Biblical Theology and the Non-Abundant Life

In this book, as the title suggests, New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg states his purpose as giving “a comprehensive survey, in roughly historical sequence, of the major biblical witnesses to a theology of wealth for people in the church age–that is, from Pentecost onward” (30). Christian scholars of the more orthodox type will look hopefully to the notable aims of the volume, as to those of the entire series of studies in biblical theology of which it is a part. It seems that neither D. A. Carson, who is chief editor of the series, nor its several authors quite believe the current paleontology, which says that this species of discipline is extinct.

For the most part, Blomberg makes good on his promise to be comprehensive in the manner of a survey. Beginning with the Old Testament, going next to Jewish writings between the Testaments, and at last to the writings of the New, he manages to include every text one can think of as having explicit bearing on our subject. The merely encyclopedic value of the work is, thus, considerable. Furthermore, Blomberg also delivers on his promise to put things in rough chronological sequence. We leave it to professional scholars of the Bible to debate (as they well might) his judgments on the history of the text, but there is no doubting Blomberg’s command of the vast secondary literature, and his ability to use it to construct plausible historical-critical arguments is impressive. Non-experts will be glad to find that his historical constructions do not very much at all interrupt the canonical sequence of the Bible they commonly know and read. This bent of method, along with a style of prose that is always clear and succinct, bodes well for the book’s appeal to a wide Christian readership. The unexpected failure to include an index of references to biblical texts is somewhat compensated for by the efficient organization of the book.

Old-Fashioned Inductive Exegesis

As for the more substantial matter of how Blomberg handles, in his somewhat confusing (and unexplained) terms, the “major biblical witnesses to a biblical theology of wealth,” there is much to recommend before discussing criticisms. First, the critical applications of recent sociological studies do help clear up certain basic areas of confusion that have commonly infiltrated Christian moral discourse, especially that of Liberation Theology. They confirm, for instance, that the make-up and consciousness of the early Christian movement cannot well be defined in terms of either social or economic poverty. As Blomberg (quite non-ideologically) shows, from the beginning of Christianity until now, the movement has rather had a wondrous ability to make its way across otherwise trenchant lines of class division (105—9).

A second contribution is linked with the author’s aim, reiterated at the end of the book, as having been “to capture both the diversity and unity of the scriptural witness” (243). Having read to that point, one cannot but agree that deliberate effort has been made all the way through to do so. And at least on one level, the effort is a success. Blomberg is a rigorous practitioner of old-fashioned inductive exegesis. There is no visible trace of inclination toward creation of that convenient “canon within the canon.” He rigorously seeks to convey what the sometimes very different texts have to say. The outcome is that not just the harmless diversities come out–differences of slant, style, stress, and so forth–but so do the larger, more dangerous ones. So, for example, the candid statement that on first reading James and Paul (not least on this topic) seem “different as night and day” (243), is typical of the work. Nor do we get away without considering the fact that Luke’s Gospel offers no simple view of wealth and poverty but rather “a diversity of application” (225). Furthermore, Blomberg bluntly accepts the most glaring difference on our subject between the Old and New Testaments. “Wealth is a sign of God’s blessing” is a major strand of Old Testament teaching that does not carry over to the New (83, 242). This, in fact, is a major thesis of his book.

In spite of the diversity, however, Blomberg discerns five “unifying motifs,” which do come up in the development of the book and then get discussed in a summary near the end. (1) “Material possessions are a good gift from God meant for his people to enjoy”(243). (2) “Material possessions are simultaneously one of the primary means of turning hearts away from God” (244). (3) “A necessary sign of life in the process of being redeemed is that of transformation in the area of stewardship” (244). (4) “There are certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are in and of themselves intolerable” (245). (5) “Above all, the Bible’s teaching about material possessions is inextricably intertwined with more ‘spiritual’ matters” (246).

