To understand God’s authority, we have to proceed by analogy, recognizing limitations in the application of accounts of human authority. The term “authority” in its use within human life is a “thick” value term, like “polite.” Thick value terms take up the criteria for their application into their meaning, and combine them unstably with the evaluation, and the result is that with most such terms it is possible to find cases where the criteria are approximately met, but the evaluation is the opposite of the usual. To say that a person has authority is usually to express approval of the way she exercises power. But it is also possible to say that a person has wrongful or too much authority. What, then, is rightful authority?
As with most value terms, we need to distinguish objective and subjective uses of the term “authority.” In the subjective use of “value,” I can’t sincerely say that something is a value for me unless I value it. But in the objective use of “value,” there can be values relevant to my choices that I don’t acknowledge. Two qualifications are needed here, before we apply it to the case of “authority.” The first qualification is that objectivity does not require independence of human beings as a whole; it requires independence of the preferences of the person to whom the value applies. A medical treatment can be good for a person whether he recognizes it or not. John McDowell has argued convincingly that most of the values we operate with are relative to human dispositions in general, and that this does not mean they are not objective. The second qualification is that, according to the “prescriptive realism” outlined in Ch. 1, the full-orbed value judgment using the term will always express a subjective state, though this does not impugn the objective reality of the value properties picked out in the judgment. The consequence is that, when a person makes this kind of value judgment, there will be a “value” in the subjective sense, an acknowledged pull towards some good or away from some evil together with an endorsement of that pull, but the objective value can be there whether it’s acknowledged in such a judgment or not.
“Authority” has been distinguished from mere “power” by the fact that a person or thing that has authority properly influences me, whereas a person or thing that has power merely influences me. This distinction comes from Butler, but it isn’t yet adequate. Not all properly exercised influence is authority, because influence can be merely causal, and not all authority is properly exercised. We need a distinction between power and authority that appeals to the idea that the person with authority gives (by commanding) reasons of a certain kind for compliance to the person over whom she has the authority. But the term “reasons for action” is itself value-laden, and this can again give rise to confusion. We can’t simply define “authority” in terms that make it always by definition true that the person who exercises it does so legitimately.
In the tradition of all three Abrahamic faiths, God has authority as sovereign. But now we need to make the distinction between “objective authority” and “subjective authority.” God is sovereign, and in this sovereignty God has both of these kinds of authority. God has objective authority for everyone, whether they acknowledge it or not. But subjective authority is what the subject acknowledges as authoritative, and so God has subjective authority only for those who acknowledge it or consent to it. We can further distinguish God’s sovereignty by functions, by analogy with human sovereignty, like the distinction into legislative, executive, and judicial functions. God makes the law by commanding it, and runs the kingdom in accordance with that law, and judges all human beings, whether they have acknowledged God’s authority or not, by their compliance to that law. In all three cases, God has objective authority but may not have subjective authority. There is circularity here. God has rightful authority because God’s commands give us the reasons that we ought to have, and we ought to have them because God’s commands have authority. But the circularity is not vicious, because the chain of justification terminates in the principle known from its terms that God is to be loved and hence God is to be obeyed.
We can say that, when God commands something by legislative authority, implemented in God’s executive and judicial authority, there is an objective reason for obedience from the union of wills (divine and human) that is both expressed in such obedience, and that is good in itself. In terms of God’s executive authority, in Kant’s language God is the sovereign of the kingdom of ends, of which we are mere members. The sovereign is a completely independent being, without needs and with unlimited resources adequate to his will. An example of what this means is that God can put us next to the people God wants us to help. We can call this the “principle of providential proximity,” which can be helpful in overcoming the despair that comes from seeing the scale of the world’s need as compared with my own pitiful resources. It’s not always obvious whom one has been placed next to; it might not be simply geographical. And it’s not simply that God sees better than we do what the reasons are, and transmits them to us; rather, God’s choices actually create or produce the reasons. God puts me next to the person I am supposed to help, and I am to see being placed next to her as preparing me for a divine command to pay special concern to her interests.
God’s judicial authority gives me a reason because I am accountable to God. This is true independently of whether I acknowledge this authority. A rival view is Murphy’s position that God does not have this objective authority over those who have not acknowledged it, but that one is required in reason to subject oneself to God’s rule, because there is decisive reason so to do; to fail to subject oneself is to be guilty of practical irrationality. But Hare thinks such an account can’t accommodate the traditional view of all three Abrahamic faiths about God’s judicial authority even over the non-believer. Dodsworth makes this point well, relying on Darwall. Being given practical reasons to perform actions constitutes neither authority nor accountability. An account of God’s authority needs to make reference to the fact that, when we fail to obey God’s commands, this makes us rightly liable to God’s rebuke and punishment, as in the first Psalm. This is true for believers and unbelievers alike.
When God makes a promise to us or makes a covenant with us, is God obligated to comply with it? Scotus is useful here. He makes a distinction between God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power (which God exercises within an ordinance divinely established). An agent can act in conformity with some right and just law in accordance with his or her ordained power. When that upright law—according to which an agent must act in order to act ordinately—is not in the power of that agent, then its absolute power can’t exceed its ordained power in regards to any object without its acting disorderly or inordinately. But God can’t act otherwise, so that he establishes another upright law, which would be right, because no law is right except insofar as the divine will accepts it as established. So God is acting within the divine ordained power by keeping promises, but it’s always possible for God by the absolute divine power to establish a different upright order. God’s obligation thus does not, we might say, go all the way down. God is unlike us in this respect.