On Auctoritas

This article, by Prof. Karla Pollman is found on pages Pages 156-174 of “Being Christian in Late Antiquity.” The book can be found here (reposting of this copyrighted material is protected under Fair Use laws).

Prof. Pollman is a member of both the Department of Classics and Ancient History and the Department of Religion and Theology. Her specialty is Early Christianity’s interaction with early Christian thought with an emphasis on St. Augustine of Hippo (in other words, if anyone is going to understand the meaning of auctoritas in early Christian literature, it would be her).

In the interest of keeping this manageably short, I left off the first two pages, which related anecdotes from modern times. Further, due to formatting issues, I was unable to transfer the Greek text so I have simply marked those spots denoting where there should be a quotation in Greek with “[Greek text]”.

This is literally just a copy and paste with some format tweaks to make more readable so the footnotes won’t have been hyperlinked, the numbers indicate the citations which are simply at the bottom of the article to be scrolled to.

Antiquity: The Transformation of the Concept of Auctoritas

Karla Pollmann

apex est senectutis auctoritas (Cicero, De senectute 61)

The Emperor Augustus reports in his bilingual Res Gestae 34.3 (Monumentum Ancyranum) that after the end of the Roman civil wars he returned the res publica, which had been under his control, to the Senate and the People of Rome (ex mea potestate . . . transtuli). Out of gratitude for this he was endowed with unique honours, which resulted in his unparalleled position in the Roman state: [Greek text] (‘I excelled all in influence, but I possessed no more official power than others who were my colleagues in the several magistracies’).5 At the time of the great classicist Theodor Mommsen this sentence was extant in its complete form only in the Greek version just quoted. Mommsen attempted reconstructing a translation of the missing Latin equivalent and conjectured the following wording: praestiti omnibus dignitate, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam qui fuerunt mihi quoque in magistratu collegae. In 1843, his predecessor in Berlin, the epigrapher Johannes Franz, contradicted Mommsen and suggested rendering the Greek [Greek text] with the Latin auctoritate. This suggestion remained not accepted until 1924 when the discovery of a further fragment of the text, this time a section of the Latin text, confirmed Johannes Franz’s hunch. In this case Mommsen’s authority should not have been followed blindly.6

This little episode from the history of German classical scholarship demonstrates that auctoritas is a Roman term that does not have a precise Greek equivalent, which is frequently the case between languages. Rather, there are several Greek terms covering various aspects of auctoritas.7 As illustrated by the fresco just mentioned, the term first occurs in Latin in a legal context, more precisely in the Twelve Table Laws, where it denotes the legal right of ownership and an owner’s liability in case the owner wants to sell his property.8 But soon we can also find instances where auctoritas denotes the personal influence of an individual that is based on his (or, far less frequently, her) reputation or prestige. All in all, terminologically speaking auctoritas has a specifically Roman nature.9

It is difficult to find a clear definition of auctoritas in antiquity, and for the most part, one has to work out the term’s meaning from its context. It is noteworthy that the potentially problematic role of auctoritas was already discussed in ancient rhetoric. One could compare, for instance, Auctor ad Herennium 4.4—haec illi cum dicunt, magis nos auctoritate sua movent quam veritate disputationis (‘When they say this, they move us more by virtue of their authority than by virtue of the truth of their argumentation’)10—with the more positive definition in Marius Victorinus, Explanationes in Ciceronis Rhetoricam (Halm p. 213.39): auctoritas est argumentum verius atque honestius et cui quasi necesse habeat credi (‘Authority is a more truthful and honest argument, which one thinks one has to believe as if by necessity’). This latter definition highlights the augmenting function of auctoritas: auctoritas adds persuasive force to an argument, so that the listener is compelled to be persuaded by it, or, in other words, yields voluntarily to something accepted as unavoidable or indispensable. This definition is also of interest to us because Marius Victorinus’ commentaries on Cicero’s rhetorical treatises were used in the teaching of rhetoric in the fourth century AD,11 which means it is highly likely that Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine were familiar with them.

Even if the etymology of auctoritas (‘strengthening, augmenting’) as being derived from augere (‘augment, strengthen, increase, magnify’)12 was not always present in the minds of those using the term, is it still crucial that auctoritas adds more weight to a person’s status, statement, or action by eliciting decisive approval in others.13 Moreover, one has to distinguish it from potestas, which denotes magisterial power and control by virtue of an office, while auctoritas signifies the influence which is conceded voluntarily to a person, institution, or text.14 As already indicated, the term can be found in many areas of Roman life and thought: apart from jurisprudence it also occurs in relation to institutions, especially, of course, the Roman Senate (auctoritas patrum).15 Further, it may be used when referring to a specific phase of life, that is, to advanced age—apex est senectutis auctoritas (Cicero, De senectute 61)—or to grammar (authors or their texts as authorities for linguistic correctness16), as well as to rhetoric, where the orator can gain authority before his audience through his personality.17 In this context it is important to notice that the Greek tradition reflected on this as well, although the term itself does not occur. With regard to texts and orators, one has to be particularly aware that auctoritas can be generated in different ways: either via the person of the author or orator, the content mediated through them, that is, the arguments of a text or speech, or a mixture of both. This is why in Cicero Laelius can say to Scipio, apud me, ut apud bonum iudicem, argumenta plus quam testes valent (De re publica 1.59). Even augury did not refrain from integrating the notion of auctoritas in its evaluations: quotiens aliud exta significabunt, aliud fulmina, fulminum erit auctoritas maior (‘whenever animal bowels will indicate one thing, and lightnings another, then the authority of the lightnings shall be greater’; Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones 2.34.3).

