Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings
Victor Lee Austin
T&T Clark, 2010
192 pp., 42.95
Because I Say So
When obvious things go out of fashion, and then someone says or does something to bring them back into fashion, the first thing to do is stand on your chair and wave your hat over your head. That—at least in a metaphorical sense—is how this review of Austin's Up with Authority should be taken. Way to go, and let's see about doing some more of it, shall we?
Authority exists in a fallen world, and so corruptions obviously get mixed with it. There are all kinds of ways in which authority can go wrong, and alas, it has. But this is no different, in principle, from any number of other things that God declared to be good during the course of the creation. Sex can be abused, as can food, as can beer, and so on. What Austin argues for here is a visualization of how authority might continue even if detached from its corruptions. Can we visualize a symphony orchestra in the resurrection and, if we can, can we visualize it without someone up front to tell the oboes when to come in? Austin argues, very carefully, that we cannot. Authority is essential to the social nature of mankind, and essential to the personal nature of mankind—and since we shall still be both in the resurrection, social and personal, authority in some glorified manifestation will be in evidence.
In the acknowledgments, Austin states that we are "essentially social beings all the way to the end," a reality which makes authority a necessity. He rejects the idea that authority rides on the back of that beast, coercion: "When coercion becomes necessary, authority is not able to be all that it could be." My father is in his eighties, and I am in my fifties, and I still respect his authority very highly, but not, I hasten to add, because I am afraid of a spanking. Austin shows that there is a liberated sort of authority that does not exclude freedom but actually depends upon it: "I am persuaded that the freer we become as human beings, the more we will need authority." Without that conductor, the oboists are not free to play certain pieces that each of them would dearly love to play.
Austin's interlocutors include "Yves Simon, Michael Polyani, Oliver O'Donovon, Richard Hooker, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, and Dante Alighieri," setting the reader up for a delightful intellectual tour. He addresses moral authority, epistemic authority, political authority (of course), ecclesial authority, and the problems created when legitimate authorities (not tyrants or monsters) make mistakes in the exercise of their authority. All in all, this book is a grand treat. I would tell you that you simply must read it, but that would be to abuse my authority.
One place where Austin's gift of nuanced discussion is particularly apparent is in his discussion of how political theology is routinely accused of wanting to establish some kind of theocratic rule, some sort of Christendom. He notes the "quick assumption" that anyone who considers the theology of political authority must have an agenda to impose "theocratic rule." Having broached the subject, he discusses the history of the first Christendom, which he rule-of-thumbs as beginning with the Edict of Milan in AD 313 and ending with the adoption of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. That's a long run, and there is an intellectual tradition there that should not be dismissed lightly. Even if we differ with that tradition at the end of the day, we should walk a bit more humbly. (Chesterton says somewhere that a courageous man should be willing to critique an error, no matter how old, but that there are some errors that are too old to patronize.) I was particularly impressed by Austin's distinction between the First Amendment and the history of judicial interpretation, a distinction which makes it clear that he is not trapped by the categories of whatever decade he studied high school civics in.
His ambivalent praise of Christendom is less robust than Peter Leithart's In Defense of Constantine but is nevertheless remarkable: "In other words, something like Christendom, far from being the point of the church's witness, might better be understood as an unavoidable risk of that witness." In other words, if we are to preach the gospel to every creature, we are taking real chances. The king might hear us, and he might go for it. Now what?
In his discussion of Richard Hooker, Austin said something that pushed me off the trail we were on, and I unexpectedly found a little blueberry patch that made me happy: "The Puritan opponents of Hooker were guilty of 'a cognitive sin,' namely, 'intellectual pride.' The Puritans thought the traditions of the church were of no weight." Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that a number of the Puritans of Hooker's day were wound a little too tight, and that some of them were fussers. Doesn't Hooker's argument vindicate them, now that we have a Puritan tradition some four centuries old? If so, then sign me up.
My only substantive criticism of the book has to do with what strikes me as a glaring sin of omission. Austin accepts the reality of historical authority, the authority of tradition, what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead: "I accept the enduring authority of Scripture as a finite and completed body of written text. I also accept the enduring authority of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. These are determinations of authority that cannot be gone back upon (without the church ceasing to be the church)." This being the case, I was mystified by the lack of discussion in one area. Gender pronoun even-handedness throughout the book indicates (at least) the theological subculture that Austin inhabits: "The authorized person is the one who truly confesses Christ in word and deed, and it is to her that we should look to understand ecclesiastical authority" (emphasis mine). Now my point here is not to bring up the subject of women's ordination—it is rather to wonder why Austin didn't bring it up. A book like this without even a paragraph on sexual authority? A wife has authority over her husband's body (1 Cor. 7:4). A husband has authority over his wife's body (1 Cor. 7:4). And in the locus perturbatus of 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says that he does not permit a woman to have authority over men in the church—a text that has some implications for the thesis, shall we say? We are not just human beings, but are also men and women—we are personal and social there as well. So how exactly does authority relate to life between the sexes? In other words, from my conservative little balcony here, the structure of Austin's views on authority is wholesome and refreshing. But he who says A must eventually say B.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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