Authority is a crucial theme in the Christian faith as it plays an indispensable part to its authentic transmission. It determines the credibility of the teacher as well as the validity and acceptability of the teachings. In systematic theology, authority distinguishes between the sound Christian theology and the dangerous heretical ones. In the life of the Church, it is authority that provides stability of community life, confidence in the authenticity of the teachings received, and the confidence of the strength of the Christian witness to those who still do not believe. In fact, doubt in authority can bring an unprecedented crisis to the Church and can undermine the mission that Jesus had set her out to perform in this world (Bokenkotter 88).
Although certain elements remained, the tone and nature of authority from the Old Testaments may have changed radically in response to the unavoidable changes in the world and the conditions it was to be exercised. For instance, the post-deluge time of Abraham comprised primarily of God’s distance from mankind except with certain select descendants of Adam, such as Noah, the grandfather of Abraham. Even the spiritual story of Terah, the father of Abram, did not prominently distinguish itself in the Book of Exodus. Except for the flood, few miracles happened and manifestations of God occurred before the time of Abraham. God started to be more manifest beginning with Abraham.
This thesis will attempt to understand the nature of authority, their commonalities and changes, during the four crucial moments in the salvation history and the establishment of the Kingdom of God as recorded in the Christian Bible: the call of Abraham (Genesis 12.1-8); the acknowledgement of Moses (Exodus 19.9); the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3.16-17), and; the descent of the Holy Spirit among the Apostles (Acts 2.1-4).
Yahweh said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you So Abraham went as Yahweh told him. (He) passed through the land as far as Shechem’s holy place, the Oak of Moreh (where) Yahweh appeared to Abraham So Abraham built there an altar for Yahweh who appeared to him. (Genesis 12.1,4, 6-8).
The spiritual authority of Abraham did not flow from any ecclesial membership or intent. He was neither a priest nor a king. He was a simple child of a son of Noah, the post-Flood Adam, who shepherded the sheep given to him by his father. He was not even a father of children because his wife Sarai was barren until old age. What was special with Abraham was God’s plan to reveal himself to Abraham, lead Abraham and his family away from his father, and promised him a land for his own and the fatherhood to all nations even before he had a son. Like his grandfather Noah, his obedience to the will of God was beyond reproach. God brought him and his kin wherever God wanted them to be. God even asked him to sacrifice his only son Isaac, the son of his old age. And, Abraham never complained.
Abraham’s total obedience to God became the gold standard of faith that the people of Israel, except those in his bloodline like Isaac and Jacob, found very difficult to follow in a sustainable manner. Even after God rescued them from the cruelty of the Pharaoh through Moses, they continued to rebel against God’s will, seeking to insist their own. This rebelliousness had been the life story of Israel, which many times angered God. Only a uniquely select bloodline of Abraham succeeded in keeping their faith in God at all times.
The ecclesial history began not with Abraham per se. He wrote no law unlike Moses. Except for certain traditions received from his forefathers (e.g. circumcision, burnt offering), Abraham had no conception of what a church means. His contribution to the ecclesial history is not its foundation but the setting of a faithful standard of obedience to God.
Yahweh said to Moses, ‘I am coming to you in a dense cloud so that the people may hear when I speak to you and may trust you always’ (Exodus 19.9).
The installation of Moses both as a prophet and the national leader of Israel established for the first time the priestly office under Levi and the teaching structure in the transmission of divine revelation through Moses. In effect, Moses, not Abraham, may be considered as the founder of Judaism, the author of its laws through an explicit intervention of God, and initiator of the ecclesial history. This structure later own will find its way, in a largely modified manner, in the then contemporary Judaism, in the early Christian Church and in centuries to come thereafter.
The Mosaic authority had a cultic status not seen among prophets because, in the Old Testament except for the patriarchs, only he spoke with God in person, face to face (Dozeman 37; Numbers 34.10). After the death of Moses at Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, the face-to-face revelation of God to a prophet also ended.
Divine Authority through the Son
As soon as Jesus was baptized he came up from the water, and suddenly the heaven opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him’ (Matthew 3.16-17; Mark 1.10-11; cf. Luke 3.21-22).
