Who’s in Charge Here? Part 4, Rabbinic Authority in Second Temple Judaism

(I was thinking of ending this series with my last post, but a friend pointed out it wasn’t really fair to critique other positions without offering up the Catholic position for critique, so here it is, as best I can understand it.)

In my last post I wrote about the need for a living authority who can (among other things) make tough calls on disputed issues and guarantee the unity of the community in times of conflict. Hiding underneath every question of interpretation is the question of authority. Who gets to decide?

I left off with the question that the temple authorities asked Jesus.

“Who gave you authority to do this?”

Having arrived at the need for an authoritative interpreter, the natural next question is just that. Where does authority come from? Believe it or not, I came around to the Catholic understanding of this while I was doing some research for a sermon I was giving at my previous church down in California.

The text was John 8, where Jesus sets free the woman caught in adultery. Doing my due diligence to understand the historical background, I learned about the significance of Jesus, as it says, sitting down to teach. Sitting and teaching in Jesus’ context, especially in the temple, was an astounding claim to rabbinic authority. Jesus is setting himself up as an authoritative teacher.

This was a shock and a scandal.

In those days, if you wanted to become a rabbi there were different schools of teaching to which you could apprentice yourself, and at the end of it you got to say that you studied under so-and-so, who learned at the feet of so-and-so, who learned at the feet of so-and-so, all the way back to some great teacher. All of the different competing factions of Jesus’ day—the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and so on—operated on this principle. Your authority to teach was derived from your rabbinic pedigree.

So when Jesus shows up in the temple—the holiest place in the Jewish world—with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever and sits down to teach, the authorities ask questions like, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15), or “By what authority are you doing these things?”, or “Who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23, Mark 11:28, Luke 20:2), or “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (John 2:18).

These questions make perfect sense when we consider how authority was understood by Jesus’ contemporaries: as something handed down from teacher to teacher in a direct line, proceeding from the original source.

Keeping this concept in mind, we can better understand what Jesus is doing in other parts of the Gospels.

Take, for example, John 20:23:

He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Here’s another example, from Matthew 18 (:

Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

What is happening here? In both these passages (as elsewhere in the Gospels) Jesus is handing down his authority to his disciples, just as the other great rabbis of his day did. Just as the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, so these disciples now have authority to do the same. Just as Jesus prohibited and permitted certain behaviors, so his disciples were now authorized to do the same.

It would have been implicitly understood that this same authority would be passed down by those disciples to the next generation.

This principle is called apostolic succession.

Apostolic succession is the way that all of the ancient Christian churches—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and so on—understand where they derive their authority. Authority to retain or forgive, and and to bind or to loose, has been passed down to them by Jesus through the original apostles.

It’s an ancient rabbinic tradition which is still alive in these churches today.

And that’s how the Catholic Church—among the other ancient churches—understands its own claim to authority. The Church is the authoritative interpreter because Jesus himself has given her that authority through the apostles.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the one claim that makes Catholicism unique even among the ancient churches, and why it makes such a claim.

Saturday Links 10/24/20

For more from The Atlantic’s fall photography feature, click the image above.

As often happens, there was a media firestorm this week about Pope Francis, who in a new documentary (re-)stated his support of civil unions for gay couples. This isn’t precisely news, but it did light up the internet, and (predictably) almost everyone misunderstood what was being said and its significance.

Mike Lewis at Where Peter Is has it right:

The words Francis spoke were neither unprecedented nor inconsistent with what he has said in the past. Those who were hoping that this was a watershed moment or change in Church teaching on human sexuality will be disappointed. Those who imagined that these words somehow meant that Pope Francis had crossed an integral doctrinal line are also terribly mistaken.


Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology did a series this week about election-year politics, affective polarization, and Christian witness. Here’s a sample:

The reason heroism is connected to hostility is that people who espouse values different from our own threaten the validity of our hero project, calling into question the metrics of our meaning. This unsettles us, makes us anxious. And in the face of that anxiety we lash out at those people who hold different values and beliefs, the people who vote differently than we do.

