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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Overlapping the later Roman Empire, absorbing the
forms of its culture while assisting at its demise, the
Christian Church perpetuated Roman ideas of author-
ity along with the Latin terms for them. But the
Churchmen introduced these ideas into new situations
and used them in new contexts which both changed
the substance and reinforced the pattern of relations
already established between the autonomous and the
hybrid ideas of authority. Starting from the reformula-
tion of Roman concepts under the theological and
ecclesiastical auspices of the Latin Church Fathers and
running through the Protestant and Catholic Reforma-
tions of the sixteenth century, the idea of authority
was revitalized by the special affinity of Christian
religiosity for it. Association with an intellectually and
institutionally autonomous Christianity restored the
independence of the original pure idea of authority
and made the Church, both in its internal and external
relations, the main arena in the medieval history of
the idea.

The new authority in the Christian dispensation was
attributed to God's revealed truth. Its pervasive impact
stemmed from the combination of its acknowledged
supremacy over all other kinds of authority with its
continuous relevance to all forms of temporal life in
general and to temporal government and power in
particular. The initial effect of this new Christian di-
mension of authority upon the Roman traditions of
authority which it absorbed was to loosen the Imperial
combination of authority with temporal political
power by intruding a source of authority independent
of political power. Subsequently, the theologians and
the canonists re-knit the bonds between authority and
political power to include the originally autonomous
authority of religion in a hierarchical system of official
Christian authorities.

The three main steps in this medieval process of
successive disruption and re-integration which would
become paradigmatic for every new stage in the history
of the idea of authority were: the development of
Revelation into a Christian authority sui generis; the
primary interaction of Christian religion and ecclesias-
tical politics in the constitution of the Catholic Church;
the conclusive interaction of religion, Church, and
temporal government in the organization of the uni-
versal Christian community. Each step contributed an
analytically distinct source of the idea and, despite the
overlap among them, these religious, doctrinal, and insti-


tutional ideas of Christian authority also represented
successive chronological emphases within the Christian
era. The Reformations of the sixteenth century, in this
schema, can be viewed as so many attempted restora-
tions of the initial, purely religious idea of authority
which developed, under the pervasive late-medieval
conditions of religio-secular interpenetration, into
conflicting versions of institutional authority.

1. Religious Authority. The idea of a transcendent
and ultimate depository of human trust, not dependent
in principle on earthly offices, took several compatible
forms in early Christian disquisitions.

First, the idea of “divine authority,” stipulated by
Augustine (in his De ordine) as the “supreme” (summa)
authority, juxtaposed notions of authority grounded on
origination (God as author or cause of his creation),
on metaphysical hierarchy (God as the worker of mira-
cles for the limited human capacity of comprehension),
and on responsible power (God as both infinite power
[potestas] over men and as infinite mercy [clementia]
for men). Second, the idea of “Christ's authority”
(auctoritas Christi) juxtaposed the notion of authoriza-
tion (delegation of the Creator's authority to the medi-
ator), the anthropological belief in family hierarchy
(the derivation of the authority of the Son from the
authority of the Father), the appeal of personal influ-
ence (the person of Christ as authoritative “example”),
and the commitment to an ultimate source (Christ as
“author of the Gospel”). Third, the idea of “Scriptural
authority” (auctoritas divinae scripturae) juxtaposed
the notion of authorization (the Bible as the Word of
God, embodying “the authority of God”) with the
incremental respect due the guarantor (the Bible as
“apostolic authority”—that is, the testimony of apos-
tolic witnesses who confirmed the truth of the Gospel
for future generations of believers). Fourth, the idea
of patristic authority (auctoritas patrum or auctoritas
) juxtaposed the notion of authorization (the
inspiration of the Fathers by Holy Scripture), the
notion of persuasion apart from or prior to rational
demonstration, the notion of personal expertise in the
juristic formulation of a canonical faith, and the
anthropological reverence for the elders (auctoritas
as the respect due the fathers of a Christian
doctrinal tradition). The idea of church authority
(auctoritas ecclesiae), finally, juxtaposed ideas of au-
thorized power (the delegation of “divine authority”
to the Church by Christ), of unbroken binding tradition
(the authority of the Church as the transmitter of the
authoritative “tradition of the elders”), of universal
persuasion (the real meaning of Augustine's famous
declaration in his anti-Manichaean Contra epistolam
quam vocant fundamenti
that “I would not believe
the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did
not impel me to it”), and of confirmation (the role of
the Church in reinforcing Scriptural faith).

