Religion & Liberty Online

Health and Wealth with David Bentley Hart

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The controversial theologian’s latest screed against wealth misleads.

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In a fascinating essay at Jacobin, Orthodox theologian, Bible translator, and polemicist David Bentley Hart engages the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church on wealth and poverty. But rather than a learned discourse on the nuances of such weighty matters, Hart writes in the sharp style of a prophet—albeit one pronouncing against profit.

Hart’s pugnacious posture is apparent in the absolute nature of many of his claims. For instance, he writes, “The New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil.” His survey includes the teachings of Jesus and the book of James as well as that of the early church and patristics. “Jesus,” contends Hart, “condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such.” He moves on to consider the stark judgments in the book of James, as well as those of early apologists, confessors, and fathers, from Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria to Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom.

The picture that emerges is univocal. True Christian teaching regarding wealth represents “a radically different model of how to live” compared with that of the world. Hart’s essay also addresses a variety of issues regarding the social, economic, and political context of the early church in addition to claims regarding the finer points of translations. Some of the more intriguing have to do with the Lord’s Prayer, which Hart concludes—once the proper understanding of the petitions are in hand—“was originally, and remains, a prayer for the poor—a prayer, that is, for the poor alone to pray.”

There are a number of problems with Hart’s overzealous account. If wealth, possessions, and riches are an intrinsic evil, as Hart claims the Bible and tradition teaches, then it hardly makes sense for those with possessions to give them to those without as an act of charity. Better to throw them away or destroy them rather than to burden others with such evils. If excessive wealth or undue attachment to wealth really is the issue, however, then the giving of alms and charity makes sense. Hart’s communalist claims run counter to his contention that wealth is intrinsically evil. If such things are truly bad, why should they be given to the poor?

Is Hart’s model Diogenes of Sinope rather than Jesus of Nazareth? Diogenes reportedly lived a radically ascetic existence. At one point his only possession was a wooden bowl. But when he saw a young slave drinking from a well using his cupped hands, Diogenes was inspired to throw the bowl away as superfluous. If possessions themselves are intrinsically evil, then that kind of extreme existence would seem to be necessary.

But perhaps Hart’s claim really turns on the “personal” dimension of property. In this essay he does not elaborate on what distinguishes common from personal property, or when the former is converted into the latter. Presumably when a cheddar roll is taken from the basket at Red Lobster, it ceases to be common property at that point, such that if a sibling were to snatch it from the hand of his sister, she would rightly have a claim to having experienced injustice. And is the brief and transitory possession of only such goods as bread and water necessary for survival the only sufficient condition to transform them from intrinsically evil? Alas, such nettlesome dilemmas are not in Hart’s view here.

Deficiencies in Hart’s account can be shown not only on the basis of such logical arguments but also from words themselves. We call possessions “goods” and not “bads” or “evils” because they are good things. They are blessings, gracious provisions from God for our welfare and the welfare of all. This is why covenantal promises so often emphasize the enjoyment of such things, represented memorably in the imagery of Micah 4:4, that “every one shall rest under his vine, and every one under his fig-tree.”

And what about the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer? Hart contends that a proper translation of some of the key Greek terms makes the petitions of the prayer much more concrete than it is usually understood. “Daily bread” is first and foremost literally about bread, and “the very real uncertainty, suffered every day, concerning whether today one will have enough food to survive.” Our “debts,” writes Hart, “are in fact quite literally the crushing burden of financial obligations under which the poor labor and suffer and die, to the advantage of the most merciless of their creditors.” The “evil one” is just such a creditor, that is, “a creditor of an especially heartless and unscrupulous kind.” Hart had earlier invoked the authority of the teachings of various church fathers, and their witness is not quite as unvariegated as Hart purports. Nevertheless, a few centuries later St. Maximus the Confessor would argue concerning the Lord’s Prayer that its primary referent is actually spiritual rather than temporal reality. Our daily bread, writes Maximus, is to be found in Jesus Christ, “the Bread of Life.” In the first place it has to do with “divine food” rather than “the daily bread that sustains our present life.”

The point here is that much of what Hart presents as the unanimous or clear or obvious teaching of Scripture concerning wealth is not at all so simple. Consider another example, drawn from the Bible. Gregory Palamas (1296–1357) noted that in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, there is an important contrast to be made between Abraham and the rich man. “Having showed us the rich man who is not saved,” writes Palamas, “the Lord immediately presents us with a rich man who is, for such is Abraham.” The rich man is anonymous, in part because he represents all the greedy people among humanity, while Abraham is named and honored.

Why was the rich man condemned? “It was not, however, on account of his wealth that he failed to be saved,” writes Palamas, “but because of his love of pleasure, hard-heartedness and lack of hospitality. Abraham, too, was prosperous, but by means of his love for God, his compassion, and his hospitality to strangers, he was not only saved but became a place for others being saved.” Abraham is thus the answer to the titular question of Clement of Alexandria’s famous treatise on these issues: “Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?” It would take more than an essay the length of Hart’s original to correct many of the exaggerations, half-truths, and misleading claims, and thus we have one more evidence for Brandolini’s Law.

Let me conclude with another scriptural image that analogizes surprisingly well with the biblical teachings concerning wealth. Hart is right that there are many clear condemnations of wealth and the wealthy in the Bible. But it is not at all clear that the conclusion to be drawn from these is that wealth itself is intrinsically evil. Rather, the right use of wealth is akin to the proper understanding of health as presented in Jesus’ teaching. The self-righteous and the legalists were also equally clearly condemned in Christ’s teaching, but the consequence of this is not that the law or righteousness is to be shunned. Instead, the abuse of these good things (wealth, law, goodness, justice) is no argument against their proper use.

An excess of wealth is dangerous just as an excess of food leads to an unhealthy body. Too little wealth leads to suffering, just as too little food leads to starvation. Health and wealth are not exactly the same thing, but they are in this way analogous—and even related. Wealth is to be used to do good and to promote life and flourishing, just as food is to help us be healthy. “Let us show that we eat for the sake of living, and not be guilty of living for the sake of eating,” writes Maximus.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus warns his disciples. This is not because it is easy for a poor person to enter the kingdom of heaven but because the rich person who trusts in his or her wealth is like a “healthy” person. As Jesus teaches us, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

No matter the state of our physical bodies or the size of our bank accounts, we are all sick and poor before God. Wir sein pettler. We are all beggars, as Martin Luther put it, when it comes to salvation. This is indeed true, and a truth worth remembering as we struggle to be faithful disciples in the midst of wealth and poverty.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.