I would like to start with a few short considerations regarding the notion of binding authority. An authority is binding when you are compelled to obey it. Now there are different ways of being compelled to obey. One obvious way is coercion. This is about dominion or domination. But authority is different. Authority is a principle that we freely recognize because we believe it to be legitimate.
Accordingly, there is a paradox associated with the very notion of binding authority. A biding authority is an authority that compels us to obey it out of our own free will.
Strange as this might sound, being thus freely compelled to give our assent happens to us all the time.
Think of mathematics. We are compelled to acknowledge that two and two makes four. Not acknowledging the fact would not be an act of freedom but a sign of stupidity or ignorance.
It is in this sense that we speak of a mathematical or a logical demonstration as having a binding force. This is not only the case of demonstrations. Think of axioms or of the logical principles that demonstrations rely upon. “The whole is greater than the parts”. It is an non-demonstrative statement that is binding because we immediately see that it is so and that it simply cannot be otherwise, even if one brings up the least Euclidian type of universe.
Think of faith now- of the very act of faith. It has a lot to do with the binding force of axioms: somebody who believes in Christ is somebody who acknowledges the truth of his teaching immediately and without demonstration. He or she is compelled to believe in him - not out of coercion but rather out of the conviction that it simply cannot be otherwise. I like the Greek term that stands behind the concept of authority in the writings of the New Testament: Jesus spoke with authority, that is, kat´exousian. literally according (kata) to what comes out (ex) reality or the way things are (ousia).
There is however an essential difference between the act of faith and a mathematical axiom. One cannot be a reasonable human being without acknowledging that two and two makes four but one can be a reasonable being and not believe in Christ. Actually this is why Christians speak of faith as a grace or as a gift from above while non-Christians are inclined to consider it rather as a peculiar kind of craziness.
Although we speak of two different things when we speak about the binding authority of faith and the binding authority of the Church, I think they share the same logical grounds. The Church is a human authority, not a divine one. She is not the source of faith but the means of its correct interpretation. It is the correct interpretation of faith, on both a theoretical and a practical level-- meaning the way the teaching of Jesus Christ should impact our existence provided it is supposed to make any difference at all. This implies a situation where the disciples of Christ need to decide about the correct interpretation of his teaching, him being no longer physically present to deliver this interpretation. In other words, the authority of the Church is binding when Christians are able to perceive in this human institution the immediate expression of Christ´s living word. Human institutions appear as the immediate medium through which Christ speaks to his disciples.
The question that we are asking today reads therefore in the following manner: can all the disciples of Christ agree on a definite institutional process of interpretation so as to confer to the results of this process a binding authority over themselves?
What is immediately clear is that the absence of such an agreement is the very reason why the disciples are split into the different corporate bodies that we call Churches. A Church is formed out of the agreement of all her members on some definite procedure of interpretation. The fact that there are a number of Churches implies that there is currently no unanimity among the disciples regarding such a procedure. But this very fact does not mean that such a procedure has never existed or that it will never be recovered. Actually, recovering it is the very purpose of the ecumenical movement as it seeks to gather all the disciples in one single Body, thus fulfilling the command of Christ that they be one as he is one with the Father. The very fact that we speak of recovery indicates that this unity has existed but has been lost.
The books of the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, tell about this unity of the early Church. Since all Christians consider these books as partaking of Christ´s binding authority, things would be very simple if we could find some sort of blueprint for the procedure of interpretation we are seeking therein. But it is far from being the case. True, these texts describe the one and undivided group the apostles presiding to the growth of the Church on earth after the ascension of their Master to heaven. Reading them, we understand that the formulation of the Church´s essential doctrine as well as its early organization did not go without harsh discussions between the apostles, although they were all unreservedly committed to the teaching of their Master and abundantly driven by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Still, the picture of the early Church that these writings convey is for all Christians that of the one and true Body of Christ. The problem is that the type of procedures that contemporary Christians identify with when they read those books diverge according to their ecclesial affiliations. In other words, each ecclesial denomination claims that it is in some way heir to the organization of the early Church. It is impossible to tell which is true or more faithful to this origin on the basis of these books because the institutional procedures at stake have taken a definite shape at a much later stage of history.
It all boils down to saying that, to the extent in which Christians are committed to the search an ecclesial principle of authority that would be common to all of them, they can hardly succeed with referring to those texts only. Whether they like it or not, they need to do a little bit of thinking by themselves. Of course, the members of some definite denomination can always claim that they are the only ones to know about the truth and read the writings of the New Testament in the right way. But then why should they bother about the search of a binding authority that would them unite with their brothers and sisters who think otherwise?
Accordingly, I think it is more fruitful to infer an understanding of the New Testament´s true ecclesiology from the way Churches function today than the other way round, that is, try to derive from this hypothetical ecclesiology an understanding of the way contemporary Church bodies should function. Let us therefore try to think about the modern ecclesial procedures of interpretation or the human institutions that point towards the possibility of a binding authority common to all Christians.
