What is Authority?

And I thought I was finished writing for the weekend, but not so fast. Here is some food for thought from the great Protestant theologian, P. T. Forsyth. Writing in The Principle of Authority, Forsyth explains the nature of what he calls “religious authority.” I am sure I am putting this poorly, but by religious Forsyth means that which is the subjective apprehension of the objective truth of faith – God’s work in us. The last line is, of course, the famous quote from Cardinal Newman.

In the last resort, therefore, the only religious authority must be some action of God’s creative self-revelation, and not simply an outside witness to it. For instance, as to Christ’s resurrection, if we had signed, sealed, and indubitable testimony from one of the soldiers at the tomb who saw him emurge, it would have a certain value, of course; but it would not be a religious authority. It would not be equal in that respect to Peter’s or Paul’s, though they did not see Him rise. It would be more historisch and scientific, but less geschichtlich and sacramental than theirs. It would not prove that the Saviour rose in the triumphant power of His finished work over the world of nature as well as of man. It would only prove re-animation; so that He might, perhaps, get over His first failure as Saviour and try again. It would be no part of God’s self-revelation through apostolic souls whom the risen and indwelling Christ taught with regenerative and final power. The soldier would be but a bystander of an event, not an agent of revelation, nor a subject of it. Men are an authority to us, to our conscience, not as they may be able to stand cross-examination by historical and critical research, but as they are made by the power of God, the Christ, Who reveals Himself in His regeneration of their souls. The Apostles are authorities of Christ only in so far as Christ made them so, not as infallible chroniclers but as elect souls. And even these men fade into the rear when they have done their work; and they may crumble and dissolve, like the sacramental bread – so long as they have brought us to direct communion with God, with Christ, as His own voucher, and stirred the evidence of His Spirit’s action and power in our soul’s new life. The best documents are human sacraments. Holy men are the best argument of the Gospel, short of the Gospel itself, short, i.e. of Christ’s real presence with us in the Holy Ghost as our active Saviour. And when men have done their proper work, when they have introduced us personally to God and left us together, it is not fatal if we find flaws in their logic, character, or faith. There is so much spritual truth as that in the Roman principle that defect in the priest does not destroy the effect of his sacrament. Defects in Church, Bible, or apostle, defects in the logic of creed, or inconsistencies of conduct in Christian people, need not destroy the real religious witness they bear on the whole, their sacramental mediation of the Gospel to us. Secure in the God to Whom they led us, we turn at our ease and leisure to examine their flaws with a quiet and kindly mind, knowing that they do not cost us our soul’s life. “A thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

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1 Response to “What is Authority?”


  1. 1 The Revelation Effect Review August 7, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    There’s certainly a lot to learn about this subject. I like all the points you’ve made.


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