In a recent article in Commonweal, “Christ’s Rabble: The First Christians Were Not Like Us,” Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has doubled down on his controversial claims about the Christian view of wealth and poverty. He claims, like a caricature of the Protestants he unfairly dismisses, that the New Testament is on his side because he can read it in Greek. Well, so can I, and so can basically every theologian who has ever disagreed with Hart’s position. Fluency in Greek does not make one an authority on the New Testament or early Christianity.
The poverty of Hart’s hermeneutic can be seen by examining the sparsely substantiated claims he makes about the earliest Christians. Hart believes that “the New Testament … condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil.” Hart dismisses every New Testament qualification of this claim as being countered by a more absolute reading of other passages that has apparently escaped all other Christian readers for the last 2,000 years. In reality, Hart’s view cannot be found among early Christians.
The New Testament
If this were the only problem with Hart’s account, perhaps we could agree to disagree. Perhaps while Hart takes (seemingly) absolute principles as the primary focus, others take their qualifications, and it is a bit like arguing whether steak and eggs is really steak with eggs or eggs with steak. But Hart makes many other claims that are clearly false. For example, Hart writes,
Perhaps, to avoid trying to serve both God and Mammon, one need only have the right attitude toward riches. But if this were all the New Testament had to say on the matter, then one would expect those texts to be balanced out by others affirming the essential benignity of riches honestly procured and well-used. Yet this is precisely what we do not find.
Hart must have mistyped here. This is what Hart does not find. It has been quite easy for others to locate such passages.
For example, Hart cites the story of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30) as a proof text for his position. Yet in every account, Jesus says that those who would give up anything for his sake will receive more, not just in the age to come but “in this present time” (Luke 18:30). In St. Mark’s account Jesus even gets specific:
Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
Now, Jesus’s words here shouldn’t be taken too literally—he was not a prosperity gospel preacher—but Hart’s absolutist reading of warnings to the wealthy requires a literalism he would have to arbitrarily abandon to avoid such a conclusion here.
Let us dig a little deeper. In the very next chapter of Luke (the Gospel with the harshest words for the rich), we find the story of Zacchaeus. When Jesus sees the short little tax collector climb a tree just to get a glimpse of him, he says, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). The rabble present respond incredulously: “But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, ‘He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner’” (Luke 19:7). Zacchaeus, however, redeems himself through setting right the wrongs he had committed and giving alms: “Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
What does Jesus do? Does he say, “Nice try, Zacchaeus, but riches are inherently evil and you need to sell all you have if you want to follow me”? That is what Hart would have him say, since he disagrees with many interpreters, such as St. Ambrose, who take the extremity of Jesus’s command to the rich young man to be a specific challenge to that young man, asking him to go beyond the minimum standard required of everyone. Instead, Jesus actually says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Surely, on Hart’s account, a sinner like Zacchaeus, still possessing so much wealth, cannot possibly be a “son of Abraham.”
Hart also repeats the facile and tired claim that the early Christians were communists, citing Acts 2:43-46 and 4:32. He cites the story of Ananias and Sapphira as well, forgetting to mention that they met with their unfortunate end not because they had kept something for themselves, which was their right, but because they falsely claimed they had given everything. As St. Peter said to them,
Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God. (Acts 5:3-4, emphases mine)
Early Christian “communism” (granting that anachronism for the sake of argument) was clearly voluntary in nature and not mandatory. Furthermore, it didn’t work. Acts 6:1-6 tells the story of how the needy among them were not being equally served. So the Apostles ordained the first deacons to manage the distribution of all donations, and we never again hear of the early Christians possessing “all things in common.”
Hart also claims the Apostle Paul supports him. This is the most outlandish of his claims. After all, it was St. Paul who commended the good of wealth “honestly procured and well-used.” Though he claimed ministers have a right to be paid by donations, he worked as a tentmaker and told the Corinthians, “this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (1 Corinthians 9:23). And as for non-ministers, to the Thessalonians he famously said, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Additionally, Hart invokes St. James in support of his claim (echoing that eminent New Testament scholar, anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) that “Property is theft.” Hart says that St. James categorically condemns wealth, when in fact what he condemns are the vicious actions of oppressive rich people, not all rich people. St. James chides them for “drag[ging]” his readers “into the courts” and committing blasphemy (James 2:6-7). Are we to believe that St. James was speaking of rich Christians in these passages or of those who persecuted them? Isn’t the latter the obvious answer? Hart even quotes James 5:4, in which the Apostle admonishes those among them who withheld wages from their workers, clearly condemning the unjust action, not wealth itself. But to Hart, this is all just a way of saying that wealth is intrinsically evil.
Other Early Christians
So much for the New Testament. Hart doesn’t stop there, however. He claims that other early Christians support him, citing the Didache and the desert fathers. They do not.
The Didache, an early manual of Christian living, does instruct Christians, “do not say that [your possessions] are your own,” but only after saying, “Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother.” The context, clearly, is a warning not to use ownership as an excuse not to give. Indeed, I’m not sure what Hart would do with the caution in the same passage, “Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive.” The manual’s injunctions to give generously require that one have something to give in the first place. And it clearly implies that Christians should strive to have wealth from which to provide for others.
After all this, one might still think that at least the desert fathers must be on Hart’s side. They are not. The desert fathers were not absolutists. They knew that their way of life was not for everyone. Further, upon examination, we can see that their way of life was not what Hart thinks it was. Rather, the history of monasticism, East and West, is one that is inseparable from enterprise and trade. As Helen Rhee put it in Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich, her study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, “monastic poverty in reality was … patterned after economic self-sufficiency.” Mendicancy was not the norm but a rarity. Notably, Rhee also demonstrates that from the beginning early Christians consistently affirmed the right to own private property while warning of the temptations that come with wealth, commending the universal destination of goods, to borrow a term from Roman Catholic social teaching.
As for what the desert fathers themselves taught, we may note the teaching of Abba Theodore, recorded in the Conferences of St. John Cassian: “Altogether there are three kinds of things in the world; viz., good, bad, and indifferent.” He identifies virtue as the only true good and sin as the only true evil. “But those things are indifferent,” he says, “which can be appropriated to either side according to the fancy or wish of their owner, as for instance riches…”
According to Hart, “it was … the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word.” Will he take Abba Theodore and St. John Cassian at their word? Or did they not understand the New Testament or ancient Christianity either?
There may be some important ways in which the first Christians were not like us, but we can say with certainty that they were not like Hart when it comes to material wealth. We should always be wary of the temptation to misuse it. And we must never let it distract us from the heavenly treasure of virtue, for which we ought to be prepared to abandon the world itself if necessary. However, for most of us, thank God, that is not necessary. After all, it was not the earliest Christians but some of the first Christian heretics, the Gnostics, who advocated Hart’s perspective. That the early Church rejected them should serve as a grave warning for those who would advocate their views in the name of Jesus Christ today.