A Closer Look on Melanchthon and Private Property

A few months ago, as part of my ongoing side-project of reflecting on the relation of Christian ethics to private property, I posted a discussion of a passage from Melancthon’s 155Loci Communes on the subject, from the chapter on the distinction between “commandments” and “counsels.”  In this passage, he castigates the Anabaptists for their attempt to do away with the order of private property, which he insists is divinely ordained.  At the time, I critiqued Melanchthon, suggesting that he was an example of the shift away from the medieval understanding of private property as a pragmatic adjustment of the natural state of common ownership to the modern understanding of private ownership as itself completely natural and perpetual.   My friend Peter Escalante informed me that I had badly distorted Melanchthon on this point, arguing that he was in fact well-aligned with the medieval consensus, and I so I offered something of a retraction. Now at last I can shed a little more light on Melanchthon’s view.  
Sure enough, if one looks at the first edition of the Loci, the 1521 edition, one finds a presentation that is much more equivocal about the status of private property.  Expounding the natural law, Melanchthon argues that there are three main laws of nature: “1. God must be worshiped.  2. Since we are born into a life that is social, nobody must be harmed.  3. Human society demands that we make common use of all things.”  

Wow.  So the common use of worldly goods is not merely a nice idea, but one of the fundamental laws of nature, on par with “God must be worshiped”?  Looks like it.
“The third law, about the common use of things, obviously arises from the very nature of human society.  For if the saying ‘Friends have all things in common’ ought to be valid when a few friends are involved, why should it not hold among all men?  It should, since all are supposed to cling together as brothers do with brothers, children with parents, and parents with children.  For the law not to inflict harm has commanded this.”
So, is there any place for private property?  Yes indeed.  For we aren’t living in our natural state anymore, but in sin:
“But because human avarice does not allow that we use all things in common, this law had to be corrected by the one above, the law that no one be harmed.  Things must be shared to the extent that the public peace and the safety of the group permit.  For as a rule inferior laws are corrected by higher ones, and public sharing must be regulated according to some limit.”  
In the state of sin, a perfect common property regime is unlikely to last for long without causing strife, and so it must be modified as necessary to provide for peace.

“Therefore, another law must be subjoined to the third, namely, that property must be divided, since the common welfare of the multitude so demands.  Furthermore, since it is a condition of human affairs that there is need of at least some sharing of property because by nature things ought to be in common, it has been decided that their use be shared, for instance, through contracts, buying, selling, leases, rents, etc.  And here you discern the origin of contracts….One must not look for any other model of a well-constituted state than that state in which it is possible to observe the rule that friends must share.  Thus contracts have been devised through which the goods of each are shared by the many so that there may be at least some sharing of things.”

In other words, private property is introduced in a state of sin as a way of realizing the original natural good of common use.  If we can’t have a truly common property regime, then we should come as close as we can to achieving the same end under a private property regime.  This stance (which looks like Option 5B or possibly 5A on the taxonomy of private property justifications I provided here) is actually less affirming of private property than Aquinas–it is more Augustinian–since St. Thomas believed that the specification of private property might have happened anyway even without sin.  But the basic logic is quite similar.  

However, there does seem to be a marked shift by the time we come to the 1555 Loci.  Not surprising, really. Back in 1521, in the first flush of the Reformation’s success, the Reformers were filled with evangelical optimism and perfectionism; the Anabaptist utopianism had not yet come to stand in opposition to the mainstream reformers.  By the middle of the century, however, a hard-nosed realism and cynicism has set in. Men are a wretched and on the whole irreformable lot; some will be saved, but the majority just need to be restrained.  In such a milieu, anything other than the existing private property arrangements is going to sound hopelessly idealistic.  No surprise, then, that we should find Melanchthon here indulging in a furious polemic against the Anabaptist opposition to private property, something which he might have disagreed with in 1521, but hardly set himself against so ferociously.  In this polemic, he argues that property is not merely a good, but a a duty–voluntary poverty is simply wicked hypocrisy, and a violation of the divine order of property.  

