Sources of Religious Authority

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Religion is, by its very definition, founded on beliefs and practices which are derived from various sources of authority. These authorities are by no means exclusive, often interrelating, and occasionally contradicting each other. To understand how these discrepancies in authority can occur, we must first address the precise meaning of authority, and the means of its acquisition.

Authority itself can be broadly split into two types. The first, institutional or legislative authority, describes the authority given to make rules, and to hold power over a situation, whilst the second, expert authority, denotes someone or something that holds knowledge on a topic, and so may give a useful and valid opinion. Often in religion, this second type leads to the acquiring of the first, as an expert in an area would seem the obvious choice for someone to govern and legislate that area. How then do the different types of religious authority relate to these definitions? An understanding of this could lead to an understanding of how they became sources of authority.

Scripture and Sacred Writings

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition sacred writings are given a great prominence. The Law and the Prophets form the basis of the Jewish scripture, which then formed the Old Testament in the Christian canon. The Writings were also included in the canon of Judaism around 90 CE by the Council of Jamnia and were therefore later included in the Christian canon. The council also debated the inclusion of various other books, but did not reach a decision on them. Following the Marcionic gospel around the mid-second century CE, both Judaism and Christianity closed their canons, and whilst Judaism did not include those books which had not been decided upon at Jamnia, Christianity did. This discrepancy was only brought to light in the Reformation period, leading to the books being labelled as the Apocrypha in the Christian canon. What is important to note, however, is how the books in the canon gained their authority. Reference here can be made to the description in 2 Kings 22:3 – 23:25 of how the ‘rediscovered’ book of Deuteronomy acquired authority in the time of King Josiah. It provoked an emotional response (Josiah felt that it had authority1) an intellectual response (it was validated by the prophetess Huldah2) and then an active response (when Josiah formalises it and adopts its teachings3). This example of how scripture gains authority can be compared with how the Christian canon was finalised. Included were books which the worshipers had accepted and used (emotional response) which the church leaders, predominately Irenaeus and Tertullian felt to be theologically sound (intellectual response) and the canon was then formed, providing a basis for doctrine (active response). Scripture therefore tends to be given its authority by the religious leaders, but the writings to which they give authority are to an extent chosen by the general worshipers, who are guided by their conscience. The scriptures are often seen to hold great knowledge, giving them the second type of authority, but when, as with Josiah, their rules become practice, they gain the legislative authority as well.

Religious Leaders

The above discussion on scriptural authority highlights two further sources of authority – Religious Leaders and the Individual Conscience. The latter authority will be discussed at a later stage in this essay, but at present we shall concentrate on religious leaders. When looking at this type of authority in Christianity, the obvious example would be Jesus. The gospels took great pains to establish his authority, including reference to his power over nature4 (a traditional symbol for divine power), his authority to forgive sins5 (an authority ascribed to God), and the reaction of awe and wonder he provoked from people, both as a special person6, and as a great teacher7. His authority over the twelve tribes of Israel was indicated by the twelve apostles, who were clearly subordinate to him8. Paul later claimed authority to have been given to him by Jesus, as a result of his conversion experience9. He also made use of scripture10 and tradition11 (another source of authority, which I shall discuss later) to increase his personal authority. The early church also produced various leaders, who gained the authority of knowledge, and thus the legislative authority. People such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, and Augustine of Hippo all had such authority, and their teachings formed the basis of much doctrine, and their writings, along with those of early fathers such as Barnabas and Ignatius provided much secondary sacred scripture, which is yet another source of authority. The Catholic Church practices the authority of leaders to such an extent that the Pope is held to be supreme and infallible, thus an ultimate source of authority. The authority of religious leaders is often related to other religious authorities (which will be discussed later in this essay) but has also come into contact with secular authority. A prime example would be the medieval clashes between the secular rulers of Europe and the pontiff of the day, which occasionally saw a ruler establishing a second pope (often referred to as an antipope) who they could manipulate12.


Tradition forms a problematic source of authority, in that it originates through an interpretation of sacred writings and the teachings of religious leaders, to provide beliefs and practices for a religion. Once these have been in general circulation for a period of time, they usually become ‘tradition’, and thus a further source of authority. The establishment of tradition can be divisive, as people will agree or disagree with a particular tradition dependant on how far they interpret it as being coherent with other authorities. The splits in Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Non-Conformism, Anglo-Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Methodism etc, etc.) can be seen as primarily due to differing views on tradition, as they all tend to share the same sacred writings, including those of the early church leaders. Tradition also comes into conflict with other sources of authority (especially scholarship) when they proposes a change to what has been practiced for a while, as the essential element is maintenance of the status quo.


Having made reference to scholarship above, I shall now elaborate on the authority. Scholarship often presents a large challenge to both church leaders and tradition, as it reinterprets sacred writings, and challenges the validity of various beliefs and practices. A prominent challenge occurred in the 1960s when J.A.T. Robinson published his controversial book ‘Honest to God’, which questioned many of the beliefs espoused by the religious leaders of the day, and supported by traditional interpretations of the scriptures. Scholarship provides a strong and rational form of authority, and whilst it often conflicts with tradition (which by definition anything ‘new’ must do) it is not always at odds with religious leaders, especially if they are willing to accept changes in tradition. Robinson himself was Bishop of Woolwich, and others, such as the 13th century scholar Thomas Aquinas had proposed their views, which have been accepted by the leaders of the day, and then ironically, can become tradition. A mark of how far this lack of conflict is possible is shown in the fact that both Aquinas and Copernicus (who first proposed the theories for which Galileo came under church oppression for promoting) were priests, and in Aquinas’ case, his scholarship was accepted by the church so far as for him to be canonized.

Religious Experience and the Individual Conscience

In a religion such as Christianity, founded on monotheism, a direct message from God, i.e. a true religious experience, must be indisputable authority. The problem arises, however, as to how to verify a religious experience as being such. There are three main tests, of which the first two – St Teresa of Avila’s three-fold test (the experience must conform to church teaching, must result in increased charity and goodness, and must be sanctioned by a spiritual director) and the test that the experience must not convey an immoral or incoherent notion of God – rely heavily on the use of the aforementioned sources of authority, in order to understand what the church teaching represents, and what an incoherent notion of God is deemed to be. Interestingly, St Teresa’s invalidates most of her experiences, as she was ostracised by the church, and her spiritual director, St John of the Cross, only occasionally agreed with her. The third test, the reliability of the witness, relies more heavily on the last source of authority, the individual conscience.

This can be said to be the ultimate authority, as one is only likely to agree with the above authorities, and thus accept that they have authority, if their teaching fits with one’s own conscience. Whilst the conscience could therefore be separate from the other authorities, and perhaps the final arbiter of them, it is often guided by them, in order to enable one to define moral behaviour, which the conscience will fit with. Over controversial issues such as homosexuality, many who are opposed due to their conscience cite scriptural precedent, and church teaching and tradition as the reasons for their stance. As we have seen, the authority of scripture is in part granted by the individual conscience, which is in turn influenced by all other religious authorities.

12 Kings 22:11-1322 Kings 22:14-2032 Kings 23:1-254Luke 8:24-255Mark 2:5-126E.g. Matt 8:8-137E.g. Mark 12:28-338E.g. Mark 6:7-119Acts 26:14-1810E.g. 1 Cor 5:611E.g. 1 Cor 15:1-712For example, Henry V attempted to establish Archbishop Burdinus as the antipope Gregory VIII, as a part of his ongoing argument with the official pope Gelasius II.

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