The Gift of Authority

by Phil Johnson


Authority is a gift, a wonderful gift. This gift is the source of human knowledge. It is a gift that comes with being human. Human authority issues from human authors, and human authors are individual persons who are born and who die.

Although authority is a gift, it is not always employed to the good. There is evil authority. There is also erroneous authority. In order for us to understand and to praise the gift, we need to be clear about what it is.

A conventional notion of authority is a hierarchy. The picture that comes easily to mind is a triangle—a pyramid in 3-D with authority located at the top and moving down from there. This certainly represents common instances of authority, but it is derivative authority.

If hierarchical authority is derivative, what is the central source of authority upon which it draws? In searching for the answer, let us begin by consulting a relatively reliable authority, a dictionary. It would be better, perhaps best, if I had a 1991 Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, but the best dictionary in our house is a big Random House Dictionary, copyright 1966, 1967. Here are some selections from its entries about authority.

In the Random House, 13 meanings are listed.

authority, ... n. 1. the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine. 5. an accepted source of information, advice, etc. 7. an expert on a subject: He is an authority on baseball. 8. persuasive force; . . . 9. a statute, . . . 10. . . commanding influence: the authority of a parent [some parents may say, “Oh that there were some”]; the authority of a great writer. 12. a warrant for action; justification. 13. testimony; witness.

Almost at the end, before the synonyms are listed, this dictionary says, as have others I have consulted, that our English word comes from the Latin through Old French and Middle English. Then it says, [“... See AUTHOR, ... ]”.

author, ... n. 1. a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist. . . — v.t. 4. to write; be the author of . . . 5. to originate . . .

Numbers 4 and 5 under author bring us finally to the verb describing the action that provides—gives birth to—the reality of authority that is described by the definitions given for the nouns. Authority is authored. The following etymological comment takes us to what is more basic, from the Latin, from its primary source, “author writer .... (ptp. of augere to increase) . . .]”

The clue that catches my eye, which I think can lead us to the foundations of authority, is the notation that the infinitive Latin root of the noun authority is augere, to increase. This is the original verb source of the noun. In English, the infinitive verb form is “to author.”

Giving increase it appears, based upon this authority, is the basic act that underlies human authority. When our parents conceived us, they gave increase, they authored us. The. moment we were born, we authored a cry and passed along the body wastes we had authored.

In our early days, our parents and families authored much to us, and we began to author—a little bit at a time. Action and gesture were followed by the decisively human act of authoring our first words. Though it remains the case that far more is authored to us than we author, at an early age we begin to develop our own inner canons or standards for what we believe to be true.

Very early on in our lives we begin to compete for our own authority. The nature of our authority is worked out in a cauldron of interacting lives. If we are nurtured with care, our authority develops in a healthy way. Even so, we find ourselves in the midst of competing authorities. Sometimes this competition leads people to conclude that authority is at heart a curse rather than a gift. I have felt that way at times, but I think that the feeling reflects a failure of understanding.

As we grow up, the inner authority that is developing is partially independent of even our own preferences. There are times when this inner authority, which cannot be kidded, forces a truth upon us that we would prefer to resist.

For example, one New Year’s Eve, after a Christmas in Massachusetts, my family and I departed from a motel in Pennsylvania and headed for Chicago, bypassing the tolls of 1-80 by using Highway 30. We were travelling in tandem with the Oak Forest, Illinois contingent of the family who had spent Christmas with us in the East.

I privately entertained the hope that, in spite of the miles to be covered, we could make it in time for me to get to the final game of The North Park College Holiday Basketball Tourney. I had nothing but my faulty memory to assure me that there even were any games that night, and I had no knowledge of the schedule. Figuring the odds, I hypothesized that North Park would be in the finals and thus would be playing the second game that would start about 9:30 p.m. Though I pressed us on, it began to be clear that we would not make it in time.

When all seemed lost, almost like Phileas Fogg in “Around the World in Eighty Days” who discovered that he was still in time because he had crossed the International Date Line, I suddenly remembered that we had crossed a time zone. There was an extra hour!

Leaving the family in Oak Forest rather abruptly, I headed north through Chicago. I arrived at North Park Gym just in time for the opening tip of the championship game featuring the North Park Vikings. Elated by my good fortune, I found a seat in the stands by Jeremy Johnson, Mel Soderstrom, and John Weborg, who were surprised to see me. I related my story to these friends and said, for their theological enjoyment, “It was Divine Providence, right?”

