The June issue of First Things has an essay on global capitalism by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (“Mammon Ascendant: Why global capitalism is inimical to Christianity“). Samuel Gregg, the director of research at the Acton Institute, has a response to Hart’s essay (“Global Capitalism versus Christianity? A Response to David Bentley Hart“). Gregg is sharply critical with what he says is Hart’s “argument that possessing wealth is intrinsically evil and therefore incompatible with Christian faith.” Gregg is correct when he concludes that “most of Hart’s arguments about the compatibility of late modern capitalism with Christianity are handicapped by a regrettably common problem among many Christian intellectuals and clergy: a failure to engage in serious study of all of the habits, values, institutions, history, antecedents of, and alternatives to contemporary capitalism.”
Hart’s assertion that “the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil” is simply wrong. While the acquisition of wealth and its use can be morally problematic, it is a gross overstatement to assert the Scriptures treat wealth as such as morally evil. Gregg identifies several reasons why Hart and others fail to understand the free market and the creation of wealth. Let me offer here an additional thought.
Whatever might be the contemporary roots of Hart’s moral reasoning on economics, his argument that wealth is evil is more in keeping with the thought of the early Christian heretic Pelagius than with, such as, Ambrose, Augustine, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. These fathers were all critical of wealth and the wealthy but avoided the extremes found in Pelagius.
While making this argument in any detail is more than I can do here, let me make a start by offering some observations from Peter Brown 2014 work, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. I have removed the footnotes.
A typical mentor writing for well-to-do disciples [Pelagius] stressed un-wealth, not poverty. A teacher should be above money. His students, like the “saints” addressed in the Epistles of Saint Paul, should avoid snobbery and undue concern with petty social distinctions. It was the morality of an aristocratic philosophical counterculture… (p. 308)
…there was one theme on which Pelagius’s thought had taken on a sharper profile than was usual. That was his notion of habit. Committed to a view of the absolute freedom of the will, Pelagius explained the human sense of difficulty in fulfilling the commands of God by stressing the cumulative resistance to the good created by human custom. No inert or malign force of nature cramped the will. But nevertheless, when confronted by God’s challenge to do good, Christians, despite their possession of free will, found themselves cramped by their own past—by the slow piling up of bad habits in the self, derived from previous free acts of the will. (p. 308)
But not only was the individual held in the grip of his or her own past. Society itself was also responsible for the bad habits that opposed the will. Society as a whole was held in the grip of evil customs. … Nonetheless, … Custom was not insuperable. What the free will created, the free will could undo. Habit remained external to the will. It was like rust that had come to form around the moving parts of a machine. … This view of custom had radical implications. Society might seem immobile, but its immobility was only apparent. It was the result of the free actions of former days. The effects of these actions could be reversed; wealth did not have to be seen as an irremovable feature of society. Rather it could be treated as nothing more than another bad habit inherited from the past. Like any other bad habit, human beings could shake it off by an act of renunciation. (p. 309)
Wealth was a bad habit. It was the result of innumerable free acts of avarice and violence. A free act of renunciation would reverse that sinister process. Wealth would drop off the rich like a great cake of rust.…Wealth was for one thing only—to be renounced. (p. 309)
For [Pelagius] … wealth had no existence outside the will. There was no such thing as simply “being” rich in an unproblematic manner. Wealth was the product of avarice which was the wish to be rich. … And this was not simply a will to have more than one should have. It was a dire and tenacious will to have, tout court. (p. 311)
If the will to have was evil in itself, then traditional restraints on wealth (Christian and non-Christian) were ineffective. … Personal failings—sensuality, pride, and the lust for power—drove them [i.e., the rich] to increase their wealth. Discourse on wealth was, in effect, not a discourse about society. It was a moral discourse [by Pelagius] about the impact on society of the personal vices to which the rich were most exposed—such as love of luxury, cruelty, and ambition. (p. 311)
Because it was a product of the human will, wealth had a history. And it was a grim one. Wealth in the present was based in an apparently endless regress of free acts of greed and power that reached back for thousands of years. The lush “flowers of wealth” pushed their roots deep into “a bed of crime” (Pelagius, De divitiis, 3). [p. 312]
[Pelagius] believed that as long as human beings had free wills, they had been capable of avarice and hence the accumulation of wealth. This was a remarkably demystified view. It had direct imaginative repercussions. It robbed the rich of an idealized past in which wealth had been innocent. There were no good rich men in the deep past to whom rich Christians could look as models that excused their own possession of wealth. For most rich Christians, the Patriarch Abraham had been the prime example of the good rich man: he combined holiness with great wealth. The present-day rich assumed that if they used their wealth in the right way, they could be the Abrahams of their own times—generous, hospitable, and protectors of the weak. And, if they imitated Abraham in this respect, they could retain their wealth with an easy conscience. [Pelagius] denied this belief categorically.” (p. 313)
Put bluntly, God’s providence played no part whatsoever in the existence of great wealth. Still less had God given great wealth to some so that they could offer it back to him as votive wealth. … Who, then, were the rich? In the first place, the author of the De divitiis asserted that no one could claim to be an originarius dives—rich from birth and, for that reason, innocent of avarice. … On the contrary, … every inheritance had its own, dark history: “I was talking not so much of the possession of riches as of their source, since I think that they can hardly be acquired without some injustice” (Pelagius, De divitiis, 7.3). [p. 314]
…wealth and poverty were causally interconnected. (p. 315)
Most Christian writers and preachers of late antiquity (even Ambrose) had been content to treat the rich as fools. They had misused in foolish ways the good wealth bestowed on them by God. The author of the De divitiis went one step further; for him, the rich were criminals. They were creatures of free will, and they had made society what it was by their free actions. This was a society starkly divided between rich and poor. The one had caused the other. The extent of the wealth of the rich spelled out with implacable precision the extent to which they had dispossessed the poor. (p. 316)