Posted by: rogermitchell | June 26, 2015

Authority and the Bible

I am honoured to be one of the only non Roman Catholic contributors to the newly published Towards a Kenotic Vision of Authority for the Catholic Church (Council for Research in Values in Philosophy, 2015) and to speak at its launch at the University of London Heythrop College last week. The whole book can be downloaded from the Council for Research and Values in Philosophy and my chapter “Authority Without Sovereignty” can be downloaded from my Academia page The chapter has received quite a lot attention, and reflecting on it has caused me to think still more about the far-reaching theological and practical implications of a kenotic understanding of authority.

This morning I have been re-reading Lucy Peppiatt’s important contribution to our understanding of Paul in Women and Worship at Corinth (Wipf & Stock, 2015), preparatory to blogging about it here and reviewing it for a journal. In a nutshell, she proposes that Paul was using a rhetorical strategy to argue against the Corinthian practices of head coverings for women, speaking in tongues all at once and banning married women form speaking out in services. I was struck by her introductory statement “Those who believe that the Bible contains authoritative instruction for Christians in the present are not really at liberty to ignore these passages.” I realized just how differently a kenotic understanding of authority and a sovereignty understanding of authority really are, and I thought again of Derek Flood’s distinction between “unquestioning obedience” and “faithful questioning” in our approach to the scriptures in his book Disarming Scripture (Metanoia Books, 2014) about which I blogged so enthusiastically several posts back. I think it’s the case that the unquestioning obedience approach to the text goes with a sovereignty understanding of biblical authority, whereas the faithful questioning approach fits with a kenotic one. With this in mind it seems to me unlikely that a fully sovereignty approach to biblical authority would ever have given rise to Lucy Peppiatt’s revealing, innovative and I think almost certainly accurate reading of Paul.

This has caused me to recollect again how deep-structural and basic to pretty much everything this issue of the nature of authority is. If it is the exercise of hierarchical power over others, whether it’s for the benefit of the Pax Romana or the supposedly common good, then it will always be the matter of insisting the superiority of one set of ideas and behaviors over another. If it is about a relational, mutual sharing of power for the peace or common good of the multitude, then it will be about finding the maximum potential for collaboration, even including paradox, which “holds together seemingly contradictory truths in order to locate a greater truth” as John Paul Lederach perceptively notes in The Moral Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2005).

I’m reminded of two seminal experiences along the path of life.

The first was when working together interdenominationally with friends who read Paul on women as meaning they could share ‘inspirational’ leadership with men on an equal basis, but not what was regarded as ‘governmental’ leadership. Our friendship had led to a serious working relationship, I think because our common love for the cities of the nation and readiness to lay our lives down for them was pragmatically our deepest value. That’s to say kenotic authority was undergirding our work together. One day, after some months of working together, my friend suddenly blurted out, “I know why you don’t have a problem with women in governmental leadership. You don’t practice or believe in governmental leadership at all – not even for men! In my friend’s assumption about leadership it had to be sovereign, to be over others, if it was governmental. But once he came to realize that it was kenotic authority that was bringing peace to the city, his view of the necessity of sovereign authority fell away.

The second experience related to an anecdotal remark made to me by an official of an evangelical organization when several of us were encouraging them to give more scope to those of us pursuing a radical agenda. I was at first shocked by his response, which was that when he came into his position he had been advised that the proponents of the more conservative agendas were the ones to appease because they were the ones who caused the most trouble, whereas the radicals tended not to insist on their own way in the end, because that was their theological position! Behind the anecdotal advice lay the two kinds of authority, the sovereign and the kenotic. It was, I think, a rather backhanded acknowledgement of where the real spiritual authority is to be found!


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