Should we tolerate commerce? Should people be allowed to conduct business, buy and sell, make a profit, and even make their livings doing so? The question appears in, of all places, the monumental Theological Commonplaces of the Lutheran scholastic theologian, Johann Gerhard (1582–1637). Gerhard specifically asks whether commerce ought to be tolerated “in a Christian state”—that is, in a state such as the officially Lutheran one in which Gerhard lived and taught in the early seventeenth century. Gerhard raises the question because in his own time there were some who answered the question in the negative. “Anabaptists,” certain radical Protestants, “deny this,” he says. Gerhard then argues that the Christian faith does not oppose commerce, or even the pursuit of profit, but that the Scriptures assume the goodness of commercial activity, provide rules for it, and even commend it. Thus the state—even a Christian state—ought to permit it.
The question of whether we should permit commerce likely sounds bizarre to most people today. It wasn’t bizarre to Gerhard. It was a live issue. In fact, it was a question addressed by Christians in the medieval period, such as Thomas Aquinas, and by theologians in the early modern period, such as Gerhard and the Jesuit scholastic Leonardus Lessius. Though the question may sound odd to us, I don’t think things have changed all that much since the time when these writers raised this question. For example, I remember from my days in retail one co-worker who made a practice of giving away not only all his commission to the buyer, but also selling the product at the lowest possible price he could. His reason? He didn’t “feel right” about making money off of people. Our employer, naturally, did not share my co-worker’s philosophy. Had everyone at our store approached sales as my co-worker did, there would have been no store at which to work, and one less place where people could buy our product. I think it’s fair to say that many people look at profit the way my co-worker did. The idea of making a profit makes them feel dirty.
This is where a text from the past, such as Gerhard’s, is helpful. It helps us to see that suspicions about commerce are not new, nor do they arise from the modern era or the Industrial Revolution. Yes, as Gerhard acknowledges, there are some dirty merchants, but there are also good merchants who pursue profit honestly and keep in mind the common good as well as their own needs. What’s more, Gerhard notes that individual cities and regions often do not have the resources in and of themselves to provide for all the needs of the people who live in them. Thus “trade and the rest of commercial activity provide what is needed to sustain human life. For God does not give everything to one region.” To cast out commerce and the profit-seeking merchants would be to impoverish whole regions and the individuals therein.
So, should commerce be tolerated? Yes, Gerhard says. It should be tolerated. Good commerce should be welcomed and commended as good for society and consistent with the Christian gospel.