The Creation of the Animals, by Raphael (1518-19).
What Does Authority Have to Do with Religion? | Fr. John Michael McDermott, S.J. | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
“Authority” is generally used as a derogatory term in our world. Nazism gave the word a bad name as German officials, one after another, at the Nuremburg war trials sought to excuse themselves by claiming that they were just obeying a higher authority. All totalitarian systems, fascist or communist, were derided as authoritarian. Actually the attack on authority has deeper roots. Before time began, Satan revolted against God’s authority and fell into misery. In more proximate history, the Enlightenment saw itself as a revolt against tradition, in favor of reason. All affirmations of truth were to be judged before the bar of reason. Kant summarized the Enlightenment position by dismissing authority as a condition of earlier, benighted humanity not yet come of age.1 Modern man intends to think for himself. Before Kant, the battle of the books between ancients and moderns had been fought with the moderns and Newtonian science carrying the day. Before that contest, authority suffered a debilitating defeat when Luther and his cohorts rejected ecclesial authority. But at least they respected the Bible as God’s authoritative word. Post-Enlightenment Scriptural exegesis, however, invented the historical-critical method, by which experts sought to go behind the Bible to tell modern readers how it was composed in answer to the needs of various first-century audiences, opening the way for an aggiornamento, whereby they would adapt God’s word to whatever audiences they thought needed the intellectual upgrade. God’s word was reduced to kerygma, the event of proclamation, which became quite protean since an event, as Plato (Timaeus 28a) and Aristotle (De interpretatione 9, 19a 35-b 3) noted long ago, is not subject to the law of contradiction. Needless to say, in the process of modern exegesis, God’s eternal word has suffered a loss of authenticity, and, it scarcely needs mentioning, authority. No wonder that Karl Barth excoriated it: in seeking to go behind God’s word, modern exegesis undermines it.2
An unprejudiced reading of the Bible reveals that it rests upon authority. Moses spoke with God, and then on his behalf, when he received and delivered the Ten Commandments from Sinai. The prophets constantly reiterated the phrases, “Thus says the Lord” and “Oracle of the Lord.” Serious repercussions were threatened if God’s word, articulated through their minds and mouths, was not obeyed. The New Testament is likewise replete with appeals to authority. From his mission’s initiation, Jesus spoke with authority, not like the scribes, and cast out demons (Mk 1:22-27). His Father thundered from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” (Mk 9:76). In fact, when the high priests confronted Jesus after his purification of the temple, they sought his authority. In Jewish religion, nothing higher counts in the final analysis: is your authority from heaven or from men (Mk 11:27-30). In the final analysis, authority counts over all else. Nothing higher than God’s word can be imagined by Jews. As God’s only Son (Mk 12:6), indeed his Word (Jn 1:1-14), Jesus communicated authority to the Twelve, sending them out to “preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:14-15; 6:7.12). This continuation of his mission Jesus confirmed after his resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all days until the consummation of the age” (Mt 28:18-20). St. Paul insisted that, though he was least of the Apostles, he enjoyed apostolic authority and should be heeded and obeyed when communicating the Lord’s words (1 Cor. 9:1-2, 15-19; 15:9; Gal. 1:1-9). Moreover, he presupposed that his successors would also act and teach with authority (1 Tm 4:11-16; 5:7; 2 Tm 4:1-5; Ti 1:9-11; 2:1, 15; 3:1). Authority is so well attested in the New Testament that only spiritual blindness can overlook it.
Authority belongs inherently to historical religions, even if other religions have authority figures.