Now, few will disagree that these are indeed commonplaces of Scripture. But perhaps some readers, upon weighing this as the harvest of “biblical theology” they are supposed to have reaped for all their labors, will ask aloud, “Is that it?” The homiletic message that wealth is essentially good, always dangerous, and never the whole of things is as widely understood as it is obvious to almost anyone who has a Bible and can read. Now, nowhere does Blomberg himself explicitly make the claim to write the “comprehensive biblical theology” as advertised by the writer of the book’s back jacket. We recall his own rather more discrete (and somewhat imprecise) terms mentioned earlier: to give “survey of the major witnesses” to a biblical theology. But still, is that really the extent of the unity and specificity one can distill from their testimonies? If so, then hopeful readers looking for divine guidance in our own troubling age, “after Pentecost,” may be excused for long faces as they close the book and return to their still-muddled business in the world. For, assuming a fair degree of literacy already on the part of anyone who would read the book, how has their position as discerning Christians in a global, post-industrial, equities-driven, insanely complicated market culture been advanced in the least? A review is not the place to give a full appraisal and critique. Nevertheless, to conclude, we shall offer five observations of things that we believe go wrong (for all that goes right) with this book as a work that seeks to forge a biblical theology (or at least to serve the forging of one).

A “Canon Within the Canon,” After All

First, it seems that Blomberg underestimates the difficulty that the aforesaid diversity of Scripture creates for the theologian. In the introduction (which, by the way, includes a fine a survey of literature, reflected in the superb bibliography), he rightly identifies our need for a more complete theology of the Bible. But from his comments, unknowing readers would never guess how monumentally difficult that quest is. Most difficult of all is finding principles of integration between fundamental themes of the Old Testament and the New. As is well-known to students of church history, differences between the two Testaments on material wealth seem to be entailed by differences that go deeply into opposition between religious worldviews themselves, making of them two religions, not one. For that reason ancient Judaism rejected Christianity as otherworldly, and, likewise, the Gnostics rejected Judaism and its evil God, maker of not just heaven but also of earth. As noted already, Blomberg marks the difference between the Testaments, but he seems to consider it fairly trivial. Briefly, when posing the question, why God might bless the Israelites by giving them abundant material wealth, Blomberg’s response is that God did so only because his purpose was to give them a land (e.g., 36—37, 82). But this answer is clearly a tautology: (On the view that land is material wealth) his answer comes to, “God gave his people abundant material wealth because God wished to give his people abundant material wealth.” It thus begs the question of why God would have such a vision for human beings in the first place (much more than of why God would then cease to have that vision later on).

A second observation expands the first. We notice early that Blomberg does not find theology so much in whole narratives as in specific concepts, examples, and teachings. Not that these are poor sources of theology, but when one interprets almost exclusively that way, the results are bound to be pedestrian, fragmentary, and even misleading. One brief example must suffice. In deriving theological meaning from the episode of the manna in Exodus, Blomberg treats it almost as discontinuous with Israel’s entry into the land and thus from what follows about the “milk and honey” that is to follow (38). The theology of “daily bread” thus emerges for him as a norm rather than as the probative process that it is–by which God equips his people for the real norm (which is the “milk and honey”). In turn, that distorts the entire context in which he later interprets and draws moral theology from the Lord’s Prayer and Paul’s rhetoric during the Great Collection. (Of course, it also makes the quest for unity simpler.) A similar pattern occurs in his handling of Luke, which, some authors (neglected here) have argued, offers a developed rhetoric and implied defense of a point of view that is world-affirmative (and not just a collage of “diverse application”).

A third observation continues to expand the larger point we are making. We have cited Blomberg’s rigor in facing each and every biblical text that has explicit bearing on the topic. But where inferences must be drawn, and/or when the imagination is called into action by certain narrative pictures, Blomberg is rigorously constant in not following to the end those texts that assert the goodness of wealth in the extreme. These various texts that do not “know that they are naked” (before the modern academic establishment, anyway) and are thus “not ashamed” to proclaim the sacredness of such delight, while not entirely ignored by Blomberg, get muted before they are finished speaking. The usual qualifiers are rushed in to make sure they do not go so far as they seem about to do (lest modern wealthy Americans hear them and begin doing the same). Examples include treatment of image bearing. Blomberg rightly notes that its primary exegetical meaning is that humans are given dominion over the earth (34). But after this solid exegetical survey, we learn nothing affirmative, theologically, from the doctrine but only that “Two opposite extreme applications of this theology must both be avoided” (35). One is that “humanity must not be reduced to the material”; the other is that dominion does not confer the “right to rape the environment” (35). It seems there is nothing to learn about the most immediate reference of the symbols, which is the royal dignity of human beings and the fittingness of abundance to their purpose on earth. Of course, that basic part of the Old Testament’s vision of human purpose is then missing altogether from the above-noted explanation of “Why the land?” It is also missing from Blomberg’s accounts of certain difficult New Testament narratives. For instance, Jesus’s statements about material blessings coming (even a hundredfold to those who abandon everything for his sake), while acknowledged, are reduced entirely to the mechanisms of ancient Christian community (132, 140). The episode of the woman pouring a jar of nard on Jesus’ head (worth about a year’s wages for an average worker), while noted, is explained away by the (quite implausible) notion that this person foreknew Jesus’ death and was thus sort of anointing him for burial. Only by such strained devices can one arrive at the comprehensive judgment about Jesus–who was nothing if not a person of bewildering extremities in both directions–that, in sum, “As in Proverbs 30: 8—9, Jesus is concerned to moderate extremes” (145). Alas, it seems that the “canon within the canon” that Blomberg rigorously avoided in his straight-ahead exegesis shows up after all when he turns to interpretation. And the “canon” is but a single verse.

