When Pontius Pilate warns Jesus that he has authority over life and death, Jesus reminds him, “you would have no authority over me, unless it had been given from above” (John 19:10–11). At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus assures his disciples that “all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), and elsewhere he grants authority to his disciples (Luke 10:9). Throughout Revelation, characters receive authority—scorpions to torment men (9:3, 10), beasts to fight the saints (13:7), victorious saints to rule nations (2:26).
In the Bible, authority is “given” and “received.” It’s an odd turn of phrase. Perhaps it’s a mere idiom, semantically and substantively thin. But perhaps it’s something more, a clue to an ancient account of authority that has potential for resolving our modern dilemmas. More on that in a minute.
Here’s one side of the aporia: If authority is conferred, it presumably has to be conferred by someone with more authority than the recipient. No one can bestow more authority than he has, right? But that reduces authority to playacting. The people cede authority to government because the people are greater, so the government has authority over them only because the people play along. What happens when they tire of the pretense?
Besides, where does that higher authority get his authority? Where do the people get the authority to confer authority? We’re left with either an infinite regression or an ultimate authority that is under no authority, a Super-tyrant, above and outside authority, who is at the same time the necessary anchor of all other authority. I’d like that job, if there’s an opening.
Here’s the other side: Authority that is not conferred is just as strange, just as impotent. I can claim authority—to arrest speeders or to confer doctoral degrees—but I can’t effectively exercise that authority, even if I impersonate a traffic cop or a college president. I might get away with it for a while, but judges would dismiss my tickets and no college would hire someone holding my diploma. So it seems that authority must be conferred if it is to be legitimate.
Let’s push the biblical idiom, put God into the picture, and see what happens. Putting God into the mix cuts through several dilemmas. God arrests the infinite regression; he is the one with whom all bucks stop. Since he’s God we don’t need to investigate the source of his authority, because he just has it, by definition. God guarantees of the legitimacy of all authority, underwrites the very possibility of legitimacy. (This theoretical point in no way resolves the practical difficulties surrounding legitimacy.)
Yet that resolution comes at some cost, since it seems to cast God in the role of Super-tyrant. As the history of theopolitics attests, this isn’t a hypothetical danger. Here is where the biblical idiom comes into its own, because Scripture describes Trinitarian life itself as a dynamic of gift and reception. The Son has authority because the Father has given him authority to have life in himself and to judge (John 5:27). The Son has authority to lay down his life and to take it up, because he receives it from his Father (10:18). From the Father the Son receives the gift of authority over all flesh (17:2), and all authority in heaven and on earth. Even the Son isn’t an autonomous individual with innate authority. Even the authority of the divine Son is conferred authority.
Max Weber knew that traditional authority was grounded in personal charisma. Shakespeare knew it too, and said it better: “You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master,” says Kent. “What’s that?” asks Lear. And Kent answers: “Authority” (King Lear 1.4.2). Again the biblical idiom opens up fresh insight, suggesting that the authority radiant in Lear’s face is bestowed authority. “Glorify your Son that your Son might glorify you,” Jesus says in his high priestly prayer (John 17:1). Glory, like authority, is given and received. Charisma, including divine charisma, is always already “routinized,” always already caught up in rites of bestowal and reception.
Like most everything else, the question of authority comes down to an issue of theology proper. In the biblical perspective, all authority is conferred authority. All authority is authorized.
And that means that God is the furthest thing from a Super-tyrant. God is enthroned in heaven, but he’s not alone. He has never been alone, because he is Father, Son, and Spirit. There is space on the Father’s throne also for Jesus, space on Jesus’s throne for the saints, space in heaven for the thrones of elders and martyrs. God’s authority is absolute not because he jealously hoards it. God’s authority is absolute as conferred, expressing a glory so infinite that it can be shared without being diminished.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
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