All religion, historically speaking, has depended and must depend for the masses of mankind upon authority,” wrote Leslie Stephen (History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, I, 175). “A creed built on elaborate syllogisms is a creed with ‘perhaps’ in it, and no such creed can command men’s emotions.” Stephen was doubtless right, but the function of authority is more fundamental to religion than he implies. It seeks not merely to appeal to men’s emotions but to bring their minds to a knowledge of the truth. We believe that Christianity is founded on truth (cf. John 17:3), and that if this were not so, it would not be a viable religion. According to its own premises, if it were not true, then it could not be authoritative.
For Christians the authority of God is mediated through his word, the Bible. Even among the orthodox, however, there are those who tend to give greater weight to some parts of the Bible than others without adequate reason. It is not simply a question of interpreting the Old Testament by the New Testament, or the obscure passages by the clear. They regard the recorded words of Christ, for example, as being of more importance than those of Peter or Paul, and even distinguish between them in order to set them up in opposition. I once heard Lord Soper on the radio “refute” Paul with words from the Sermon on the Mount. Others have gone so far as to characterize Paul as the great perverter of the Christian faith. No less a scholar than T. W. Manson thought that the early Church’s acceptance of apostolic authority was a “calamity and the complete reversal of the original intention of Jesus” (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 242).
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