The Concept of Authority

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by Edward W. H. Vick


Authority 2(a) The term ‘authority’ refers to a relationship. It is a relational term. The term, like ‘revelation,’ points to a two-term relationship. Someone or something has authority over or for someone else. Someone reveals himself to someone else. Someone acknowledges the authority of another.  Someone understands what is revealed.

The word ‘authority.’ The institution or the person that has authority has power over another. It has the capacity to influence that other, and it sometimes in fact has done so and does so. The authority may be charismatic or official. Authority may be the effect of the charm or persuasiveness of a person. It may be due to the social pressure of wide acceptance of power as legitimate. It is difficult not to be influenced by a widely recognized authority. We may accept it simply because there is no alternative. We are persuaded by the orator. We bow to pressures we cannot escape. Pressures and sanctions, or simply the threat of pressures and sanctions, can persuade us to act in one way rather than in another. The forces at work around us lead us to the acceptable behaviour. In this sense the term ‘authority’ refers to the effective influence which a person, a book, a custom, a belief, an institution has over people.

point to ponder

Here it is clear that the effective authority of the Bible is identical with the influence it exerts. It is also clear that an appropriate response on the part of the reader is necessary.

(b) The term ‘authority’ is also used of the experts, the persons who know what they are talking about and who, because of this, deserve our respect when speaking. A person who does something competently may also be regarded as an authority when it is a matter of discussing how to do what he can do..

To have authority is to have influence. Someone influences because he is a friend and we are trying to please him; or perhaps because he is an expert and we acknowledge the right he has to be respected. ‘Authority,’ ‘competence,’ and ‘recognition’ are thus all very closely related concepts.6

They are closely related when we attempt to analyse the Bible’s authority. Here it is clear that the effective authority of the Bible is identical with the influence it exerts. It is also clear that an appropriate response on the part of the reader is necessary. One can acknowledge authority when one has experienced the influence of the writing in a particular way.

(c) Authority is acknowledged power. When people recognize that a person, an institution, a class has the right to exercise power, authority is in evidence. ‘Power’ means the capacity to influence another, to get one’s purpose fulfilled, one’s ideas accepted and acted upon, to get one’s will done. Power can be exercised without being recognized as right and proper. Such power may lead someone to perform exactly the same act as the exercise of legitimate power might produce. If someone flourishes a revolver in my face, that will certainly provide me with an incentive to co-operate with the person flourishing it. But there are also legitimate ways of relieving me of—say—my money. I may recognize the structured power of bureaucratic authority and permit the taxman to claim some of my money. On this definition, ‘authority’ means both the exercise of power and the recognition of it as legitimate. Indeed, recognition is the defining element. This is the important element in our present considerations. Authority means recognition. Authority ‘is exercised only over those who voluntarily accept it’ (Juvenal).7

(d). How and why do we come to acknowledge an authority? Does such an acknowledgment commit us to an automatic and uncritical acceptance of our authority’s pronouncements and demands whatever they are? What reasons can we give for our initial acceptance? Can a critical acceptance of authority lead to an uncritical following of its demands?

(1) One reason for recognition of an authority is belief in the rightness of established customs and traditions. We are taught that we should adopt beliefs and behaviour patterns, and we never question them. They teach us, they train us, before we are able to reason. Later we may find reasons for believing what they have trained us to believe, and doing what they have taught us to do. They socialize us into a tradition of values, beliefs and behaviour, and having accepted that tradition we may never question its validity. We have our authorities handed to us. It is precisely because we have received them in this way, without engaging in a serious process of rational justification, that we feel greatly threatened when we are confronted with alternatives. Do we entrench or do we explore? Shall we give consideration to the criticisms or shall we dismiss them without further ado?

(2) Max Weber8 recognizes another form of authority which he calls charismatic authority. An exceptional leader, endowed with outstanding persuasive qualities, gets a following. Such qualities as he manifests are seen as if supernatural, or superhuman. They set the leader apart from ordinary mortals, and make belief, loyalty, devotion and obedience easy and natural.

