Questioning Authority

Fotoshooting AktionOne of the basic principles introduced to students of philosophy is that it is important to question authority, i.e., that one of the signs of a mature mind is that it doesn’t believe everything it is told by an authority figure simply because the source is an authority figure.1 The old warning is, “Don’t believe everything you’re told.” A religious or political authority may be correct, but not simply because he is an authority—his claims should be questioned in light of of universally available, rational principles.

Consequently, there is one period in the history of philosophy that has been widely criticized for being too reliant on authority and thus less philosophical. Medieval philosophy (occurring from roughly 400 A.D. to 1500 A.D.) has often been passed over because its authors made constant appeals to the authority of the Scriptures and to authors considered to be trustworthy interpreters of the Bible. To the medieval mind, an argument from the Scriptures represented the strongest kind of argument.2 In this regard, the medievals were similar to those of us in the Restoration Movement today.

The rejection of the medieval period as erroneously indebted to authority presupposes that moderns have come to understand the need to provide good, universally available reasons for our beliefs, whereas medieval thinkers had not yet realized this. Yet the human mind is always reliant on authority; the medievals simply admitted this was so, as C.F.J. Martin explains:

Authority functions in modern society, but its role is practically ignored. We never speak of it: nevertheless, it is in fact by the application of authority that we have learnt almost everything we know that is worth knowing: that is, all the things that we learnt before we went to school. We learnt our language, our family relationships and history, and our culture from our parents. . . . But, we [as moderns] think, authority should be superseded as soon as possible, and replaced by pure reason. No-one should ever believe anything, we think, or act in a particular way, unless they can see good reason for doing so. The fact that believing or acting in such-and-such a way is enjoined by some authority, whether divine or human does not count as a good reason at all. This seems to me crazy, and would have seemed crazy to any medieval.3

No single human knows everything relevant to a human life, and so we must trust one another as authorities (doctors, advisors, parents, reporters, lawyers, etc.). Martin goes on to say that the modern mind is worse off than the medieval mind, because the modern mind pretends that it does not rely on authority, whereas the medieval mind relishes its reliance on good authority.4 Of course, the thoughtful medieval philosopher knew that he might have to reject human authority sometimes. But when he did reject human authority, he wasn’t therefore doomed—as the modern may be—to try to build up all knowledge from first principles without competent authorities to help him.5

The lesson for the Christian is this: Once we have become convinced by the evidence that God is real and that His word is authoritative, we must then work to progress to a level of trust at which we obey God even though we cannot understand everything involved in God’s rationale (Isaiah 55:9). To trust in this way is not an irrational dependence on authority, but rather a perfectly reasonable dependence on the Ultimate Authority. We must not be ashamed of giving a “Thus Saith the Lord” for what we believe and teach.

Of course, we will willing to provide extrabiblical confirmation of our biblical positions when such is available, but we must remember that much truth that is available to us exclusively through God’s revelation. If we have convinced ourselves that the only path to knowledge is through a single person’s unaided independent rationality, then we will be incomplete in this life and tragically lost in the next.

  1. E.g., Robert C. Solomon, et al., Introducing Philosophy, 10th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 11. 

  2. See C.F.J. Martin, An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), 16-17. 

  3. Ibid., 20-21, 22, bracketed item added. 

  4. Ibid., 22-23. 

  5. Ibid. 

- 2017