Biblical Theologies Of Wealth

The question needs to be considered, however, whether the sum total of the Christian evaluation of wealth is that it constitutes a major source of temptation and is nothing more than an occasion of sin for individuals, or whether the New Testament's silence on wealth as a social issue, for whatever reason, can be supplemented for believers who live more consciously in the long haul of history than did the early Christian community, and who have come to adopt a wider view of their place in human society.

It is notable, for instance, that if we look elsewhere in the Bible as it reflects the historical development of Israelite society, we find a variety of insights on how wealth and riches were regarded among God's people. In the period of the nomadic small cattle-breeders whom we know as the patriarchs, personal wealth was considered a gift from God and a sign of his favour and blessing, a view which was to recur in Christian history in the Calvinist incentive which considered earthly success as a sure sign of divine election. At the same time, however, such God-given wealth was also regarded as something to be shared with others, notably within the family and the tribe, but also by extending hospitality to the visitor and the stranger.

It was this idea of the social purpose and function of wealth which came into prominence as Israelite society settled into an urban way of life, and social stratifications increased, with a growing gap between wealthy and powerful employers and owners on the one hand, and a vulnerable workforce and the poor on the other. This was the period of the great prophets of Israel, with their dramatic social preaching against the exploitation of the poor and powerless whose only refuge and recourse was to be found in God, as contrasted with the wealthy and powerful, who were castigated for their self-sufficiency and their single-minded pursuit of interest, profit and property at the expense of others and without regard either for God or for God's poor.

Thus a triple message emerges from the Hebrew Bible on the right approach to wealth: a theology of gratitude to God for his bounteous generosity to his favoured ones; a social theology on the need for a just distribution of wealth in society to meet the needs of all without exception; and a spiritual theology on the dangers for the wealthy of becoming so immersed in making or enjoying their wealth that they lose all proportion and forget their radical need to centre their whole life on God. It was this last spiritual theology of the risks to the individual's soul arising from the possession and accumulation of wealth which figured prominently in the teaching of Jesus, while the New Testament has scarcely anything to say on the more positive idea of wealth as a divine gift, or on the more social theology of the role of wealth creation in society (though compare James 5). It is true, of course, that part of the messianic salvation to come involves remedying the distress of the poor, but there is no indication of how this will come about. It is also true that the early Christian community seems to have made some attempts to redistribute wealth among its members, notably by the great collection for the poor of Jerusalem (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-3). But such actions were either short-lived or seen in terms of almsgiving and philanthropy rather than as recognizing a social role for the creation of wealth, or as identifying, or identifying with, any particular economic theory.

One way, then, to aim at identifying and developing a full Christian attitude towards wealth, as indeed towards other aspects of life, involves incorporating other insights into the subject which are to be found in the Old Testament, whether explicitly or implicitly. It is only in this century, for instance, that the predominantly negative and cautionary approach of the New Testament to human sexuality has been dramatically corrected and enriched by the Christian

Church's realization of the full significance of the creation story narrated in the opening chapters of the Bible. For according to that God created the sexes, male and female, not only to increase the race, and not just as sources of temptation for each other, but also to complete and fulfil each other as human individuals. Likewise, it is only very recently in this century through a deeper insight into the biblical account of creation that Christians have come, rather late in the day, and with very little help from the New Testament, to a new sense of respect for God's world into which we are created, with corresponding responsibilities in the ways in which we treat our environment and the earth's resources.

It is salutary to note how in these important aspects of life a fresh appropriation of the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of creation has enriched Christian reflection and brought a deeper understanding to human living. For in similar fashion an approach to wealth and riches by way of the theology of creation can help us to appreciate that, for all their risks and temptations, they have a positive purpose in the continuing work of creating human society. Developing the earth's resources to produce goods and services to satisfy the needs and aspirations of the increasing millions of its inhabitants not only adds value in economic terms. It enhances the human value and quality of living, by expanding human freedom and culture, and by providing a social environment in which human dignity too can develop and prosper. Hence, while the insights of Jesus on the spiritual risks attendant on the pursuit or possession of wealth remain of abiding and piercing moral significance, they cannot be the complete Christian account of wealth. They must be situated within a deepened social context and an expanded awareness of the positive calling of Christians to develop God's world for the well-being of all his human creatures.

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