The first post is here.


This has little to do with theology, but The Seattle Times has a nice feature up about how friluftsliv—Norwegian for “outdoor life”—can help us get through the long COVID winter. It’s sort of the outdoor flip side of hygge: just as you can focus on making a cozy, comfortable indoor space during the long dark of winter, so too you can intentionally spend time outside, however bad the weather:

In Noway, friluftsliv is so deeply ingrained into daily life that it starts in kindergarten. “Norwegian kindergartens are famous for being outdoors,” said Meyer. “In all weather, you will go outside for recess, if not for a good portion of the day.”

Bekah, you should definitely read that one!

Cathedrals: Sant’Apollinare in Classe

I’ve gotten a wide range of responses to my conversion story, but one of my favorites was that of my brother-in-law, Tucker, a Calvary Chapel pastor, who was so happy for me that he gave me two books about cathedrals!

So in his honor, I’ll be working through one of the books and sharing photos of some cathedrals from around the world.

Today’s feature is Sant’Apollinare in Classe, consecrated in 549 in Ravenna, Italy. Here’s the interior:

A closer view:

The apse is a Byzantine mosaic depicting the Transfiguration of Jesus. The giant cross at the center contains a portrait of Christ (the blue field symbolizes the opening of the heavens). The cross is flanked by Moses and Elijah, and the three lambs represent the three disciples who accompanied Jesus up the mountain. It’s a very peaceful pastoral scene:

Thanks for this wonderful gift, Tucker!

Icons: John the Baptist Preaching in Hell

This icon, via Eclectic Orthodoxy, caught my attention this week.

The idea is that after his beheading, John the Baptist went down to hell, here not understood as a place of punishment but as Sheol or Gehenna: simply, the place of the dead.

There he encounters—who exactly? The prophets of the Old Testament, I imagine. That could be King David wearing a crown on the left. They could also be virtuous Gentiles (I’ve seen icons that include Plato and Aristotle, for example). But who is the woman on the bottom-right? And the figures not given any color? And what is the creature attempting to devour them?

I’m not sure.

I can say with some confidence that the icon anticipates the harrowing of hell that is coming in the time between Jesus’ death and Resurrection, when, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell.”

So here’s John the Baptist, preparing the souls of the dead for Jesus’ coming liberation.

Cool.

Who’s In Charge Here? Part 3, The Fail Mary

In my previous post on this I discussed some of the downsides of the kind of “me and my Bible” approach to authority towards which sola scriptura tends to lead us. Rugged spiritual individualism (like all go-it-alone approaches to life) looks like freedom, but it’s a lonely road, and it’s easy to get lost.

I’d like to do something a little more difficult than deconstructing sola scriptura and argue for the necessity of a living interpreter as the final source of authority and unity in times of crisis.

By way of analogy, let’s remember together a famous bit of Seahawks history.

(If you’re not from around here, the Seahawks are our local American football team.)

Playing at home against the Packers, the Seahawks are down 12-7. It’s 4th and 10 and the ‘Hawks are 24 yards from the endzone. There’s just 8 seconds left on the clock, and the only way to win is to score a touchdown. I wish I could embed the video but the NFL is strict about these kinds of things, so you can watch what happens here.

Well, what do you think? Did the refs make the right call?

That’s debatable. From one angle, it looks like Green Bay intercepted the ball in the endzone, which would make it a touchback and give Green Bay the game, 12-7. But Golden Tate, the Seahawks receiver, had two hands on the ball, too, which could arguably make it a touchdown, and the Seahawks would win 13-12. You could argue about this for days, and in fact, NFL fans did exactly that. It was an enormously controversial call, still known as the “Fail Mary”.

Now, what do you think? Who won the game?

