Suppose that I am visited by two angels, in the guise of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovney (because why not?), who entrust to me a message, purportedly from God, and command me to share this message with the world. Believing that I have actually received this message and have not conjured the apparition from a fifth of Bushmills, I rush to my computer, sign on to Twitter and Facebook (and, if I have time, Google +), and preach the word to all who will listen. I develop a following of hungry souls who venerate me as a prophet. Knowing I’ll need help to communicate the message, I assign tasks to some of my disciples, giving them responsibility for preaching the message, translating it into other languages, commenting on it, and interpreting it when debates arise among listeners about the meaning and application of the message. I set up a formal system of responsibility, and hence a structure of authority, to keep the message alive when I and my original disciples are dead and gone.
Wherever you have a purported revelation and people entrusted with responsibility for it, you will have some kind of structure of religious authority. It may be rather loose and simple or very strict and complex, but it’s going to be there, in authored artifacts of the past if not always in priests of the present. I emphasize this point so that you’ll understand that I do not mean, in what I say next, to dismiss the very idea of religious authority. As a Christian (like me) might say, there’s no Jesus without the church because it’s only by means of the church that we know anything about Jesus. I accept the necessity of religious authority, both as a believer and as an observer of religion.
It would seem to follow that if you accept the establishment of a religious authority, then you will as a rule assent to what that authority says, believing that the authority speaks for God and therefore speaks authoritatively. This would almost certainly be the case if you believe that the authority speaks on religious matters in a way that is protected by God from falling into error. In other words, it would seem that, at least in some cases, trusting the office of authority would be sufficient for trusting the word of the authority. This, however, might not really be true.
Suppose instead of my being the founder of a new religion I am its head spokesman, leading the flock hundreds of years after the founder rests in the earth. Suppose further that you are among these believers. How do you know when I am speaking authoritatively and therefore in a way that calls for your faithful assent? Ostensibly when I tell you that I am. If I, as the supreme pontiff of the Church of Mulder and Scully, want the followers of my faith to listen and obey, I’ll want to speak in such a manner that the faithful know that I speak from within the office of religious authority, giving an official and authoritative interpretation or application of revelation, and not simply as just some guy making my opinions public. Most likely I’ll have some formal presentation to this effect.
So why is this not truly sufficient? Because the faithful have no way of knowing whether I have truly invoked the office in good faith or in actual accordance with the revelation over which I have been given authority to speak. My speaking on a matter of the faith might follow the form of an official, authoritative pronouncement, but this form may hide deception or delusion on my part. Conceivably, I could speak “authoritatively” so as to further my own purposes that have nothing to do with teaching the authentic faith. I might do so consciously, say for nefarious purposes, or unconsciously, being deluded about my core motivation or interior disposition.
The lesson here: religious authority ultimately requires not only trust in the office of authority, but also in the specific individuals who hold that office. Past and present. It is a function of trust in individuals, not merely trust in the office or trust in God. The faithful could dissent from a doctrine that an authority has defined or interpreted, doing so not in opposition to God or true revelation, but in opposition to the authority figure as an untrustworthy person. Legitimate religious authority does not rule out the possibility of faithful dissent. However, the possibility of faithful dissent means that religious authority cannot ever be absolute or certain. If religious authority opens itself to faithful dissent, it has to face the cracks in its own structure–the possibility that each and every exercise of religious authority might be (or have been) otherwise than legitimate.