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We Need A Medieval Theology of Wealth

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:10)

I recently finished reading Marcia L. Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition for one of my seminary courses. Coupled with other readings on medieval theology, I have come to greatly appreciate the richness and depth of medieval theology, an appreciation that I hope other modern Christians will gain as well. The common misconception—especially amongst evangelicals—that the middle ages were a sort of parenthetical period of theological darkness, not only holds no merit objectively, but also robs modern Christians of the myriad of spiritual benefits to be found in authors like Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, and of course, Thomas Aquinas. These names are probably foreign to many Christians (sans the ever-controversial Aquinas). This is a great crime that needs to be remedied via our educational institutions and pulpits. These men, among others, including women like Hildegard of Bingen, were dedicated Christians who pioneered much unchartered theological and philosophical territory on behalf of the church.

I have been particularly struck by the modern usefulness of medieval economic theology of property rights (and use), charity, and usury. These concepts, as medieval theology and canon law understood them, should demonstrate to modern Christians that if we want to combat the materialism, selfishness, and bad stewardship that permeates our culture, we need only look to the past. As Victor Davis Hanson has said, “That persistent continuity of the human experience is why studying history remains about the only way to understand who we were, are, and will be.” Or maybe Bon Jovi said it better, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

An Inquiry into the Wealth of [Our] Nation  

One of the modern problems that economists face is that of deindustrialization of the workforce and increased mobility of capital amongst the highest earners. Because of lowered transaction costs (externalities), as a result of inter alia, globalization, and technological innovation, capital has become more mobile and investors are now able to shop the entire world for the best price of production. As Fran Ansley has noted, the “emphasis [is] on deal-driven profits over productivity or equity,” which has resulted in a sort of “merger frenzy.”1  She goes on to tell that “[m]any plants are closed not because they fail to make a profit, but because they fail to make enough profit to hold the decision maker’s interest when compared to some other marginally more profitable opportunity.”2

To the worshipers of Ayn Rand (objectivists), this is just the art of the deal—social darwinism; pure capitalism. And in a very real sense, free markets and free trade do provide a high level of human dignity through self-determination. But, albeit the economy is currently growing, the growth has not trickled down to the poorest sectors of the workforce. Instead, the manufacturing and labor workforce is currently extremely volatile and transitory. Senator Ben Sasse has often referenced this whole ordeal, namely the disappearance of entire industries and professions, as truly unique to our moment in history. He has called this “the largest economic transformation in history.” In large part, I assent to Sasse’s proposed solution to the issue: a recovery of true American exceptionalism. But I see his American exceptionalism and raise him a shift in our theology (and thought) on wealth itself.

In the end, the system may correct itself over the course of a generation. It is typically said that capitalism must be allowed to fail in order to enjoy any measurable success. A rising tide lifts all boats, so JFK’s aphorism goes. What concerns me, from a Christian perspective, is not the actual state of the economy, but the attitudes toward, and practices in, the economy by Christians themselves. I think that free-market capitalism is totally defensible as a system, but only if we begin to regain more medieval (even feudalistic) theology and sensibilities of wealth and property. This return to an early conception of the economy and wealth cannot, and should not, be legislated into existence. It is the job of intermediating institutions, especially the Church, to influence the economic culture, perhaps even more so in a free-market society.

The Southern Paradox

Before diving into a bit of the relevant medieval theology on the subject, it is worth noting that there has always been a cultural divide, and subsequent contention, in America because of competing economic views. The divide has historically been one between the northern and southern regions, dating back, perhaps predictably, to immediately prior to the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution that followed shortly thereafter. Needless to say, the question of how to organize oneself economically in a country that stands almost explicitly for libertarian freedom and self-gratification (e.g. the pursuit of happiness) is not a new one.