This polemic corresponds to a considerably flattened account of the justice of private property in his exposition of the law.  In the 1555 Loci, this comes in an exposition of the Ten Commandments as the basic principles of natural and divine law.  In speaking of the seventh commandment (eighth for us Reformed), he says,
“Let us learn from this commandment that God himself has established ownership of property and reasonable laws to regulate it.  It is comforting to know that the laws by which we live and have property are pleasing to God, for then a believing man can work with a clear conscience to maintain himself in such an order, and can invoke God’s blessings and aid….
“Note this in reference to the devilish Anabaptists.  They argue that all goods must be held in common and boast that it is a mark of great holiness to break up property….Against such madness one should consider and uphold the beautiful wisdom contained in this commandment.
“Because possession of property is right and pleasing to God…God erects a strong wall around each householder for the sake of his shelter and goods, namely this his law, ‘You shall not steal.’  Our hearts and hands should not desire another’s goods nor acquire them, except as God has ordained an exchange by agreement and equal payment.  In this life we need various things, and God gives to one the fruits of the earth, to another, wool and cloth.  Therefore, to facilitate exchange, God himself ordained contracts, buying, and selling.  He desires us to use these means to preserve equality, for otherwise we would soon consume one another.”
It is impossible to deny a striking contrast.  Here there is no overarching right of common use that precedes and gives purpose to the order of private property (although there is still a hint of this at the end in the remarks, reminiscent of those from 1521, that contracts enable common use within a private property regime); here there is no qualification to the divine ordination of property–indeed, here it might appear that private property was natural and perpetual, rather than an adjustment to the natural order as a result of the Fall.  And whereas in the 1521 discussion, we might’ve been left with the impression that a common property regime was still a live option under certain circumstances and a praiseworthy one, here any such notion is castigated as “devilish madness.”  What we appear to have now, in short, is an Option 4A or even an Option 3 account of the justification of private property.  It may well be that Melanchthon here has not actually changed the logic of his theory.  If pressed to explain the natural-law basis of private property, he might still follow the structure of the 1521 account.  But the rhetoric has certainly changed.  And in my experience, rhetorical shifts often precede and influence theoretical shifts (e.g., as I argued happened in the case of sola Scriptura).
Of course, none of this is intended to single out Melanchthon for criticism.  My sense (thus far relatively unconfirmed by careful research) is that this shift was fairly prevalent in the sixteenth century, among Protestants and Catholics.  Hopefully one day I’ll be able to confirm that one way or another.

(If I’ve still got it wrong, Peter, don’t hesitate to come down on me hard again. 😉 )

8 thoughts on “A Closer Look on Melanchthon and Private Property

  1. Isaiah

    I quite enjoyed these thoughts on Melanchthon and Private Property. I did some research and wrote a paper on the topic of Christian attitudes towards property last december and, from the sources I used, Melanchthon came out as pretty devilish for his views on property. Being somewhat Wesleyan I sort of construed Wesley (along with the Anabaptists) as a way forward from the Private Property dilema created by the reformation. But thanks to this article I see that it was a far more nuanced development and perhaps I have taken a Weberian (and Catholic for that matter) reading of Protestantism and Capitalism too far.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Glad to hear I'm not the only one preoccupied with this question.Yes, certainly my initial take was the same as yours–it's so convenient, isn't it, to peg the Reformation as the turning-point for all these things. But I'm persuaded now that the narrative can't be quite so simple. Certainly the initial thrust of the Reformation is not so much to do away with the evangelical counsels (e.g., common property), but to somehow make them normative for all Christians. But that does quickly get eclipsed, somehow. My sense, however, is that the basic paradigm remains within the range of options defined by the scholastics until well into the seventeenth century, when things start to change rather dramatically. That said, there are earlier examples of a much more modern view of property, and they don't come from Protestant circles in fact. Among Renaissance humanists enamoured with ancient Roman thought, a much more Roman (and thus more modern) perspective toward private property is advocated; and, strikingly, among the most forceful articulations of an absolute affirmation of private property and a condemnation of any form of evangelical law of poverty or common property comes from the Papacy in its 13th and 14th century struggles with the Franciscans. One way of telling the story, then, would be to say that the Protestants are actually pushing for a *more* evangelical, *less* private view of property than the Catholics at this stage. But as the ambiguities in the post above show, that narrative too would be too simplistic.Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing what sources you used, as I've found very few good ones myself.


  3. Isaiah

    Mainly I tended towards commentaries (through out the centuries) on Acts 2 to see how the whole common property thing was understood. I discovered that even up to the Nicene Fathers there was a general agreement that this was something good, something to be pursued. Especially Chrysostom!Yet by the time of the middles ages Aquinas interpreted Acts 2 as a provisional, before the fall of Jerusalem type thing. It seems that some of the reformers may have followed him. Wesley on the other hand, without directly citing Aquinas, disagrees totally and says that calling the form provisional (ie having everything in common) is the equivalent of calling the Love behind it provisional, which is blatantly not something that should be done. There is also some evidence that besides bands and classes he also developed a third form, for the spiritual mature, that included having common property.


