The Key to Authority is the Office of Image Bearer – An Interview with Professor David Koyzis
ARPA’s John Sikkema interviews David Koyzis
In We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God, David Koyzis addresses modern skepticism of authority by arguing that authority is intrinsic to humanity and part of everything we do, both communally and individually. Why is that? Because “authority is resident in an office given us in creation.” When we encounter authority, “we encounter nothing less than the image of God, which always points beyond itself.”
Professor Koyzis was kind enough to talk about his book with me. Part 1 of our interview, below, covers some of the book’s key ideas. Part 2, to be released next week, focuses in on the nature and limits of political authority and discusses the apparent tensions between civil and ecclesiastical authority during COVID.
JS: We know you as a political science scholar and professor, but this book, We Answer to Another, aims to do a lot more than give us an idea of the role and limits of the civil government. You write about office and authority in a much broader and more holistic sense. How did this project come about?
DK: As I was writing my first book, Political Visions and Illusions, I realized that it raised certain questions about the nature of authority and what humans do with authority once they have it. I began to think about how I could explore the idea of authority in a book that would be more broadly applicable. In many respects, I view We Answer to Another as more foundational and broader than Political Visions and Illusions. We Answer to Another is a more philosophical type of a book and has implications for politics, ethics, sociology, anthropology, and more.
JS: Your starting point is the image of God in Genesis 1. Some have explained this concept as meaning that we possess reason, or dignity, or what have you. But you connect the image of God to the idea of office and authority, which you also connect to the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28) and to how we relate to creation and to each other – how we function in families, political communities, churches, schools, workplaces, etc. Can you explain the connections here?
DK: Office and authority are the most basic elements of what it means to be human. Past theologians and scholastic tradition tried to focus on some element of the human person that somehow constitutes an image of God. More recent theologians have largely abandoned that effort, I think quite rightly so, because the image of God is something that defines us comprehensively and from the very onset. Everything that we have, every element, all of our activities are encompassed by this notion of the image of God. The image of God implies a wide grant of authority. God has given us the office of stewards of creation, with the authority to care for and develop creation.
JS: We think of God giving us authority over things below us in the creation order – as Genesis 1 says, “Let us make man in our image… so that he may rule over the fish…birds…and wild animals.” But what about human authority with respect to other humans? Is that a consequence of the fall or is that authority also somehow part of God’s original, good creation?
DK: I believe it’s part of God’s original design and good creation. We all have a certain claim over one another. I’m a father to my daughter and in that sense I belong to her and she has certain claims on me, a certain authority, even. Though I have authority as a father, I cannot simply do whatever I want. I have to take into account my responsibility to my daughter, to my wife, to my aging parents, to a variety of other people that I am accountable to. I think that would be the case irrespective of the fall into sin.
JS: Even if humanity had not fallen, parents would exercise authority in raising their children. We might see parental authority in particular as natural, or recognize its necessity “intuitively”, as you say in your book. But how do we get from there to such a wide range of offices and types of authority in human society?
DK: Well that’s something that has unfolded historically. The State as we know it, is only a little over 500 years old in the sense of a political community of citizens led by governments. Over time, humans also undertake a growing variety of activities, which leads us to establish various institutions, such as governments, churches, guilds, hospitals, schools, businesses, and so on. That’s an historical answer. But there’s also an answer in terms of the way that we are created, with various capacities. We’re created to be able to educate our young, to create art work, to sing, to make music, to till the soil, and much more. Such tasks are carried out through various offices we occupy.
JS: Sometimes such tasks – music, education, scientific inquiry, building things – require not just individual abilities, but also special executive offices?
DK: Yes. I play the guitar. At one time I used to play the banjo when I was a lot younger. That’s an ability, but I’m not authorized to play the banjo whenever I want. In the middle of church, I’m not going to stand up and start playing the banjo. I have the ability or the power to do so, but I don’t have the authority to do so at that particular moment, though I do have personal authority to decide to play my banjo on my own time.
JS: Right. So even if you’re really talented on the banjo, the music director at church, who holds an office with a certain authority, might not ask you to play. Someone might feel that their talent alone gives them that right, but it doesn’t. In the book, you discuss the relationship between human capacities or powers and authority. They’re related, but not the same. Can you explain that?
DK: Right. They’re not the same. Traditionally we can say that authority is the right to use power, the right to use the capacities that we have at our disposal. But power itself does not necessarily make for authority. But on the other hand, this is one of the remarkable things about authority is that authority itself carries with it a certain power. As soon as you drive into an intersection and see a police officer directing traffic, immediately you intuit that there’s legitimate authority. In other words, that police officer already has a certain unstated power over you. You don’t stop and think about what you’re going to do. You simply defer to the authority of the police officer. The office and corresponding authority that he or she has exerts a certain power over you.
JS: You also note that in our current cultural context there is quite a high level of cynicism or suspicion towards authority. How do you think the idea of office might help us to respond to those who are cynical about anyone in the position of authority, who might see authority or office as the mere “trappings of power”?
DK: This idea of office helps us understand that authority is all around us. We’re embedded in patterns of authority. We ourselves possess authority. Historically speaking, if you look back at French Revolution, or the Russian, Chinese, or other revolutions –where people are actively opposed to authority, they generally are quite willing to fall back on power. I think it was Mao Zedong who said that power flows from the barrel of a gun. People who deny authority are very likely to use coercive means to try to bring their ideas to fruition. Sometimes at the expense of millions of lives.
JS: So, when we perceive an abuse of office or a self-serving use of authority, we can stand up against it or criticize based on the largely intuited idea of office, which carries with it certain norms and limits for authority. But without that, what are we left with?
DK: Yes. If we have a high view of office, then rather than simply railing or rebelling against it, we recognize that we can call the office holder to use their authority in a non-abusive way. It’s not helpful simply to be cynical about authority per se. Rather, we should recognize authority’s legitimacy and on that basis, call the office bearer to exercise their authority in a way that fits the office, its norms and limits. Deny the legitimacy of authority, and you are simply left with a competition for power. But that view does not line up with our daily experience and intuitive recognition of authority.
To be continued… Look for Part 2 next week!