The Bible, Judaism and Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 2

In the first part of this blog post I attempted to describe how, while ancient Israel certainly did not possess the institutions of the modern democratic state, nevertheless the revelation of the Bible established the moral values essential to democracy in the notions of human equality before the Lord, concern for human welfare and opposition to tyranny based on God’s justice. These values were maintained, practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity. In this section I’m going to discuss how the early Church further developed these values to form the basis of the modern idea of the democratic state.

Adoption of Roman View of Popular Sovereignty By Early Christianity, but Only Secure Basis for Society God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity

The early Christians also adopted the view of contemporary Roman jurists and political philosophers that laws derived their authority through popular sovereignty. This view was developed particularly by Cicero, Seneca, the Cynics and the Stoics. This viewed the state, and the ability of each individual to participate in politics, as based on the common rationality in humanity and the universe. For the Roman lawyers, society was based on private, autonomous individuals, whose rights had to be respected and to whom justice was due because of their common humanity and rationality, regardless of how they were regarded or held by their fellow citizens, or their own ability to use force to enforce their will on others. 45 The early Church adopted the idea of human society as composed of rational creatures, and that the people were the true source of law. St. Augustine thus wrote in the City of God that ‘a populus is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love; in order to discover the character of any society, we have only to observe what they love.’ 46 For Augustine, however, the most secure basis for society and law was the love of God and the divine command to love one’s neighbour amongst the people, rather than just human rationality itself. Thus St. Augustine declared in the Epistle to Volusianus

‘Here (in Jesus Christ’s summary of the Law and the prophets in the double command to love God and one’s neighbour) is the basis for an admirable commonwealth; for a society can neither be ideally founded nor maintained unless upon the basis and by the bond of faith and strong concord, when the object of love is the universal good which in its highest and truest character is God Himself, and when men love one another with complete sincerity in Him, and the ground of their love for one another is the love of Him from whose eyes they cannot conceal the spirit of their love.’ 47

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman Law and its precepts were replaced by customary law, until it was rediscovered by the Church’s canon lawyers in the 12th century. Nevertheless, the Church insisted that kings and princes had a duty to society as a whole through the maintenance of peace and justice, protecting the weak and encouraging and securing love and charity between people. This prepared European society for the revival of the doctrine of popular sovereignty when western European scholars returned to studying Roman Law. 48 The beginning of all Roman legal doctrine from the 12th century onwards was the statement by the Roman lawyer Ulpian, which reached western Europe through Justinian’s Digest, that ‘The prince’s decision has the force of law; inasmuch as by the royal law passed concerning his authority the people has invested him with the whole of its own authority and power.’ 49 Thus the Roman doctrine of popular sovereignty, which became the basis of modern western democracy through the political philosophy of John Locke, was adopted, preserved, and made the basis of western political theory again by Christianity.

Sole Purpose of Authority to Promote Peace and Harmony

Although the early Church recognised that human society required authority, philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine and Theodoret believed that the sole rightful purpose for such authority was to maintain order and promote harmony and tranquillity. As rulers derived their authority ultimately from God, individuals motivated solely by a desire to rule, rather than promote justice, had no rightful authority. 50 similarly, while the Church itself was hierarchical and stressed obedience to authority, nevertheless it considered that its clergy should rule from a sense of service to the community, rather than a desire for personal power. St. Augustine stated that

‘Those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power but from a sense of duty – not because they love authority, but because they love mercy.’ 61

Indeed, St. Augustine considered that any member of the clergy who ruled purely from a desire a power had automatically disqualified himself from holding office, as ‘he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop!’ 62

Origin of Separation of Church and State in St. Augustine

St. Augustine further prepared Western society for the separation of church and state that is a part of modern, secular democratic politics. Although the late Roman Empire saw itself very much as a Christian state, in which the church and religious belief and worship were essential institutions and included amongst the secular governmental institutions as a vital aspect of the state, a situation that continued in the new states of the Middle Ages that succeeded the Roman Empire, the early Church distinguished between itself and secular authority. St. Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century in his letters to the emperor Theodosius denied that secular officials had any authority over the Church, whose clergy and property were outside imperial authority.