  4. Peter Escalante

    Brad,Good work. I think you're right that the rhetoric has changed in the later exposition, but I would suggest that the underlying theory has not (something you already allow for in your argument here). You are right to note that the context of the shift is the dispute with the Anabaptists, and I'd suggest that you can go deeper with this. What grieves Melanchthon is that the Anabaptists make the return to common property a matter of Law and enforcement. M nowhere attacks common property as a choice in the postlapsarian state, but he does attack the attempt to violently shoehorn people into a parody of the original state, which for him is a confusion of Law and Gospel (and destined for social trainwreck). But he does always allow for voluntary community of property, and further, note the emphasis on *exchange* among private propertyholders; for M, that exchange is the action-medium of as much community in property as we can ordinarily have. Poiesis, gift, and trade are what as it were recommunalizes stuff within the abiding postlapsarian distinctions of personal property.And M is also not arguing that land and natural resources are able to be private property the way your shoes are, for instance, and this is an enormously important consideration.P


  5. I was horrified when I first read Melanchthon's view of what constituted natural law, especially that third law. I'm glad to find there is counter-evidence in Scripture. I think of what Peter told Ananias: "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?" Good passage for shutting down all kinds of nonsense.From a more commonsense standpoint, one problem with commonly holding property is that those who use property are often blissfully unaware of how much effort goes into creating it. When we have to trade for property, we are able to create some connection with amount of effort and what is received. And a good portion of this problem does not stem from ill will, but from failure of imagination, in even the best people.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Rick,Unfortunately, the view at which you are "horrified" and consider "nonsense" was, in one form or another, the almost universal view of the Christian church for 1600 years. There were of course a number of ways of expounding it, but all concurred that a common use of property order was prescribed by the natural law, the created order; indeed, as I have argued (see also here, it seems difficult to coherently say anything else.The verse about Ananias and Saphira, unfortunately, has absolutely nothing to say, one way or another, to this principle; the very most that it could be used to argue is that, in a post-fall state, private property is the "natural" order. However, as I took the time to argue here, it doesn't appear to me that it would even begin to prove that position.Peter,Thanks for the further clarification. That makes good sense of the contrasting tendencies I observed. Indeed, it's remarkably similar to what I've been coming across in my research on adiaphora–the Reformers often seem to be implacably opposed to a certain practice (in this case, common property), when it fact all they are opposed to is the attempt to morally and religiously *require* that practice, to institute it as Law, rather than as a possible expression of the Gospel. However, in that case I am arguing that the rhetoric is not "mere" rhetoric–it has a real effect. They do often tend to think themselves, in their more unguarded moments, that these things they are attacking are wrong per se, and even when they are more careful than this, their followers are not. Reformers' attacks on the Catholic requirement of the adiaphora become construed as attacks on the adiaphora as such; likewise, it would seem, attacks on the Anabaptist requirement of common property become construed as attacks on common property as such, and an absolute naturalizing of private property. A similar thing perhaps happens in the Franciscan disputes–a polemical attack on a *requirement* (or at any rate, what is perceived as a requirement) of evangelical poverty leads to a dangerous swing in the opposite direction.So I wonder if what we have the in the shift to a modern understanding of property isn't perhaps a legacy of a rhetorical shift that then mutates into an actual ideological shift. But at this point, just a hypothesis.


  7. Brad,I'm not an expert in the Reformation, but Fr. Neuhaus used to use the phrase "Where orthodoxy is optional it will sooner or later be proscribed." He was, of course, talking about modern liberalism, but could a similar phenomenon have happened at the time of the Reformation? When orthodox worship (etc.) becomes optional it will sooner or later be proscribed.


  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Well, I hope that need not be the case. The focus of the work I'm doing right now is on the Reformers' concept of adiaphora–we must say that all sorts of things (including many elements of worship) are "optional"–if by that you mean, not *necessary* for pleasing God. They may still be quite valuable, and have a relative necessity for human purposes–in fact, a great many will (as Hooker would argue). But they must remain on some level optional, lest we fall into idolatry. (But those things, by the nature of the case, are not constitutive of orthodoxy.)In the Reformation, that did mean a tendency for such things to become proscribed (by the puritans, for instance); however, that tendency can be and must be resisted.


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