Monday, August 11, 2008

Regarding human authority - Luke vs. Cicero:

"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." - Acts 17:11

"Those who seek my personal views on each issue are being unnecessarily inquisitive, for when we engage in argument we must look to the weight of reason rather than authority. Indeed, students who are keen to learn often find the authority of those who claim to be teachers to be an obstacle, for they cease to apply their own judgment and regard as definitive the solution offered by the mentor of whom they approve. I myself tend to disapprove of the alleged practice of the Pythagoreans: the story goes that if they were maintaining some position in argument and were asked why, they would reply: 'The master said so', the master being Pythagoras. Prior judgement exercised such sway that authority prevailed even when unsupported by reason."

- Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, 1.10 written ~40BC.

Cicero is also part of my project to compare Christian views to those of the pagans at the time of the early church. This excerpt I find especially interesting. To find out about the 'gods', there must be some authority and revelation, or there is nothing. Luke (and probably Paul) note that the Bereans are enthusiastic, but also careful in searching the scriptures and not relying on authority alone, even though Paul has great credentials. Likewise, Cicero is asserting that the student must apply his own reason. Keep in mind that the author of Acts, Luke, almost certainly has a classical education which would have included studying classical authors like Cicero.

Christian fundamentalism is a mixed bag on this point, as we have done quite well on making sure that we don't accept whatever academia dishes out as truth, rejecting credentials and demanding a plausible explanation, to the consternation of the intellectuals. Where we fail is when we set up our own set of credentialized teachers whom we blindly follow, forgetting that we need to study and do our own homework. Thus, it is easy to drift off into spiritual slackerism like everyone else. The other failure of Christian fundamentalism is that we need to look at teachers differently: Each one has something to offer, and they all are prone to error. Even the annoying academics frequently raise important questions and direct us to useful materials. Frequently we do need to look at the teachers of competing viewpoints, as Cicero did, for the purpose of sorting out what we truly believe. Having said that, I still believe that the Bible is a source of authority that I can depend on, and the most credible source of authority is what deserve the most time.

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