What Does Authority Mean?
December 8, 2016
I would say that “authority” has been one of the top theological buzzwords of 2016. Much has been written about authority and submission in male/female relationships, authority and subordination between the Father and the Son, and on the authority of Scripture. I’ve written a good deal on the topic myself this year. Often I have seen authority claimed that is unauthorized. Other times I have agreed on authorization, but not in the meaning of how the word is being used. For a word that is being used so much, we better know what we mean when we are saying it.
One place where I have found a good definition and description of authority is in Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel. Before addressing interpretive authority for the Scriptures, Vanhoozer knows he needs to define authority and discuss how it relates to rationality. To do this, he begins with the principal of authority: the Triune God:
Authority is rightful say-so, the power to commend belief and command obedience. Authority is linked to authorship, for who has more right to say-so over something than the one who conceived and originated it? [He then references Rom. 13:1, Rom. 4:17, Gen. 6:18, 15:18, Exod. 19:5 and Deut. 7:6] All three persons of the Trinity are involved in everything that God does, creating and covenanting alike: omnia opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt (all the external works of the Trinity are indivisible). This includes exercising authority. (85)
The all-knowing God is the creator of all things, therefore having rightful power to communicate authoritatively to his creatures. He knows what we are created for, and he knows how to get us there. Vanhoozer uses the illustration of a chess game, in that without the rules, the game is no fun and there is no real freedom to play chess. “It follows, then, that authority---rightful say-so---is not a coercive force but an enabling condition of free play.... Far from constraining human freedom, authority is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (85-86). Vanhoozer bids us to think of a conductor for an orchestra, who is "unifying common action through rules binding for all" (87). He moves from teaching on the covenantal relationship of divine authority and human answerability to introduce the concept that “biblical authority orients freedom to the new reality that is Jesus Christ” (86).
Moving on to human relationships, Vanhoozer emphasizes that “’authorization’ is the key term. ‘To be an authority is to be authorized by something or someone beyond oneself’…(Rom. 13:1).... What authority authorizes is an office: ‘To have authority is to exercise an office and to do so because someone authorized it.’” (86). The author is concerned here to progress to his main point of who are authorized biblical interpreters. But he first wants to show how authority has been a theme early in the drama of Scripture. Adam and Eve were vice-regents, “ruled rulers,” under God’s command to “Fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). And so Vanhoozer says, “’The most basic office we hold is that of divine image,’” noting that this “authority over the earth has nothing to do with imposing one’s will to power on creatures or creation. On the contrary, God authorized the first couple ‘to accomplish a particular task, to act in a particular capacity, to seek a particular end’” (87).
Adam and Eve failed to make that end, disordering authority when “they decided to do something for which they were not authorized. The primal sin, however, was Adam’s failure to exercise oversight: the fall was both a violation of the law and an abdication of office” (88). Thankfully divine authority is restored in Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18, Eph. 1:20-21), who sums up all three of the offices of prophet, priest, and king that we see in the OT.
The authority principle of Christianity, I have said, is the Triune God in communicative action. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word who was with God and was God, made flesh---one of us. The Son sees, is, and does everything the Father sees, is, and does, with one exception: the Father eternally begets the Son; the Son is eternally begotten. Jesus alone is thus both able and authorized to reveal the Father: he is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Stated differently: Jesus is God’s personal and eternal Word made human and historical. He is the eternal divine communicative activity---the light and life of God---become incarnate (Heb. 1:2). This explains why all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him: he is the divine Son in and through whom all things have been made (Col. 1:16) and remade---that is, made right and rightly ordered. (90)
Praise God we still have a particular task, to act in a particular capacity, to a particular end. How do we look at authority under the new inaugurated kingdom of God as we wait for its consummation? Vanhoozer continues to progress toward his answer regarding divine authority delegated in authorized interpretive communities of Scripture. But I wanted to back up to something he wrote about human relationships:
God’s Word authorizes certain ways human beings are to live together before him in order to flourish. This is worth pondering: the primary purpose of authority is to provide persons with what is needed to help others to flourish. (87)
I think this is something that Eph. 5 really gets at. We see a command for mutual submission, and under that, another call for wives to submit to their own husbands. That is so often emphasized without noticing how much is written to the husband there. Here we have Paul, with authorized say-so, calling husbands to service, using the language of domestic chores and self-denial, to point to the cross. Here is a responsibility for the husband to care for his wife in a manner that is radical to the Greco-Roman culture of that time (something I’m going to write more about soon), for her flourishing, just as Christ has given all to his church for her flourishing. This cannot be done without the cross. It requires complete humility, a dependence on God’s power rather than personal control. And as we think about what that flourishing looks like, we look forward to that Great Day of Christ’s return. We look toward an eternal service to God, in which men and women are co-heirs reigning with him (2 Tim. 2:12, 1 Cor. 6:2-3). That is our end, to God be the glory.