By What Authority?

Written by William Barclay Reviewed By Nigel M. de S. Cameron

This re-issue of the late Professor William Barclay’s book on Authority is to be welcomed, but not unreservedly. We read on the cover, ‘For the Christian the authority of the Bible, the Church and the Gospel hinge on the authority of Jesus. The object of this book is to help the Christian to see what this means in the world now.’ Authors cannot of course be held responsible for the claims their publishers make for their work, but this reviewer at least found it hard to match up the book and this description of it.

By What Authority? is essentially descriptive. It is an historical account of the development and nature of authority within the Church, from Old Testament until modern times. Professor Barclay’s style is lively and enriched by a good deal of quotation (at times, rather too much). On the other hand, there are some exceedingly dull passages where one might almost imagine oneself to be reading Kittel instead (such as the five pages on the background of exousia). The book is evidently intended for a fairly popular market; why then all these references to Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Julian, and the rest?

The Old Testament is viewed as containing authority of two kinds—of the Spirit (the prophets) and of Tradition (the priests and, later, the rabbis). Barclay accepts the literary re-arrangements of Higher Criticism, and one interesting fruit of this is that he sees Deuteronomy as a ‘prophetic’ source, which of course heightens the contrast between the two strands in OT religion. The chapter on Tradition soon digresses into an extended discussion of the privileges of the priests and Levites under the OT system, and some mention of Judaism today.

There is a full discussion of the authority of Jesus, which Barclay says resides in His freedom of action and speech, ‘an authority to direct men’s lives and to settle men’s destinies’. He stands in marked contrast to the scribes (who ‘tended to speak in footnotes’), and found His authority in His relationship of prayer with God. There are various points in the course of the discussion of Jesus’ ministry where we might wish to question what we are told. For instance, can it really be said that when Jesus cleansed the Temple of the money-changers His ‘action was first of all a blow for social justice’?

The following chapters give some account of the nature of authority in the history of the Church since Jesus’ day—starting with the NT period itself, then going on to the early church, medieval and Reformation times, and the situation today (principally in the Church of Scotland, and mainly in regard to the practice of ‘discipline’). It is a lively narrative, with many illustrations of the excesses and absurdities of the authority of the Church as well as of problems which it faced.

But the weakest chapter of the book is the last, ‘Authority Today’, and the weakness of this chapter shows up the weakness of the whole book. For nowhere does Professor Barclay actually tell us where authority does lie today. He discusses the challenge to traditional morality and doctrine, but he does not follow this up with a radical examination of where authority ought to be found. He laments the fact that today a man could be a church member while believing none of the five ‘fundamentals’, making it impossible for the Church to have any effective control over the belief of its members. It is a comment on the powerlessness of the Church today that a man of such deep conviction as William Barclay must close discussion of this crucial subject with a complete boiling-down of Christian faith. It ‘seems to me’, he writes, that the ‘irreducible minimum of belief about Jesus Christ’ is that He is a real person; that ‘what Jesus did in his life and in his death’ changed my whole relationship to God; that ‘if I depend on him for strength and grace, he is no dead figure in a book … he is a living person whom I experience’; and that the Church is the ‘fellowship in which I must live a life that is lived for Jesus Christ’.

Less than half a page (and that, earlier on) is devoted to a discussion of the authority of Scripture. There is the weakness of the book, and, surely, there is the weakness of the Church! For unless we have an authoritative Scripture, wholly reliable, what have we left of our faith except these apologetic and meagre half-truths with which Barclay ends up? And who is to prevent the next man from watering them down still further?

By What Authority are we to act and believe today? Professor Barclay does not say. His sole authority for his final summary of the essentials of Christian faith is ‘it seems to me’. But what authority is that?

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Deerfield, Illinois