Given that auctoritas can occur in such a wide variety of phenomena, contexts, and areas, most modern definitions of authority are too narrowly conceived, especially when the majority of the emphasis is put on the authority of a person.18 It is more correct to include other bearers of authority, namely institutions and texts. For the context of this essay, people as bearers of authority include leaders, experts, apostles, bishops, martyrs and saints, God and Jesus Christ; institutions include the church, tradition, councils, augury, reason, and academic disciplines; and texts include the Bible, the Creed (regula fidei) or creeds, pagan and Christian authors, laws, and a canon of books. For the rest of this paper I have outlined an analytical overview of various forms of authority in the early church, which ranges from examples in Tertullian to those from Augustine but is by no means comprehensive. As far as possible I follow Max Weber’s useful differentiation of the three pure types of legitimate authority (which he calls Herrschaft, i.e. ‘rulership’): charismatic, traditional, and legal.19

To date, this is an underdeveloped approach in research on authority in patristic texts, as far as such research exists at all.20 In New Testament scholarship this categorization has already been applied with great success, for example in connection with the examination of the relative chronology of individual epistles in the New Testament: the reference to charismatic authority of a prominent early Christian person in a New Testament letter is considered to be chronologically prior to a New Testament reference to the traditional or legal authority of such a person.21 This method of establishing a relative chronology between different texts with the help of identifying different types of authority is certainly not possible in the patristic era. For, as we shall see in the following, all three types can coexist. Looking at the terminology of the Bible, one notices that the term [Greek text] (‘honour, reputation, position’), which we had encountered in the Res Gestae of Augustus, does not occur in the New Testament at all; the term [Greek term]
(‘power, authority’) occurs several times and is generally rendered with the Latin potestas. In the Latin Vulgate the term auctoritas occurs only once, in the Old Testament:22

3 (1) Kings 21:7 grandis auctoritatis es et bene regis regnum Israhel (Queen Jezabel to her husband Ahab; LXX ‘you have been made king [Greek term]’; in the Hebrew original ‘you have been given kingship [malukah]’).23

In sharp contrast to this biblical evidence, in early Latin Christian authors the term auctoritas is used quite frequently from the very beginning. While some early Christian Latin authors concentrate only on a few aspects of auctoritas, their usages taken together cover the full spectrum of the term’s meanings and contexts, while at the same time also adding new domains to which auctoritas can pertain. It is worth recording the varying frequency of the term in various authors, which are roughly as follows: 256 times in Tertullian, 9 times in Minucius Felix, 214 times in Cyprian of Carthage, 121 times in Lactantius, 62 times in Arnobius of Sicca, around 400 times in Ambrose, around 460 times in Jerome, 11(!) times in Marius Victorinus, and 1,256 times in Augustine, from his earliest extant work, the contra Academicos, onwards.

Legally Inspired Form of Auctoritas

Tertullian is the first Christian Latin author—initially he wrote in Greek, before he moved to Latin as his habitual language for publication. He lived in North Africa (the Roman province Africa Consularis)24 towards the end of the second century, and is generally underestimated in his significance, as he is not recognized as an orthodox ecclesiastical writer. That Tertullian was a seminal cross-cultural communicator is a fact far too often overlooked. By adapting the Latin language so that it was suitable as a means of conveying Christian content and by developing a precise Latin terminology for theological concepts, Tertullian’s works had far-reaching consequences because modes of language determine modes of thinking. First of all one has to emphasize that all forms of Christian authority already appear in Tertullian. In addition to aspects of inner-worldly authority already familiar from the pagan past, we find now also the following new ones: the authority of God; the authorities of the apostles, of Holy Writ, of tradition, of the church(es) and of the bishops, which are all based on God’s authority.

In Tertullian, particularly the legal aspect of authority is adopted, as becomes clear from De praescriptione haereticorum 6.2–5.25 Here Tertullian is reflecting on the delimitation of orthodox and heretical beliefs:

In Greek they are called ‘heresies’, because of the ‘choice’ [hairesis] which is made and has huge consequences when establishing or accepting a heresy. . . . We, however, must not introduce anything according to our own whim nor must we even accept what someone else has introduced according to their whim. We have the Apostles of the Lord as guarantors,26 who themselves also did not choose anything according to their own whim in order to introduce it, but who transmitted the teachings they received from Christ in a faithful and reliable way to the nations. Even if an angel from heaven would proclaim a different gospel he would be cursed by us [Gal 1:8].

