When is it legitimate to believe something on the basis of authority?
Are all forms of authority to be shunned by the thinking Christian? On the contrary, reason requires that authority be given a central role in the determination of truth.
One time my youngest daughter was sitting on my lap and was telling me about the Lord. As I recall, she was talking about the death of Jesus. As a result of her confident pronouncements, two things occurred to me. One was the fact that she was not saying anything that we hadn’t taught her. In short, she was believing certain things on the basis of authority. Secondly, there was nothing unnatural about what she was doing. This is how we are designed.
The fact that she was believing on the basis of authority is beyond dispute. She had not been reading any apologetic literature prior to our conservation. “Papa, redaction criticism contains some serious methodological flaws . . .” She believed because she was told.
Neither can it be disputed that there was nothing wrong with her approach to truth. God made the world in such a way that children are dependent upon their parents, and this dependency includes their need for truth. This is why the failure of parents to teach their children truth is an awful sin. It is child abuse. Children need food, and it is abuse to withhold it or to substitute poison. In the same way, it is abuse to withhold truth or to substitute error.
This does not mean that such acceptance of truth is designed to be blind or mindless. Truth that is believe on the basis of authority can be (and should be) confirmed later on the basis of reason and experience. Conversely, error which is accepted on the basis of authority can be rejected later when it comes to conflict with reason and experience.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to reject the common ideal of human autonomy. We were not designed to figure everything out for ourselves. We are to think about what we are taught, and we are to question. But we are not to start out with a blank slate. We are not to require our little ones to become small Cartesians, eliminating all accepted beliefs and building a world view by reason alone.
Instead, we are to bring them up in “the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4b; Deut. 6:7). God does not believe in teaching children to swim in the waters of truth by throwing them in the deep end. They are to be patiently guided and taught until they are able to swim on their own.
Children, then, should be taught the truth on the basis of authority. But the teaching, like all good teaching, should include not only the content of the truth, but the reasons for believing it. The result will be a balanced, well-taught individual.
This was originally published in The Hammer (Vol 5, No. 1) in 1986. The Hammer was a publication of Community Christian Ministries.