St. Augustine developed this idea still further in the City of God. While he accepted that society and sovereignty derived from the people, he denied that justice was the ratio, the basis, of the state. 53 As justice derived from God and so lay beyond the state, so humanity’s duty to God superseded their duty to the state. The state may indeed possess and promote justice abundantly, but this was not the essential basis of the state. 54 Indeed, St. Augustine himself had a very negative view of the state. It was only justice that distinguished kingdoms from robbery on a massive scale, and asked ‘for what are robberies but little kingdoms?’ Humans, because of their sinful nature, hated the idea of their equality before God, and so tried to usurp God’s authority by imposing their will on their fellow humans. ‘Sinful man hates the equality of all men under God.’ It was because of his sinful nature that man, ‘as though he were God, loves to impose his own sovereignty upon his fellow men.’ The state existed to protect human society from such tyrants, but was not in itself fundamentally and absolutely just. 55 Furthermore, as states themselves were transient, rising and falling naturally during the course of history, they therefore required the instruction and education of the Church, which was separate from the state and eternal. Thus in the view of the historian Richard Fletcher, by drawing this distinction between church and state, and secular and religious authority St. Augustine ‘detached the state – any state, but in particular, of course, the Roman State – from the Christian community. Under his hands the Roman Empire became theological neutral.’ 56

Church’s Duty to Condemn Oppression, including that of Roman Emperors

Even before St. Augustine, the Church had considered its duty to criticise and punish tyranny and the abuse of power, even when such acts were ordered by the very highest authority, such as the emperor himself. In 390 the emperor Theodosius ordered a massacre of 7,000 citizens assembled at a circus in Thessalonica in reprisal for the murder of a member of the military garrison there. St. Ambrose of Milan strongly condemned the massacre, and in a letter to Theodosius warned him to repent or he would withhold Holy Communion from him. He stated ‘I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.’ 57 Theodosius gave in to St. Ambrose’s moral authority, and duly did public penance for the atrocity in Milan cathedral, thus conceding the moral superiority of the Church over the state.

Early Church Doctrine therefore Opposed to Modern Ideas of Totalitarian State

While this prefigured the struggles between Church and state, and popes and emperors to assert their authority and superiority over the other during the Middle Ages, it also directly undermines the concept of the totalitarian state that was fundamental to the Fascist and Communist regimes of the 20th century. These were based on the Hegelian idea that the state represented the highest expression of the forces of history and the divine mind, and so the citizen owed the state his absolute allegiance. The early Church, by making a distinction between Church and state, and declaring that the state was not fundamentally just and that it was subordinate to God and the Church, directly contradicted and attacked the idea of such absolute states.

Membership of Early Church Open to Everyone, Regardless of Gender, Wealth or Nationality

The early Church also differed from contemporary Roman society in that it was open to all members of society, regardless of social rank and gender. In secular Roman society, philosophy and the Gnostic religions, including Gnostic Christianity, were largely confined to leisured aristocrats, while the Mystery religions similarly confined their membership to the initiated. Catholic Christianity, however, was open to anyone who wished to join it and share in the knowledge and worship of Christ. Arnobius Afer stated Christianity’s universal mission to all humanity in the words:

‘Does not He (Jesus Christ) free all alike who invites all alike: or does He thrust back or repel any one from the kindness of the Supreme who gives to all alike the power of coming to Him-to men of high rank, to the meanest slaves, to women, to boys? To all, he says, the fountain of life is open, and no one is hindered or kept back from drinking.’ 58 While pagan opponents of Christianity such as Celsus viewed it with contempt because the Church’s members came from the lower sections of Roman society without a formal education, Christian apologists such as Athenagoras considered it to be a positive aspect of Christianity, that it included people from such sections of society, who lived exemplary lives despite their lack of a formal education. Athenagoras stated

‘Among us (the Christians) you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from the persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed they do not go to the law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.’ 59

The early Church’s concern and mission to all sections of Roman society also led it to criticise the restriction of philosophy and intellectual activity to the aristocratic elites. For theologians and apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, everyone had the right to study the Gospel and philosophy, regardless of their social rank, gender or race:

‘Both slave and free must equally philosophise, whether male or female in sex … whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman … And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue.’60

Advocacy of Freedom of Conscience in Early Church

As well as declaring that every person was capable of receiving the Gospel and so should have the freedom to join the Church, early Christian apologists, such as Tertullian, Lactantius and Hilary of Poitiers also argued for freedom of conscience in their criticisms of their persecution by the Roman state. The Church itself became increasingly repressive of rival faiths and controlled intellectual activity after its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, these arguments were revived during the Reformation by religious writers, theologians and politicians such as William Penn to create the religious tolerance that eventually resulted in the freedom of conscience that is a fundamental part of modern democratic liberty. 61

