Christianity and the Appeal to Authority

What is an authority?

Turning to our old friend Webster’s dictionary, we find that “authority” has many applicable definitions, so it depends upon the context in which the term is being used.

If you’re just coming in, this post is second in a series of responses that will deal with accusations made by Neil Carter at his blog in a post titled, “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker”. My operating thesis in this series is that it’s not “faith” that does this but rather the object, in this case, Neil’s own unbelief and the unjustified beliefs that flow from it. 

Now, in the first post, I responded to a specific charge made by Neil in regard to the No True Scotsman fallacy, demonstrating that if one cannot conclusively say what is or is not a Christian, then anyone can be a Christian, even Neil who professes unbelief. This argument is based upon an authority, namely a proof-text. Is such an appeal to that which is authoritative on the subject, as Neil asserts, fallacious? 

Neil believes that this is a common fallacy and asserts,

People use this all the time, but in most cases it’s a very poor way for establishing anything. In fact, much of the progress of humanity has arisen from people challenging authority, questioning those in power because they have self-serving reasons to insist on everyone agreeing with them, punishing them for not doing so.

I think that Neil is confusing categories again. Further, if the argument is that there is some kind of “self-serving” reasoning going on, then why can’t it be that those who are “questioning those in power” are doing it for “self-serving” reasons as well? It’s one of those logical sticky-wickets that pops up. Neil continues,

The apostle Paul says…” or “Jesus himself said…” And off they go, no more argument needed. Once they’ve quoted a Bible verse, they’ve now established the right way to think about pretty much everything. This is just normal in church. In fact, it’s the most basic starting point for every church that I can think of.

Um, yeah. Why? Well, let’s just think about this: who is Jesus that he should be considered to be authoritative? 

According to the Scriptures, he is the incarnate God of all creation who carries along the cosmos by the power of his word. Hmmm…that would seem to make him the only valid authority. Well, who is Paul? 

Again, according to the Scriptures he was an apostle sent by the incarnate God to preach to the gentiles. He spoke with the authority of God as a messenger of God. Therefore, any authority he has is only valid based upon the authority of God as Creator. Further, Scripture is considered, by Protestants and Evangelicals at least, to be the sole, infallible rule of the faith. It is the means that God has ordained to speak to his image bearers at this time. It be our starting point to determine both what we believe and how we approach life. 

Neil notes,

Some churches use the Pope or the councils; others use the Bible itself. But they all reason the same way: An authority figure you’re supposed to trust has said this, therefore you have to accept it or be put out of the group. For example, do you think people’s sexual orientations are up to people themselves to label? Wrong. “The apostle Paul says…” and there ends the discussion for them.

My question would be, what does Paul base his conclusions on but the answer is clear to anyone who reads Paul: scripture. Scripture (ie The Old Testament) was Paul’s standard. The objective revelation of God is the only meaningful standard by which we can come to a coherent conclusion about any element or expression of human behavior. Now, people say that Paul has said a lot of things (I’ve noted and responded to one here), but I do not accept their authority to say anything without them providing a consistent and coherent justification based upon an consistent and logical exegesis of the text in question. The discussion “ends” based upon the explication and proclamation of the authoritative Word. 

Now we get to the heart of the argument here:

Of course all of this assumes we have an accurate accounting of what each authority figure really said in the first place, and that in itself leads to my next logical fallacy, but first I have to at least interject here that, in this particular environment, arguments from authority are compounded—stacked on top of one another—so that much of what we were taught to believe rests on a very tall house of cards: I’m supposed to accept something as true simply because Paul or John or Matthew said it, and nevermind the fact that most scholars qualified to speak to the matter are convinced that half of what’s been attributed to them probably wasn’t really written by them at all. But why should I accept Paul’s word as sacrosanct in the first place? Is it because he speaks for someone with even more authority? Who says he speaks for that authority? Paul himself? That’s rich.

This is where the heart of the attack lies: how can we call something an authority if we doubt its accuracy?

Nothing like an attack on the reliability of transmission in attempt to undermine the authority of Scripture. This is where one of the favorite atheist fallacies comes in: shifting the burden. They make the claim that there is reason to doubt the reliability of the transmission of the text then shift the burden over to the Christian. Given that there is something, just when it comes to the New Testament, in the neighborhood of 2-3 million pages of text spread across some 1400 years, if there was reason to doubt the reliability of the text, we would know it. 

Also notice that Neil commits his own fallacious appeal to authority when he speaks of some nameless scholars who just make an assertion about what they believe but cannot prove. 

Neil closes this section, writing,

Billions of people all over the planet today will demand things from each other on the authority of a Being they are certain they speak for, and yet none of them are greatly bothered by the fact that more people than not disagree with them about which God is the right one in the first place. And even those who agree on the same God will still disagree on how to know what he wants or says. Ever heard of the Great Schism? Or the Protestant Reformation? Ever counted how many denominations there are?

Consider what he says then apply it to his own argument. 

Neil will, as a person demand respect and consideration. He will demand certain considerations as a parent. Upon what authority can he legitimately and consistently make those demands? 

More than likely Neil will encounter people who disagree with that. What authority will he appeal to that can logically and coherently prove them wrong?

There have been schisms and divisions throughout human history, but Neil attempts to use specific ones to attempt to argue against Christianity. The Christianity in the East separated from Christianity in the West, why? Questions about authority. The Reformers split from the Roman Church, why? Questions about authority. Something of a personal example, Baptists in the South split from Baptists in the North, why? Questions about authority. Now, there’s a lot of nuance in that, but that’s what it basically comes down to. I, as a Baptist, differ from a Roman Catholic on the doctrine of the Church on the basis of authority. The Romanist will argue that what defines a church is the church and I will argue that what defines a church is what Scripture says about a church, but these are simply red herrings that have nothing to do with the question before us. 

Neil is dependent upon his own authorities in order to make his argument and just as soon as he appealed to them, which he did in a nameless and faceless way, he lost the argument. What Neil misses is that, even among human beings, no one has complete or total knowledge of anything and so there are times where we must defer to those who have greater knowledge or experience. The Christian, because his starting presupposition is his creatureliness, will defer to his authority: the revelation of God. This is not fallacious, in fact it is the reasonable thing to do. 

Atheism has clearly broken Neil’s thinker. 

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