(3) But we do not need to be impressed by such outstanding personalities to accept our beliefs on authority. Most of what we believe comes from other people’s testimony. We have not ourselves been in a position to test all the claims we accept. Nor ever shall. We are usually not inclined to test them. We simply accept them. Such acceptance works and we live together constructively. It was Bishop Butler who said that ‘probability is the guide to life’. We must act on the evidence we have. We can’t prove everything. In fact, we cannot prove much. We have to take things on trust. Our trust is shown to be reasonable in that when we act on probabilities things go right and not wrong. Many things we simply accept. We couldn’t get along if we didn’t.

(4) But human beings, even the most exceptional of human beings, and even human beings under the influence of the divine, are fallible, limited and. suggestible. Suppose there were a human being who was infallible and at the same time was limited. Such a logical possibility is very relevant to the subject under discussion. We can think of an infallibility which extends to some matters and not to others, just as we think of an authority in some areas and not in others. I mean, it is conceivable that someone be infallible about some things but not about others. We can distinguish between total and partial infallibility. ‘He’s never wrong when he’s talking about such-and-such’ could be inferred from ‘He’s never been known to be wrong when he has talked about such-and-such.’ If we kept within the limits we could accept his authority.

But if we began asking him questions beyond the limits within which he was infallible, that person would be of little help, indeed might even be misleading, if not irrelevant. That would certainly be the case if he were not infallible and we took him to be so, and it was important for us that he be right.

(5) Authorities sometimes conflict. Which, if any of them, are we going to accept? When authorities conflict you have to decide between them. You can start with a high-sounding claim, ‘The Bible says so and so.’ And so it does. But one authority says that the Bible means this, and another says the Bible means that, and yet another says the Bible means the other when the Bible says so and so. When the authority, in this case the Bible, gives rise to such divergence in interpretation the individual will have to choose between the secondary authorities. I’ll choose my secondary authority, and repose my confidence there. But that only slides the issue along the corridor where I’ll meet it again. For why should I repose such confidence in that secondary authority rather than in another one? I have not settled, only shelved, the question of authority. This problem is acute when there is a conflict between interpretations, when for example contradictory doctrinal conclusions are constructed and presented as the biblical teaching. Of course, a passage may be set in different contexts and speak to different situations without providing the problem of conflict.

(6) Religious believers sometimes combine authoritarianism with scepticism.9 They will sometimes say, ‘The authority is so sacred that we must not question it.’ Neither must we try to establish it, give reasons for it. It does not permit, nor require, proof nor even support.’ Such authoritarianism has its particular psychological appeal and that is the main reason why it persists. The intellectually timid or indolent are sometimes quite happy to let others do their thinking for them and believe what they are told to believe. They ask ‘What do we believe?’ and then demand, ‘Please tell me.’ rather than seeking the truth for themselves. They enjoy conforming and the freedom from responsibility such conformity brings. Such a person ‘may be more comfortable, for the search after wisdom often brings sorrow and disillusionment.
‘. . . Better to raise one’s eyes to the sky and seek humbly for the truth, even though the search result in failure and unhappiness, than to give our beliefs into the keeping of another.’10

The sinister counterpart to such conformity is a belief in the virtue of conformity, That may lead to the opposition and persecution of those who quest for truth by those who are certain that they have found it. The will to dominate requires the will to conform. One psychological type supplements the other.

The appeal to the sacredness of the text of Scripture is one example of this type of conformity, of this type of submission. One must not question a sacred text. But questions arise. Once admit the sacredness of the text and one is then free from the responsibility of answering questions that inevitably arise in relation to that text. It may then happen that the purported sacredness of the text gets projected on to the interpreter so that the interpretation is itself put beyond question.

It is the initial step which must be questioned, the initial acceptance of the authority, in this case the text of Scripture, as untouchable, as beyond question. What if any is the rational ground for taking this decisive step in the first place? Or is it irrational? At what point does one refuse to give reasons for one’s belief?

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