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One of my favorite stories from studying church history involves Basil the Great, the 4th century bishop of Caesarea and one of the Cappadocians Fathers.  Basil is also considered the father of Eastern monasticism, who lived in relative poverty (especially given his lofty position) in order to help the poor.

Basil was also a widely respected bishop who held to the orthodox Nicene position regarding the deity of Christ, which put him in conflict with the emperor, Valens, who was an Arian.  Valens decided to take a trip to Caesarea and sent an officer ahead of him to keep Basil in check.  Basil, however, proved to be more than he bargained for.  Justo Gonzalez tells of their face off (p185):

Finally, in a heated encounter, the praetorian prefect lost his patience and threatened Basil with confiscating his goods, with exile, torture, and even death.  Basil responded, ‘All that I have that you can confiscate are these rags and a few books.  Nor can you exile me, for wherever you send me, I shall be God’s guest.  As to tortures you should know that my body is already dead in Christ.  And death would be a great boon to me, leading me sooner to God.’  Taken aback, the prefect said that no one had ever spoken to him thus.  Basil answered, ‘Perhaps that is because you have never met a true bishop.’

I suppose there are any number of points we can take away from this exchange, but there are two I’d like to focus on.  First, there is a freedom that Basil experienced which accompanied his lack of possessions.  That doesn’t mean he had none (he mentions clothing and books specifically); it means he did not allow himself to grow attached to them.  There is a connection between the paucity of possessions and the lack of unnecessary attachments.

The second point is closely related to the first.  Because Basil did not hold possessions tightly, they had no power over him and thus that power could not be exploited.  Many throughout the years of Christianity have succumbed to the power that comes with the things this world offers.  When losing our possessions is a real possibility, we begin to think about how much we love those things and how we’ll miss them.  We can be exploited.  Because Basil held power over his possessions, he was able to look the emperor (the most powerful man of his time, supposedly) in the eye (figuratively) and refuse to compromise.  He could not be exploited because there was nothing he held to exploit.

Here’s the point: there was nothing that could be taken from Basil nor anything that could be promised him that was going to cause him to falter from God’s plan.

I can’t help but wonder what things hold power over us?  Are we finding inordinate satisfaction in things that have no eternal significance?  Are we dependent on temporary treasures?  What attachments do we have that can be exploited, causing us to compromise on those things God has called us to?

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Book Review: Neither Poverty nor Riches

Special thanks to my friends Clark & Bryn for buying this book for me as a gift.

How often is it that a book can be considered timely almost 10 years after it was published?  I’d say it’s true of Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (New Studies in Biblical Theology).  As is characteristic of Blomberg’s writings, you come away from this book with greater confidence that you understand what the Bible actually says about money and possessions.  That isn’t to say it’s always an easy book to read, there’s a lot crammed in these 253 pages (not including bibliography and index).  This isn’t really a devotional type book, though it certainly has its moments of practical application, which is often quite challenging. 

Survey of the book

Blomberg argues that the Bible’s teachings on money and material possessions can be summarized in Proverbs 30:8- “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”  “There are certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are in and of themselves intolerable” (p245, italics original).  I like the word choice here- “intolerable.”  In other words, making a lot of money isn’t sinful, nor is being poor.  However, since it is intolerable for both extremes to be in place, it is the responsibility of the people of God to ensure that does not happen.

Blomberg surveys the biblical data: the Pentateuch and Historical Books, Poetical and Prophetical Books, Intertestamental literature, Jesus’ teachings, the early letters and Acts, and ends with Revelation.  Blomberg notes that there are times when material possessions are a sign of favor from God, though we can’t always assume that because one has material wealth that they are blessed by God.  In fact, Blomberg argues that there is a shift from the old covenant to the new in regards to material blessing.  “The covenant model that assumes material reward for piety never reappears in Jesus’ teaching, and is explicitly contradicted throughout” (p145).

I had started to write a full review at this point in the post, but realized that it quite frankly was going to be too long.  So, despite my penchant for long review, I just simply want to highlight a couple quotes to give you a flavor of his book.

“Even within the Old Testament economy, however, material blessing was never viewed as an end in itself.  An abundance of resources was to be shared with the nations and particularly with the needy” (p83).

“It goes too far to say that one cannot be rich and be a disciple of Jesus, but what never appears in the Gospels are well-to-do followers of Jesus who are not simultaneously generous in almsgiving and in divesting themselves of surplus wealth for the sake of those in need” (p145). 

