A few years back I read Lesslie Newbigin’s little book Truth and Authority in Modernity (Trinity Press, 1996). I was particularly impressed with his argument in chapter 2 “The Mediation of Divine Authority.” Now, maybe this is old hat to many of you, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put quite this way. The question concerns the kind of authority that modern people demand as justification for religious truth.
First, he asks about the intention of Jesus for the future of the Church, specifically the mediation of his authority to future generations. He identifies three important indications of Jesus’ intention: 1) He chose, called, and prepared a company of people to mediate his authority; 2) to them he entrusted his teaching; and 3) he promised them the gift of the Spirit to guide them in matters that were beyond their present horizons.
Second, after briefly explaining these three aspects of authoritative mediation, Newbigin makes a very insightful argument. I shall quote the relevant paragraph in its entirety:
At the risk of becoming merely speculative, it is worth pausing for a moment at this point to ask whether there is any other way in which divine authority could be mediated to human beings. There would only seem to be two possibilities. One would be that God should make his authority known directly to every individual conscience without intervention of any other human agency. But this suggestion is absurd, for no human being develops either reason or conscience except through participating in the intercourse of a human community, family, society, culture. Because no human experience is totally private, divine revelation could not be totally private.
The other possibility is that divine revelation should be a matter of public history. In that case it can be only in events that are limited to a particular time, place, culture. But the whole ongoing course of human history cannot be frozen forever at a particular point. Revelation takes place only if (as has been argued above) it is internalized, made part of a living human consciousness that must necessarily be the consciousness of a human being living in a particular time, place, and culture.
It is therefore hard to imagine how there could be any other divine revelation authoritative for the whole of human history except one that embraced the three elements we have noted above: a living community, a tradition of teaching, and the continuing work of the divine Spirit illuminating the tradition in each new generation and each new situation, so that it becomes the living speech of God for that time, place, and culture (pp. 30-31).
Now, lest anyone complain that this leaves no place for an infallible Bible, we should remember that the very origin and preservation (copying, translating, etc.) of Scripture depends upon the three realities described by Newbigin. I think I would want to add the infallibility of the Scripture as a fourth aspect of authority, but clearly the Bible itself must be mediated to and interpreted for us by a community of scholars, pastors, parents, and worshipers. Actually, Newbigin goes on in the next few pages to talk about Scripture.
I am particularly impressed with the impossibility-of-the-contrary argument that he makes. Just what kind of authoritative disclosure do most moderns think they want before they will believe? People want some kind of supernatural, direct disclosure, but then don’t realize that it would be worthless to the person next door who would demand the exact same experience. But then, even for the individual who receives such a one-time disclosure the experience would fade and become subject to reinterpretation as time wore on. You’d need one every day just to be sure.
Moreover, this would create an individualistic nightmare, since each person would autonomously interpret his own experience curvitas in se. If God were to make a public supernatural spectacle such that everybody would see it and accept his authority, then we would have similar problems. God would have to make this exact disclosure to each new human being, otherwise we are back to the need for human tradition to pass on the event and its meaning. Furthermore, God would have to say everything that he wanted to say in this grand public event so that there would be no misinterpretation a few days or hours (!) later.
I think Newbigin has a pretty good argument here. Dreaming about alternate ways of God’s disclosing his authority and excusing oneself for not accepting his given authoritative disclosure are ultimately futile and absurd.