Furthermore, although the Church later did much to suppress individual freedom, it also did much to introduce the individual, subject view of the individual into political debate and discussion. In the ancient world, the wellbeing of the individual was frequently identified with that of society as a whole, with the effect that there was little discussion of the freedom of the individual as an ideal, rather than a political reality. However, Christianity introduced the idea of the importance of the individual through the doctrine of the fundamental sanctity of every human life. This was further developed in Western philosophy by the introduction by St. Augustine of the ‘first-person standpoint’ as a fundamental feature of the search for truth according to the historian Charles Taylor. 62 This concern for the subjective, first-person view is demonstrated most clearly by Augustine in his autobiography, The Confessions.

Election of Bishops in Early Christianity

The early Church was also democratic in that originally the bishops were elected by the whole of the Christian community of each diocese, both clergy and laypeople. 63 Cyprian states that this was the practice in almost all the provinces of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. 64 The idea and practice of popular suffrage, through which the people of a diocese could directly choose their bishop, was taken from general Roman electoral practice, such as in the election of secular magistrates. Jews similarly had adopted such electoral practices in the election of synagogue officials. Nevertheless, the Church differed from pagan society in that women and slaves also had a right to vote. 65 Eventually, however, the direct election of bishops declined along with secular democracy. There was opposition to it within the Church by leading members of the clergy, such as Origen. Origen criticised it for the bribery, corruption and factionalism in contemporary popular Episcopal elections that resulted in the appointment of unsuitable candidates who were more interested in power and the financial advantages rather than scholarship and truly ministering to the spiritual needs of their congregation. As a result of such electoral corruption, bishops were succeeded by their brothers or sons. 66 The gradual abolition of the direct election of bishops by the people helped to prevent the post becoming hereditary, and so allowed individuals from other sections of society, such as peasants, to be appointed to the post. 67

The election of the clergy by the congregation returned in Western Christianity with the establishment of the orders of pastors, doctors, elders and deacons by Jean Calvin in the Reformed Church, modelled on what he considered to be the governmental structure of the early Church as found in Scripture. This was remarkably democratic in that these clergy were elected, rather than appointed to office. 68 Although the practise of electing officials was confined to the Church, rather than recommended for society as a whole, nevertheless it was a major contribution to the emergence of democracy in Europe through the notion that ordinary Christians could elect their clergy, who then had the power to criticise the moral failings of their social superiors.

Early Church not Democratic, also Responsible for Intolerance and Oppression, but also Shares Common Democratic Values

The early Church’s conception of society as a family meant that it did not develop an idea of the complete freedom of the individual similar to that in modern political theory. Instead, the early Church viewed individual freedom as limited by the demands and requirements of the wider society of the Church, and the claims of others upon the individual’s love and service. As human liberty was also limited by the divine origin of authority, the Church and European society generally could become extremely repressive with the individual possessing very little freedom. 69 Indeed, the early Church was certainly not a democracy. It accepted the inequalities in wider Roman society, even slavery. 70 Historians have particularly criticised the early Church for its intolerance, and suppression and persecution of different faiths and minorities, such as heretics and Jews. 71 Nevertheless, despite the fact that the early Church was not democratic, historians have argued that it was concerned with all the same fundamental values of democracy, and creating a vital, existential frame of reference within which it was possible to achieve human happiness. 72

Christianity and democracy, it has been argued, are both based on the idea of objectively true, moral values. They both demand that freedom should be limited in the interests of equality and the general welfare of the community, and that equality should similarly be limited in the interests of social harmony and efficiency. They are also opposed to the fragmentation of human society produced by, for example, imperialism, racism, statism, provincialism and class warfare. Both Christianity and democracy also demand that humans be treated as ends in themselves, and not simply as means. In their view that the proper end of human conduct and effort should be the welfare of humanity, both Christianity and democracy are concerned with ordinary people and ‘the disinherited, and submerged groups in every society’. 73

Christianity and Democracy Both Opposed to Totalitarianism and Oppression

The early Church scholar, Albert C. Outler of Duke University, speaking at a conference of American academics, scholars and politicians from science, philosophy, the humanities, arts and Jewish and Christian religions in 1940 concerned with defending democracy from attack from Nazism, Fascism and Communism, declared that Christianity and democracy would remain separate. However, both Christianity and democracy had a strong interest in the international situation, and so in his view had much to offer each other. Indeed he concluded that democracy needed the support of religion, just as religion needed the support of democracy.