Thus, Tertullian introduces into Christian thought the notion of Roman private law according to which every owner has the power of ownership (auctoritas) over his property. At the same time this means that this owner is also its auctor, that is, the guarantor of and witness to its integrity when he passes this property on.27 The principle of legal ‘ownership authority’ is thus becoming the central (‘authoritative’) criterion for authenticating the Christian message. The apostles, as the first receivers of this Christian message, pass it on to the congregations or to their leaders, and those in turn pass it on to further generations. The legitimized order of succession guarantees the true faith and the continuation of Apostolic auctoritas.28 The latter is defined in a quasi-legal form, as a liability, guarantee, and obligation on the one hand, and as right of ownership on the other, not only over the property as such, as in the case of Roman private law, but also over the authenticity and validity of its content and its efficacy.29

Episcopal Auctoritas

Cyprian of Carthage (who died as a martyr in 258) concentrated especially on the elaboration of the authority of the church and its bishops: as in Tertullian, the church has authority as bearer and keeper of the apostolic tradition. To a much stronger degree than Tertullian, who in De pudicitia 21 denies bishops any imperium, Cyprian defines the authority of bishops as office holders in legal terms and comes close to potestas, with their episcopal power being based on their cathedrae auctoritas.30 Cyprian promoted the principle of the absolute independence and autonomy of bishops. However, the authority vested in their office could be augmented through personal authority.

Two things are particularly deserving of our attention in this context. First, it is remarkable that Cyprian changes his opinion in time. The pivotal point is the controversy over the issue of whether lapsed Christians and heretics should be rebaptized. Cyprian was key in causing a conflict between the churches of North Africa and Asia Minor on the one hand, and the western churches on the other, over the question as to whether a baptism performed by heretics was valid or whether heretics needed to be rebaptized if they converted to the orthodox church. Already in ad 220, a provincial council in Carthage had denied the validity of baptism by heretics, following Tertullian’s notion of baptism.31 This was confirmed in further North African councils in 255 and 256. They reacted to the Christian persecutions under Decius in 250/51, which had forced many of the Christian clergy to lapse temporarily from the Christian faith. These so-called lapsi and traditores were afterwards regarded by many as heretics. Due to their lack of constancy the sacraments performed by the lapsi and traditores were considered invalid—even retrospectively (cf. Cyprian, Epistula 75). The Roman bishop Stephen I was strictly against this North African decision and in 256 prohibited the repetition of the baptism. The martyr’s death of both Cyprian and of Sixtus (Xystus) II, Stephen’s successor, in the Valerian persecution of 258, prevented a schism of the orthodox church in a balanced way. Before this controversy, in 256, Cyprian had considered the authority of church councils as binding for bishops. After his position had not gained the upper hand on an international level, he relativized the role of such councils and placed it second to the more important freedom of episcopal decision,32 which he based on secular assumptions, that is, the judicial and constitutional principles of Roman society.33

Second, it is remarkable that Cyprian also recognizes ‘fresh sources’ of charismatic, personal authority, especially as evidenced in the deeds of the martyrs (Epistula 61.2). In a similar vein, Lactantius will later argue in Institutiones divinae 5.19.23–4,

For nothing is as voluntary [voluntarium] as religion, which, when the mind of those performing a sacrifice is not concentrating on this activity, is already removed, or indeed even abolished altogether. Therefore it is a correct procedure to defend religion with suffering [patientia] and death [morte]; in these things faith is preserved and is precisely in this welcome to God and adds authority to religion. (About the deeds of the martyrs: ut religionem patientia vel morte
defendas; in quo fides . . . religioni addit auctoritatem.)34

In the face of this pluralism of authorities we can observe interesting mechanisms: already Cyprian demonstrates the possibility of playing off one authority against another, to up- or downgrade one authority in relation to another, or to combine different forms of authority. All these possibilities make the spectrum of forms of authority manifold, dynamic, flexible, and, to a significant degree, unpredictable. Cyprian’s notion of a bishop’s potestas, which comes close to the power of the pagan Roman magistrates, forms a striking contrast with Ambrose who emphasizes the predominantly pastoral function of a bishop.35 Ambrose sees a bishop’s auctoritas as founded in his person and personality and is generally reluctant to use the term auctoritas with regard to bishops and the church. If he does it at all, then it is in order to accentuate the preservation of the apostolic tradition of faith.36

Auctoritas and Ratio

The young Augustine is well researched in more recent scholarship as regards his relationship to authority. He is a special case, because he accepts pagan intellectual authorities, although sometimes in an ironic or apologetic way in order to prove his own point:37 e.g. Plato (contra Academicos 3.37; De consensu evangelistarum 1.12; De trinitate 12.24; De civitate Dei 2.14; 8.4; 12.19: apud quos Plato deum magna auctoritate commendat mundum numeris fabricantem);
Porphyry as the most learned of philosophers (De civitate Dei 19.22: doctissimus philosophorum); Pericles (De civitate Dei 2.9: Periclen, cum iam suae civitati maxima auctoritate plurimos annos domi et belli praefuisset); Varro (e.g. De consensu evangelistarum 1.31, 42; De civitate Dei 3.4; 4.1: gravissimae auctoritatis; 18.2); Philo (contra Faustum 12.39: vidit hoc Philo quidam, vir liberaliter eruditissimus unus illorum, cuius eloquium Graeci Platoni aequare non dubitant). In general, there exists a tension in Augustine between his critical attitude towards human authority (De ordine 2.27: plerumque fallit) and a more positive appreciation (De ordine 2.27: iure videtur excellere).38

