Letters to the Churches of Asia - 07 - Authority of the Writer

Chapter 7: Authority of the Writer of the Seven Letters

In what relation did the writer of the Seven Letters stand to the Asian Churches which he addressed? This is an important question. The whole spirit of the early development of law and procedure and administration in the early Church is involved in the answer. That the writer shows so intimate a knowledge of those Churches that he must have lived long among them, will be proved by a detailed examination of the Seven Letters, and may for the present be assumed. But the question is whether he addressed the Churches simply as one who lived among them and knew their needs and want, who was qualified by wisdom and age and experience, and who therefore voluntarily offered advice and warning, which had its justification in its excellence and truth; or whether he wrote as one standing in something like an official and authoritative relation to them, charged with the duty of guiding, correcting and advising those Asian Churches, feeling himself directly responsible for their good conduct and welfare.

The question also arises whether he was merely a prophet according to the old conception of the prophetic mission, coming, as it were, forth from the desert or the field to deliver the message which was dictated to him by God, and on which his own personality and character and knowledge exercised no formative influence; or whether the message is full of his own nature, but his nature raised to its highest possible level through that sympathy and communion with the Divine will, which constitutes, in the truest and fullest sense, "inspiration." The first of these alternatives we state only to dismiss it as bearing its inadequacy plainly written on its face. The second alone can satisfy us; and we study the Seven Letters on the theory that they are as truly and completely indicative of the writer's character and of his personal relation to his corespondents as any letters of the humblest person can be.

Probably the most striking feature of the Seven Letters is the tone of unhesitating and unlimited authority which inspires them from beginning to end. The best way to realise this tone and all that it means is to compare them with other early Christian letters: this will show by contrast how supremely authoritative is the tone of the Seven Letters.

The letter of Clement to the Church of Corinth is not expressed as his own (though undoubtedly, and by general acknowledgment, it is his letter, expressing his sentiments regarding the Corinthians), but as the letter of the Roman Church. All assumption or appearance of personal authority is carefully avoided. The warning and advice are addressed by the Romans as authors, not to the Corinthians only, but equally to the Romans themselves. "These things we write, not merely as admonishing you, but also as reminding ourselves." The first person plural is very often used in giving advice: "let us set before ourselves the noble examples"; and so on in many other cases. Rebuke, on the other hand, is often expressed in general terms. Thus, e.g., a long panegyric on the Corinthians in sect. 2: "Ye had conflict day and night for all the brotherhood...Ye were sincere and simple and free from malice one towards another. Every sedition and every schism was abominable to you, etc.," is concluded in sect. 3 with a rebuke and admonition couched in far less direct terms: "that which is written was fulfilled; my beloved ate and drank, and was enlarged and waxed fat and kicked; hence come jealousy and envy, strife and sedition, etc." The panegyric is expressed in the second person plural, but the blame at the end is in this general impersonal form.

A good example of this way of expressing blame in perfectly general, yet quite unmistakable, terms is found in sect. 44. Here the Corinthians are blamed for having deposed certain bishops or presbyters; but the second personal form is never used. "Those who were duly appointed...these men we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their ministration. For it will be no light sin for us if we thrust out those who have offered the gifts of the bishop's office unblamably and holily." It would be impossible to express criticism of the conduct of others in more courteous and modest form, and yet it is all the more effective on that account: "if we do this, we shall incur grievous sin."

The most strongly and directly expressed censure is found in sect. 47. It is entirely in the second person plural; but here the Romans shelter themselves behind the authority of Paul, who "charged you in the Spirit...because even then ye had made parties." On this authority the direct address continues to the end of the chapter: "it is shameful, dearly beloved, yes, utterly shameful and unworthy of your conduct in Christ, that it should be reported that the very steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, for the sake of one or two persons, maketh sedition against its presbyters, etc." But the next sentence resumes the modest form: "let us therefore root this out quickly."

An example equally good is found in the letters of Ignatius; and this example is even more instructive than that of Clement, because Ignatius' letters were addressed to several of the Seven Churches not many years after the Revelation was written. Here we have letters written by the Bishop of Antioch, the mother Church of all the Asian Churches, and by him when raised through the near approach of death to a plane higher than mere humanity. He was already marked out for death--in the estimation of Christians the most honourable kind of death--as the representative of his Church; and he was on his way to the place of execution. He was eager to gain the crown of life. He had done with all thought of earth. If there was any one who could speak authoritatively to the Asian Churches, it was their Syrian mother through this chosen representative. But there is not, in any of his letters, anything approaching, even in the remotest degree, to the authoritative tone of John's letters to the Seven Churches, or of Paul's letters, or of Peter's letter to the Churches of Anatolia.