Barton Swaim has outlined in the New Criterion the Southern aversion (contra the North) to capitalistic systems during the antebellum and reconstruction eras. Yet, Swaim identifies the root of their apprehension as not relating to “some ism but merely of prosperity.” More precisely,

“It’s material wealth itself, not the societal arrangement that enables its creation, that eventually undermines traditional social relations. If there had to be a Southern critique of American culture, this should have been it: that once a people begins to ignore all goals but the attainment of prosperity, it ensures its own decline. To the extent that prosperity encourages one to understand other human beings as mere instruments, interesting only insofar as they can gratify one’s material longings, it encourages a moral outlook not much different from that of a slave trader.”

In light of this anti-industrial disposition of Southerners that was predominate nearly from its inception as a distinct region up until about half a century ago, Swaim notes the paradox that it is now in the South where laissez-faire economics is most at home. Indeed, most Southerners see their defense of capitalism (the new economics) as not lying in tension with their defense of traditional values (the old morality). The South is now a far cry from the agrarian intellectuals like M.E. Bradford and Richard Weaver who, admittedly, were never really mainstream, and had denounced the “free-labor system” as “wage-slavery.” Their critique was that just as the sin of chattel slavery was being removed from the South in the postbellum years, the sin of wage-slavery was replacing it. Not many Southerners listened, and the North had already accepted a capitalism that was, by that time, sanitized of Puritan influence that had previously held sinful impulses in check. Capitalist upstarts like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie became the heroes of both regions in due course. Yet, Swaim ultimately holds that this paradox is not unintelligible:

“The free market is ungoverned, or governed as little as feasible…  Economic activity thrives best in the absence of… self-conscious attempts to formulate and abide by abstract codes. The profit motive is instinctive, not reflective; it spurs imagination, not introspection… By contrast, government interventions in economic affairs spring from a disposition of self-criticism and dissatisfaction with the way things are: new forms of taxation, new regulations, and new labor laws, for example, are dreamed up by highly educated people who feel they know the right way to create the best conditions for everyone.”

In the end, the Southern impulse for independence and libertarian freedom won the day (for most, not all), to the detriment of traditional morality. As Edmund Burke in his speech on conciliation with America (1775) observed, “[T]hese people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty, than those to the northward.” Now, the Bible Belt is the biggest proponent of potentially un-Christian attitudes and approaches to wealth, not because it wants a free-economy, but because economic freedom and prosperity has become an end unto itself. This is not to say that ruthless capitalism is not alive and well on Wall Street. But the English Puritans and Dutch Reformed sects that dominated Northern settlement seemed to always be leaning toward capitalistic impulses—though, rooted in post-millennial eschatology—it seemed a more moral, less exploitative form of such. Thus, the paradoxical shift appears more stark in the South, home to a more heavily Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic population.

A Conflict of Visions

As noted earlier, it is not free trade that is the problem. Indeed, any economic system or policy can be abused when employed in service of sinful appetites. As early Southern skeptics observed (via Swaim), it is the wealth itself that corrupts man, or at least draws his gaze away from his moral duties. The old Southern agrarians did not drink deeply of the capitalistic kool-aid, and neither have traditionalist conservatives in general. Following the medievals, as I will show presently, conservatives since Burke have seen property (wealth) and economic mobility and freedom as inseparable from duty. “Man’s rights are linked with man’s duties, and when they are distorted into extravagant claims for a species of freedom and equality and worldly aggrandizement which human character cannot sustain, they degenerate from rights to vices.” said Russell Kirk.3