Moreover, Augustine is one of the first early Christian thinkers to reflect explicitly on the relationship of ratio and auctoritas. He is noteworthy because he concedes a significant role to human ratio as being the second path to truth, which does not contradict the first path to truth, that is, divine revelation. Conflict arises not so much between authority and reason, but between God and humans.39 Augustine distinguishes between (1) the necessity of faith based on authority as the indispensable starting point of every initial learning process, which implies that authority chronologically, although not actually, precedes ratio;40 and (2) the critical reflexion of the issue of whom one should believe—or in other words, the quest for the criteria of true authority. An example for the latter can be found in De vera religione 45: neque auctoritatem
ratio penitus deserit, cum consideratur cui credendum sit,41 a statement that is directed against pagan polytheism and heresies, both of which will be excluded by reason as undesirable faith options. This dialectic process is expressed more generally in De praedestinatione sanctorum 5: nullus quippe credit aliquid nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum.42

It has rightly been noticed that Augustine’s careful reflection on the limits and function of authority in relation to ratio is partly based on Cicero.43 However, one has to be aware that in Augustine they are not so much antithetical opposites but rather parts of an epistemological spiral that has the knowledge of God as its ultimate goal. The role of authority is auxiliary,
focusing on giving moral precepts and orthodox doctrines.44 With these ethical and doctrinal components authority augments God’s essence, but is not identical to it. Authority is grounded in this life, in which we also are grounded: thus, like other things, it has to be viewed as existing under eschatological suspense and will disappear at the end of times. This is why Augustine can occasionally speak of the opacitas auctoritatis, that is, auctoritas as obscured by our present defective humanity (see De moribus ecclesiae catholicae 1.3; 1.11).

Frederick van Fleteren has convincingly demonstrated that from his conversion until his death Augustine held the conviction that authority must precede reason, and never accepted the possibility of salvation by reason alone. But whereas in his earlier period he was not convinced that ‘faith in authority can yield any understanding’, in his more mature period he discussed faith as a prelude to vision.45 What has so far not attracted sufficient attention in scholarship is the striking increase in the use of the term auctoritas as an element within the argumentation in Augustine’s late works, especially in his relentless controversy with the Pelagians, which therefore deserves further examination in the following section.

Auctoritas and Tradition

In his controversy with the Pelagians Augustine used the same method of interpreting the Bible as his opponents did, but he arrived at different dogmatic conclusions. Therefore, in his exchange of arguments, he increasingly had to find stronger means of persuasion, as both parties claimed to maintain the tradition of the catholic church in their respective teachings. Thus, Augustine called to witness for his position a succession of catholic teachers, especially Cyprian, the hero of the African church, but also Ambrose, the hero of Nicene orthodoxy. Although their authority was not as great as that of the Bible, they nevertheless could serve as proof for the catholicity of Augustine‘s teaching—for Holy Writ alone was not sufficient any more to demonstrate this sufficiently!46 Representative of this method is, in particular, Augustine’s fight against Julian of Eclanum: in book 1 of Contra Iulianum, written around 422, we find some of ‘the earliest western examples of doctrinal argument from patristic citation’.47 Here both opponents are equally stubborn in using the same ‘authorities’ as a replacement for rational argument, as, for instance in contra Iulianum 1.29, answering the question as to whether newborn babies also carry original sin. Here, in order to bolster his argumentation, Julian refers to reason (ratio), the authority of Scripture (scripturarum auctoritas), and the learnedness of holy men, who, however, do not lend authority to truth through their consensus, but receive glory and the weight of being witness through their agreement with Scripture (sanctorum virorum eruditio, qui tamen veritati auctoritatem non suo tribuere consensu, sed testimonium etgloriam de eius suscepere consortio). In his response, Augustine employs pretty much the same institutions, namely the opinions and utterings of catholic doctors (catholicorum sententiae sermonesque doctorum), reason (ratio), the authority of Holy Writ (sanctarum scripturarum auctoritas), as well as the testimonies of numerous weighty holy and erudite people (ista tot tantorumque sanctorum et eruditorum testimonia). This argumentative controversy exposes a checkmate situation where both opponents find it hard to make their own argumentation superior to that of the other. The techniques of augmenting one’s opinion are the same. In the end this quarrel will have to be decided by a higher instance of authority.

Similar instances occur in his late contra Iulianum opus imperfectum.48 For instance, in 6.21 (PL 45.1548–9) Augustine claims Cyprian and Ambrose as his authorities (praeceptores), and denies Pelagius any authority. In contra Iulianum opus imperfectum 4.136, dealing once more with the controversial topic of original sin, Julian makes an enlightened plea for reasoning against original sin as being the true catholic faith (catholica vero fides neque iurgare adversum se legem dei credit, neque ullam auctoritatem in exitium rationis admittit). However, in his reply Augustine claims the same catholic faith and true reason in support of his concept of original sin (catholica potius fides peccatum esse originale non dubitat: quam fidem non pueruli, sed graves atque constantes viri, docti in ecclesia, et docentes ecclesiam, usque ad diem sui obitus defenderunt. . . . ideo enim auctoritatem nullam in exitium rationis vos iactatis admittere; ut rationibus vestris, quae non rationes, sed deceptiones sunt, etiam divina deponatur potius, quam exponatur auctoritas). These are particularly striking instances of the double function that is characteristic of auctoritas. On the one hand, it is used to make a position unassailable and unquestionable. On the other hand, auctoritas can be used to strengthen a position that is still fighting for acceptance, which then means that the sense of obligation to persuade the other side and make a position more plausible is stronger than in the first scenario. The employment of authority moves between these two poles.