The Ephesians especially are addressed by Ignatius with profound respect. He ought to "be trained by them for the contest in faith." He hopes to "be found in the company of the Christians of Ephesus." He is "devoted to them and their representatives." He apologises for seeming to offer advice to them, who should be his teachers; but they may be schoolfellows together--a touch which recalls the tone of Clement's letter; he does not give orders to them, as though he were of some consequence. The tone throughout is that of one who feels deeply that he is honoured in associating with the Ephesian Church through its envoys.

There is not the same tone of extreme respect in Ignatius' letters to Magnesia, Tralleis, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, as in his letter to Ephesus. It is apparent that the Syrian bishop regarded Ephesus as occupying a position of loftier dignity than the other Churches of the Province; and this is an important fact in itself. It proves that already there was the beginning of a feeling, in some minds at least, that the Church of the leading city of a Province was of higher dignity than those of the other cities, a feeling which ultimately grew into the recognition of metropolitan bishoprics and exarchates, and a fully formed and graded hierarchy.

But even to those Churches of less splendid history, his tone is not that of authority. It is true that he sometimes uses the imperative; but in the more simple language of the Eastern peoples, as in modern Greek and Turkish (at least in the conversational style), the imperative mood is often used, without any idea of command, by an inferior to a superior, or by equal to equal; and in such cases it expresses no more than extreme urgency. In Magn. sect. 3 the tone is one of urgent reasoning, and Lightfoot in his commentary rightly paraphrases the imperative of the Greek by the phrase "I exhort you." In sect. 6 the imperative is represented in Lightfoot's translation by "I advise you." In sect. 10 the advice is expressed in the first person plural (a form which we found to be characteristic of Clement), "let us learn to live," "let us not be insensible to His goodness." Then follows in sect. 11 an apology for even advising his correspondents, "not because I have learned that any of you are so minded, but as one inferior to you, I would have you be on your guard betimes." When in Trall. sect. 3 he is tempted to use the language of reproof, he refrains: "I did not think myself competent for this, that being a convict I should give orders to you as though I were an Apostle."

It is needless to multiply examples. The tone of the letters is the same throughout. Ignatius has not the right, like Paul or Peter or an Apostle, to issue commands to the Asian Churches. He can only advise, and exhort, and reason--in the most urgent terms, but as an equal to equals, as man to men, or, as he modestly puts it, as inferior to superiors. He has just the same right and duty that every Christian has of interesting himself in the life of all other Christians, of advising and admonishing and entreating them to take the course which he knows to be right.

The best expression of his attitude towards his correspondents is contained in a sentence which he addresses to the Romans, in which he contrasts his relation to them with the authority that belonged to the Apostles: "I do not give orders to you, as Peter and Paul did: they were Apostles, I am a convict: they were free, but I am a slave to this very hour."

But John writes in an utterly different spirit, with the tone of absolute authority. He carries this tone to an extreme far beyond that even of the other Apostles, Paul and Peter, in writing to the Asian Churches. Paul writes as their father and teacher: authority is stamped on every sentence of his letters. Peter reviews their circumstances points out the proper line of conduct in various situations and relations, addresses them in classes--the officials and the general congregation--in a tone of authority and responsibility throughout: he writes because he feels bound to prepare them in view of coming trials.

St. John expresses the Divine voice with absolute authority of spiritual life and death in the present and the future. Such a tone cannot be, and probably hardly ever has been, certainly is not now by any scholar, regarded as the result of mere assumption and pretence. Who can imagine as a possibility of human nature that one who can think the thoughts expressed in these letters could pretend to such authority either as a fanciful dreamer deluding himself or as an actual impostor? Such suggestions would be unreal and inconceivable.

It is a psychological impossibility that these Letters to the Asian Churches could have been written except by one who felt himself, and had the right to feel himself, charged with the superintendence and oversight of all those Churches, invested with Divinely given and absolute authority over them, gifted by long knowledge and sympathy with insight unto their nature and circumstances, able to understand the line on which each was developing, and finally bringing to a focus in one moment of supreme inspiration--whose manner none but himself could understand or imagine--all the powers he possessed of knowledge, of intellect, of intensest love, of gravest responsibility of sympathy with the Divine life, of commission from his Divine Teacher.

Moreover, when we consider how sternly St. Paul denounced and resented any interference from any quarter, however influential, with the conduct of his Churches, and how carefully he explained and apologised for his own intention of visiting Rome, that he might not seem to "build on another's foundation," and again when we take into consideration the constructive capacity of the early Church and all that is implied therein, we must conclude that St. John's authority was necessarily connected with his publicly recognised position as the head of those Asian Churches, and did not arise merely from his general commission as an Apostle.

In a word, we must recognise the authoritative succession in the Asian Churches of those three writers: first and earliest him who speaks in the Pauline letters; secondly, him who wrote "to the Elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in...Asia" and the other Provinces; lastly, the author of the Seven Letters.