When Democracy Degenerates (Zwingli)

In 1531 Ulrich Zwingli wrote what is now called “An Exposition of the Faith.” He wrote it to the French court to explain the doctrines he believed – doctrines which the other early Reformers also taught and which were ultimately based on Scripture. One point in this document Zwingli is where basically noted that he and his fellow Reformers were in favor of submitting to government; they weren’t anti-government like the Anabaptists.

One part of this “government” section that I found fascinating was where Zwingli gave a brief explanation of human governments as the Greeks taught: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He doesn’t really weigh in his opinion on these as much as explain them. What he says about democracy is very fascinating and totally relevant today. (Note: I very much appreciate democracy. I don’t have an underlying motive in sharing this quote except to say it is relevant for thought in our American context today. It’s food for thought!)

Finally they [the Greeks] recognize a democracy, which the Latins render by “res publica, republic,” a word of broader meaning than democracy, where affairs, that is, the supreme power, are in the hands of the people in general, the entire people; and all the civil offices, honors, and public functions are in the hands of the whole people. When this form degenerates, the Greeks call it σύστρεμμα ἢ σύστασις, that is, a state of sedition, conspiracy, and disturbance, where no man suffers himself to be held in check, and instead each one, asserting that he is a part and a member of the people, claims the power of the state as his own, and each one follows his own reckless desires. Hence there arise unrestrained conspiracies and factions, followed by bloodshed, plundering, injustice and all the other evils of treason and sedition.

 Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, ed. William John Hinke, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Heidelberg Press, 1922), 262.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Democracy, Culture, Christianity

 Here’s a provocative section from Don Carson’s 2008 book, Christ and Culture Revisited.

“…Democracy, as a valuable form of government as it can be, must never be confused with the Christian vision of the good….  [A] democratic culture cannot be aligned isomorphically with a Christian culture.  Christians will cheer on democracy, believing that, by and large, it benefits the greatest number of people, provides mechanisms for limiting human power (and for ensuring that power can change hands without bloodshed), and usually provides more freedoms than other forms of government.  These freedoms almost inevitably allow many things to foster (I almost wrote ‘fester’) that Christians will dislike, but the same freedoms protect freedom of worship, freedom to bear witness, freedom to change one’s faith without government reprisals, and much more.  Nevertheless, all notions of freedom invoke, implicitly or explicitly, subsidiary notions of freedom from and freedom to or for.”

“The democratic tradition in the West has fostered a great deal of freedom from Scripture, God, tradition, and assorted moral constraints; it encourages freedom toward doing your own thing, hedonism, self-centeredness, and consumerism.  By contrast, the Bible encourages freedom from self-centeredness, idolatry, greed, and all sin and freedom toward living our lives as those who bear God’s image and who have been transformed by his grace, such that our greatest joy becomes doing his will.”

I appreciate how Carson notes that though democracy has its benefits, there still is a relatively sharp clash between Christianity and democracy (especially democracy as it has morphed in the West).  We can be thankful for democracy.  However, we have to always resist the democratization of Christianity and the church.

The above quote was taken from pages 138-9 of Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. Carson.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Religion Of, By, and For the People

I’ve mentioned Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again.  This is the book you need to read if you’ve ever wondered how Christianity got so screwed up in the United States.  If you’ve wondered where goofy patriotic hymns originated, if you want to learn when Americans began to dislike creeds, confessions and church membership, if you’ve wondered about the origin of evangelical superstars, or if you want to learn about the source of the phrase “no creed but the Bible,” you must get this book.  Hatch’s book is far too detailed to summarize here, so I’ll simply quote an insightful paragraph now and blog on it again some other time.

In chapter four, Hatch discusses the 19th century democratic, republican, and populist view of religion – that each man should approach religion and the Bible independently, freely, and as his own source of authority.

“[They] called for common folk to read the Bible as if mortal man had never seen it before.  People were expected to discover the self-evident message of the Bible without any mediation from creeds, theologians, or clergymen not of their own choosing.  This explicit faith that biblical authority could emerge from below, from the will of the people, was the most enduring legacy of [this] movement.  By the 1840s one analyst of American Protestantism concluded, after surveying fifty-three sects, that the principle ‘No creed but the Bible’ was the distinctive feature of American religion.  John W. Nevin [a German Reformed theologian] surmised that this emphasis grew out of a popular demand for ‘private judgment’ and was ‘tacitly if not openly conditioned always by the assumption that every man is authorized and bound to get at this authority in a direct way for himself, through the medium simply of his own single mind.’  Many felt that the exhilarating hope that democracy had opened an immediate access to biblical truth for all persons of good will.  Americans found it difficult to realize, however, that a commitment to private judgment could drive people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity.”

I’m not against democracy, but I do believe Christians should be careful not to let democracy creep into the church (including hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theology, and so forth).  Also, we should be self-critical: how have our own churches been affected by democracy?  Does the will of the people rule our churches (songs, sermons, theology, worship) or God’s word given to the church?  In what ways are our own churches more democratic than Christian?  How can we exist in a democratic culture without letting it direct our churches?  What steps can we take in our churches to become less democratic?

Again, I strongly recommend this book: The Democratization of American Christianity.

shane lems