Auctoritas, Holy Writ and the Church

Augustine is also a particularly rich and differentiated source for the interconnection of a specific understanding of a canonical text, in this case the Bible, and a particular community (or communities) creating and enacting this understanding. Very quickly, Augustine became one of a group who recognized the dependency of hermeneutical principles on an assenting group
willing to apply them. Moreover, he accepts within Scripture a hierarchy of authority among its books, with the Gospels at the top: De consensu evangelistarum 1.1.1: inter omnes divinas auctoritates, quae sanctis litteris continentur, evangelium merito excellit.

Augustine’s most notorious statement of the relationship between church and Scripture, which is frequently quoted out of context, can be found in his contra epistulam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti 5.6: ego vero evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas (‘Indeed, I would not believe the Gospel, would not the authority of the catholic church incite me to do so’). Indeed, this deceptively simple sentence enjoyed a toxic afterlife, and I will not manage here to do more than deconstruct it to some degree. For once, it is important to notice that Augustine says commoveret (not cogeret or the like!), which again brings forward the element of consent which we have already mentioned earlier.49 Moreover, it is also particularly crucial to consider the context of this sentence, which reveals two issues of importance.50 First, we have here a highly polemical and, accordingly, highly rhetorical text, where Augustine is first of all eager to demolish the authority of the Manichees and their claim that their teachings can be found in the Bible, especially in the Gospels. Augustine replies that the name of Mani cannot be found in the Gospels, hence there can be no connection between them and the Manichees, although this is precisely what they claim. Then, the Manichees pretend to have rational reasons for their faith, but in fact they nevertheless demand acceptance of their belief on authoritative grounds. In an analogous way, Augustine needs a frame of reference (the catholica auctoritas), which he simultaneously has to reconfirm in this anti-Manichaean altercation.51 Second, Augustine repeatedly interrogates Holy Scripture itself (as it is Holy Scripture that documents the catholic apostles, but not Mani) as authority— precisely in order to confirm in this way the authority of the catholic church, put in a kind of ‘circular’,52 or, better, dialectical, argument. In this way, the authority of the church is founded on it being documented by Holy Writ that therefore serves as the ultimate checking reference. Thus the authority of the church can be interrogated by referring back to Scripture in a rational and critical way. It is not, therefore, the catholic church that stands above Scripture and reason but the other way round.

This is borne out by Augustine’s own ‘conversion story’ in the Confessions. Even if we leave the complex issue aside as to how much in it is fact and how much fiction, it is crystal-clear that the ‘hero’ of the Confessions is not converted because of the authority of the church! Illuminating in this context is Confessions 7.7.11: credebam . . . et in Christo . . . atque scripturis sanctis, quas ecclesiae tuae catholicae commendaret auctoritas, viam te posuisse salutis humanae, where Augustine believes in Christ and in those Holy Scriptures which the authority of the Catholic Church recommends. As in the contra epistulam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti the issue here is what a community selects and accepts as authoritative writing—in one word, the establishing of a canon.53 A further angle to relativize a ‘strong’ reading of catholicae ecclesiae auctoritas is Augustine’s hermeneutics, which highlights in De magistro the inner teacher Jesus Christ as a source of understanding, and embeds in book I of his De doctrina Christiana the regula fidei and love as the ultimate criteria of biblical interpretation. This is a fundamental statement, which implies that all faith, exegesis, and understanding depend on a frame of reference that can and has to be chosen. As a Christian one chooses Christ as this criterion, one believes in him. But this does not exclude the use of reason, rather it denies human reason an absolute role: for example in De genesi ad litteram 2.5.9: maior est quippe scripturae huius auctoritas quam omnis humani ingenii capacitas, and in Confessions 13.23.33: non enim opportet de tam sublimi auctoritate iudicare . . . quoniam summittimus ei nostrum intellectum. Again in his monumental Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine emphasizes that it would be silly and arrogant to abuse Holy Scripture to make it say things which evidently contradict human experience or natural scientific findings: De genesi ad litteram 2.9.21:

sed, ait aliquis, quomodo non est contrarium his, qui figuram sphaerae caelo tribuunt, quod scriptum est in litteris nostris: qui extendit caelum sicut pellem [Ps. 103:2]? sit sane contrarium, si falsum est, quod illi dicunt; hoc enim verum est, quod divina dicit auctoritas, potius quam illud, quod humana infirmitas conicit. sed si forte illud talibus illi documentis probare potuerint, ut dubitari inde non debeat, demonstrandum est hoc, quod apud nos de pelle dictum est,
veris illis rationibus non esse contrarium.

