On Authority

One major area of difference among Christians over the past few centuries has been the question of authority. Some have claimed that the Bible is the sole authority for Christian faith, others have insisted that authority lies in the Church and its Holy Tradition. The Deists of the Enlightenment claimed that reason was to be the authority of truth. John Wesley, the great British revivalist and theologian, suggested that there are four authorities that must work together: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In my experience, having read widely across the spectrum of Christian thought over the years, I think Wesley hits the nail on the head for everyone de facto (how things actually work) even if Christians disagree vehemently de jure (how things should work according to the rules). What’s interesting in all this is that Julian of Norwich discusses authority towards the end of Revelations of Divine Love, in a way that is surprising for a medieval Christian and surprisingly reminiscent of Wesley. Today I’d like to quickly touch on this.

In chapter 80, Julian writes:

Man endures in this life by three things, by which three God is honoured and we are furthered, protected, and saved. The first is the use of man’s natural reason. The second is the common teaching of Holy Church. The third is the inward grace-giving operation of the Holy Spirit; and these three are all from one God. God is the foundation of our natural reason; and God is the teaching of Holy Church, and God is the Holy Spirit, and they are all different gifts, and he wants us to have great regard for them, and to accord ourselves to them. For they work continually in us, all together, and those are great things. (Ch 80)*

Here in this early fifteenth-century text we have the operation of three of Wesley’s four authorities: Reason, Tradition, and Experience. It shouldn’t be surprising that Scripture isn’t listed here — not because Julian didn’t care about the Scriptures, but because she was clearly working within the Medieval Synthesis, in which the Scriptures and Church Traditions were understood to be part-and-parcel. It’s not that she would have not seen the Scriptures as an authority, but that she would not have seen them as in any way contrary or opposed to Tradition.

So let’s look at these a bit more.

I love how Julian includes reason here, not only as part of her list but as the first one. We don’t like to think of reason as having a big role in Medieval thought, apart perhaps from the dry Aristotelian logic of Scholasticism. But, while Julian doesn’t talk a lot about it, it is in full evidence throughout her writing, particularly the long text. We saw for example in chapter 10 of her writing that when she was wondering about something in a vision and wanted to see more, she “was answered in [her] reason.” And one of the consistent threads of her writing is is that she seemed to think in ‘listicles’; she saw three things here, and four things there, five important words, and so on. This shows the operation of a very well-ordered and rational mind. And, of course, the long text is the result of her spending decades of her life thinking through what she experienced in her visions. So, despite our stereotypes of the medieval world generally and mystics in particular, Julian of Norwich clearly valued the role reason could play in the life of faith.

Then comes Holy Church, or what we might call ‘Tradition’. This is the stabilizing influence of the community of faith on the individual believer. Julian’s visions at times might draw her in certain directions, but she turns back from them because she wants to stay within the bounds of the shared faith of the Church. For example, in seeing that “sin is no deed” and that God “will make all things well,” she wondered about how hell and purgatory fit into this; yet she did not reject these things juts because they didn’t fit into what she saw. About this, she wrote: “It was not my intention to make trial of anything which belongs to our faith, for I believed steadfastly that hell and purgatory exist for the same ends as Holy Church teaches” (Ch 33). No matter what we may think of these doctrines, the point is that Julian understood that the shared faith, the common teaching, of the Tradition should act as a filter through which her reason and experience should be run. And, with all of the necessary caveats in place, this is a good and helpful perspective. If we are part of a tradition, part of a community of faith, then it’s important to participate within its bounds — even if we end up arguing to expand those bounds.

Finally, there is Experience, which Julian frames broadly as “the inward grace-giving operation of the Holy Spirit.” So she’s not thinking of Experience primarily in terms of dreams and visions like those she experienced, but rather the shared in-working of the Holy Spirit in the life of all of the faithful. As Christians we believe in the Holy Spirit, given to us, to transform us, and to lead us into all truth.

The take-away from all this is that living out the life of faith, far from demanding that we become mindless followers, requires us to engage fully with all sources of authority and vitality around us. We have been given rational minds through which to process what we see and hear. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us from within. We have been given the witness of all those who went before us — including most especially those who were inspired to write our Scriptures. We don’t need to turn off our minds to become a disciple of Jesus. Nor do we need to turn off our intuition or guiding feelings. And we certainly don’t need to do it alone.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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