Despite the linkage of “authority” and “power”
which Christianity carried over into theological ideas
of the Divinity and which led medieval men to use
the terms interchangeably in many contexts, the addi-
tion of the specifically Christian dimension to the idea
of authority endowed it with a renewed independence
in its relations with the idea of power. The authority
in the authority-power syndrome referred always to
the higher, otherworldly source of the force being
exercised, whereas power referred to the source of the
force within the realm of its exercise. If the easy con-
vertibility of authority and power testified to the inter-
penetration of spiritual and natural realms in the Mid-
dle Ages, the spiritual explosions in the name of
authority both at the beginning and the end of that
period testified to the countervailing effort to keep a
realm of superior being at once apart from and influ-
ential upon the powers of this world.

This general contribution of Christianity, as a reli-
gion, to the idea of authority—its combination of
transcendence and immanence to provide a platform
outside this world for the agencies which could bind
men within this world—had its model in the specific
contribution of Augustine. He traced the ultimate
source of authority over men to the person of Christ:
it was through His “authority” that the power of God
was modulated into the power of the Church and it
was the relationship of His divine to His human nature,
at once distinct and effluent, that epitomized all Chris-
tian authority, at once transcendent and effective.

2. Doctrinal Authority. Between the early appli-
cations of Roman legal concepts to the Christian State
Church in the fourth century A.D. and the church-state
polemics of the late thirteenth, Christian ideas of au-
thority developed primarily under the impetus given
by the internal organization of the Catholic Church.
Of the two organizational levels—the doctrinal and the
constitutional—it was the former that proved to be
the more provocative of distinctively Christian ideas
of authority.

The articulation of a Catholic doctrine shaped ideas
of authority by defining them vis-à-vis the ideas of
tradition on the one side and of reason on the other.
As the set of religious practices and beliefs hallowed
by long usage and predicated upon the universal con-
sensus of the faithful over the generations, tradition
took its place during the early Middle Ages alongside
Scripture, official administrative position, and canon
law as separate, frequently competing, subheadings of
authority. This position was eroded away by the
growth of papal power and the consolidation of a
hierarchical official order within the Church, until by


the end of the Investiture conflict in the twelfth cen-
tury the idea of tradition as an explicit kind of authority
had all but disappeared. It was subordinated to papal
discretion, absorbed into official canonical jurispru-
dence, or, alternatively, distilled into constitutional
doctrines of conciliar authority (Morrison, pp. 33,
345-46, 354-55). Among the sources of doctrinal au-
thority, tradition clearly represented what was most
distinctive in the original idea of uncoercive authority.
The historical process which made the definition of it
a function of the claimants to official authoritative
power in the Church reflected the process of unification
and subjection undergone by the idea itself.

The shifting theological relationship of authority and
reason shows, mutatis mutandis, a similar tendency
toward the collapsing of authority's distinctive flexibil-
ity. The history of this relationship is tortuous, for it
assumed a different shape with each medieval theolo-
gian of consequence and, indeed, along with the issue
of reason and faith, was a prime topic for the articula-
tion of doctrinal conflicts. As in the case of the relations
between authority and tradition, the changing course
of the relations between authority and reason postu-
lated a change in the predominant idea of authority
as such.

In its early medieval phase the emphasis was on its
spiritual source, its personal incidence, its originative
function, and its practical effectiveness: it was the
active counterpart of faith; it was faith translated into
a rule for living in this world, compatible with the
faculty of reason, to which it furnished first principles.
In its middle phase authority became a bridging prin-
ciple, one of the crucial concepts which lent verisimil-
itude to the scholastic syntheses of transcendental
Christianity and Aristotelian naturalism by represent-
ing each overlap of faith and reason as an identifiable
principle. The idea of authority could have this func-
tion because of its inherited spectrum of meanings,
ranging from the claims of spirit to the demands of
power. In a figure like Aquinas Scripture and Aristotle
were dovetailed as “authorities,” and the idea of au-
thority itself could be used both for “the principle of
origins... in divine matters” and for the agency of
“coercive force” in “public” affairs (ed. Deferrari, pp.
96-97). The effect of the idea in its synthetic employ-
ment was to provide an ontological backing for the
dominion of some men over others: thus Aquinas could
assert authority to be the natural relationship of supe-
rior to inferior in any society of men, whether pre-
lapsarian or postlapsarian, on the principle that
through their guidance and direction the superiors
were the causes or authors of the actions of their
inferiors. In its late medieval phase the idea of author-
ity, which was disjoined from reason along with the
disjunction of faith and reason, tended itself increas-
ingly to become a quality of will and power. Duns
Scotus merged the worship due God for his authority
as “author” or “cause” of life with that due God for
his “omnipotence” (Scotus, VIII, 816-17). When John
of Paris distinguished between direction and dominion
as modes of control, he assigned the label “authority”
(modum auctoritatis) to dominion (ed. Alan Gewirth,
pp. xlix-1). Ockham finally epitomized the subjugation
of authority as a distinctive concept by denying it any
role as intermediary between faith and reason. The
disjunction between the realms of faith and reason
entailed, in this view, the primacy of the power of
will and of the principle of individuation within each
realm. In matters of faith, authority was subordinated
to the power of the Holy Spirit over individual con-
science. In matters of reason the authority both of logic
and the moral law was subordinate to individual exist-
ences and prescriptions created directly by divine