Actually, types of procedures are not that many. There are basically two ways of deciding between different interpretations of Christ´s word. There is a bottom-up approach and there is a top-down approach. The first relies on what Catholics call the sensus fidei of the faithful, the sense of truth that comes together with faith. The second posits an institutional charism of which the hierarchy of the Church is the depositary, a charism that goes back to the choice of the apostles by Christ and the choice of the apostles´ successors by the apostles themselves. These two approaches are like the two extremes of a continuous but finite spectrum. While no existing Church can be fully identified with either of them, each ecclesial body happens to be closer to one of the two extremes according to the greater or lesser influence it receives from the other extreme.
Thinking about a binding authority that would be common to all Christians, I find it impossible to conceive of the bottom-up approach as the ultimate solution. True, the understanding of Christ´s word that each believer receives through the action Holy Spirit and in virtue of faith and baptism, is a supremely binding authority for him or her. However, I see the role of this sensus fidei in authenticating the interpretation of Christ´s word, not in authoring or authorizing this teaching. Since there is according to the bottom-up logic no way in which the mind of one particular faithful should be considered as a priori superior to the mind of another faithful, even if it is supported by a majority within the Church, there is no reason why a dissenting faithful should abide by the ruling of the other faithful if this ruling goes against his or her better judgment since this judgment is considered supreme. The dynamics which is thus generated is well-known and runs directly counter to the recovery of unity associated with the search of a common binding authority. Those who truly disagree with the decision of the majority will be induced to found a new distinct ecclesial body on the basis of some other consensus which in turn might come to be questioned by those of the members who will disagree with its rulings etc. ad infinitum. Meanwhile, those who, for one reason or another, choose to stay faithful to their original ecclesial body even as they disagree with its rulings, will no longer recognize its authority as binding but resent it as some sort of spiritual tyranny.
In my estimation, it is clear that the bottom-up authentication of the faithful must work in connection with the top-down approach which is so often seen as the landmark of old Church traditions such as the Catholic and the Orthodox. What Catholics and Orthodox have in common is a strong emphasis on the role of bishops when it comes to defining the theoretical and practical aspects of Christ´s word. Just as the faithful of a particular Diocese grant binding authority to the rulings of their bishop , the faithful of all dioceses grant binding authority to the rulings that emanate from the body or the college that bishops form together. This goes for the Catholics as well as for the Orthodox. Besides, as you know very well in Finland, parts of the Lutheran world have preserved the episcopal institution. Finnish theologians went even so far as to defend the relevance of the notion of successio apostolica, from a Lutheran point of view, as the magisterial and governmental charism of bishops that goes back to the apostles.
Still, one can ask the same question regarding the college formed by the bishops as for the whole formed by the common faithful: what happens in case of disagreement? What kind of binding authority will decide between the bishops´ rival opinions? It is at this point, and only at this point, that a Catholic would make the case for the mind of the bishop of Rome as a binding authority in the Body of the Church. And just as in the case of the interaction between the common faithful and their bishops, the fact that one ascribes to the Pope a specific form of authority - an authority that no other bishop owns- should not be understood as some sort of blank cheque for unlimited power over the whole Church. To fulfill its role, the personal and idiosyncratic authority of the Pope is to be exerted in connection with that of the episcopal college as a whole. This is also the way I understand the passages of the Acts of the Apostles that describe Peter displaying his personal authority on behalf of the whole group of the Apostles after due discussion with them (Acts 15:7).
In order to be binding for all the faithful, I would therefore envisage the supreme authority in the Church as ultimately resulting from three layers working in tight connection with one another, three layers that, in their respective fields, are equally binding: the personal authority of the Pope, the collegial authority of bishops and the authority associated with the individual conscience of every faithful. I understand that this sounds too Catholic to be true. But I also think that if this is perceived to be the case, it is due to the fact that non-Catholics tend to project their vision of the Roman often abusive centralism on this three-layered notion of binding authority.
In actual fact, Roman centralism does not pertain to doctrinal authority but to practical administration. Its excessive character is itself the result of ecclesial divisions as the Patriarchate of Rome somehow shrank within its own boundaries across the centuries. From an administrative point of view, there is hardly any need to insist upon the radical transformation that the recovery of visible unity among Christians would bring with itself. Whatever the administrative form of such huge ecclesial Body be, I am convinced that it will not function properly without the interaction between the personal authority of the bishop of Rome, the collegial authority of bishops and the rest of the faithful being healed. True, I cannot demonstrate that this model of a three-layered binding authority is rooted in Scriptures as one can demonstrate that two and two makes four. But I take this lack of demonstrability as the token of a higher reality, namely: the credibility of the decisions emanating from the body composed of the Pope and the bishops lies in the ability of ordinary Christians to perceive them as a straight expression of the living Word of Christ.
Accordingly, the credibility of these decisions should be clearer than the conclusion of a demonstration: it should be as dazzlingly obvious as an axiomatic piece of evidence. So will all disciples of Christ immediately perceive that those in command are faithful to the advice that Peter gave them in his first epistle: “ shepherd the flock of God that is in your care, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God's will; not out of a desire for dishonest gain, but with enthusiasm” (5:2).