The Seahawks, unquestionably. Why? Because in an NFL game, the referee is the living interpretive authority. The Seahawks won because, on a play that was both high-stakes and controversial, the referee called a touchdown.

Again by way of analogy, let’s talk about how professional football doesn’t work.

First, we might note how there’s no appeal to the rulebook here, although the referee is obligated to make a judgment in accordance with the rules of play. But the rulebook cannot, in and of itself, render judgment on a particular play. The rulebook needs to be interpreted by a living authority in order to apply to an ambiguous situation.

Second, Green Bay doesn’t get to say, “We strongly disagree with the call, so we’re starting our own league.” They can’t take their ball and go home. If they want to play in the NFL, they have to accept the rulings of the referees, like it or not.

Finally, we can note how the referee doesn’t say, “Well, hey, let each team interpret the game how they prefer. Green Bay, you can call this a win and we’ll put it in your record as such. Seahawks, same goes to you.” The players are not free to interpret the rules for themselves or to decide whether they won or lost. There would be no NFL at all if that’s how it worked, because it would be impossible to know which team really won or lost.

Imagine trying to have professional football without referees. It would never work! While you can certainly play backyard football without refs, anytime you want to play a high-stakes game on a large scale, you need that living authority to be an official arbiter. And you have to continue to accept that authority even if you disagree with a particular judgment. Without that, you don’t have a league at all.

I hope the analogy here is obvious: the referee here is what Catholics call the magisterium, a Latin term for the teaching authority of the pope together with the bishops. The magisterium is the living interpretive authority that makes the tough calls and keeps the league together.

Let me also suggest that this is actually what most Protestant traditions are actually doing. All the Protestant denominations have a person or body, whether that’s the General Assembly or the Board of Elders or the Queen of England, that make the final call on contentious issues. And while there’s an obligation to discern what Scripture says, that body has the authority to make a call within that denomination.

So the question has never been, “What does the Bible say?”

The question has always been, rather, about who has the authority to interpret, and where such authority comes from.

The question the chief priests ask Jesus in Mark 11 is still the right one:

“Who gave you authority to do this?”

Taking Up the Cup

God created man, sought him when he was lost, pardoned him when he was found, supported him when he struggled in weakness, did not abandon him when he was in danger, crowned him in victory, and gave himself as the prize. Reflecting on all this, man cries out, saying, What shall I give the Lord for all he has given me? I shall take up the cup of salvation.

What is this cup? It is the cup of suffering, bitter yet healthful: the cup which, if the physician did not first drink it, the sick man would fear to touch. Yes, it is the cup of suffering, and of it Christ is speaking when he says: Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me.

St Augustine

For me, this has been another draw: Catholicism has a place for suffering and pain. It’s right there above the altar in every Catholic parish.

It’s not inexplicable when we encounter hardship, illness, or loss. No, these things are at the very heart of what it means to be human, which is why God himself came down and drank the cup of suffering with us, right down to the dregs.

And what should our response to this be? To be willing to suffer again for others, to give ourselves away freely, just as we have freely received.

We, too, ought to take up the cup.

Photo: St Paul Miki and companions, martyrs of Japan

The Martyrs: Electroshock Therapy for the Soul

St. Stephen. Renata Sedmakova

It takes some pretty graphic stuff to shock kids these days, but you’ll find it aplenty in the witness of the martyrs.

Probably my best Sunday school series I did as a Presbyterian youth pastor was a whole summer of talking about martyrdom. Most of the kids I worked with were fairly apathetic at that point, and I wanted to give them a good shock.

So I combed through history (and my Catholic prayer book) to pick out seven great Christian martyrs. I went with:

St. Stephen (the first martyr, from the book of Acts),

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity,

St. Agnes (yes, I snuck in a virgin martyr),

Elizabeth the New Martyr (an 20th century Orthodox saint),

Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and

St. Óscar Romero.