They laughed and I thought it was the perfect remark. I should have been more cautious. Jeremy is no slouch of a theologian Mel is always alert to such matters, and North Park Seminary theology professor John’s stature is no secret. Weborg said, ‘That may be, but were not supposed to tempt it.”

At that moment I did not allow this remark to temper my triumphalism, but I have never forgotten it. My inner authority recognized the truth of what he said in spite of myself. To this day when I tempt providence—less than in the past, I hope—John’s words come irresistibly to mind. I cannot deny their authority. I have been lucky that Divine Providence has been adequate where my own providence has been lacking.

Though a center of authority grows in us that is not entirely subject to us, it is we in our own persons who are or are not convinced by what is authored to us. Further, we live within the limits of and are nourished by the particular authorities that have been established in our human civilization, country, and family. Sometimes we rebel against particular authorities and seek to establish some other basis of authority as, for example, the American colonists did against English authority.

In the midst of our daily lives, the sources of authority are not always clear. We may rarely think about the authority we rely upon daily. In some areas of life, competition for authority is intense, and most of us have plenty of misgivings about our own authority, especially when we are aware of our ignorance. The truth is that all sorts of authorities have been authored and imposed—many very necessary and for our great benefit; others that are false, negative, and enslaving.


We gather the material upon which we build our lives from this myriad of authorities (authorings). We take most of this for granted but there is something autonomous in each person, in each of us—the authority by which we evaluate. It begins as children as an action, an interaction, rather than a word or a clear idea.

Even when a person is not free to author much of the activities of her or his own life, which is the case for children, slaves, prisoners, and the like, a person remains free to author or choose his or her attitude, as Viktor Frankl discovered in a Nazi concentration camp. He describes clearly in Man’s Search for Meaning how life-giving it was to discover that, despite a lack of outer authority, he retained the power of inner authority.

Perhaps the idea he authors in the following passage can serve as a case study.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (p. 86, emphasis added).

When I first read these lines, I understood something I had not known before. It gladdened my heart to recognize the depth of personal human freedom and the Grace of God—human freedom because it revealed that personal life cannot be easily squeezed out; God’s Grace, because God has made it that way.

But what is the authority of this passage from Frankl and what is the authority of my understanding and interpretation of it?

The first thing that strikes me about the authority or reality of this person’s report is that it is in a book. The truth of Frankl’s insight does not depend upon a book, but my being authored to about it was made possible by a book. To communicate, Dr. Frankl had to make his thought incarnate in words by writing them down and getting them into a book.

The importance, as far as establishing authority, is that there is a book in which one can find his report. The importance of this was reinforced when I had to locate the book and then find the quotation within the book. It was necessary to reread much of the book to find the comments to which I refer. When I did find the paragraph quoted, I discovered that it was not exactly as I had remembered it.

I had thought that he had written something like, “In spite of the power of the guards over us, there was one thing they could not control. We always had the power to choose our attitudes toward them.”

I think Frankl would agree with what I have said, but I have found no authority that he actually said that. I had internalized his words into my own authority. I seem to have been on the mark, but it is from Frankl’s authority that this insight comes, and it is his authority that I wish to share. The fact that his words are in a book and that I could check to see where it is written make that possible.

The next thing that gives this book authority is that I am satisfied beyond doubt that Viktor Frankl is a person who survived a Nazi concentration camp. He speaks with the authority of his own experience in offering us this insight.

Further, what I have learned and heard about Frankl includes his fine reputation for honest, thoughtful, work in psychology which enhances his authority for me. There are other elements that support the integrity of the authority of his comments, but the decisive one for me is the recognition and acceptance I feel within me that this person is speaking the truth and that I can recognize what he is speaking about. Something resonates.

I have a similar experience of resonance when I read: “If the teacher is not respected, And the student is not cared for, Confusion will arise, however clever one is” (Tao Te Ching twenty-seven). What is it that resonates in me about this? Why do I immediately say within myself, this is true? Why does it seem good to me that it is true?

I like this statement by Lao Tsu because it portrays the essential value of the personal character of learning—the joy of personal respect and care and the relationships among people that these create and enrich.

At the same time, I resonate with “Fire Poker Zen,” the story of the old woman who ran a teashop. Hukuin, a Zen master, praised her for her understanding of Zen:

[His] pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming, she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon to the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating (Zen Flesh, ZenBones, p. 76).

Is it because of my predispositions that these authors author something which gives increase within me by broadening my understanding or making me laugh? This must be true to a large extent. In any event, I find my life enriched, as these examples show, by having things authored to me.

(to be continued)