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Robert L. Wilken


Remembering the Christian Past

The first question … that a Christian intellectual should ask is not "what should be believed?" or "what should one think?" but "whom should one trust?" Augustine understood this well, and in his early apologetic work, "On True Religion," he links the appeal to reason with trust in the community and authority. Our notion of authority is so attenuated that it may be useful to look a bit more closely at what Augustine means by authority. For us, authority is linked to offices and institutions, to those who hold jurisdiction, hence to notions of power. We speak of submitting to authority or of obeying authority, and assume that authority has to do with the will, not with the understanding.

Yet there is another sense of authority that traces its source to the auctor in auctoritas. Sometimes translated "author," auctor can designate a magistrate, writer, witness, someone who is worthy of trust, a guarantor who attests to the truth of a statement, one who teaches or advises. Authority in this view has to do with trustworthiness, with the confidence a teacher earns through teaching with truthfulness, if you will. To say we need authority is much the same as saying we need teachers … , that we need to become apprentices.

Augustine expressed his idea of authority in "On True Religion" by saying: "Authority invites trust and prepares human beings for reason. Reason leads to understanding and knowledge. But reason is not entirely absent from authority, for we have got to consider whom we have to believe." In the Library of Christian Classics translation of this passage, the first words are rendered: "Authority demands belief." Translated this way, especially the word demands, the sentence is misleading. For Augustine is not thinking of an authority that demands or commands or coerces (terms that require an act of will), but of a truth that engenders confidence because of who tells it to us.

--Robert L. Wilken, "Memory and the Christian Intellectual Life," in Remembering ...

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