3. Institutional Authority. The early institutionally
conditioned idea of authority found its archetypal ex-
pression in the fifth-century formula of Pope Gelasius
I on the twofold government of the world: “the sacred
authority of the popes (auctoritas sacrata pontificum)
and the power of kings (potestas regalis), with the
former the greater of the two by virtue of the account
which the popes must render of the kings themselves
to God” (Ullmann, p. 23). Authority in this distinctive
phase had four characteristic connotations. First, it was
spiritual in the double sense that it was the direction
of men toward the salvation of their souls and that
its agency was separate from the agency of coercive
force. Second, it was unified in the double sense that
only a unified guidance could lead to man's single final
end—i.e., salvation—and that it was indivisible, in con-
trast to power, which could be divided. Third, it
was superior, in the sense that it prescribed what was
executed by the wielders of power. Finally, authority
was literally transitional in the sense that it was the
transfer into the temporal world of what was power
in the spiritual world.

In its internal ecclesiastical applications, conse-
quently, there was from the start the tendency toward
a terminological confusion of auctoritas and potestas,
since the inherited distinction between the capacity
to evoke assent and the right to command obedience
was blurred in its application to the “principate of the
Roman Church,” conceived to be a realm of spirit
innocent of physical coercion but yet ordained with
a spiritual “power of the keys.” “Plenary authority”
and “plenary power,” for example, were used inter-
changeably to characterize the administrative mandate
conferred on popes and bishops by election (Tierney,


pp. 143-46). By and large it may be said that down
to the thirteenth century the ideas of authority and
power tended to merge in their application within the
Roman Church but, as the persistence of the Gelasian
formula indicates, they retained their distinctive
meanings in their application to the relations between
the organized Church and the Christian society as a
whole. The net result was an attitude toward authority
which equipped its bearers with the power of ecclesi-
astical coercion in spiritual matters and with the influ-
ence to guide action in temporal matters.

But from the thirteenth century conditions both
within the Roman Church (heretical and conciliar
movements) and outside it (conflict with the temporal
powers) converged with the revival of classical modes
of thinking to produce a notable change in the medie-
val idea of authority. The change tended to blend the
meanings of the idea in the spiritual and temporal
realms of the Christian society, and to produce a sim-
plified notion of authority as the basis of coercive
power. Because spiritual authority within the Church
became disunited and disputed during this period,
Papalists and Conciliarists alike resolved the ecclesias-
tical ambiguity of authority and power in favor of the
more manageable idea of power, with the idea of
authority adduced simply to add the connotation of
rightful origin to the rightful title already inherent in
the idea of power. This idea of authoritative spiritual
power within the Roman Church had its analogue in
the relations between the emerging separate institu-
tions of church and state, for whether in the Papalist's
form of the Pope's “authority” in temporal affairs or
the Conciliarist acknowledgment of the temporal
ruler's independent “authority” over the externals of
ecclesiastical organization, the idea of authority in
church-state relations too became inseparable from
coercive dominion.

The Papalist version of the late medieval idea of
authority was the more explicit. The Papalist writers
came to rely increasingly upon the doctrine of the
“plenitude of power,” redefined during the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries so that it no longer signified
the circumscribed papal and episcopal “plenary au-
thority” within the Church, but now referred to the
Pope's exclusive and unlimited sovereignty, derived
from Christ through Saint Peter and applicable to
spiritual and temporal matters alike. Within the
Church this doctrine was accompanied by the emphasis
on “the power of jurisdiction”—i.e., the governmental
power over the Church transmitted from Christ to the
Pope alone—and on the subordination of the “sacra-
mental power” bequeathed by Christ to all priests
(Wilks, pp. 375-77). Outside the Church, the Pope's
plenitude of jurisdictional power was called “author
ity” no longer, as in the Gelasian formula, to charac-
terize a mere spiritual superiority over the power of
temporal rulers but to denote the “supreme temporal
power” itself, as it was possessed in its integrity by
the Pope before he delegated it to be exercised by
secular rulers under his direction. Papal authority, in
short, was the form taken by the Pope's spiritual power
in the temporal arena.