Auctoritas between God and His Believers

In pagan Roman religious thought the auctoritas of the gods is an exceedingly rare concept.54 The pagan gods are conceded potestas: they have, as it were, the function of large-scale magistrates. This is also the case in the Bible: divine [Greek term] is rendered in Latin with potestas. Auctoritas divina used in connection with the Christian God is only first found in Tertullian, then also in Augustine and others, with far-reaching theological consequences. Here I select only two examples. In Tertullian, auctoritas divina denotes the divine will that reveals itself to humans and gives them moral instructions. Such an auctoritas divina can legitimate the actions and initiatives of a human being.55

Augustine differentiates this further by demonstrating that God’s auctoritas is revealed to perfection in the humilitas of Jesus Christ: the combination of superior potestas and merciful clementia is the essence of divine auctoritas.56 This phenomenon certainly deserves closer investigation, taking a broader spectrum of authors into account, but it is presumably a safe working hypothesis to emphasize that the authority of the Christian God is more intimately linked to humility and compassion than to coercion and control, and that the emphasis lies more in the consent and self-fulfilment of the believers than on their being overpowered.

This intriguing concept has its noteworthy theological counterpart in a relatively rare constellation, found in Ambrose, namely that humans have auctoritas with God.57 It is faith (Expositio de psalmo 118.7.3),58 a good conscience (De interpellatione Iob et David 1.17), or morally good behavior (De officiis 3.85) which lends the authority to a believer to trust in God’s succour. The subtle difference from potestas is vital, as such behaviour cannot, of course, force God to react in a favourable way. But auctoritas augments the position of those who bear it, validated by extraneous activity,59 in these cases not pertaining to social hierarchy but to ethical behaviour. Ambrose uses the term auctoritas in good Roman fashion as an entity between violence and request, which in this way, for instance, guaranteed the power of the Roman Senate for centuries.60


The focus of this essay was to tackle the beginnings of a perennial conundrum: the relationship between Christianity and authority. To this very day it is still seen as a problem: depending on an individual’s standpoint, Christianity has either too much or too little authority. The early Christian church had a particular difficulty—there was nothing established at all to which it could allude as a supporting authority. So this period can afford a particularly exciting and illustrative case study as to how in real life authority can be constructed, and what techniques, means, and strategies could be and have been successfully employed. This investigation has shown some of the principles of how this was done. It has become clear throughout that Christian authority was not a monolithic and static entity, but a dynamic concept that could change, and could be adapted to varying external circumstances. Moreover, as with other sociological contexts, different forms of authority can be rivals within the church as well. In the face of such a broad spectrum and disparity of forms of authority it hardly comes as a surprise that these forms can also enter into conflict with each other and cause dilemmas. The early
church was aware of this, as the examples above have illustrated. Finally, there is not necessarily antinomy between authority and argument or reason. They can work hand in hand or in parallel, and stand in a subtle relationship to each other. An argument can be used as a form of authority, and, vice versa, authority can be used as an argument. All in all, it seems plausible that this
kind of reasoning was influenced by the surrounding rhetorical culture, echoing, for instance, the principle in the already mentioned Marius Victorinus, Explanationes in Ciceronis Rhetoricam 1.21 (Halm p. 207.10), that all things do not have any validity in themselves, but gain it through opinion (res omnes non per se sunt neque ex natura valent, sed opinione). And, Victorinus
continues, opinio can be influenced in three ways: first, through the trustworthiness of the person making the statement, which implies the rhetorical ideal of congruence between a statement and the character (natura) of the person making it; second, by adopting the values of the addressees (consuetudo); and, third, through the congruence of the new statement with the common opinion or expectation of the addresses (opinione consentire).61

The notorious Stanley Milgram experiment62 has demonstrated that human beings act differently when they perceive themselves as under the influence of an authority they have accepted as legitimate. Thus, authority has a disciplinary and regulatory function, holding a subtle position between request and force. It serves to stabilize society,63 because rules and the like are not followed automatically. Moreover, there is a plurality of opinions, interests, and authorities, among which one can normally choose. Some forms of authority are more flexible than others. Dogma is less flexible than exegesis of the Bible. The hierarchy between a bishop and a council can be defined in different ways, and the authority of a bishop likewise. With regard to authority, charismatic martyrs, ascetics, and saints are ‘wild cards’, especially when authority is abused by the establishment. Thus, the phenomenon of authority is characterized by a paradox: on the one hand it serves to preserve the established status quo, on the other hand it promotes innovation. Authority presupposes hierarchy, can augment or even create it, but can also mitigate or even undermine it.

Authority is in need of permanent conscious construction and heavily depends on making an impact. Accordingly, it chooses to present itself in various forms, including the theological, philosophical, rational, text- or person-related, or the moralistic. Authority normally follows a hegemonic value or culture, which, conversely, it can also question or aim to undermine. Thus, like others, Augustine can activate in different contexts different authorities: against the Donatists the plenary church councils, against the Pelagians the Roman bishop.64 Authority is intensively reflected upon particularly in times of crisis and transition when old forms have lost their stabilizing power and threaten to become empty and repressive shells. The form of authority chosen has consequences for the mode of how individual members of a group or society interact. Authority is a relational entity that at the same time mirrors the quality of interhuman relationships. For instance, if reason or arguments are permitted as forms of authority, in theory this allows for a wide circle of participants. But reason as authority is also vulnerable because of other influencing factors that can alter the balance in favour of other forms of authority, as for example who can speak better, looks better; aspects like age, social class, gender, wealth, and so forth. The early Christian church is no exception in this respect. It took over an already complex phenomenon, and amplified it further by including the level of the divine, and by adding a religious dimension to the auctoritas of an institution. 65 This stands in constant tension with (1) the notion that authority is a concession to this world and will come to an end (e.g. in contrast to love), and with (2) the fact that divine authority is based on humility, which reverses it. Finally, we can conclude that it is an important criterion when one analyses the nature of a group or a society to illuminate how the conflict between competing institutions, forms, and claims of authority is resolved in precise detail and in favour of which form of authority. In this respect the early Christian church of the Latin West was far less monolithic than one might expect.

