All religion, historically speaking, has depended and must depend for the masses of mankind upon authority,” wrote Leslie Stephen (History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, I, 175). “A creed built on elaborate syllogisms is a creed with ‘perhaps’ in it, and no such creed can command men’s emotions.” Stephen was doubtless right, but the function of authority is more fundamental to religion than he implies. It seeks not merely to appeal to men’s emotions but to bring their minds to a knowledge of the truth. We believe that Christianity is founded on truth (cf. John 17:3), and that if this were not so, it would not be a viable religion. According to its own premises, if it were not true, then it could not be authoritative.
For Christians the authority of God is mediated through his word, the Bible. Even among the orthodox, however, there are those who tend to give greater weight to some parts of the Bible than others without adequate reason. It is not simply a question of interpreting the Old Testament by the New Testament, or the obscure passages by the clear. They regard the recorded words of Christ, for example, as being of more importance than those of Peter or Paul, and even distinguish between them in order to set them up in opposition. I once heard Lord Soper on the radio “refute” Paul with words from the Sermon on the Mount. Others have gone so far as to characterize Paul as the great perverter of the Christian faith. No less a scholar than T. W. Manson thought that the early Church’s acceptance of apostolic authority was a “calamity and the complete reversal of the original intention of Jesus” (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 242).
Now this appears to be a very dangerous line of thought, for it reflects a failure to perceive that the Bible, though composed of many books, is essentially one Book. It is a single organism, and to excise one part in order to preserve another is not just surgery—it is mutilation. Spending some time exploring the nature of apostolic authority seems justified, for it is obvious that even the authority of Christ, who never wrote a book, is dependent on the veracity of the witness of the apostles. And since the case of Paul, the author of the bulk of the New Testament epistles, is on the surface somewhat different, we must pay special attention to him.
First, we must remember that the apostolic band was formed by Jesus himself. We read in Mark 3:14, “He appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (see also Luke 6:13; Acts 1:15–26). An apostle was a person specially chosen for a specific purpose—to carry the evangel to the world (John 17:8, 14, 17, 18). Initially the apostles’ preaching seemed largely confined to urging men to repent and prepare for the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven, but even in this they were commissioned as Christ’s representatives. That their authority was essentially his authority is made unmistakably clear in Matthew 10:40 (and John 13:20): “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” This can only mean that what they said, preaching in Christ’s name, God said, and it shows that they were to be placed in the same category as the Old Testament prophets, who were God’s mouthpieces.
Secondly, Jesus taught his chosen band both before and after his death and resurrection that they would be guided in what they taught by the Holy Spirit. The first chapter of Acts reveals that Jesus devoted most of his attention before his ascension to preparing the apostles to be his authoritative representatives in laying the foundations of the Church. Once the Holy Spirit had come there could be no doubt about their authority, for it was sealed not only by the general acceptance of their teaching that came with power (Acts 2:41) but by the signs and wonders they were able to perform in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:43; 3:1–10).
But if this establishes for most the authority of the original apostles, who had been with Christ and were, apart from any supernaturally endowed power, eyewitnesses of his majesty, how does Paul fit into the picture? Is he not something of a gate-crasher and therefore an impostor? What right had he to call himself an apostle as he does time and time again? He frequently begins his epistles with an assertion of his apostleship, as if by doing so he would ensure that his writings would be received as authoritative. But a personal assertion proves nothing to us. What we need is unimpeachable credentials. So we ask, What are Paul’s?
First, Paul’s authority stems from its foundation in the Old Testament. As a Hebrew born of Hebrews and a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5), set apart before his birth (Gal. 1:15), he was nurtured in the Scriptures. His words to Timothy reveal his estimate of the Law and the Prophets: “All Scripture is inspired by God …” (2 Tim. 3:16; cf. Rom. 15:4). But it is important to note that unlike the unbelieving Jews over whose hearts there was a veil, he interprets them christologically—“the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15; cf. 1 Cor. 2:16). It is hardly surprising, then, that Paul appeals repeatedly to the Old Testament in his teaching. It is part of the one rock of revelation from which his theology is hewn, as a reading of Romans and Galatians, for example, bears out. He makes no attempt to force together two opposing revelations into a questionable synthesis à la Hegel. He sees the plan of salvation in its divine unity (1 Cor. 15:3, 4), and so he can testify authoritatively to Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 26:22, 23; Eph. 3:1–13).
