By Whose Authority?: Burrows On Gerson’s Vision of Ecclesiology As The Source And Locus Of Authority

[Gerson] admits in a provocative digression that he considered “the authority of ruling [auctoritas regiminis] to be the very basis of religion.” This is no small point, not only in terms off the theoretical basis of his eclesiology but for grasping the broader question of his functional view of religion: religio represented for Gerson, as in its classical sense, the structuring force for society in general terms. Obedience, therefore, was not a matter of one’s reasoned conclusion that the structures or duties imposed by superiores were correct and hence acceptable. Quite the contrary: authority itself served as the basis of religion, even if concrete instances of its exercise were somehow misguided . . . – Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, pp.264-265

Jan Hus burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Gerson's friend and mentor, the Cardinal d'Ailly, was prosecutor. Gerson himself had been a long-time advocate for silencing Hus, agreeing with both the verdict of heresy and judgement that Hus be turned over to the secular arm for execution.

Jan Hus burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Gerson’s friend and mentor, the Cardinal d’Ailly, was prosecutor. Gerson himself had been a long-time advocate for silencing Hus, agreeing with both the verdict of heresy and judgement that Hus be turned over to the secular arm for execution.

The quote is misattributed to Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.’ Proving that a misattributed quote has little value, my own predilections and preferences have continued a leftward drift, socially, politically, and theologically. At the same time, I always temper my own radicalism with an unswerving dedication to particular institutional structures as the necessary context within which particular radicalisms make sense. For example, I have been very public in my agreement with the radical critique of American party politics and their elections as tools used by the ruling class, by and large, to provide the illusion of democratic control over public policy. In broad outlines, where the money talks and the bullshit walks, neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties differ all that much in their commitment to rapacious capitalism. A the same time, I am committed to the American electoral process – particularly in our present historical moment – as the last safeguard against the collapse of our republican experiment into a kind of amalgam of fascism and strong-man authoritarianism like much of the so-called Third World experienced during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In a similar fashion, I side with those within my own particular denomination who, exhausted by the constant struggle against a better organized yet increasingly irrelevant conservative plurality, demand we change our policies regarding sexual minorities. At the same time, any movement toward schism, whether it is a left-leaning schism or right-leaning, is abhorrent to me. My prior commitments to the institution of the United Methodist Church – both to its theology as well as its current certainly flawed really existing structure – is the framework within which my radicalism occurs, and is the background against which I believe change should occur.

In the last chapter of his study of Gerson’s De consolatione theologiae, Mark Burrows looks at how Gerson underpins his vision of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, guided by theologiae, to our final rest in God. While Gerson’s text itself, his understanding of theology as paideia, his voluntarist soteriology, and his vision of the converted viator as working with God to bring about “the new Jerusalem”, all point to a series of changes, some of them particularly progressive considering the age, to Gerson’s thought, Burrows contends this vision of a biblical and reforming theology cannot be separated from Gerson’s prior commitment to the Church as the source of authority to which all must submit. While Burrows suggests the Gerson presents the Church, too, as in via, a pilgrim Church not yet “washed clean and without blemish”, it is precisely the actual structure and order of the church and its hierarchy that reflects a divinely ordained “law and order” forming the basis for all who would wish to be “on the way”.

The theme of authority runs throughout the chapter. It’s in a discussion of Gerson’s hermeneutic and view of “tradition” as the source for understanding Scriptural texts. It lies behind his distinction between what Gerson calls iustitia fraternae, the kind of admonishments necessary for the proper ordering and functioning of the institution, and the broader framework of lex divina et ordo, which for Gerson certainly justify silencing those whose teaching and practice threaten the very fabric both of the social and the ecclesiastical order. It is the heart of his polemics against, in particular Jan Hus’s overly-moralistic “neo-Donatist” vision of the Church as comprising only those “elect from eternity”, such election providing them not only with the confidence in their works but served as the basis for Hus and his followers to dismiss the authority of what was admittedly a broken and corrupt church.

Burrows describes Gerson as both a conservative and progressive reformer. Gerson wishes zeal to be tempered by moderation and patience. Gerson envisions what Burrows repeatedly calls “a pilgrim Church”; his return to a thorough-going Augustinian anthropology discussed previously allows him the freedom to condemn the kind of moralizing Hus and his followers both taught and practiced* as missing the point about the nature of the Church in via. He opposes a regnant apocalypticism with a moderate eschatology that, while always present as an operative part of his larger theological vision, is nevertheless tempered by a faithful patience. In a time in which one of Gerson’s theological opponents was writing polemics justifying regicide while Hus’s followers continued to declare the Roman Church the anti-Christ, Gerson’s conservative progressivism was a voice of reason in a time when, it seemed, reason no longer mattered.

And it all comes back to the matter of authority. As described by Burrows, Gerson saw the hierarchies of church and society as reflecting the Divine law and order. It did little good to kick against those pricks precisely because they were instituted by God; far better to work within this lex divina et ordo so that the Church could more properly set itself as the Church on its way, yet never to reach its final goal until the end of history, an end Gerson adamantly insisted was still a long way off.

We post-moderns, accepting the modernist critique of authority, struggle with matters of authority. The opposition of the social good versus the needs of the individual still exist despite the rejection of the theoretical foundation of authority, whether rooted in revealed truth, tradition, or some metaphysical understanding of human nature. Thus we find ourselves ill-equipped to weather the particular storms of our age, whether they be within the Church in its various manifestations or in secular society with its warring groups and the voices demanding the primacy of the individual. In the midst of this cacophony, a moderate voice like Gerson’s – appealing to authority as an already-existing and necessary part of human life, ordering and limiting any individual’s place within the interwoven strands of larger commitments, whether they’re social, political, or religious – would be welcome while, I think, little heard.

It is at this point that I want to add just a couple thoughts. First, I am glad that, 24 years after I purchased it, I committed myself to reading and reflecting on Mark Burrows’s book. This afternoon I was thinking of Ecclesiastes, how there seems to be a time for all things and each thing; this particular moment in the life of my own Church makes discovering Jean Gerson and his tempered progressive vision of reform not only welcome but, I think, important. Like Gerson’s insistence that theology is too important to be left to the professional theologians, Burrows’ book is far too important a source for insight into the complex and confounding history of the Church as well as one of its more neglected theologians to be relegated to academic church historians. While certainly not an “easy” read, it is one that should have a far broader audience precisely because in our own disordered age we are in dire need of a Biblical and reforming theology that is conservative in the best sense of the word while nevertheless progressive as is necessary.

And a special thanks to my good friend Mike Jones. A fellow Wesley Seminarian, I asked Mike to oversee my reading, holding me accountable both for reading and writing these reflections. Because of my commitment to that covenant, I feel like I’ve gained much from this study of Gerson’s dialogue. As I move on, I feel grateful for the peace that passes all understanding, as Gerson ended De consolatione theologiae, as it accompanies my further reading.

*It is not for nothing that while I sympathize in principle with Hus’s condemnation both of the structural rot of the Mother Church as well as the scandalous practices from simony to concubinage prevalent within the hierarchy I believe most of my immediate contemporaries would find little attractive in Hus’s highly moralizing vision of the Church. It is one thing to be right in principle; it is a wholly other thing to be right in all the wrong ways. Hus may have been correct in his description of the Church, and his judicial murder solved little; that does not make Hus’s antidote any more correct. It was a villainous era with few heroes, including Jan Hus and Jean Gerson.