In the final section of her book, entitled, “The Legacy of Scholasticism,” Colish covers several areas in which medieval scholastic thought had lasting effects, including jurisprudence, politics, and economic theory. Many of the distinct changes of the period began with Gratian taking issue with Roman law, which discriminated between rich and poor in judicial sentencing, and declared all litigants equal before the law.4 Other reforms followed that bolstered the poor’s equality in court, such as the ecclesiastical courts, would not subpoena a witness if doing so would prove overly financially burdensome.5 During the same period, it was Pope Honorius III who instituted free legal counsel for the poor.6 These reforms were accompanied by a shifting view of property. Per Aristotle and Cicero, scholastic theologians (also synthesizing Augustine and Gratian, who believed that private property was, though now tolerable, a result of the Fall) believed that people indeed had the right to enjoy private property and inheritance, but that these rights were limited. Property required justification and was conditional of good stewardship and adherence to duty to one’s family, tenants, and other dependents. Though private property is good because, as Aquinas suggested, self-interested people are most likely to take care of land and wealth if it belongs to them, accumulation of property for its own sake is not. Colish notes that “[i]n feudal tenure, property is not held outright but conditionally, according to the contract binding lord and vassal. If the vassal fails to meet his contractual obligations, he risks forfeiture of his property.”7

And even when property was owned outright, the moral pressure was there in the medieval period to act in good stewardship, though no norm existed to penalize a landowner for not acting generously with his superfluous wealth (as I concur, there should not be). Indeed, an elaborate analysis, provided by Peter Lombard and Aquinas, formed in order to judge the motives of those who gave to charity (i.e. whether it was out of vanity or genuine generosity), so as to promote humility, charity, and justice.

Aquinas also theorized about just price theory and usury. He ultimately concludes that money is not an ends but a temporary means. This was because money bears no fruit by nature, but rather only measures the fruit of human activity, a “non-venable commodity, the measure of things sold but not [actually] saleable itself.”8 Thus, to pursue wealth for its own sake was to pursue nothing of significance, nothing lasting, and nothing human. Rather, wealth and property itself should be used to promote human flourishing in the truest sense. Then money is used to support and represent true fruit. To do otherwise, in Aquinas’ view, is disorderly and a sin against natural justice.  

What is evident throughout even this seemingly cold sector of theology from the scholastics, is their concern for the heart. In true Augustinian fashion, their motives in producing guiding principles and helpful analysis is to direct man’s love away from himself and his material lusts, and towards virtues that are conducive to godliness, and ultimately toward God himself. Aquinas and the scholastics clearly had Augustine’s deeply psychological question from The Confessions, “What must I love to be fully human?”9 ever on their mind. At the same time, it is clear that they understood the human condition as Augustine did as well. It is not a lack of knowledge that condemns man, but an intrinsic moral need for transformation, “a famine within.”10 It is man’s very desire for autonomy, self-determination, and domination over others that prevents him from finding rest in God. In short, “[s]in places self where God should be.”11 

A Truly Free Economy

When we are rightly ordered toward God and our fellow man, and our duties concerning those two parties, we experience true freedom to act. Thus, the beauty of a free-market system is that there is little to no impediment against man exercising this true freedom. But what we mostly have now in America is an economic hedonism, even amongst the Christians of the Bible Belt who once stood athwart the encroachment of Northern capitalism and industry, yelling Stop!12 

As Augustine posited in City of God,13 a people is defined by what they love (see Matt. 6:21). And like Rome in Augustine’s day, we are a commonwealth in type—but an inferior one—because our love is disordered and we are therefore devoid of true justice, and not a true commonwealth in the highest sense. As Christians, we should strive all the more to be just citizens in our economic dealings. Augustine tells us (alluding to Cicero) that community is defined by unity toward a common interest. But the “City of God” is no mere Lockean social contract, primarily because our “interest” transcends the frailty of our human impulses for self-preservation and wealth. This must be lived out by seeking wealth as a means and outlet to act as a magnanimous citizen (in the Aristotelian sense, with Augustinian modifications), not as the end.  

If the Old Southern agrarians were right that the pursuit of wealth above all else is the spawn of a slavery mentality, then the Scripture (Ephesians 6:9) is certainly instructive here. A return to a Scriptural, medieval theological view of wealth can, perhaps, begin to right the ship amidst the rising tide; steering us toward a truly free economy.


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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