Secondly, Paul’s conversion is of crucial significance for an understanding of the question before us. Apart from it we should be hard pressed to find reasons for the pervasive influence of Paul in the early Church. Setting aside the trappings of the story for a while and devoting our attention to the words spoken by our Lord on this momentous occasion, we realize that Paul was in fact commissioned there and then as a “chosen instrument” to take the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15). So he exchanged the authority he had from the chief priests to persecute Christians (v. 14) for that of preaching the good news (cf. Acts 26:16 ff.). Temporarily blinded, he was later somewhat diffidently received by Ananias, restored to sight, and “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). His good faith at least was soon demonstrated when he “confounded the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ” and earned persecution for his trouble (Acts 9:22, 23). A life had indeed been transformed.
Thirdly, Paul’s conversion experience is of profound importance for another reason. In his own eyes and in those of his contemporaries, the authority of his commission stemmed not simply from the words of Christ uttered on that occasion but from the fact that he actually saw the Lord (cf. Acts 22:14). Besides noting that this was accepted by Luke, who as the author of Acts recorded it, we should realize that Paul, when arguing his apostleship in First Corinthians 9:1 and 2, directs attention to it. Again in First Corinthans 15:8, in cataloguing witnesses of the risen Lord, he says, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” It should hardly surprise us to find the resurrection a basic element of his teaching. In this area he lacked nothing in comparison with the rest of the apostles. H. N. Ridderbos sums up the position succinctly: “In this encounter with the person of the exalted Christ is to be found the starting point of Paul’s apostolic preaching, as well as the real significance of his conversion, and it is this confrontation to which he appeals again and again to justify his preaching of Christ” (Paul and Jesus p. 46).
It is noteworthy, in the fourth place, that Paul is never weary of pointing out that he is the recipient of revelation. The truth of Christ that he has is divine and not of man (cf. Gal. 1:1; Eph. 3:3). He said once when his disciples were veering away from his teaching that “the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12). He went so far as to put under a curse any who preached a gospel contrary to the one he preached (vv. 8, 9).
Now all this is very significant. For if he was speaking the truth when he said he did not “confer with flesh and blood” nor with those who were apostles before him, we should expect what he taught to differ in many respects from their teaching. Discounting telepathy, this must inevitably have been the case unless he and they received the Gospel from the same source, from the Lord Jesus himself. This is precisely what occurred, and in itself provides one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the truth of the New Testament.
What is more, nowhere do we find any suggestion that Paul and the other apostles disagreed about their basic teaching; rather, their essential unity is asserted (cf. 1 Cor. 15:11). The incident recorded in Galatians 2 rightly understood serves to strengthen this point, for it concerned practice, not principles, about which there was complete unanimity. Paul saw clearly that Peter was being inconsistent in refusing to eat with Gentiles, and he took him to task “that the truth of the Gospel might be preserved.” As J. G. Machen observed, “The very nature of the charge which Paul brought against Peter, therefore, attests a fundamental unity of principle between the two apostles. Paul condemned Peter for ‘hypocrisy’; not for false principles, but for concealment of true principles” (The Origin of Paul’s Religion, p. 124). In the same chapter Paul records that when James, Peter, and John, the reputed pillars of the Church, perceived the grace that had been given to him, they extended the right hand of fellowship to him. There is no reason to suppose that they ever went back on this; and as if to confirm the impression of mutual accord already gained, Peter in his second epistle refers to Paul as “our beloved brother” who “wrote to you according to the wisdom given him” (note the expression), and then by implication classifies his writings as part of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). Peter’s attitude is hardly the one we should expect of an acknowledged leader of the Church going through its initial teething troubles if he felt himself confronted by a militant usurper of apostolic authority. We are thus driven to the conclusion that Paul’s claims were justified in the eyes of his colleagues and that his enemies, the Judaizers, were refuted by the very authorities to whom they appealed (Acts 15).
It is relevant to ask why Paul should have been called in a different manner from his fellow apostles. There seem to have been three main reasons: First, Paul’s dramatic and singular conversion was and remains today one of the most powerful testimonies to the truth of Christianity; second, his personal authority, coupled with “the insignia of the apostleship,” equipped him for his God-given role as leader of the mission to the Gentiles; and third, this in turn gave him the scope he needed to operate at long distances from Jerusalem and lent speed and effectiveness to his work.
