Melanchthon and the Re-validation of Private Property

(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.”  

Melanchthon elaborates:

“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

  1. Peter Escalante

    Brad,I'd like to suggest that you're reading Melanchthon awfully hastily here, on the strength of a two quotes. In fact, Melanchthon was fully in the medieval tradition, and for him private property was not absolute. In fact, his view is basically what one will later find with Suarez' idea of permissive natural law: that private property is a modification of original community, and only original commjnity is natural law in the unmodified sense. M's view is precisely what you deny if it is: M's view is that private property is a porudent development for the actualization of human potential, plus a guard against rapacity. Melanchthon nowhere defends absolute private property in an 18th century sense, let alone modern corporate capitalism; and in fact, his principles preclude both, absolutely. He did think that private property was an essential of civic life after the Fall, which is not to say that it cannot be personally renounced. M simply denied that renouncing private property was binding upon Christians as such, and said that to claim that it is so binding is insane. It might be good to go over some of the pertinent passages in the Loci Communes, if you'd like.peaceP


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Oh botheration. Well, I did say it was a "bold" thesis, and a "tentative" one. So I am not surprised to hear that I may have read too much into a couple short statements, over-eager as I was to find a crucial transition point in the development of the notion of private property. I was using what I thought were the pertinent passages in his Loci Communes, though…so, if there are other passages, as you seem to suggest, please point me to them, and I will revise my reading accordingly.Also, since you seem to have such a good handle on this topic, can you point me to where the shift from the Thomistic understanding does take place, if it does not take place here? I'm working on an essay on the topic right now, and all I know so far is that something dramatically shifts between the beginning of the 16th century and John Locke. Perhaps John Locke himself is the beginning of the shift, but then I'm curious as to when it gets assimilated by theologians.


  3. Michael Hickman

    "…can you point me to where the shift from the Thomistic understanding does take place, if it does not take place here? I'm working on an essay on the topic right now, and all I know so far is that something dramatically shifts between the beginning of the 16th century and John Locke."Mr. Littlejohn,Excellent question! I am disappointed that you are evidently not going to receive and answer. I encourage you to persist in your investigations and I hope you will post your reflections.Best,Michael Hickman


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Oh, I am going to receive an answer, Peter has assured me, but he's just taking a bit of time with it…I certainly will be posting more as I research this subject over the coming months. Stay tuned!


  5. Brad, I'd first like to point out that the history of jurisprudence is not my expertise, but I do feel obligated to say something about Melanchthon. I believe the more pertinent passage in which Melanchthon demonstrates his view of private property occurs in his Commentarii in aliquot politicos (i.e., Commentary on Aristotle's Politics), book II. But, this is still a somewhat terse discussion of the matter. Nevertheless, he argues here that there are men in his day who argue that common property is part of the divine and evangelical law. Against this he says:"Quod vero aiunt Iure naturali omnia communia esse, sic excusant, quod ad incorruptam hominius naturam referatur, qualis fuit ante peccatum originis. Nos cum loquimur de praesenti statu post peccatum originis recte dicimus divisionem rerum Iuris naturalis esse. Nec existimo apud Veteres Iurisconsultos reperiri hanc vocem, quod Iure naturali omnia sint communia. Nam isti de praesenti naturae statu loquuntur, cui vident necessariam esse rerum divisionem. Itaque, sic dicunt, quod ante nullius est, id naturali racione occupanti conceditur. Haec sentencia docet naturali racione dominium seu proprietatem occupatione contingere, idque racione naturali. Est autem Racio naturalis Ius naturae." The basic gist of this is that Melanchthon sees the natural right of private ownership as necessary after the fall because of human sinfulness. Specifically, he gives three Christian reasons for private property: (1) God gave the commandment "Thou shalt not steal." (2) In Romans 13, Paul calls the public order the ordained order of God. (3) Because "the lazy want to be nourished by the work of others against the ius naturae." Furthermore, Melanchthon emphasizes the fact that "God is the author of the legitimate division of things" and that God gives human rights to humanity through emperors and rulers. But, as noted above, he also believes that this right comes from natural law, since it is natural for a man's work to produce wages, and it is natural for a man to want to separate himself from his parents in order to start his own family. The "Veteres Iurisconsultos" to whom Melanchthon refers most likely includes his Medieval predecessors; so, there is nothing radically new here. It is also important to read this discussion through the lens of Melanchthon's entire commentary. Some of the ideas that he affirms in this work include: (1) Society has been divinely ordained for the good of humanity. (2) Humans form societies out of a desire for virtue, specifically the virtue of friendship. (3) All positive laws must conform to the natural law, the greatest example of which is the Decalogue. (4) No one should seek the good of society for his own personal gain. (5) Utility is not the basis of society, rather the desire for virtue. If we pair these concepts with his discussion of proprietas as ius naturae we see that for Melanchthon every pursuit, whether it be in one's occupation or in protecting one's property, the ultimate goal should be virtue. The civitas is our parent and our desire to protect her should be placed before our desire for property or possessions. There has been some research done recently on Melanchthon's connection with the Scotist, Conrad Summenhart who was on the faculty at Tübingen with Gabriel Biel. A guy named Noah Dauber has written on this and shown that Summenhart's more radical view of private property as authorized by positive law rather than natural law had an influence on Melanchthon. However, the latter adopted the former's arguments only for the sake of emphasizing the role of the magistrate. Melanchthon still argued based on natural law. Pax et gaudio, Eric P.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Eric,This is a very helpful outline, and I'll be sure to check out that text. I am glad to be corrected by those with a fuller understanding of this subject, and I may be emailing you for more research tips, since you seem to have a good handle on the topic.


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