And God said, “Let There Be Private Property”

In Chapter 1 of Calvin and Commerce, we begin with the doctrine of Creation, and Hall and Burton’s use of the doctrine reflects the common conservative presupposition that private property is a direct institution of creation.  This, I say, is a presupposition–it is never a conclusion they argue for, and I for one have no idea how one might argue for such a proposition.  But it has dramatic consequences.  It means, for instance, that the fundamental problem of economics–the relationship between private and common property–is never addressed, nor the issue of the just distribution of wealth.  For Hall and Burton, the great debate in economics is over whether wealth is to be viewed positively or negatively, and they see modern society as falling into the error of viewing wealth negatively, as something “inherently evil.”  

I must confess that this seems a very bizarre diagnosis for our materialistic, money-obsessed culture, but that’s what Hall and Burton think.  Of course, the problem is that their invisible opponents have nothing against wealth per se, but against unjustly distributed private wealth.  Our authors, however, take no note, throughout the 50 pages of this chapter, of such subtle distinctions as the existence of wealth vs. the distribution of it, and go on stubbornly repeating that since “wealth is part of creation,” it is basically good, not evil.   What might this statement mean?

Right at the beginning of the chapter, we have the statement, “Money is–and every will be–a creation….Like the creation itself, it has a place and is useful.”  Now this is a bit confusing, because money is clearly not part of the original creation, any more than toilet paper is, or perhaps more analogously, any more than the internet is.  Money is a human invention, devised using wthe material things God created, and the conceptual capacities with which he endowed man.  It is a human creation, a social creation, not part of the simple physical creation per se.  Now, this seems like an important distinction.  However, our authors never clearly make it.  For instance, at the end of the chapter, they return and say, “wealth is a part of creation,” but then in the next paragraph, “money is a fundamentally good human invention.”  (Note that this does not reflect a careful distinction between “wealth” on the one hand and “money” on another; these are used interchangeably in these paragraphs and elsewhere.)  On page 10, wealth is discussed as a very direct creation of God: “If wealth is a creation, then there is no reason that it may not be fruitful and multiply.  Yet, just as ‘the sun is still a servant, and the moon a handmaid,’ so again wealth as a creation is designed to serve or assist, never to be worshiped as or confused with the creation.”  Let’s try to untangle this web they have woven for us.   

Although humans imitate divine creativity (as Hall and Burton discuss at certain points in this chapter) we must of course distinguish between the products of divine creation and the products of human creation.  The former are not only “not inherently evil,” but are (before the Fall at least) unreservedly good.  The latter, however, may be good, may be evil, or may be neither per se.  Pornography is a human creation that is evil.  Apple pie is a human creation that is good.  What is money?  Well, it is a treacherous tool that humans have devised in order to better pursue the good of creation, but which often seduces them into evil and the distortion of creation.  It must be viewed, in short, with rather more suspicion and less resounding affirmation than a direct product of divine creation, like an apple (regarding which a certain caution is still valuable).  

Let’s leave “money” and talk about the broader term “wealth.”  In what sense might “wealth” be “part of creation”?  Well, in the sense of “the abundance of the world,” “the bounty of the earth,” or something like that, “wealth” was clearly directly created by God.  However, we very rarely use “wealth” in this sense; rather, in normal usage, it is only meaningful as a comparative term–to say that one person has wealth is to say that another person does not, or that he has less.  Now, this could not be true if wealth were the general bounty of creation.  No, “wealth” in our ordinary usage refers to private wealth, to private property, to the claim a person has staked over a certain portion of the bounty of creation.  And in this sense, wealth is clearly a human invention, not part of the initial divine creation–God didn’t divide Eden up into plots.  (Hall and Burton might disagree, however.   On page 18, they use the disturbing metaphor of creation as one big corporation, in which we all have shares, and for which God is like the board of directors, free to distribute the excess profits however he wants.) 

Of course, saying that it is a human invention doesn’t make it bad, but it makes it different.  It means that private wealth is subject to the other limitations on human inventions–it is only good insofar as it serves the good of creation as a whole, it is of limited use, tinged with the weakness and propensity to temptation of all things human, and prone to idolatry.  In other words, our attitude to it should be one of careful ambivalence, not resounding affirmation.  To transfer the properties belonging to something created directly by God to something devised by man is a rather careless and foolish theological error, but so far as I can tell, this error is made in discussions of creation and private property all the time.  Somehow we got it into our heads that private property was inscribed in the original creation, and by now, indeed, conservatives have managed to raise it to a level of sanctity even above that of all the rest of creation, since we are now told that people have a right to do whatever they want with their property, even if it’s injurious to the earth.

So, if it is correct that wealth in general is created, but private wealth is not, what might this chapter have looked like?  We might have begun with the affirmation that the material world is good, and God has given it for all to enjoy and invited us to enrich it still further.  We might then have asked how the bounty of creation is best maximized and how we can best  ensure that its benefits are as widely shared as possible.  We might have heard about what a distortion it is of God’s original design for creation if a few people seize all its wealth and use it for their own advantage.  All this might have led us to the qualified affirmation of some kind of free-enterprise system, though not necessarily “capitalism” per se.  

