In light of the present discussion of reading the Bible, I offer this reprint. Our modern age has drunk the kool-aid of philosophical democracy (the autonomous authority of the individual) to the dregs and seeks to use the Bible to underwrite the project. A book that could not have been owned by an individual prior to the printing press in the 15th century (by reason of cost) cannot be used philosophically to support the autonomy of the individual right and competency to read and interpret. With the sole exception of Philemon, the letters of the New Testament are not written to individuals (Timothy and Titus receive letters only by virtue of their position as leaders of a community). They are letters to the Church and the individual is not a Church. The practice of the reading of Scripture for nearly 1400 years was largely that of listening to its being read within the assembly of the Church – and this continued for quite some time even after the printing press’ advent. The doctrine of “soul competency” is a modern invention, contrary to the New Testament itself and the practice of primitive and early Christianity. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Every pretender to its throne is a usurper.
“Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (Mat 8:8-10 NKJ)
Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion is one of the least modern experiences in all of Scripture. Of all the stories in the New Testament, this one would be the most difficult to repeat in our culture. In our world, we ourselves are our only authority – we are neither over anyone else nor subject to any. We are filled with the spirit of democracy, and, as such, despise the Kingdom of God.
The world of kings and rulers began to collapse at the very time that nation-states began their rise. In 1534, Henry VIII of England repudiated any authority greater than himself with regard to the Church of England. A little over a century later, Parliament followed his example and overthrew the King himself and beheaded him. The same fate met the king of France 150 years later. The march of modern progress has meant death to tyrants.
Except that it has not. When Henry refused to recognize the Pope’s authority, he made himself a “Pope.” With every advance and repudiation of authority, authority itself does not disappear – it simply becomes more universalized. Today, in contemporary Christianity, it is said that “everyman is a Pope.” Whereas a few generations ago, people asserted that the Bible alone had authority, today, that, too, has been overthrown. Each person is his own authority.
This is perhaps stated in an extreme way. We do have bosses in the work place, teachers in the classroom and other authorities. But as anyone in “authority” can confirm, such positions are under increasing pressure and scrutiny. They often have authority, only because they have coercive power. Authority that rests naturally with a person or position has virtually disappeared from our world.
I am fully sympathetic with the political place of democracy. It evolved as a means of addressing tyranny – though it is often quite ineffective in confronting modern leaders who tyrannize in the name of democracy. But I offer no political suggestions in this article and have no interest in a conversation on the topic.
I am, however, deeply interested in the spiritual disease that accompanies the interiorizing of the democratic project. We have not only structured our political world in a “democratic” manner, we have spiritualized the concept and made of it a description for how the world truly is and how it should be. The assumptions of democracy have become the assumptions of modern morality and the matrix of our worldview. It is this interiorization of democracy that makes the Centurion impossible in our time.
People of the modern world have a sense of inherent equality, and often resent any assertion of authority. Of course, equality is true in a certain manner, and utterly false in another. It is true that all people have equal worth – no one life is more valuable than another. But by almost any other measure, we are not equal, because we are not commensurate. I am of equal worth, but I am not as smart as another. I am of equal worth but I am not as talented, or handsome, or wealthy, etc. Apparently, intelligence, talent, beauty, wealth and the like are not the proper standards of comparison when we speak of equality. But our interior sense of equality often makes us assert equality where none exists.
This is particularly true in the spiritual life. I am sometimes told, “I do not need to confess my sins to a priest. I can pray directly to God.” A young man said this to me recently and added, “The Bible says we should only confess to God.” I pointed out to him that he was actually incorrect, that in its only mention of confession, the Bible says we should confess our sins “to one another.” He was surprised and dismayed.
The Scriptures also speak of elders and leaders and obedience and respect and many other things that have no place within the spirit of democracy. The young man’s mistake was to think that the Bible affirmed his democratic world-view. But the Scriptures belong to the world of the Roman Centurion.
Much of what today passes for Protestantism is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a thinly veiled cloak for the democratic spirit at “prayer.” “Salvation by grace through faith is a slogan for individualism, a Christianity “by right.” There are no works, no requirements, only a “grace-filled” entitlement. For the ultimate form of democracy is the person who needs no one else: no Church, no priest, no sacrament, only the God of my understanding who saves me by grace.
Our outward forms of Christianity are morphing as quickly as the market can imagi