Existing in a Moral Twilight

Thus we come to the fourth observation, which is about the fourth of Blomberg’s five “motifs,” the one that condemns “certain extremes of wealth” as being “of themselves intolerable.” Of the five, this assertion comes closest to being a specific proposition of the moral-theological kind, and it is also the nearest of them all to the moral heart of the book (hence its title, we infer). We are informed up front and early that “one of the theses of this volume is that the avoidance of extremes of wealth and poverty is a consistent, recurring biblical mandate” (68). But, surely, making the sentiment of Proverbs 30:8 the core of biblical moral theology on our subject is to promote a vast oversimplification of the whole. On what grounds would one do so? To take it from the episode of the manna is clearly misguided (as stated), and to infer it from the Lord’s Prayer as the norm we need in our complex world (as Blomberg does) is no better. That the sentiment of requesting no more than enough (“daily bread”) is the right one for prayer no more entails it as a moral norm for economic life than Solomon’s wish for wisdom (not riches) entailed moderation as God’s norm for him. The dynamic, rather, seems to be that when we pray in the right way, we may get a lot more than we ask for. (Of course, as Job learned, we may not, but that is quite another matter.)

But, furthermore, what are we to take as the proper norm for this blessed mediocrity itself? The notion of moderation is inherently vague and subject to so many conditions that, as a principle, it is not good for much besides relativism. As we might otherwise hope, Blomberg’s own personal applications (which he courageously shares with readers) do not clear things up, either. On the contrary, what are we to make of his concession that, after all his giving (“gradiated tithing” is the means he takes as “biblical”), he nevertheless does live in “a large, comfortable suburban home”? That it also lacks a big television hardly elevates the standard above the merely gratuitous. We may wonder at this point what Ronald Sider would say or, rather, by what clear principles Blomberg could respond. It seems that the response would be pretty feeble-sounding. For, reflecting on his admiration for promoters of “simpler living,” Blomberg explains, “God has not yet led me to follow them” (249). Now, we may ask, is Blomberg’s biblical theology thus in fact a foundation for Sider’s moral teaching? But if not (until God calls, we guess), we still await a lucid statement of the principle that shows that it is not, and that living in suburbia (even without the big screen) is to exist in a moral twilight.

Discerning a Biblical Theology of Wealth

Which brings us to our last observation. Blomberg’s view is that Scripture (here the Old Testament) supports no, one “‘economic or liberation analysis of poverty’” (citing Pleins); that it, rather, “cuts across all modern systems and ideologies” (82). His occasional references to such systems are surprisingly colloquial. It is strange, for instance, to find someone still referring to “capitalism” with the old pejorative generalities (that it is essentially about private property, exploitation, and so forth), or to socialism as if it were essentially about the distribution of justice. A great and influential body of writings has emerged and grown in the last century that has greatly informed our sense of how to use Scripture to shape a relevant moral theology. We have learned that these human systems are in reality born of metaphysical worldviews and that no part (neither property nor justice) is separable from the whole. And we have also come to realize that the Bible must be related to them in those philosophical terms. But from Blomberg’s book, the unknowing reader would never guess that any of this material exists. Much less would the reader guess how deeply relevant it is to discerning a biblical theology of wealth amid the various witnesses of Scripture, and still less how dubious it renders the author’s own various comments on the economic systems that shape the culture of our time.