Unlike Luke’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of the event, which corresponds with that of Mark, told of God the Father addressing his acknowledgement of Jesus’ sonship to the crowd. This approach mirrors the divine acknowledgement of Moses in Mount Sinai at the beginning of his work as the religious leader of Israel in Exodus 19.9. This indicates that both Matthew and Mark had in mind Christianized Jews for their respective gospels. Matthew had his direct authority of witness as an Apostle and Mark had the authority and the audience of Peter whom he accompanied as an interpreter in Rome (The Jerusalem Bible NT5). Luke, who accompanied Paul and had his authority, focused on what made sense to the Gentiles: inner witnessing of the Holy Spirit’s movement within them; thus, the acknowledgement of God directed to Jesus himself. From the Mosaic account, God’s act of witnessing is essential to the acceptance of the Jews of a messenger or a prophet. It is a ritual that the Jews understood and expected. For the Gentiles, whose experience and encounter with God emerged from their encounter of self in God (Acts 8.27-28; 10.1-8), understood better the unique account of Luke on the event (Bacon 283).
Beyond all that, the acknowledgement of Jesus reflected the Trinitarian existence of God in the Father, in the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove), and in the Son, which is Jesus. In all this, the authority came from the Father. The acknowledgement of Christ’s authority was the summit of God’s witnessing for a messenger (cf. Matthew 28.18). This time he sent his only Son to establish the Kingdom of God outside the restrictive laws of Judaism and prepare for its spread to the whole world and fulfill God’s promise to Abraham.
Divine Authority through the Holy Spirit
When the Pentecost day came around, they had all met in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech (Acts 2.1-4).
Before ascending to the Father, Jesus informed the Apostles that the Holy Spirit will grant them power and authority to witness and spread the Good News “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). This universality of scope for the Kingdom of God will be accomplished through the Holy Spirit. God as Spirit will bring to mankind the nearness of the presence of God and his power (Pinnock 24, 9).
It is important to notice that this authority had been granted only on the core group of the Twelve (with Matthias added to replace Judas) and several women, including Mary (the mother of Jesus) and his kin (Acts 1.12-14); not to the congregation of one hundred and twenty to which Peter spoke in Acts 1.15-26 during the election of Matthias to apostleship. Except for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the teaching and ecclesial authority in the early Christian church likened to that of the priestly ministry in the desert with Moses as the head and prophet. This distinction, however, plays a central role in the succession of authority within the Church, which is granted through the laying of hands by the Apostles and their successors (Acts 6.6). To this day, the Roman Church (Romans 1.7), the head Church of what is now legally called the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, continued to practice the drawing of lots as the method of choice in the selection of the successor of Peter, the Pope (Acts 1.26).
The Abrahamic religious authority rested primarily upon his patristic leadership over his kin with respect to the customs inherited from his forebears (e.g. burnt offerings, circumcision). When God started to manifest in the life of Abraham, no changes in these practices occurred, other than a new direction that God invited Abraham to follow in obedience to divine will. Ecclesiology in its usual form existed not. Structured religious life, intertwined with the communitarian life, began with the endowment of prophetic and cultic authority over Moses in Mount Sinai. Through the centuries, this Mosaic ecclesiology evolved into the form existing in Judaism at the time of Jesus.
The ministry of Jesus, however, evolved from the formal Judaistic ecclesial structure into a small church with its ritual breaking of the bread, much like any Jewish family at that time, with Jesus as the center of divine authority, not as a mere prophet like Moses, but as the messenger Son of God who was also the expiatory victim. As the following increased at the time of Jesus’ ascension, the Apostles received the authority of the Holy Spirit as the foundation and reason for their unending mission to win the nations of the world.
The change in authority, from the patristic one of Abraham to the universal authority of the Holy Spirit exercised through the Church, brought God’s promise to the patriarchs into fulfillment as the Kingdom of God penetrated all the nations on earth. It also changed biblical theology, which focused on a small chosen people of God, into the expansive mission for all people on earth as God draws all mankind to him like a hen drawing back within her wings all the scattered chickens all over the world.
These changes in biblical conception of authority invite Christians to two important points of life. First, being Christian is to live in a universal siblinghood to all people of different races, culture, and religious beliefs. Christianity is to be in community with mankind. Second, God had always wanted his children to be one as the Trinity is one.
Bacon, Benjamin Wisner. “Jesus, the Son of God.” Harvard Theological Review, 1909 Jul., 2
(3): 277-309. PDF file.
Bokenkotter, T. Essential Catholicism: Dynamics of Faith and Belief. New York: Doubleday
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Dozeman, Thomas B. “Masking Moses and the Mosaic Authority in Torah.” Journal of
Biblical Literature, 2000: 21-45. PDF file.
Pinnock, Clark H. Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, IL: Inter
Varsity Press, 1996. Print.
The Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Alexander Jones. London and New York: Darton, Longman &
Todd, Ltd. and Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966. Print.