I have already suggested that had there been any doubt at all in Luke’s mind about Paul’s standing as an apostle, he could never have written about him as he did in the Acts. If modern writers claim to detect an antithesis between the words of Paul and those of Jesus, Luke, who recorded both, seemed blissfully unaware of it. The mere idea would have appeared absurd to him, since it would have involved a denial of Paul’s calling. In actual fact Luke refers to Paul’s teaching in Acts as “the word of the Lord” (13:49). It is in this same book that we learn how God blessed Paul’s labors with all the signs of power that Peter, for example, was accustomed to (Acts 14:3; 15:12; 2 Cor. 12:12). Not surprisingly, Paul recognizes that the success of his ministry is dependent not on his own ability, eloquence, and knowledge but on God. In First Corinthians 2:13 he says, “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit,” and so the word comes with power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17). His Thessalonian disciples accepted his Gospel “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in … believers” (1 Thess. 2:13).
Paul was, of course, definite about the authority of his writings, which is of great importance to us. We have already seen how Peter wrote of him and how Paul addressed the Galatians. It is worth weighing in our minds words he uses in other epistles. He gives advice about marriage in First Corinthians 7 as one who has the Spirit of God. Although he has no explicit command of the Lord, he gives his judgment “as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v. 25). Later in the same letter he says that what he is writing is a command of the Lord (1 Cor. 14:37). He points out in Second Corinthians 10:11 that his letters in his absence are as authoritative as his words would be in his presence. In First Thessalonians 5:27 he makes it evident that his epistle should be read to all believers. Clearly “the churches must bow to Paul’s rulings (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15), and those who will not must be put out of fellowship till they come to a better mind (2 Thess. 3:6, 14)” (J. I. Packer, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, p. 64).
In our study so far we have seen that apostolic authority, including that of Paul, was supreme in the New Testament Church. It is clear that all the apostles were granted the power to speak and write divine truth as they were led by the Holy Spirit. Admittedly, in the providence of God, the literary efforts of some of them have not come down to us, but this in no way detracts from the force of our argument. As far as we can tell, there was never any fundamental disagreement among them about the essential nature of the Gospel. And if in some sense the work of Paul in particular was creative, it was based firmly on the foundation that Christ laid (1 Cor. 11:23; 1 Tim. 6:3) and was brought about by the indwelling of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10–13).
But how did the sub-apostolic Church and later generations react? For them the preaching and teaching of the apostles were preserved and their authority crystallized in their writings, which eventually formed the New Testament canon. This is not to say that certain of the books that constitute the New Testament were never called in question. But it can be said with confidence that in the end all were recognized as having apostolic testimony behind them and therefore as binding on all believers. The idea that the Church impulsively took various writings and proceeded to endow them with an authority they would not otherwise have had must be rejected. All the Church did, guided by the Holy Spirit, was to recognize writings that were inherently canonical on the basis of their apostolic background. Thus the idea prevailed that “the several books were, as common usage expressed it, ‘written by the Holy Spirit’; the human author served as God’s instrument, and his tongue was, in the words of the Psalmist (45:1) which were frequently applied in this sense, ‘the pen of a ready writer’ ” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 61). They were seen to be in effect as much the words of Christ even when not recorded as such, because what they convey is the Word of God. As Packer says, the apostolic “tradition” (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6) is still “the sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10) and remains in the twentieth century as before the test and norm for the faith and life of the churches.
To posit an antithesis between the words of Paul and those of Christ is to fail to perceive that Christ made himself, as Warfield expresses it, “an accomplice before the fact in all they taught,” and consequently to drive a wedge through the whole conception of apostolic authority and to render it impotent. A house divided against itself cannot stand; the reason why the Church appears to rock on its foundations today may well be located at this point (cf. Matt. 7:21–29). There is but one solution—to follow the lead given by him who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18), and accept the messengers he sent in his name. This may require great humility, but after all, we must remember that in the last resort we are submitting not to Paul or any other human authority but to Christ himself. If Jesus was prepared to accept the yoke of the prophets, who are we to refuse the apostles whom he chose? For the disciple is not greater than his master, and that master said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me.”
H. K. Stothard is further education tutor at the Village College, Peterborough, England. He holds teh B.A. and Certificate of Education from Nottingham University.
I carry on these avant-garde
and probing (but probably
with the nameless counterfoil
within my thoughts
against a backdrop of
rattling washer and
yes, we’ll have dog-dogs for lunch
and no, you can’t go out yet
and I wonder why pain matters
when I can’t even describe it
adequately enough for treatment
and it ends up every time that
there is so very much to the world
and I am so very small
a pebble on the ocean floor
yet terribly aware of the storm’s roar
and terribly afraid
of Him who holds it all
yet totally His through His love
this unknown other
weeps through me
If I could weep for them myself
with His integrity
perhaps the pain
would be relieved.
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