4 White and Hantman (1998) p. 160.
5 Translation in Brunt andMoore (1967) p. 37, slightly modified. See also the excellent explanations in Brunt and Moore (1967) pp. 78–80, where they justify their reading of quōque and not quŏque inthe Latin version. They also emphasize that Augustus’ statement has to be understood in a qualified sense, as he does not claimthat he had no authority before 27 bc, and on the other hand even after 27 bc he retained extensive legal powers by which he could justify his actions.
6 Heinze (1925) p. 348. The definition in Cicero, De inventione 2.166: dignitas est alicuius honesta et cultu et honore et verecundia digna auctoritas demonstrates that auctoritas anddignitas can appear in juxtaposition. However, Heinze p. 349 n. 1 emphasizes that these twoterms do not belong to the same semantic sphere.
7 Heinze (1925) 363f.; Th. Münscher, s.v. auctoritas, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 2 (1900–6) 1213, ll. 67ff., lists Aı̉Ł____A, Ả_O__O__A, Ả__o_A, ___A_oO_, _a__Aa_A, and ỏ_.
8 Heinze (1925) p. 350; Ring (1975) p. 221. 9 Heinze (1925) pp. 351, 358.
10 Cf. Cicero, De oratore 1.198: legal experts gain authority based on their extensive knowledge of the law. As a next step this authority is then accepted per se in legal controversies without checking on the factual appropriateness of their legal decisions (cum ingenio sibi auctoritatem peperissent, perfecerunt ut in respondendo iure auctoritate plus etiam quam ipso ingenio valerent); cf. Heinze (1925) pp. 358–9.
11 Madec and Schmidt (1989) p. 348.
12 Wagenvoort and Tellenbach (1950) col. 902.
13 Heinze (1925) p. 353.
14 Heinze (1925) p. 355. Agamben (2005) p. 76 links auctoritas to the anomic aspects of the law, and potestas to its normative functions.
15 See Graeber (2001).
16 Lausberg (1990) }} 465, 468–9, 472, 507–8.
17 Heinze (1925) p. 361–2; cf. Lausberg (1990) }} 237, 258, 327, 1057–8. Already Greek rhetoric reflected on the possibilities an orator had to influence his listeners: on the one hand it emphasizes the ‘affirmation’ (___A_oO_) of statements by means of proofs (Rhetorica ad Alexandrum 1438 b 29–1439 b 2); on the other the speaker’s ‘ethos’ can increase his ‘credibility’ (Ả_O__O__A; Aristotle, Rhetorica 1356 a 5–6).
18 We also have to separate this from the other meaning of ‘authority’ as ‘local authority, governmental body’, etc., which is not relevant here.
19 See Weber (1922a) and (1922b). These criteria are partly questioned in more recent sociology, by academics such as Maurer, for example. Such criticisms have no bearing on this analysis.
20 Exceptions are Hartmann (2006) pp. 14–20 and the contributions by Bendix, Drivers, Frend, and Stroumsa in the collected volume by Schluchter (1985). Chapman (2008) gives a good overview on the concept of ‘authority’ throughout the history of the Christian church.
21 See e.g. Chapman (2008) pp. 500–2.
22 In the pre-Jerome Latin versions of the Bible, the so-called Vetus Latina, the situation is more complicated, and a conclusive statement about its terminology can currently not be made. A few sample checks seem to indicate that the term auctoritas was not a prominent feature in these earlier Latin versions of the Bible either.
23 In Hebrew, as in Greek, there is no precise equivalent for auctoritas. I am grateful for this information to my St Andrews colleague Kristin de Troyer.
24 Wilhite (2007) pp. 18–36 for the complex conditions of Tertullian’s Africanity; see also Barnes (1985).
25 haereses dictae graeca voce ex interpretatione electionis qua quis maxime sive ad instituendas sive ad suscipiendas eas utitur . . . . Nobis vero nihil ex nostro arbitrio inducere licet sed nec eligere quod aliquis de arbitrio suo induxerit. Apostolos Domini habemus auctores qui nec ipsi quicquam ex suo arbitrio quod inducerent, elegerunt, sed acceptam a Christo disciplinam fideliter nationibus adsignaverunt. Itaque etiamsi angelus de caelis aliter euangelizaret, anathema diceretur
a nobis.
26 Chapman (2008) p. 503 translates auctores as ‘authorities’.
27 See e.g. Cicero, Topica 23; De officiis 1.37.
28 Wagenvoort and Tellenbach (1950) col. 906; Beck (1930) pp. 56–7, 102.
29 In this I go beyond Wagenvoort and Tellenbach (1950) col. 906 and Ring (1975) p. 220.
30 E.g. in Epistula 3.1; cf. Beck (1930/1967) pp. 156–64.
31 Especially his De baptismo 1–9, in which he defends the sacrament against heretical denials of its utility; see also Wilhite (2007) p. 163, that for Tertullian the Christian baptismal confession included the rejection of idolatry.
