Appeals to Authorities

My change of plans has left me with unexpected time to blog this week. But the blogosphere seems quiet, no doubt because of vacations as well as the drought and record high temperatures (despite some unscientific doubts at the Daily Duck) here in England and also, I understand, in much of the USA. Actually as I have been writing this a thunderstorm has brought our first noticeable rain since May, but then moved on.

So I have turned to the southern hemisphere, where it is winter – not quite as far south as the Antarctic, where Suzanne’s post to Better Bibles Blog certainly does not belong, but to Tim Bulkeley’s SansBlogue from New Zealand. It turns out that Tim has been suffering from winter blues like flu, but he has recovered enough to make an interesting posting on the role of “authority” in scholarship – see also my comment on this posting.

In my series on the scholarly and fundamentalist approaches to the Bible, I criticised (in the scholarly rather than the negative sense of the word) the way in which fundamentalist Christians appeal to “the clear teaching of Scripture”, claiming that this is sufficient to settle disputed issues and implying that proper scholarly study of the matter is unnecessary.

Tim’s posting reminds me of another technique which is often used by fundamentalist Christians, as well as by others who are not fundamentalist or even Christian. That is to quote from their favourite authorities, and presume that what they said is the last word on the matter in question. The authorities which Christians cite are very often their favourite preachers from the present or the past. For example, those in some Christian traditions might cite John Piper and CH Spurgeon – both favourites of Adrian Warnock although Adrian is not as guilty as some of using them as authorities. Those in other traditions might cite their favourite Reformer or the Church Fathers.

This method of arguing was normal in the Hellenistic and Roman world and in mediaeval Europe, where few people dared to think for themselves. But during the Renaissance period western thinkers regained the confidence that they could think as well as ancients like Plato and Aristotle and to question their conclusions. As part of this movement the Reformers realised that they could think as well as the Church Fathers and interpret the Bible for themselves. Perhaps, like modern scholars, they relied too much on their own intellect and not enough on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but at least they broke the old pattern of thinking that Christian teaching must always be based on the authority of some teacher of a previous generation. They did not of course reject the teaching of the Fathers and the mediaeval Schoolmen completely, but they accepted only what they found to conform to their own interpretations of the Bible.

For the Reformers did not reject authority completely, but they accepted only the authority of God and of Jesus Christ, as revealed and presented in the Bible. Thus their principle was sola Scriptura, only Scripture as an authority for Christian belief and practice.

But it seems that some Christians today have returned to the mediaeval method of citing others as authorities rather than having the confidence to think for themselves. Now this is understandable when those who cite authorities consider themselves to ignorant and uneducated, and when the authorities they cite are proper scholars – and not just popular preachers, or authors who claim to be scholarly but whose argumentation is in fact on the level of advertising copy. And it is of course proper to cite those to whose work we refer, as sources of information rather than as authorities. But is dependence on authorities the proper Christian way of thinking?

As I commented on Tim’s blog,

because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

Mark 1:22 (TNIV©)

The teachers of the law, or “scribes”, endlessly quoted other authorities, as is seen in the Talmud which is full of rabbis citing earlier rabbis. But Jesus cut through their verbiage with his repeated “Truly I tell you“, citing no authority but his own. And this had far more impact on the crowds. Could it be that our own preaching and evangelism have less impact than they might because we rely on other authorities rather than on the authority which has been given to us as Christians?

For Jesus has given authority to us who believe in him. Explicitly, he gave his disciples – not just the twelve apostles but the 72 (or 70) representing all believers – authority over evil spirits and all the powers of Satan (Luke 10:17-19). Implicitly, he has also given authority to teach in his name, for on the basis of the authority which he has himself he commanded believers to do this (Matthew 28:18-20). Our teaching does not have to depend on any authority other than that of Jesus and the Bible. (It should not be done independently of the church, but its content does not come under the authority of church leaders, compare Galatians 2:6-14 where Paul opposes the recognised church leaders.)

As the apostle John wrote to ordinary believers,

the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.

1 John 2:20,27 (TNIV©)

Thus we all have in our hands

the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:17 (TNIV©)

3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (TNIV©)

Let us not rely on how others in the past have wielded this weapon, the Word. But let us first protect ourselves with the rest of armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-16) and then go out, as the Spirit leads and under the authority only of Christ, to win the world for him!

0 thoughts on “Appeals to Authorities

  1. I blogged on appeal to authority back in April from a slightly different perspective.

    What concerns me most about quoting authorities is that it is always out of context, frequently misunderstood, and like you said, not necessarily the final word on that subject. Authors (and authorities) are capable of development in their thinking and some of us are even occasionally just plain wrong! Appeal to authority is a quick way to add some punch to your own opinions and, more often I’m afraid, serves as a substitute for doing any real thinking of your own.

  2. We are all good at spotting the fallacies of others but less so at admitting that we are capable of them ourselves. You’re certainly not one to rely slavishly on the thinking of others.

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