative, inclusive community of love.

The church is the building for which the Bible offers the blueprint. The Bible exists for the sake of the building -- which is Christian community. Therefore, although in one sense the blueprint is the authority for the kind of building to be constructed, in another sense, the actual needs of the building in its concrete situation must govern the decisions in the erection of it. The Bible gives general directions; the church needs specific instructions as to the application of these directions. Authority is needed for the specific decisions.

Perhaps the best way of stating this truth of need for concrete authority is that the church is the actual locus of corporate decisions. The church faces necessarily inescapable choices as to faith, morals, and strategy. Can the Bible make the choice? Who then has the right to make the decisions: the individuals as such; local groups; or the church, which represents the corporate experience both of interpreting and of applying the biblical directions?

The church is also the agent of the Holy Spirit. The church was born when the Spirit came on Pentecost. In a peculiar way the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the church. The Holy Spirit is that reality in God that is the eternal prototype of perfect community. Therefore the church by its very nature and total function is best able to heed and to carry into effect the biddings of the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, the reasons that we cannot make the church the main authority of the Christian faith in spite of its obvious, irreducible importance are as follows:

The actual church as corporate judgment has made mistakes. The mistakes of the Greek and the Roman churches resulted in their splitting apart. The mistakes of the Roman church resulted in the birth of the Reformation. The mistakes of the Anglican church gave rise to the Methodist denomination.

The ground for these mistakes has been lack of flexibility. The church should have a balance between the corporate and the personal relation to Christ. Schleiermacher taught that the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant is that the Catholic comes to Christ through the church whereas the Protestant comes to the church through Christ. The fact is, however, that both the church and the Christian ought to come to Christ. The corporate cannot be reduced to the personal nor the personal to the corporate. The figure of the church as the body of Christ, in which the individual cells have no direct relation to the head, needs to be complemented by the figure of the people of God, in which the individual persons can have direct access to their Lord.

God wants no freezing of history in any ultimate sense of authority. Such authority can and does become legalism. It becomes a matter of telling people what to believe and what to do. Therefore, it becomes a living by sight and not by faith. The church as final authority in history takes the place of personal faith and personal decisions. Either the church exercises such authority concretely or it does not. If it does, it precludes the fullest opportunity for personal faith. If it does not, it recognizes in fact an authority beyond its own decisions. The Roman Catholic church is more consistent at this point than is the Anglican.

The fact has been demonstrated that the natural conservatism of human authority in religion tends to domesticate the Holy Spirit. When authority is finally vested in any institution, the wielders of power in that institution become institutionalists, generally more concerned with the promotion and defense of the institution than with God’s creative will and with men’s changing needs. Human history itself shows the need for people who conform not first of all to institutions, but to truth and human needs. Christian history proves abundantly the need for people who relate themselves primarily to the living Christ and to their fellow men.

The church is subject to Christ. It is his body. He as its head is its only authority. It is not the corporate nature of the decisions that count, but their Christian nature. Sometimes a prophet of the living Christ will have to stand over against the corporate judgment to recall the church to its primary allegiance and to reclaim it to its only Lord. The corporate judgment may very likely be the truer wisdom. It may serve to caution individual enthusiasm. But it may also need the challenge of charismatic personalities, those who have the gift of the Spirit.

The authority needs to be channeled through the church for decency and order within the community. But the authority of the Christian faith is never of the church nor in the church; it is for the church and through the church.


The upshot of the evaluation of the three contending positions -- experience, the Bible, and the church -- is as follows:

Christ alone is the authority of the Christian faith. Nor is Christ merely a mystery. He is God’s revelation in a person, in a mighty deed of salvation, and in the teachings of the Kingdom of God. To be sure, as a person and as God’s mighty deed he can never be reduced to any meaning nor confined within any idea. The great Creator is no system of thought nor any impersonal force. He is the living Lord of love.

On the other hand, all meanings meet in him who himself is God’s Word. Christ is God’s communication to the world. He is the living Word: God is faithful! He is God’s Truth from whom all truths flow and on whom all truths depend. To say that the living Lord is "our Father" who is Spirit is to afErm at once the biblical bedrock of the authority of the Christian faith: God is Love; we have seen his presence in the person of Jesus as the Christ.

Granted that this is so, have we not avoided the question of authority in human history? Of course, God’s Christ is the authority, for he is God’s presence and power in human history. But how do we know and receive him authoritatively if not through experience, through the Bible, and through the church? Certainly we need all these channels. They are expressions of the revelation. But they are not the authority. Notice that it is through them that the authority comes. They are not the authority, any one of them or all of them together. They constitute, rather, a needed configuration with Christ as their main pattern. Christ as God’s love for the world -- the Cross and the Resurrection -- is the pattern of Christian authority for and in experience, for and in the Bible, for and in the church. Christ as the pattern of God’s love, then, is our historic authority.

This pattern is never reducible to the configuration. The pattern is not of the configuration, but shapes the configuration. Christ is always more than experience, the Bible, and the church. The configuration changes necessarily with history. Our ways of entertaining the experience, of interpreting the Bible, of living in the community change, but the pattern itself is exhaustlessly both beyond change and yet present for change. Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, for he is the enmanned image of God’s changeless love. Yet, as real and relevant for every change in time, Christ is also the most changeable, who is always more than all change and ever ready for it. Although changeless as Love, as Love he is sensitive to every change and relates himself appropriately to it.

Professor Gustaf Wingren of Lund University in Sweden has written in his profound book Skapelsen och Lagen (Creation and Law) that the constant task of the church is to interpret the world in terms of the Bible, and the Bible in relation to the world. The same truth holds for experience and for the church as well. Thus Christ as God goes beyond human history; Christ as man is in human history; Christ as the Godman is ever both beyond and in human history, the challenge to faith and work.

Experience, the Bible, and the church are all in the world. The Holy Spirit is beyond it. Christ as the Godman is both in and beyond the world. Only when the Holy Spirit can draw from "the things of Christ," using the channels of experience, the Bible, and the church, can we find that authority of the Christian faith which is truly of God, ever beyond the world, and yet also truly in the world for man. We turn therefore to a fuller consideration of the Christ who alone is the authority of the Christian faith.