‘I do not see how a democratic order can be achieved or remain uncorrupted without a religious undergirding; I do not doubt that democratic order is the best political means to the end of a religious community. The cross-fertilization which a vital Christianity and a genuine democracy could achieve would greatly aid the cause of humanity and serve the Kingdom of God in this generation.’ 74

Fundamental Democratic Values derived from Bible and Hebrew-Christian Tradition, which Opposes Oppression and Tyranny

This concern with the fundamental values that are the basis of democracy is also shared with Judaism. It is derived from the witness of the Bible to God’s love and concern for humanity and the equal value of everyone, regardless of their race, sex or economic status, before the Lord. The Biblical scholar Millar Burrows, speaking at the 1940 conference attempting to combat the totalitarian attack on democracy, stated that the Bible’s respect for people’s rights and personalities, their common, human nature regardless of differences in gender, race and social rank, and the social responsibilities people have towards their fellows and to society as a whole, rather than in the development of specific societal, industrial or political institutions, were ‘the indispensable basis spiritual basis for a true and enduring democracy.’ 75 For Millar the Hebrew-Christian tradition’s great contribution to democracy lay in ‘its fundamental conception of the nature of man and of his relation to his Maker and to his fellow-man.’ 76 This concern is encapsulated in the Lord’s summary of the Mosaic Law linking one’s duty to love the Lord with one’s whole person and one’s neighbour as oneself. For Millar, the Hebrew-Christian conception of humanity and its relationship to God and its fellow people had made it the absolute opponent of tyrants throughout history, and made its continued presence in human history and society a threat to tyrannical regimes that they sought to eradicate.

‘It is this that has made the Old and New Testaments the deathless foes of all dictators in all subsequent ages. The righteous God of the Bible towers so far above all earthly powers that none of them counts for anything in His presence. The humblest man is equal to the mightiest prince before God. Moses can defy Pharaoh, Nathan can rebuke David, Elijah can challenge Ahab, Jeremiah can oppose Jehoiakim, the humble Maccabees can brave the terrible anger of the Macedonian despot. In the presence of the living God of Israel right always outweighs might. Tyranny can never tolerate the cultivation of the Hebrew-Christian tradition.’ 77

Conclusion: Democracy Recent, Created Partly through Biblical and Christian View of Society Based on God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity, which Still Provides Powerful Support for Democratic Politics

While democratic political and social institutions have taken millennia to emerge, they were created in part through the attempts of philosophers, theologians and ordinary men and women to establish a society based on the Biblical concern for a truly just society, based on God’s concern for humanity, their value as individuals, and their responsibilities to each other. This conception of a society based on God’s justice and humans’ responsibilities to the Lord and each other inspired prophets and saints to criticise, condemn and oppose tyrants, and from the Middle Ages onwards led people to attempt to create political institutions to restrain tyranny and promote freedom, a goal that eventually resulted in the emergence of political democracy in the West. Democracy is separate from Christianity, but linked to it through the fundamental concern of justice and humanity that are common to both, so that Christianity, although it has also supported tyrants, is also, and continues to be a vital source of support for democracy itself.

Notes

  1. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 453.
  2. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX:24, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  3. St. Augustine, Epistle to Volusianus 137:17, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  4. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 384.
  5. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 385.
  6. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 460.
  7. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  8. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  9. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  10. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  11. St. Augustine, cited in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 13.
  12. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, H. Holt & Co, 1998), p. 29, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 13.
  13. St. Ambrose of Milan, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 10.
  14. Arnobius Afer, Against the Heathen, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 462.
  15. Athenagoras, ‘A Plea for the Christians’ xi, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 461.
  16. Clement of Alexandria in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p.2.
  17. Tertullian, cited in William Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in William Penn: The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and other Writings, ed. Edwin B. Bronner (London, J.M Dent 1993), p. 179; Lactantius and Hilary, against Auxentius, cited in Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in Penn, Peace of Europe, ed. Bronner, p. 182.
  18. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Makings of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press 1989), pp. 131-33, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 14.
  19. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin 1964), p. 299.
  20. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century Ad to the Conversion of Constantine (London, Penguin 506).
  21. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 508.
  22. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 511.
  23. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  24. G.R. Elton, Reformation Europe 1517-1559 (London, Fontana 1963), pp. 226, 227.
  25. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 459.
  26. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 458.
  27. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 465-7.
  28. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 469-70.
  29. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  30. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  31. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  32. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  33. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.

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