Blomberg also makes an interesting point regarding Jesus’ participation in, and seemingly endorsement of, lavish celebrations (such as weddings and large celebratory meals).  “There is room for periodic celebration of God’s good, material gifts, even at times to a lavish extent.  But these celebrations will be the exception, not the norm” (p145).  This seems backwards from how we often think, since we often hear “the poor will always be with you” as we use our money for ourselves.  Yes, there are times to celebrate and that celebration may include generous use of money and resources.  But those times of celebration are to be limited, and the poor remembered frequently, not the other way around.

On pages 211-212 Blomberg gives an excellent summary of Paul’s teaching in regards to money & wealth, which I’ll quote in full here:

Right from the outset of his letter-writing career, Paul is eager to remember the poor (Galatians).  The Thessalonian Christians may have been more impoverished than many of the Pauline churches, but that gives them no right to be idle and depend solely on ‘welfare’ from others (1 and 2 Thessalonians).  The church at Corinth is torn apart by wealthy house-church leaders who expect their riches to buy them all the privilege and influence it did when they were pagans (1 Corinthians).  Instead Paul calls on them to give as generously as less well-to-do believers have already done to meet the needs of the acutely poor in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians).  It seems the Corinthians and others eventually agreed and give generously (Romans).  Christian freedom should produce liberating relationships and accountability structures (Philemon and Ephesians).  Christian workers should be grateful for financial support from fellow believers but not depend on it (Phillipians).  And ultimately, the Christians with material possessions must recognize their seduction and avoid their snare by giving generous quantities of them away (the Pastorals).

A couple questions for further clarification

There’s so much more to say, as I haven’t even mentioned some important portions of the Bible’s teachings and Blomberg’s treatment of them (Acts, James and Revelation come to mind).  But since this is getting long enough, I figured I’d hit two main questions I have.  One is a critique, one is something left unanswered.

First, the critique.  At points, due to the lack of space, Blomberg doesn’t argue clearly enough.  One place that stood out to me was in his discussion of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, where Paul says, “whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”  Blomberg claims, “contra ‘prosperity theology,’ Paul’s primary referent cannot lie in the material realm” (p196).  Now, I’m not necessarily disinclined to agree, but I do think he needed to offer up more argument for this than he does.  After all, most people reading these verses will probably not come to the same conclusion.

Second, I can’t help but wonder what the definition is of “rich” and “impoverished.”  It seems to me that these terms are somewhat relative.  There is no internationally accepted definition.  So, the extremes of wealth and poverty are “intolerable”- but relative to what?  Wealthy and impoverished compared to whom?  Our neighborhood?  Our town or city?  Or country?  Christians around the world?  What we do in practice depends partly on the answer to this question.  Truth be told, according to some American politicians, my wife and I are in poverty.  We don’t feel impoverished, though we’re acutely aware of the lack of expendable income at points.  But, I suppose compared to some, we are impoverished.  On the other hand, if our reference point is, say, global Christianity, we’re practically swimming in money.  Blomberg doesn’t really address this question, nor should he have necessarily down so, but I’d love to get his thoughts on it.

Some final thoughts

While this book does not major on application, there is certainly plenty of it sprinkled about.  Blomberg does favor a “graduated tithe.”  In other words, if we’re supposed to give out of our surplus, then the more surplus one has, the more they’ll give.  I’m inclined to agree.

But let me make a point that may derail the review slightly, but I feel I ought to hit on it.  When one hears the concept of a graduated tithe, that those with greater surplus ought to give greater amounts, one is likely to think “socialism.”  Now, I finished reading this book a few months ago, but opted to wait until after the elections to write this because I wanted to avoid the potential “Danny thinks the graduated tithe is a good idea, he must be voting for ___.”  This would be, of course, typical of American Christians, who view such things through the lens of politics rather than the church.  It is the church’s job to help the poor.  Wealthy Christians are called to help their brothers and sisters in need- that is undeniable.  Whichever way we vote, we are called to help.

(So much for this review not getting long, huh?)

In the end, this is a fabulous book, one that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the subject.  If you’re actively involved in ministry to the poor of your society, I’d suggest you pick this book up and let Blomberg take you on a guided tour of the biblical teaching on the subject.  If you’re not involved, or don’t support any such ministry, you probably ought to read this book as well.  I’m thankful I did.

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