The Inter-Action of Power and Authority – J.J. Vila-Chã

The Inter-Action of Power and Authority: The Force of the Symbol and the Strengthening of Reality

by João J. Vila-Chã

Karl Barth explained the power of the Church as derived from “the Holy Spirit of Pentecost”, the event that brought together the old prophetic word and the new apostolic one and so became effective witness of the Christ of God to many peoples and countless generations.[1] In and through the Spirit, the Logos of God reveals itself both in the spoken and in the written word and so becomes the Word through which the power of God becomes manifest across the world. Inasmuch as it is the Spirit of the Son, i.e., the Word of God made flesh, word spoken and written, the Spirit that speaks in the hearts of the believers is “the Spirit of the Prophets and of the Apostles”.[2] Barth, therefore, posited as the ultimate source of power and authority in the Church the Spirit of the Word, that is, the One that guides the Church into the plenitude of truth.[3] Only in conjunction with Word and Spirit can we speak of authentic power and true authority in the Church. Power and authority are in the Church always limited and contained.[4]

In the Christian tradition, therefore, the ultimate source of power and authority is God the creator and redeemer. At the root of the Christian understanding of the human person is the principle that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.[5] God endows the human person with the responsibility of achieving dominion over the world. That, however, must happen in obedience and through the constant recognition that in God alone reside supreme power and authority. As power and authority are constitutive parts of our being-in-the-world, they must always be exercised in terms of a relational act of God, that is, under the cover of a divine mandate. As gifts of God, power and authority demand to be understood in connection with His command. 

In our self-understanding as creatures of God, we must recognize that power and authority are inseparable from our relationship with God, the One that transferred into human hands the capability of being/becoming image and likeness of the love which God is.[6] As creatures, the mandate received is to exercise dominion in the likeness of the one and eternal Ruler.[7] To deny God, therefore, would amount to the rejection of any ultimate foundation in our ethical paradigms, especially when it comes to the exercise of authority and power. Whenever it happens, both power and authority, as any other form of dominion, become open to forms of abuse and denial of human dignity. For the Christian person, therefore, the exercise of power and authority must never become unbridled or unlimited, exercised outside of rules and norms.[8] Power and authority have to be seen in relation with God and, consequently, be exercised in contemplation of the kenotic style of God, that is, of the One that rules and governs the world with infinite love and tenderness.

[1] Cf. Karl Barth, Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten, 1922-1925, ed. Holger Finze, Digital Karl Barth library (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1990), p. 664. 

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Cf. Jn 16:13.

[4] Karl Barth, op. cit.

[5] Cf. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Was ist der Mensch? Die Anthropologie der Gegenwart im Lichte der Theologie., 4., Aufl., Kleine Vandenhoeck-Reihe (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1972).

[6] Cf. Gen. 1.

[7] Cf. Rocco D’Ambrosio, Il potere e chi lo detiene (Bologna: EDB, 2008), p. 19.

[8] Cf. Ibidem.