The Economic Problem in Biblical and Patristic Thought

“Due to the automation” of E.J. Brill’s “systems” (forsooth!) this remarkable book has been kept waiting nearly two years for a notice. I hope that it will now receive at long last the attention–and the sales–it deserves.

For more than twenty years, Christian economists (and non-economists), usually of an ‘evangelical’ persuasion, have been busy constructing ‘Christian’ or ‘biblical’ economics. The Bible is taken to be, or to contain, a set of instructions for ordering twentieth-century economic relations. With the aid of a little elementary textbook analysis we are informed that this or that economic policy–full employment, low interest rates, minimum wages, farm subsidies, and so forth–are or are not ‘Christian.’ Moreover, we are sometimes told by the more audacious members of this fraternity how to choose between rival economic systems. Capitalism is ‘Christian’ and socialism is not: or vice versa. If Barry Gordon’s latest book did nothing more than put an end to all such activity it would have been worth writing, but, in fact, it does very much more.

Its central thesis, wholly convincing in my opinion, is that the heterogeneous literature of the first millennium B.C. now contained within the Septuagint, and the writings of the early church now preserved in the New Testament, and the works of the Catholic Fathers, exhibit a gradually evolving response to ‘the economic problem’–by which Gordon means ‘scarcity.’ This is not vulgar Marxism, nor indeed Marxism of any kind. There is no assumption here that the mode of production determines the cultural superstructure. There is, however, an assumption that the sacred and near-sacred writings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, though they be regard as ‘inspired’ and uniquely authoritative, are the work of men who lived and worked in particular times and places and who could only have written, therefore, within the cultural constraints set by their conjuncture.

Because scarcity ‘has been a continuing element of the human condition’ (the author reminds us), ‘serious regard for the issue is present in much of the literature’ of the Ancient world, including the Bible. Provided we can rely upon the customary analysis of Old Testament material into J , or Jahuist (primitive), D, or Deuteronomic (C. 620 B. C.) and P , or Priestly (c. 540 B.C.), and also upon the datings now widely accepted for different parts of the prophetic, Wisdom, and apocalyptic books, we can trace the emergence of a series of ‘solutions’ to the problem of scarcity and then plot their subsequent treatment in the Christian era.

According to Barry Gordon, we can identify eight or nine such solutions proposed over the period 1000 B. C. - 400 A. D., each succeeding one arising out of some failure of its predecessor and sometimes reappearing later as circumstances changed. The earliest is the ‘solution by faith’ associate with the putative ‘Jahuist’ (J). Abraham’s faith is rewarded with riches. His immediate posterity, though faithful, are less fortunate: Jacob and a fortiori Joseph discover the ‘solution by wisdom.’ By the application of intelligence to national economic policy, Joseph enriches his master, his people, and himself. After the settlement of Israel in Palestine and the establishment of religion, natural and political disasters recur, and scarcity again rears its ugly head. Evil is interpreted in the ‘Deuteronomic’ (D) material as punishment for disobedience. The ‘solution by observance of the law’ is recommended. This solution is reinforced in the ‘Priestly’ (P) strata, and the Pentateuch substantially amended to incorporate the new insight. The destruction of Israel and experience of the Exile provided ‘fresh insights concerning the possibility of economic growth, a new universalism, and a renewed probing of the problem of work’: post-exilic Judaism rejected the failed solutions by wisdom and observance of the law and turned instead to the ‘solution by mediation.’ Israel was to be a ‘royal priesthood’ divinely chosen to mediate between God and the rest of humanity. By analogy, with the priestly castes of the Ancient Near East, ‘Israel’ as a whole was to be supported by the production of the surrounding nations. The message is proclaimed in the later chapters of Isaiah (where the solution by faith is also reiterated) and echoed in Job. When this hope fades, the latest Old Testament authors (e.g., Daniel) turned to the ‘solution by Apocalyptic’; The Terrible Day of the Lord is imminent: only then ‘can the righteous hope for enduring relief from the recurrence of the spectre of scarcity.’

The teaching of Jesus is cognizant of each of the previous ‘solutions’ and their defects and is based upon the new ‘solution by seeking the Kingdom,’ considering the providence of God in nature, and taking no thought for the morrow. Political circumstances oblige St. Paul to modify this to the ‘solution by seeking the Household.’ The latter upholds private property, the value of work, trade, the division of labor, and the submission to the powers that be. Now comes the most interesting–and certainly the most controversial–part of Gordon’s book.

The primitive Jerusalem church (of St. James), applying to itself the ‘solution by mediation,’ ignored economic rationality, encouraged disinvestment, and so came to depend on the charitable contributions of St. Paul’s gentile churches. Its ideology is found in James and also in the Lucan books. The latter have been treated with extraordinary deference by those Christians of the present day–especially in the Church of Rome to which Dr. Gordon belongs–seeking biblical support for ‘radical,’ quasi-Marxist, and ‘Liberationist’ political action. St. Luke is supposed to validate the notorious slogan, ‘God is on the side of the poor.’

Patiently and unpolemically Gordon unravels the relation of Luke to the rest of the New Testament, shows both its eccentricity and its ideological distortion of the synoptic material, and draws attention to unresolved contradictions. “Luke’s writings, it is clear, must be approached with caution by anyone attempting to employ biblical literature to generalize on ‘the Christian approach’ to economic life.” Liberation theologians take note.

The remainder of the book continues the story of the religious response to scarcity in the writings of a small selection of the Fathers: Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine. The ‘solution by charity’ (which does not imply disinvestment) was followed by the ‘solution by communism;’ the latter proposed as a counsel of perfection by Chrysostom, influenced by the economic success of monachism and deceived by Luke’s biased account of the primitive church. Patristic doctrine was inevitably affected by economic decline in the later Roman empire, itself a consequence of Diocletian’s economically perverse legislation. Augustine’s well-founded pessimism caused him to reassert a version of the ‘solution by seeking the kingdom.’

It is impossible to do justice either to the merits or to the scholarly importance of this book in so brief a summary, and, of course, there are a few things to grumble about. The entirely conjectural dating of Old Testament material by current scholarship is taken rather too much for granted. The case against an uncritical reliance upon Luke alone would have been strengthened by an examination of the Johannine literature, almost entirely ignored in this book. The gap between the first and the third centuries A.D. might have been filled by some consideration of the Apostolic Fathers and of extracanonical material such as the Shepherd. Above all the book could (should?) have been twice as long and published by a more enterprising and businesslike house than E. J. Brill.

But these are mere quibbles that ought not to weigh against the originality, the careful and balanced scholarship, and the practical importance of this book. Every economist and every theologian who wishes to work on the relation between economics and theology in normative social theory, and there are now many, must read it and take it to heart. The Bible and the Fathers, which Christians quiet properly regard as the authentic record of their tradition of faith, do indeed contain much that can be called ‘economic teaching.’ But the latter is neither stable nor unambiguous and can only be extracted and evaluated by the method that Barry Gordon has pioneered in this work. I hope that its reception will encourage him to regard it as a pilot project for a larger and definitive study.