Edd Noell: Early Christians on Wealth and Poverty
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Edd Noell: Early Christians on Wealth and Poverty

This morning at Acton University I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Edd Noell, “Origins of Economics: The Scriptures and Early Church Fathers.” I have briefly examined one ancient Christian perspective on wealth in the past (here), but Dr. Noell’s survey today was far more expansive. For the benefit of PowerBlog readers, I would like to reflect on some of the major themes of his talk here as a sort of preview of what one could expect once the audio is available for sale.

The first point is that the majority of people living in the ancient world assumed a zero-sum worldview, in which there is a fixed amount of wealth so that if one person gains, another must necessarily have lost. There is good reason for this, in many ways they actually did. Before 1800, most if not all societies, due to lack of technological progress among other things, were stuck in what has been called the Malthusian Trap, in which economic growth was largely stagnant. Indeed, Dr. Noell noted that there is general agreement that annual economic growth in the Roman Empire was somewhere less than one percent.

This is an important point of context when combined with the next: somewhere near 60 percent of people lived in poverty, and more so than our situation today, this poverty was often a matter of heavy taxation, usurious lending, arbitrary rents, and fraud. That is, the wealth of the rich often did come at the expense of the poor. Thus the many biblical and ancient Christian statements about wealth and poverty, where the rich are often morally suspect just for being rich. The context that they lived in required an entirely different rhetorical line when it came to wealth and poverty.

In the midst of this environment, however, we can see glimpses of the remarkable character of early Christian generosity. In the second century Apology of Aristides, the author writes,

[Christians] imitate God by the philanthropy which prevails among them; for they have compassion on the poor, and they release the captives, and bury the dead, and do such things as these, which are acceptable before God and well-pleasing also to men, — which (customs) they have received from their forefathers. (14)

And again:

And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. (15)

Christians combated the crushing poverty of their limited-good, agrarian society with ascetic acts of compassion, giving whatever they could to help those in need. This is certainly an ethos that ought to transcend their context.

The last point I would like to highlight is from the Cappadocian fathers, St. Augustine, and St. John Chryosostom (and, of course, the Scriptures as well). That point is the conditional character of property rights. That is, they understood private property to be a necessity in our world, but cautioned Christians to remember that all they had came from the hand of God and that God was the defender of the poor. The key contention can be summarized by St. Augustine: “When you possess superfluities, you possess the goods of others.” Or, put another way, those who have an abundance have a duty to use that abundance for the good of others. As St. Paul writes,

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack — that there may be equality. As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)

St. Paul writes this as an exhortation to voluntary generosity, just as ancient Christians practiced.

The tricky question was raised during the Q&A, and is all the more complicated by our post-agrarian, non-Malthusian economic context: “What was the standard by which a person was able to recognize when something they possessed qualified as ‘superfluities.'” The answer Dr. Noell gave was quite interesting: the conscience. While our context has changed — those who earn do not necessarily do so at the expense of others anymore — our duty to the poor abides and the standard by which we are to evaluate what is “too much” does not change either: the voice of God in the heart, the human conscience. Thus we can see the centrality and importance of natural law as a moral standard for economic relations to early Christian social thought, underscoring its continued importance for us today.

But more on that to come later this week….

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.