Early Church Father’s Thoughts on Money and Wealth

I’m reading the book Faith and Wealth by Justo L Gonzalez.  The book is basically a walk through history and a commentary on how people and eventually the church viewed wealth.  It’s super heavy on the history, which I’m not great at reading, but it keeps drawing me back with all its points.  I’m just fascinated that these arguments were still there thousands of years ago.  I’m fascinated all the more that deeply rooted Christ followers have been saying the same things for this long, and yet from my understanding, no sign of change.  The parts I’ve really enjoyed is reading through some of the stuff from early church father’s and theologians and their thoughts on the matter, so I thought I would type out some of the stuff that stuck out to me. I really love some of Clement of Alexandria writings on the matter.  Here is a few quotes from the book I’ve found helpful.

In speaking of Lactanius:

“For God, who has not given wisdom to other animals, he has made them more safe from attack in danger by natural defenses.  But because He made man naked and defenseless, that He might rather furnish him with wisdom, He gave him, besides other things, this feeling of kindness; so that man should protect, love, and cherish man, and both receive and afford assistance against all dangers.  Therefore kindness (humanitas) is the greatest bond of human society; and he who has broken this is to be deemed impious.” – Lactantius

Our common humanity stems from our common ancestry, for Lactanius insists that God created a single human being from whom all the rest are descended.  Since we are all kindred being from whom all the rest are descended.  Since we are all kindred, we owe each other aid in times of distress or difficulty.  To stand aside and do nothing is to descend to the level of beasts, which are incapable of kindness (humanitas).

In speaking of Cyprian:

“I used to regard it as a difficult matter, and especially as difficult in respect to my character at that time, that a man should be capable of being born again…When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquet and sumptuous feasts?  And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing ?” – Cyprian

One cannot be excused from almsgiving on the grounds that one has children for whose patrimony and inheritance one is responsible.  To do so is to forsake one’s real responsibility for one’s children and therefore to betray them: “You are unfair and traitorous father, unless you…preserve them in religion and true piety.  You who are careful rather for their earthy than for their heavenly state, rather to commend your children to the devil than to Christ, are sinning twice, both in not providing for your children the aid of God their Father, and in teaching your children to love their property more than Christ.”

In speaking of Tertullian

Christians must be ready at all times to suffer the loss of all possessions.  After all, what they have is not truly theirs, and therefore to wish to posses it absolutely is to covet.

“Let us stand ready to endure every violence, having nothing which we may fear to leave behind.  It is these things which are the bonds which retard our hope.  Let us cast away earthy ornaments if we desire the heavenly.” – Tertullian

That Tertullian found it necessary to write such words is ample proof that the church contained some who lived–or at least were tempted to live–in sort of luxury that he deplored.  As he stressed in the Apology, giving was voluntary.  In such a situation, many would be tempted to retain for themselves as much as possible.  In a sense, this was their right.  But Tertullian was not content with that response, so he made three points to help lead rich Christians to greater largesse: (1) nothing that one has is one’s own, and therefore to be overly attached to it is just as sinful as desiring what belongs to another; (2) the Lord has shown a preference for the poor, and Christians ought to do likewise; (3) excessive ease and comfort weaken the believers for the many trials they may have to face, particularly the trial of martyrdom.

In speaking of Origen

To own things is to be indebted to Caesar–or, in some of the passages, to “the prince of the world”–and therefore the closer one is to being free of material possessions the less hold Caeser has on one.

In speaking of Clement of Alexandria

Furthermore, Clement is aware that the habits of a lifetime cannot be easily changed, and that is the rich are left to determine for themselves what is their just share in giving and the proper use of their wealth, they will tend to be too lenient.  Therefore he concludes his treatise advising those amond the rich who really want to take seriously the work of their salvation to find someone to help them see the proper use of their wealth.

All would agree that it would be silly to make a pickax out of silver or a sickle out of gold; and yet, when it comes to household goods, many do not show the same wisdom as they do when making agricultural tools.  A table knife does not cut better because it has an ivory handle, and a lamp does not give more light because it comes from the goldsmith’s shop rather than the potter’s.  Yet the folly of luxury is such that some even have gold chamberpots, as if they could not set aside their price even when they relieve themselves.

Again, this does not mean that things in themselves are evil.  But there is a measure for the possession of things, and that measure is their use.  The theme of the use of things appears repeatedly in the writings of Clement, precisely when dealing with the manner in which one should deal with material goods.  In the passage quoted above about the senselessness of gold and silver utensils should be “use, not expense.”  The bowl from which the Lord ate was a common one.  He told his disciples to recline on the grass, not on an ivory bed.  he washed their feet in an earthen vessel, for he certainly did not bring a gold one down from heaven.  In short “He made use, not extravagance His aim.”  There is no need to condemn the Creator for having made these things.  But we must remember that, from the point of view of usefulness, that which is without ostentation is best.  The measure of proper use is necessity.  Just as the size of the foot determines the size of the shoe, so should the needs of the body determine what one possesses.  “All that we posses is give to us for use, and use for sufficiency.”  Anything that goes beyond this is superfluous and is therefore a burden.

Note here that riches, in order to be overcome, have to be despised.  It is not simply a matter of not allowing oneself to be ruled by them and then continuing along one’s merry way.  Clement did believe that the rich could be saved, but only by using their riches in a certain way.  This is why he suggested that rich Christians find wise mentors who could guide them both in managing their riches and in educating their souls.  To manage wealth wisely, one must give it up knowing that one is thus purchasing life eternal.

According to Clement, the commonality of goods–or at least of their use–is not a strange notion taught by some philosophical schools or fanatical groups.  It is part of the original order of creation.  Clement’s argument is that whatever we own we possess only for use; that any use beyond the necessary is superfluous and a burden to the Christian life; that the only way in which we can truly possess what we do not need is by giving it away; and that therefore the best management of private property is to make it available for common use.  God created humanity for sharing and began this process by sharing the divine logos.  Is is our sharing in this logos that makes us human.  Therefore, not to share is inhuman and goes against the very koinonia that is the basis of our creation (ouk anthropinon, oude, koinonikon)

In speaking of Irenaues

Thus Christians are to be ready to share their goods, first with the poor, but also with any who would take them away by force.  In the latter case, Christians should “not grieve as those who are unwilling to be defrauded, but may rejoice as those who have given willingly.”

2 Comments

  • Yes dude! My favourite course I’m taking at the moment is called The Ethics of Wealth and Poverty and it’s essentially a walk from the early church to modern day Christian thought on the issue of wealth and poverty. Such a rich history, but like you suggest, the church at large doesn’t seem to take it too seriously.

  • Damn good book.

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