There are some (I’m not going to name names because we don’t do that here) who believe that the Old Testament Law is what we should live by today, and there are others who want the Old Testament law to have been perfect. Yesterday Alayna pointed me to a blog post where a man was essentially trying to argue both of these together. His argument, in brief, was that because the OT law treats women as property, wives today should be considered the property of their husbands. However, there are many problems with this: first, while he denies this, he essentially assumes that there is no difference between women and slaves in the OT law, which is not true. In fact, he comes across as arguing that anyone under the authority of another individual is their property in some way. Under the OT law slaves were ‘property with basic rights’ (that is to say that the OT law set out specific responsibilities that owners had to their slaves), but women are not treated as ‘property with basic rights.’ Certainly, women are not free in the modern libertine sense of the word, they are beholden to the authority of the significant males in their lives (father, brothers, and husbands), but they are also not property. A prospective husband would pay a bride price, it is true, but this was in many ways similar to the origin of the engagement ring–it was essentially a way for the prospective husband to show the girl’s father that he can care for her. Secondly, the particular blogger that Alayna pointed out to me argued that if the OT law is not perfect (i.e. what we should live by today) then God must be condoning sin. However, if this is true, then we must say that anytime God allows sin, he must be condoning it, which causes problems because God does not stop us from sinning. The Old Testament Law cannot be viewed as God’s ultimate moral standard for all time, though it does contain much that is of universal value. Consider Aquinas’ argument here: Aquinas argues that there are three kinds of law in the OT law. 1) The Moral Laws: such as love your neighbor, do not murder, etc, 2) the Ceremonial Laws: such as laws concerning sacrifices and worship, and 2) the Civil Laws: which are laws such as the law that one may kill an intruder in one’s home at night (which it is too dark to see who the intruder is or what they are doing, and thus legitimate to assume that they mean you harm), but not during daylight (when one can easily differentiate between an intruder who is trying to cause you harm and an intruder that is stealing your fine China). Aquinas argues that the moral laws are absolute and universal, but that the ceremonial and civil laws are specific and contextual examples of how the moral laws can be applied to a particular culture, and thus that they will necessarily change from culture to culture.

So, here we have two very different interpretations of the Old Testament law, and ultimately we could do a lot with them. However, I think that one of the major mistakes that the author Alayna pointed out to me was in the nature of authority. As I mentioned above, the author seems to be under the impression that anyone who is legitimately under the authority of someone else is their property in some way. There would likely be some limitations that he would put on this (for instance, he would probably argue that a paid secretary is not the property of her boss). However, there seems to be a direct line from his argument that wives and children are the property of the husband to the argument that citizens are the property of the state government. We may view authority in a few different ways. However, predominantly conceptions of authority can be broken down into categories: stewardship concepts and autonomous concepts. In an autonomous concept of authority, my authority is mine and it derives from something about me (i.e. some virtue, power, position, etc that is mine forces others to obey me). This seems to be the conception of authority that this blogger is using. Since the husband’s authority is autonomous and derives from the husband, those under his authority belong to him. Similarly, since the authority of the state derives from the state, everyone under the state belongs to the state.

However, the stewardship model of authority argues that authority is given by some higher power. Thus, the authority of the health inspector does not derive from the health inspector, but from the state that enforces the health inspector’s judgments, and the health inspector is thus accountable to the state for how he uses the authority that has been give to him. In this model the individual is a medium for the authority of some higher power.

Now, there is some necessary truth to the autonomy model: authority has to begin somewhere. An infinite regress of authority giving powers cannot exist. Thus, the health inspector is a steward of the power of the state, and the state is a steward of the power of the people, and the people are a steward of the power of…? Some will argue that all legitimate power derives from the people as a body. Other will argue that all legitimate authority derives from God or some other divine being, but even in a stewardship model original authority must derive from somewhere.  Thus, we could argue that all authority derives from God, and thus all powers with authority are simply mediums for God’s authority, and thus are accountable to God for how they use the authority that they steward.

Similarly, there is some necessary truth to the stewardship model: the authority of the health inspector clearly doesn’t derive from any power of the health inspector himself. It clearly derives from the power of the state. However, can we say that all authority is so derived, or can we argue that there are many powers from which authority derives, and that any of these powers can then invest others with their authority? For instance, can we argue that the father’s authority (to use the example from the other blog) derives from the father and that the father is thus an autonomous ruler who can then invest his authority in his property (for instance, perhaps by telling his older son to watch his younger daughter?)

So, this is my question to you: where does authority come from, and how does it work? As always, write me a 1000 word story that presents and defends your response.

2 thoughts on “Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

  1. Quick question: is there a separate and third model that describes authority granted upward? Meaning, stewardship is usually seen (most clearly at least) as a higher power giving authority to a lower power (the state to the health inspector). In doing so, the lower power is raised higher than it was, but is still not higher than the higher power. The health inspector doesn’t have the authority to change health laws, for example. Or declare war. Even his decisions as a health inspector can be questioned. There is also authority given from lower to higher, or perhaps from same to same, thus making one lower and the other higher.

    The most clear example of this is certain practices (usually considered extreme) in marriage where the woman puts herself under the total authority of the man. The people under the authority of the state is less clear, because the people (in democracy at least) retail the authority to change the state. My question is, is this just another example of stewardship authority, or does this constitute a different kind of authority?

    1. Colin, Ithink that a better example of this might be that of a sick person giving power of attorney to a friend. He puts himself entirely in his friends hands. However, I will argue that this is still the stewardship model. There is one part of the stewardship model that deals with authority granted from a higher power (such as the health inspector), and another part of the stewardship model that deals with authority granted from an equal power (the power of attorney example). However, I think that you example from marriage raises another important question: is the husband in a marriage in authority because his wife chooses to submit (i.e. does his authority derive from his wife), or does the wife submit because the husband is a medium for the authority of God in her life? I will argue that the latter is the case.
      So, this would imply that authority cannot actually be given upward, and we see this in a close examination of the other examples. The sick person grants power of attorney through the authority of the state–it is the state which says that the sick person can do this, and the state which enforces the power of attorney granted to the sick person’s friend. Similarly, in the example of the people and the state, in a modern democratic republic there is a tacit assumption that ultimate authority lies with the people as a whole. So, the people actually are a higher authority than the state, and thus have the right to remove a president from office, or rebel against a government that they do not like. However, while this is the theory, it is questionable whether this is actually true in practice (consider the Civil War), and this raises the question of whether the authority of the state actually comes from the people at all, or whether the state merely allows the people a voice in their own governance.

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