Much has already been written about David Bentley Hart’s somewhat iconoclastic Commeanweal article on wealth and the Gospels. One of Hart’s Eastern Orthodox co-religionists, Dylan Pahman, was not amused. In both pieces, passing references were made to how the Church Fathers understood certain New Testament texts on wealth and poverty, though a great deal was left uncovered. To fill this lacuna, I found myself reaching for Susan R. Holman’s collection of Patristic studies, Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Baker Academic 2008). I was drawn in particular to Angeliki E. Laiou’s article, “Trade, Profit, and Salvation in the Late Patristic and Byzantine Period,” which covers the thinking of the Church Fathers from roughly the 4th through the 10th centuries. According to Hart’s account, by the time of St. Clement of Alexandria (2nd/3rd Century), compromises were already being made between the rigorous demands of the Gospel and the economic realities of the late Roman Empire. This is not entirely true, or so observes Laiou. In examining the thought of Ss. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom in particular, Laiou detects open hostility toward what we today call “the profit motive” and the idea that any should gain beyond what they require to sustain themselves. Laiou highlights the negative attitude Chrysostom held toward merchants, that is, those who buy and sell for profit without interjecting their labor into the mix. Consider the following, taken from Chrysostom’s Homilies on Matthew (quoted by Laiou, pg. 246):
But even they [merchants], if they are not careful, gather much evil from this [i.e., their profession]. For they add to their rightful labor the injustice that comes from buying and selling, and often pile oaths and perjury and lies onto their greed, and they care only for earthly things. They do everything they can to gain money, while they do not try very hard to give to those in need, since what they want is constantly to increase their property. What can one say about the mocking, the insults, he interest, the exchanges that smell of trade, the shameless bargaining?
To remedy this problem, Chrysostom (and others) go on to exalt charity as a remedy for the sin of ill-gotten gains. As Laiou notes throughout her article, there is a heavy emphasis among the 4th Century Fathers that Christians should eschew any gain that goes beyond their needs. The reason the merchant is singled-out for such harsh words is both because of the perjury and lies that often accompany trade, bargaining, negotiating, etc. and because such actions are carried out in the interest of greed. Chrysostom was not the only one to call attention to the dangers of the merchant’s profession and trade. A far more rigorous condemnation can be found in the section of the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum which deals with Matthew 21:12, that is, the account of Christ driving out of the Temple “those who bought and those who sold” (quoted by Laiou, pg. 247).
This means that the merchant can never or almost never please God. Therefore, no Christian should be a merchant. Or, if he wishes to be a merchant, let him be thrown out of the church according to the saying of the prophet, “Because I have not known bargaining I will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” . . . He who buys and sells cannot be free of lies and perjury: for it is necessary that one of the merchants swear that the thing he is buying is not worth its price, while the other swear that the thing he is selling is worth more than the sale price. Nor is the property of merchants stable. It is either destroyed while the merchant is still alive, or it is dissipated by bad heirs or it is inherited by outsiders and enemies. Nothing that is collected evilly can come to any good.
The Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, for those who are unaware, is a 5th/6th Century text thought to have been composed originally in Greek, but only extant today in Latin translation. Laiou remarks that the text had a much greater impact on Western Christian thought concerning labor and the market than Eastern thinking, and that the Byzantines distanced themselves from the declaration that “no Christian should be a merchant.” Still, further on in the Opus comes a concession towards any individual “who buys a thing not so as to sell it in the same unchanged and complete form but rather in order to work with it[.]” According to the Opus, “he is not a merchant, for he is selling not the thing itself but rather his own work he has put in it[.]” In contrast to such a just person is the usurer, for “if he who buys in order to resell is a merchant, and accursed, how much more accursed is he who gives at interest money that he has not bought but has been given to him by God?”
This rigorism, as already noted, had a much greater impact in the West than the East, a fact which becomes evident when comparing the often complex relationship between Christian thought in usury among the Latins as opposed to the Byzantines. This does not mean, however, that the Byzantines simply accepted trade as an absolute good or paid no mind to profiteering. Still, by the latter centuries of the first millennium, the hagiographic tradition in the East revealed far greater tolerance for the role of merchants and the marketplace than is evident in either Chrysostom or the Opus. In several places in her article, Laiou pinpoints how the Byzantines, in both their spiritual writings and legal codes, opened the door to what they considered to be a just accumulation of wealth while still maintaining that greed is sinful and that almsgiving and other forms of charity are important virtues which must be cultivated. The Byzantines, with mixed success, tried to frame profit as a blessing from God and praised exchange only to the extent that it is just, that is, carried out without recourse to perjury or lies.
From a historical perspective, none of this is terribly surprising. Whereas Western Christendom faced centuries of political turmoil, material privation, and overall social decline after the fall of Rome, the Byzantine East enjoyed expansion and opulence brought about in part by trade and commerce. There was, psychologically speaking, a greater need in the Christian East to justify profit in the light of the Gospel than there was in the West. This would not remain true forever, of course. Following the Reformation and the advent of capitalism, the Church of Rome lost track of her historic condemnation of usury and began to harbor a much more lackadaisical attitude toward wealth accumulation despite paying lip service to the historic witness of the saints concerning greed, trade, and usury. What remains clear, though, is that even centuries after Pentecost, the Church had not lost full sight of the radical demands of the Gospel; whether or not her vision sharpens again before the eschaton remains to be seen.