Looking back, I wish I would have added into the mix St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose feast day was Saturday. St. Ignatius wrote a number of letters to different churches as he was escorted to Rome, where he was martyred in the year 107. Here he is writing to the Christians in Rome, pleading with them not to interfere in his martyrdom:

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die.

Whew! That kind of talk wakes us right up.

Another good example is St. Isaac Jogues, whose feast day is today. He was among the eight Jesuit priests who were tortured and martyred between 1642 and 1649 as a result of their work among the Huron and Iroquois. Here’s he is, writing in his diary:

For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffered.

Jesus, my Lord and Savior, what can I give you in return for all the favors you have first conferred on me? I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call on your name.

I bind myself so that for the rest of my life I shall have neither permission nor freedom to refuse opportunities of dying and shedding my blood for you. I bind myself to this so that, on receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit. In this way, my God and Savior, I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call upon your name: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

Though that series was a departure from our usual focus on sola scriptura, it was more effective than any Bible study I ever did at rousing those kids from their slumber. The martyrs shock our modern, milquetoast sensibilities both in their depth of passion and in the gruesome manner in which many of them died.

And it’s not just teenagers who need that jolt of electricity.

Who’s In Charge Here? Part 2, Myself Alone

In part one, I wrote about how the great Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone”, acts as a disintegrating force. What we’ve witnessed throughout the 500 year history of Protestantism is a continual fracturing, as schisms and separations multiply and new denominations are formed.

Let’s continue with the second part of my argument.

I think that we’ve reached the logical endpoint of this process of fragmentation, and now everyone is free to interpret the Bible for themselves. Sola scriptura has devolved into solus ego, “myself alone”.

Now at first, that can sound like good news. Those of us who have experienced abuse of power under the guise of biblical interpretation often end up here. Shouldn’t we be free, as best we can, to interpret the Bible as we see fit, and to seek out other like-minded people who read the Bible the same way we do (more or less)?

It seems like an attractive option; I took it myself for many years after college. But I got tired of it eventually, for reasons I’ll outline below. I’d like to suggest here that such a hyper-individualistic approach comes with some hidden costs, and pretty steep ones at that.

The first cost is anxiety.

When it comes down to it, am I sure that I’m correct, that I have the right interpretation, that I’m making the right call? This question might manifest in some personalities as an obsession with study and research, the scholarly quest to uncover or know the truth. The responsibility of authority drags us into neuroticism.

In other personalities, this anxiety might manifest in the opposite direction, where the person becomes reckless and gross, claiming the authority to make their own decisions about their life regardless of their impact on those around them. And hey, as long as they can justify their views or choices with the Bible, well, who are we to disagree?

The second cost is vulnerability.

Isolated individuals are vulnerable to predators, and the uncertainty that’s inherent in this kind of self-ownership leads many people to look for strong personalities who will tell them what to believe and how to act. Of course, many of these strong personalities tend to be predatory as well. So a dynamic is created whereby vulnerable and insecure individuals attach themselves to narcissistic personalities who have no interest in actual leadership, only in getting high off of others’ attention and submission. This happens all the time; I’m sure each of us can think of a ready example.

The third cost is despair.

Not feeling ourselves united to any particular community or tradition, not being able to find the answers or guidance that we seek in the Bible, the whole thing can start to feel like a pointless exercise. It’s difficult to understand, it’s a chore to read, it doesn’t speak to my situation . . . why read the Bible at all?

So yes, you can go it alone if you like, trusting in your own best understanding of things, but that’s a hard road, and rarely do people get to the end of it with their faith intact. Is there another way forward?

Yes, I’ve found that there is. In the next post I’ll argue that authority properly resides not solely in the text itself, nor in each individual reader, but rather with a living interpreter.

