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In any debate, it is common to encounter a logical fallacy—an error in reasoning that weakens, if not negates, the individual’s argument. There are many of them, and knowing what they are and how to avoid them can help to strengthen a person’s ability to engage in discussion on any topic.
One such logical fallacy is the appeal to authority, when somebody claims that because a certain authoritative figure has stated that X is true, it therefore follows (without question) that X is true. This claim sidesteps logical analysis of X, instead concluding with certainty that it must be true because it has been affirmed by somebody who claims to know about it. John Locke described it this way: “When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from it, and question the authority of men who are in possession of it.”
In religious discussion, critics often cite this logical fallacy as a reason why Christians—and more particularly Mormons, with their belief in modern-day prophets—are errant for believing things merely because some authority figure has spoken them. Especially in social media discussions, such critics will respond to any scripture or prophetic statement with a dismissive “appeal to authority!” comment, indicating their supposed logical superiority.
These critics do not fully understand this logical fallacy in their liberal citation of it. One philosopher, in a book expounding on logical fallacies, explains it this way:
Appeals to authority are often valid, as when we tell someone to use a certain medicine because the doctor has prescribed it. But appeals to authority can be fallacious, as when we cite those who have no special competence regarding the matter at hand. The fallacy of appeal to authority, therefore, is an argument that attempts to overawe an opponent into accepting a conclusion by playing on his or her reluctance to challenge famous people, time honored customs, or widely held beliefs. The fallacy appeals, at base, to our feelings of modesty, to our sense that others know better than we do.” (S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 3rd ed. St. Martin’s Press, 1986)
The fundamental theological claim of Christianity is that God exists and that he is our King and the ultimate authority on any and every matter. Further, all Christians believe that God commissioned (fallible) men to convey his teachings and oversee his church. Thus, at least to some degree, these chosen individuals are authority figures in divine matters, and their words (ancient or modern) are perceived as properly authoritative within their own realm of expertise.
Of course, the difficulty has always lied in discerning when these persons are speaking with authority and when they are voicing their own opinions or “best guesses” in an attempt to best approximate God’s actual will. Clearly, Christ’s followers generally operate on a presumption of authority, and therefore feel comfortable in citing the statements of church leaders as theologically sound and religiously binding. Simply disregarding all such statements as fallacious is incorrect.
Any discussion with a disciple of Christ will inherently include appeals to authority. To the extent that the teaching being cited was given by a person properly authorized to do so, then no logical fallacy is committed. However, if the individual asserts anything approximating infallibility on the part of the speaker (or fails to recognize such fallibility), then a logical fallacy has been committed. In other words, we must recognize that even authority figures may convey teachings or make claims that are not true. This nuanced recognition of and submission to authority is both intellectually and spiritually demanding. Discernment is not an easy task.
In the end, what matters most is establishing the claim of authority and proceeding from that point. Christians assert that God has spoken to man; Mormons assert that he continues to do so. The implications of these claims are important and necessary, though secondary to the fundamental claim that God exists, loves his children, desires their happiness, and therefore communicates his will through chosen individuals to facilitate their return to his presence.
That’s a kind of authority to which I feel perfectly comfortable appealing.