Against this papal offensive, the intellectual defend-
ers of the secular rulers sought in the main to make
a cogent doctrine out of the traditional pluralism in
the medieval attitude toward authority. This they did
by streamlining the functional multiplicity of the sev-
eral ordained authorities into a dual track of ecclesias-
tical authority in the realm of spirit and an Imperial
or royal authority in the temporal realm, with this
“regal authority” equivalent in function and superior
in power to pontifical authority. Only the Conciliar
writers, engaging the Papalists all along the extended
and wavering line between the spiritual and temporal
realms, developed a mirror image of the Papalist idea
of authority and carried even further the idea of au-
thority as the absolute spiritual ground of political
power. Where the Papalists used the ambiguous mean-
ing of the “church” (ecclesia) to include within its
spiritual power a spiritual aspect of the temporal
realm, the Conciliarists used the ambiguous meaning
of the “state” (civitas or regnum) to include a temporal
aspect of the spiritual realm. Moreover, when the
Conciliarists argued Christ's direct authorization of “a
general council composed of all Christians or of the
weightier part of them” as the “principal authority”
in the Church and carried it over by implied analogy
to “the whole body of citizens, or the weightier part
thereof” as the “primary authority” in the state
(Marsilius, pp. 45, 280), they placed a Christian im-
primatur on the pyramidal model of political authority,
operating through representation, to counter the
Papalist legacy of the hieratic model of authority,
operating through delegation.

Reformations of the sixteenth century initiated
nothing essentially new in the principle of authority,
but they did mark the denouement of its medieval
stage. The Protestant reformers sealed off further de-
velopment of the Christian idea of authority by merely
recapitulating its medieval development. But while
they did not significantly change the idea, they did
significantly change the conditions to which the idea
applied, and they contributed thereby to the change
of the idea under other auspices. Whether Luther's
break with the Roman Church is explained in terms
of religious individualism, arrogant disobedience, or the
revolt of the son against the father, it is clear that what
he wanted was the institution of different authorities


in religion rather than no authorities in religion, and
it is clear too that the main-line Protestant reformers—
Zwingli and Calvin—followed him in this. To all three,
the Word of God was the supreme objective authority
for all individuals; this authority took a form external
to individuals, since it was manifest in Scripture, an
externality epitomized by radicals' reference to the
main-liners' Scripture as the “paper Pope.”

For the determination of right doctrine and the
correct administration of essential sacraments, Scrip-
tural authority was vested in community churches, and
the individual's submission to their transmitted author-
ity thus became necessary to salvation. Submission to
the temporal authorities was prescribed, finally, for all
occasions save the most flagrant political violation of
God's Word, on the grounds of the divine ordination
of the temporal hierarchy to make possible the un-
trammelled spiritual operation of the true Church
(Davies, passim). This generic position of the main
Protestant church-fathers shows even their original
conception of their mission to have been not the over-
throw of ecclesiastical authority in the name of reli-
gious liberty but the reversion to the early spiritual
type of religious authority against the late medieval
tendency to make the ideas of authority and power

And yet the Protestant churches of the Reformation
developed precisely in the same direction as the Cath-
olic Church which they attacked. Whether in the form
of theocracies or of state churches, ecclesiastical au-
thority and political power tended increasingly to
merge in Lutheranism, Zwinglianism, Calvinism. The
sectarian movements of the radical Reformation re-
sisted the merger precisely as the heretical movements
of the later Middle Ages had resisted the merger of
authority and power in the Roman Church, and even
more strongly in the Protestant than in the Catholic
case, the radical sects carried their despair of official
authoritative churches to the point of condemning
authority along with power in all matters of religion.
They called instead upon the immediacy of the Holy
Spirit in individuals to replace the authority of tradi-
tion, community, and Scripture itself in the mediation
of salvation. And when the Protestant churches—
notably the Calvinist—did devise a doctrine of resist-
ance to authority in the name of religious liberty during
the latter part of the sixteenth century, it was given
the same label (monarchomach) and it took the same
form as the concurrent Catholic doctrine of resistance
to Protestant authority—a form that meant not a new
development away from the idea of ecclesiastical
authoritative power but only a denial of it to the wrong
Church. The problem of authority versus liberty in the
determination of ultimate religious truth would, to be
sure, develop into a perennial and provocative concern
of Protestant theology, but it did so only in tandem
with the more general confrontation which had its
main focus in a secular sphere.

The competition of analogous Protestant and Cath-
olic doctrines of authoritative power marked the outer
limit of creative religious authority. The situation of
several ecclesiastical authorities striving for the mo-
nopolistic direction of coercive power was obviously
untenable. Since the idea of authority had come to
provide a necessary higher unity for the collective
thought and action of human communities, a more
unified authority than the competing claims to divine
ordination could afford became an urgent intellectual
and practical necessity. The resulting shift in the locus
of authority, from transcendent religion to natural
politics, and the concomitant revival of its autonomous
function, was part of the new mentality which intro-
duced the modern period of Western history.