(Photo credit: Luis Quintero)

Saturday Links 10/17/20

Blessed Carlo Acutis, who died at 15 in 2006, will become the first Millennial saint. He was beatified over the weekend—the last step on the way to sainthood:

Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the papal legate for the basilicas of St Francis and St Mary of the Angels in Assisi, said during his homily that Acutis was a “normal and friendly teenager” who used the internet “in service to the gospel, to reach as many people as possible”.

“The internet was not just a means of escape, but a space for dialogue, knowledge, sharing and mutual respect that was to be used responsibly, without becoming slaves to it and [while] rejecting digital bullying,” he added.

Acutis is already being hailed as the patron saint of the internet. Among the relics from his life are an old t-shirt and a Playstation controller (!).

Bl. Carlo also created and managed numerous websites, including one that catalogued Eucharistic miracles. You can still look at it here.

So, pray for me, Blessed Carlo!

This article on Christopher Columbus shows how the author, a conservative skeptic, finally came around to a full-throated condemnation of Columbus and his many well-documented crimes:

At the very least, if I couldn’t find enough good to outweigh the grave evils that Christopher Columbus was indisputably responsible for, perhaps I could still return to my committed stance of neutrality [ . . . ]

Alas, I found only the stunning confirmation that swept away my remaining hesitations.

There’s a reason we celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on this blog. Here’s an overview of indigenous saints, from Meg Hunter-Kilmer.

Finally, I enjoyed this surprising essay on the diaries of Liane de Pougy, from Eve Tushnet, author of Gay and Catholic:

Even as faith begins to soak into her life like blood on a ballgown, she doesn’t seem to feel the weight of it. She can do a topless photo shoot in the morning and then pick up her well-worn copy of The Imitation of Christ to read a chapter before bed. In an early entry she regales her diary with the story of the confession she made before her marriage [ . . . ] she polished it off like this: ‘Father, except for murder and robbery I’ve done everything.’”

Happy reading.

Who’s in Charge Here? Part 1: Sola Scriptura

I’d like to write a few posts to sketch out a few possible positions Christians have taken on the issue of authority. That is, when crises or disputes arise within a Christian community, as they inevitably do, who gets to make the call—and how?

Let’s start from the classic Protestant position of sola scriptura, “scripture alone”. This is the doctrine that the Bible, and only the Bible, is the final source of authority in the life of the Church and the life of the individual Christian. It was perhaps the rallying cry of the Reformation. Many of the great Protestant Reformers used this doctrine to pit Scripture against the traditions and practices of the Catholic Church at that time, and to great effect. Indeed, many Catholic doctrines and practices are not obviously taught in the Bible, so the Reformers could justify their condemnation of, say, the selling of indulgences, or the veneration of images, or devotion to Mary, or the papacy, and so on and so forth by appealing to Scripture. It’s a powerful argument that led to the deconstruction of much of what had been taken for granted in Latin (Western) Christendom.

The simplicity and power of sola scriptura led the early Reformers to hope that a single unified Reformed Church could be constructed against or alongside the Catholic Church; however, they almost immediately found that they disagreed about what the Bible actually says about various issues. Each stream of the Reformation thought that its position was the one obviously taught by Scripture.

Over 500 years, disagreements about what we might call the “clear teaching of Scripture” has led to innumerable schisms and separations, which still occur down to the present day over every issue imaginable.

So we might say this: sola scriptura was incredibly effective at dismantling the teachings of Catholicism, it’s also been incredibly ineffective at building concrete unity among Protestants. In fact, it’s led pretty directly to the fragmentation of Christians into many separate communities and denominations.

It’s hard to square this outcome with Jesus’ prayer for his followers in the John 17:

I pray not only for them [his disciples], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one.

What do we find when we try to locate authority in Scripture alone? The doctrine leads us inexorably along the path of perpetual disintegration.

In the next post I’ll argue that this process of disintegration has led us to the endpoint we more or less find ourselves today, where every individual has become the ultimate source of authority. Scripture alone has become myself alone.

And while this might seen like a way out of certain problems, it comes at a high cost.

Click here for part two.