Overview Types of Religious Authority

Four major types of religious authority, usually combined in some way, are found in the world's religions. In most cases, tradition itself is regarded as authoritative. Religions tend to appeal to a more remote past, the true tradition, especially when current authorities are being challenged. In only a few religions, however, is tradition regarded as the major source of authority. A second source of authority is the world of nature, used as a model for human behavior and often thought to set limits for humans. While some appeal to nature is common, again only a few religions regard it as the major religious authority.

Against that background of appeal to tradition or nature, texts, both oral and written, and often regarded as revealed, vie with people for the status of highest or final authority. The authority accorded to texts varies greatly, but they are always important, regarded as repositories of wisdom from ancient times, trustworthy because they represent sacred wisdom from long ago. According to many religions, the sacred text should always be more authoritative than any reader of that text; that is to say, the readers should submit to the authority of the text, not the other way around. However, the problem with texts is that they cannot function in an unmediated fashion, directly transmitting their contents. They have to be understood and made relevant for contemporary people by contemporary readers, which means that people interpreting the texts can have equal, or even greater, authority than the texts on which a religion bases itself, no matter what that religion may assert about the superior authority of texts. Other religions do not trust a text, by itself, to give clear guidance and rely more on learned or realized human beings who have experienced the text's meaning for reliable authority. Thus, at least to scholars of religion, it is clear that the people who receive and interpret texts, are, in fact, the most important sources of religious authority, though few religions openly declare that to be the case.

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