32 Ring (1975) p. 237–8; Brent (2010) pp. 288–9, rightly emphasizes that Cyprian eventually favoured episcopal authority at the expense of the unity of the church. Augustine on the other hand recognizes legal institutions above the local bishop, for instance a superordinate bishop (later archbishop) and church councils (Ring p. 236).
33 Brent (2010) pp. 22, 65.
34 Wagenvoort and Tellenbach (1950) col. 906. The continuation of the martyrs were of course the ascetics, whose charismatic authority will not be investigated here; for this see the rich scholarship of Rousseau (1978), Leyser (2000), and Hartmann (2006).
35 Ring (1975) p. 236. 36 Ring (1975) p. 239. 37 Pollmann (2009) pp. 313–14.
38 Cf. Lütcke (1986–94) pp. 505–6.
39 Cf. very helpfully Lütcke (1986–94) p. 503.
40 See van Fleteren (1973) pp. 49–67 passim, with rich references.
41 Lütcke (1986–94) pp. 504–5; Lössl (2007) p. 159.
42 Pollmann (2009) p. 303; van Fleteren (1973) pp. 68–9, adds Augustine, Epistula 120.3, where the epistemological sequence is a little reason, then faith (or authority), and then more reason and understanding (si igitur rationabile est, ut magnam quandam, quae capi nondum potest, fides antecedat rationem, procul dubio quantulacumque ratio, qua hoc persuadet, etiam ipsa antecedit fidem).
43 Cf. especially De legibus 1.36: non tuum iudicium sequaris, sed auctoritati aliorum pareas; De natura deorum 1.10 non enim tam auctoritatis in disputando quam rationis momenta quaerenda sunt. Quin etiam obest plerumque iis, qui discere volunt, auctoritas eorum, qui se docere profitentur; . . . ipse autem erat Pythagoras: tantum opinio praeiudicata poterat, ut etiam sine ratione valeret auctoritas; Tusculanae disputationes 1.21.49: ut enim rationem Plato nullam
adferret—vide, quid homini tribuam—, ipsa auctoritate me frangeret; Heinze (1925) p. 362; Wagenvoort and Tellenbach (1950) col. 907.
44 See van Fleteren (1973) pp. 57, 64–7.
45 Cf. for all this the summary in van Fleteren (1973) p. 71.
46 Bonner (1999) p. 228. 47 Vessey (2009) p. 234.
48 In contra Iulianum opus imperfectum the term auctoritas occurs more than 70 times.
49 To my mind Ring (1975) p. 232 n. 58 is correct when stating that Scripture alone cannot kindle faith, but he goes too far when he claims that this is the role of the church.
50 This further develops Dassmann (1982) p. 268.
51 Chapman (2008) p. 503 also relativizes this statement by emphasizing, ‘The Spirit of Christ thus survived in the scripture and traditions and institutions of the church. However, Augustine was reluctant to identify any particular office such as those bishoprics that claimed to have been established by the apostles themselves, with the utter certainty of divine power.’ Leyser (2000) pp. 3–19, highlights the tension in Augustine’s thought wavering between suspicion towards the
moral claims of authority and the practical need of exerting authority.
52 Dassmann (1982) p. 269: ‘Zirkel’.
53 For the background, context, and function of the processes of canonization see Thomassen (2010); on the interplay between hermeneutics and specific communities see Andrews (2012). 54 Heinze (1925) pp. 359–60; Th. Münscher, s.v. auctoritas, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae 2 (1900–06) 1231, ll. 38–44, quotes only four pagan passages, from Cicero to Apuleius.
55 Ring (1975) p. 223.
56 Ring (1975) p. 224, referring among other references to De ordine 2.27.
57 This and the following are owed to Ring (1975) pp. 143–6.
58 Cf. Johannes Cassian, De incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium 3.12: auctoritas est personae meae ipsa confessio (‘the confession of the faith gives authority to my person’); Wagenvoort and Tellenbach (1950) col. 906.
59 Agamben (2005) pp. 75–7.
60 See Graeber (2001) passim, and especially pp. 1, 3, 257.
61 Cf. Lausberg (1990) } 327. 62 See Milgram (1974).
63 Cf. the three criteria of tradition, reason, and God, which Fritz-Hainer Mutschler will explore as the alternating foundations of communal activity in the Roman Empire (www.sfb804. de/forschung/teilprojekte/teilprojektuebersicht/verbundprojekt-b; accessed 2 Feb. 2012).
64 Cf. Lütcke (1986–94) p. 509.
65 Heinze (1925) p. 362 n. 1:‘Aber wenn Augustin als erster mit aller Bestimmtheit die auctoritas der Kirche ‚in eine religiöse Größe verwandelt (Zitat von Harnack, Dogmengeschichte) . . . so darf man wohl behaupten, daß kein Grieche, überhaupt niemand, der nicht in dem Gefühl von auctoritas großgeworden war, auf diesen so folgenschweren, bis in die Gegenwart nachwirkenden Gedanken hätte verfallen können.’

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One thought on “On Auctoritas

  1. Pingback: Rebuttal to Erick Ybarra's "Pope St. Celestine I (422-432) and Immediate Universal Jurisdiction" Part I – Ubi Petrus Ibi Ecclesia

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