Everett Cattell’s Principle of Authority (pt. 3)

Series contents | Intro | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Mustard Seeds and the Kingdom

Cattell’s understanding of authority is derived from Christ, who is the head of the church. He argues that there is a tendency in the church to choose some one authority over another. Christ as head relativizes arguments over authority of Scripture, tradition, Spirit, etc. Rather we “must see the organic whole and each part functioning within the total organism, and each organ receiving its relative authority from that which is Christ” (Cattell, 8). This statement sounds close to post-foundationalism (a philosophical-theological movement newly espoused the later half of the twentieth-century).

David Johns picks up on this saying that Cattell “criticized evangelicals who respond to critiques of the Scripture by beginning statements of faith with a justification of Scripture and by arguing that ‘…the Bible is our final and only authority'” (Johns, 1992:15 fn.16). Johns also rightly draws a connection between Cattell’s more nuanced position and what has become known as the quadrilateral, where Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all work together (ibid). While Cattell never appeals to early Friends, in this chapter or elsewhere in the book,  it seems to me that at least on this point he exemplifies a very compelling Quaker position on religious authority. While he may have been able to make his point stronger by drawing on early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay and early Friends,  his understanding points more towards his extending an argument that sought to bypass the conservative-liberal divide effected by modernizing tendencies in the church.

Later in his chapter on authority, Cattell discusses the absolutism of the Kingdom of God (Cattell, 20), where the authority of Christ’s headship is lived out:

“The kingdom is totalitarian. The bliss for man in God’s totalitarianism is almost impossible for us to conceive, because historically we have had so many unhappy experiences of unlimited power exercised by corrupt men” (ibid, 23).

The kingdom of God motivates people to go out and share the good news. Disciples in Cattell’s missiology take on the role of heralds or ambassadors who are sent forth from the King (11 Cor 15.19-20). “An Ambassador is known for two things: 1) the finesse of his diplomacy and 2) the depth of his comprehension of his government’s purpose” (23). For Cattell there are three axioms of the Christian ambassador: “First: His king has absolute authority. Second: He is sent, not to favorable allies, but to a kingdom in rebellion – the most difficult of all diplomatic missions. Third: His message is an authoritative demand to repent and be reconciled” (24).

Cattell sees all authority stemming from Christ’s headship, who is the root of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. This authority then gets acted out, performed, in the reality of God’s kingdom. If God’s reign is at hand, then we the church, are the messengers and citizens who participate in that reign. One criticism I have on his view is the choice of language around the idea of the kingdom as totalitarian. I can appreciate Cattell’s desire to show how the kingdom is alternative to the world’s kingdoms (and their totalitarian rule) but I think his terminology overplays this imagery; the kingdom of God isn’t totalitarian, but conversely:

“…It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”” (Luke 13:18-21 NRSV)

This influences Cattell’s understanding of the ‘herald,’ who he takes to have authority to demand repentance. But following John Howard Yoder I take a different route on the authority of the herald. Yoder argues that the:

“Herald announces an event. The event is announced as true, of course, and in fact as very important for the hearers, especially for those who have not heard it before. If it were not true the herald would not be raining his or her voice. Yet, no once is forced to believe. What the herald reports is not permanent, timeless, logical insights but contingent, particular events. If those events are true, and if others join the herald to carry the word along, they will with time develop a doctrinal system, to help distinguish between more and less adequate ways of proclaiming; but that system, those formulae, will not become what they proclaim” (1994:256).


“The truth claim of the herald or witness must remain thus non-coercive if it is to be valid. You never have to believe it. For that there are two reasons. First, because the message concerns a contingent, particular event within the challengeable relativity of historical reporting. It will always be possible to believe that the Exodus and Sinai, or the Resurrection and Ascension did not happen but were imagine later, or were misreported.  Secondly, you do not have to believe it because the herald has not clout. He or she cannot bring it about that if you refuse to believe you must be destroyed or demoted. In fact, it is the herald who is vulnerable, not a full citizen.”

Yoder’s understanding of herald accepts weakness, because that’s what his or her message is about,  the herald as Christian messenger of the kingdom is about the suffering servant and thus seeks to also imitate Christ as a medium of that message. Here authority takes on an entirely different epistemological stance towards the ‘other’ instead of being rooted in power, totalitarianism, and force it is itself humble, weak, and peaceable. If our authority is in Christ both the message and messenger will take this form.