(following off of the background provided by the previous post)
The Anabaptists, says Melanchthon, say “that Christian men should not own property, but should have all good sin common, and they make a command of this.” The monks, meanwhile, “say poverty is a counsel, a special holy work.” These opinions, he declares, “are erroneous and false.” Why?
“The seventh [eighth for us] commmandment, ‘You shall not steal,’ shows that it is right, and a divine order, to have property. These grave words of the seventh commandment confirm the right to have property for every one, and they draw a wall about each one’s house and trade.”
For this to be Melanchthon’s first move is quite fascinating. For here we see, already, the standard argument format used by modern Protestant pro-capitalist apologists: if the Bible says “do not steal,” then this makes clear that private property is held in very high regard by Scripture and must be safeguarded against any intrusions. The commandment thus shifts from being read primarily as a safeguard against the predations of the strong upon the weak (see Patrick D. Miller, “Property and Possession in Light of the Ten Commandments,” in Having) to being read primarily as as an unqualified positive endorsement for the position of property-holders everywhere. Private property is shown by these four words to be part of “a divine order.”
“the orderly regulations of the human race in authority, courts, punishments, marriage, property, buying, and selling are so decreed and maintained through divine wisdom and power, that the devils which oppose such regulations may not completely destroy them. And order in the human community is a clear testimony to God….Through his beautiful order God would be known, and through such means and bonds he wants us to be drawn together, and to serve one another….this characteristic of the physical order, ownership of property, is pleasing to God.”
Wow. There you have it all in a nutshell. The laws of economics are part of the structure of the universe as God has programmed it, and even those who “oppose such regulations may not completely destroy them”–this is a standard of modern pro-capitalist literature. But most interesting is the complete elision of the careful distinctions that the Thomist tradition had drawn regarding the natural and unnatural dimensions of private property. The institution of private property is no longer presented as a prudent human development of the natural order so as to better realize its potential, but is presented as itself part and parcel of the divinely ordained natural order. Private property is thus assimilated as a postulate of the natural law, 350 years before Leo XIII made this move in Rerum Novarum.
Since private property a postulate of the natural law, the abandonment of private property is read as a violation of the natural law–not only not meritorious but downright wrong: “The voluntary abandonment of one’s own goods in the erroneous opinion that begging is a holy work of divine worship is not only not a counsel but a lie, a mistake.” After all, the one who renounces his own property will be made dependent on the property of others, and will thus be in a sense stealing: “Also, whoever obtains bread from another by begging, if he himself has property and has forsaken it without being persecuted, if he does not perform some honourable work such as teaching to obtain bread, if he is able and not prevented from working, he is a thief.”
There you have it–the Protestant work ethic! We have all heard this before–Marvin Olasky sputtering with righteous indignation against anyone who does not work to earn his living, for instance.
Of course, none of this means a renunciation of charity:
“When God gives property and a tolerable trade, we should first of all know that having property is pleasing to God; and we should acknowledge it as a gift from God, thank him for it, and ask God to sustain and bless our poor children with the benefits of our trade. And we should ask about the correct usage. With regard to this, everyone should look carefully at the lovely passage in Solomon, ‘Out of your spring let the little brooks flow…however, you alone are to remain master of it, so that it does not become alien to you” (Prov. 5:15, 17) [Never mind that Solomon was talking about semen, not money.] You should preserve the ground and principle benefit for the virtuous rearing of your children, but as much as possible you should distribute the fruits to others, to the churches, to schools, and to the poor. This passage expressly confirms property, and gives instruction about its use, teaching both how to economise and how to limit liberality. From the spring let the brook flow out to others, but this does not mean that you are to repudiate your house and goods.”
Of course, the note of charity and liberality here remains strong, stronger than in most contemporary discussions. And at first glance, it may appear that nothing here has changed significantly from Aquinas–property is to remain under private potestas procurandi et dispensandi, (“the power to procure and dispose”), while being put to common use, though the owner’s first responsibility is to use it for the needs of his immediate dependents. However, there has been a subtle but significant shift. Common use, rather than preceding and serving as the ground for private disposition, comes afterward, almost as an afterthought (not, perhaps, an afterthought for Melancthon, but a few centuries of human selfishness had little trouble in making it so)–we first acknowledge our property as a wholesome component of the divine order, and then we turn to ask about how we might use it correctly. The generous use, on Melancthon’s assumptions, and his mistranslation of Prov. 5, is tightly constrained by our responsibility to remain in full control of our property, “to remain master of it, so that it does not become alien to us.” In earlier Christian thought, while the counsel of poverty was not a requirement upon all, it was, as a principle of “perfection,” the illustration of the goal or endpoint toward which all were to strive. Although most Christians were called to retain the disposition of their own property, they were to live as if it was not theirs, as if it was alien to them; they were to consider it as belonging first and foremost to others. As the Didache put it, “You shall not turn away from someone in need, but shall share everything with your brother, and not claim that anything is your own.” For Melanchthon, however, it was critical that all regarded their property as their own, and maintained a close and prudent management of it even in their generous exercise of charity.
6 thoughts on “Melanchthon and the Re-validation of Private Property”