Question authority

Anyone who speaks publicly, especially when trying to convince people to change their lives in some way, will have to deal with the question of authority. What gives you the right, people want to know, to tell me what to think or do? 

Everyone, in other words, has an opinion. Why should anyone listen to yours?

Education is one possible criterion. While some people are put off by the title “Dr.” or “PhD” as being too pretentious, many are willing to accept it as a mark that a person knows something and has the right to speak with authority.

Indeed, I’ve had many a conversation over the years with students applying to doctoral study. Sometimes, the reason is obvious: they can’t get licensed to do what they want to do without the degree.

But when that’s not the case, I ask them why they want to spend the enormous amount of money, time, and energy involved. (Not that I’m trying to discourage them from doing it — I just want to know that they’ve counted the cost, and have sufficient motivation to see it through.) Seldom do I get the answer, “Because I love research,” or, “I have a real passion for academia.” In one form or another, the most frequent answer is that they want/need the credibility that a doctorate seems to confer.

In John 7, Jesus went up to the Jerusalem temple to teach, midway through the Festival of Tabernacles. This was a very public act, since the city was packed with pilgrims from scattered lands. But as he spoke, some of the Jewish leaders were astonished and confused. He seemed to know a lot about the Law, and spoke with authority. He had never been formally trained as a rabbi (what, no seminary degree?), so where could he have obtained such learning?

Knowing what they were thinking, Jesus replied:

My teaching isn’t mine but comes from the one who sent me. Whoever wants to do God’s will can tell whether my teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own. Those who speak on their own seek glory for themselves. Those who seek the glory of him who sent me are people of truth; there’s no falsehood in them.  (John 7:16-18, CEB)

It was not considered legitimate to speak on one’s own authority. Rabbis, for example, would couch their own opinions in terms of the opinions of other rabbis, much as scholars today extensively footnote their sources. (In academia, you only earn the right to stop doing this when everyone in the field already knows who you are.)

Accordingly, Jesus didn’t claim to be the source of his own teaching. Nor was he engaging in self-promotion, as his brothers had suggested he do. But neither did he produce a diploma or other evidence of advanced training. He simply claimed to speak the words of God.

And how would people know? Not by an act of deduction. Not by some other external means of authentication.

People would know that Jesus’ teaching was from God by faith. If they were truly seeking God and wanting to do his will, they would know.

Note how insulting a statement that would have been to Jesus’ detractors; he was saying that if they didn’t recognize his teaching as being from God, it was because they didn’t really want to do God’s will.

And that may be as controversial an idea now as it was then. More in the next post.

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