Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Authority in Galatians 1

I've been doing some work in Galatians 1 ahead of the beginning of our new preaching series at CCC.  Rather than being introductory, the chapter plunges straight into the substance of Galatians, and especially the apostle's astonishment that the Galatian Christians are already in danger of abandoning the good news about God's grace in Jesus.  The focus of the chapter is the issue of authority - perhaps the new arrivals in Galatia have questioned Paul's standing as an apostle and his authority to preach, or perhaps Paul is moving to counter their own claims to authority.  Regardless of the cause, Paul is very clear: he has a divine commission to preach, and the message he preaches comes from heaven and was not learnt from any other human being.

What has particularly struck me from this chapter, though, is a little phrase in verse 8:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
Even if we.  This is as radical a disavowal of personal authority as could be made.  If Paul, the commissioned apostle, returned to Galatia preaching a message which varied even by a hairbreadth from that which he had preached before, the Galatians should not only ignore him, but should regard him as cursed.  This makes sense: Paul's authority is his commission, and his commission is to preach this gospel, and not another.  If he switches his message, he loses his authority.  The authority goes with the message, not the messenger.

I've been thinking a little about what that means for our understanding of authority.  I suspect there is always a danger in the church of establishing church leaders and then assuming that they have authority by virtue of their office.  But this is not so.  Church leaders are appointed as ministers of the gospel; the authority goes with the gospel, not the people.  That means that the authority of the church leaders is very much curtailed: they have authority only in so far as they are serving the gospel.  It also means that, as with Paul, the authority of church leaders is much greater than we often think: in so far as they restrict themselves to their legitimate sphere, they minister to the church with the authority of heaven, of Christ himself.

I do also wonder whether this ought to have an impact on our doctrine of Scripture.  You sometimes hear expositions of this doctrine where the authority is vested in the formal, and thence flows to the material.  I mean something like this: the Bible is God's word and therefore has authority; therefore everything the Bible says is true.  Would this be parallel to Paul saying: I am God's apostle and therefore have authority; therefore everything I say is true..?  And would Paul say something like this?  Doesn't the rhetoric of Galatians 1 indicate that he would instead begin with the content - the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection - and then declare the Scriptures authoritative on the basis that they bring this message?

The difference, of course, is that Paul genuinely could have turned up in Galatia preaching another gospel, whereas the content of Scripture is established and fixed, meaning that the question mark raised by Paul over his own authority never applies to the Bible.  Still, it does make a difference to see things this way.  It overcomes the felt apologetic need to prove the formal authority of the Bible before looking at its content.  It breaks the 'because the Bible says so' circular reasoning.  And perhaps it helps us to remember that the authority of Scripture is the authority of Christ, because it witnesses to him.

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