Instead, what do we get?  On page 43, a section entitled “Wealth is not morally evil” begins.  Wealth is not morally evil because it is part of creation, we are told, but puzzlingly, in this section, private accumulations of wealth are what is being discussed.  Indeed, because such accumulations of wealth are actually good, what is evil is actually any barrier to the free flow or accumulation of wealth.  This concern, it turns out, is not just your typical anti-big-government stance, because their particular critique in this section is aimed at the bad attitudes of society today toward wealth.  We live in an anti-wealth society, we are told, and this, Wayne Grudem says (they quote him extensively in this section), is a work of Satan, who is trying thus to overthrow God’s good creation.  

Is this a joke?  No, I’m afraid it’s not.  We then get a wide-ranging, bizarre, and very difficult to follow history of negative modern attitudes toward wealth, and then this remarkable paragraph:

“In the 1960s Christian socialists and theologians turned up the volume in their denouncements of the evils of abundance and wealth.  Citing Acts 2 out of its canonical context, they called for a simpler lifestyle, a feature often commended by collectivist theorists.  Even faced with the myriad benefits that capitalism brings to society–enhanced employment and liberty to mention only two–they still felt trapped in Weber’s ‘iron cage.’…The great twentieth-century social experiment needed villains who ostensibly threatened its ideals of free love, peace, social liberties, and unrestricted expression.  Fueled by a century of suspicion and attacks and gaslit by the new liberation theology, the 1960s and 1970s cemented the concept of the immorality of wealth, making it part of the mainstream cultural consciousness.” 

He then turns, believe it or not, to a defense of big oil, pointing out that the profit margins of ExxonMobil aren’t bad at all compared to many other S&P 500 companies.  Then it gets even better:  “Furthermore, ExxonMobil uses its wealth to reinvest in activity throughout the world, employing hundreds of thousands of individuals.  For example, twenty-two thousand employees are employed by Exxon in Chad.  Is not that national economic system bolstered by Exxon’s presence?  What is the ultimate value to thousands of homes in Chad because of the trickle-down effect of Exxon’s profits?”  Now, we could pause here to cross-examine these rather fantastic claims about the “enhanced employment” capitalism brings (though this is, of course, one economic good that capitalism indisputably does not bring) or of the wonderful blessings that ExxonMobil has shed upon Chad, but let’s stick to the big picture. 

The big picture is that, in a chapter devoted to economics in light of the doctrine of creation, the main point was to lead us to a defense of ExxonMobil as an embodiment of a Christian embrace of creation and its wealth, and a suggestion that those who oppose it are motivated by Satan.

 

 

3 thoughts on “And God said, “Let There Be Private Property”

  1. Matthew N. Petersen

    Do they even mention the detailed discussions of the Medieval theologians of money as a symbol of good things, but not good itself? And thus, to desire money qua money, is intrinsically evil since money is only a symbol and not actually good?Also, do they deal with the rich acetic tradition in the Church, particularly with the Franciscan radical rejection of money? They would, of course, disagree with St. Francis, and St. Athanasius, and St. Anthony, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Maximos the Confessor and the rest of the Patristic and Medieval Church; but if they don't interact with it, they haven't shown that their position is Christian, nor have they really done anything but argue circularly. The position of the Church was that creation was made good, but we were to look through matter to the more important things behind it–an understanding we still hold today, when we criticize someone for loving a girl only for her body–and that by the fall we were enslaved to matter, finding our end in the material, rather than in the Eternal. Moreover, whatever shall happen in the future, this material is passing away, and thus is not to be an object of love and trust. (Which relates to Christ's criticisms of wealth and riches. When we have much wealth to be secure in, we find our security in it.) Thus to love matter, though matter is intrinsically good, belongs to our fallen tropos, and is evil. Rather we should look to transpose ourselves beyond this world to the Eternal world of Christ the resurrected, and find our hope in Him. We should re-orient our lives around Resurrection and the permanent city which shall come, not this passing city here.What do they have to say about Luke 6:24? Anything?

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    All good points, Matt, and thanks for raising them. I'm afraid that they do not deal with any of these things. I doubt they have read a single medieval source. And I assure you they do nothing but argue circularly…or perhaps elliptically, since "circle" implies a perfection and consistency that is surely lacking here.Indeed, I will confess here in the comments (I tried to be more delicate in my post, because I figured people would just think I had a bee under my bonnet if I came out guns blazing) that it is one of the most poorly researched, poorly written, poorly argued, and poorly thought-through books I have read in years. My fuller, more scathing review will be on Theopolitico.com soon; the main purpose of the posts here will simply be to bring out points where their errors are ones that are particularly commonplace in our circles.

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