For AO1 you need to know:
- The bible on the dangers of wealth.
- Wealth and the ascetic ideal.
- Wealth and stewardship.
- The prosperity Gospel of the Word-Faith movement.
For AO2 you need to be able to debate:
- Whether wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.
- Whether the ascetic ideal is compatible with Christianity.
The bible on the dangers of wealth
Mark 10:17-25. A rich man asked Jesus what he should do to receive eternal life. Jesus first said to follow the ten commandments, but the man said he already did. So Jesus said there was one more thing the man lacked: “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The man was “shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions”. Jesus then said to his disciples “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Traditional Judaism regarded wealth as a divine blessing and thus generosity should be cultivated. It is common for Jews to give to charity. However, Jesus’ recommendation was far more extreme. It seems impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, however the ‘eye of a needle’ is thought by some to refer to a gate in Jerusalem which a camel had to unload before being able to fit through. There is no firm historical evidence for this. However, it would fit well with Jesus’ story since the camel unloading itself to get through a gate could be an analogy for a rich person unloading their wealth and giving to the poor to get into heaven. However, it seems possible that Jesus wasn’t referring to a gate and that he meant simply that it was impossible for a rich person to get into heaven since it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of an actual needle.
The idea of treasure in heaven as that which we ought to truly value sets up a distinction between earthly possessions and spiritual merit. Jesus is suggesting we ought to value the latter, not the former. The fact that valuing earthly possessions makes it harder to gets into heaven implies that there is something about valuing them which is spiritually inhibiting. Arguably it is because of the addictive ways people can become obsessed with money which can prevent a focus on spiritual life and ethical living.
Luke 12:33-34. Jesus said not to worry about your life, even what you will eat because life is “more than food”. Birds do not farm yet God provides and we are more valuable than them. The flowers of the field don’t need to spin clothes yet with God’s provision appear better than Solomon. It shows a lack of faith to worry about these things God provides. “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow”
King Solomon was the richest king of Israel who lived almost a thousand years before Jesus. Stories of his wealth were something that Jews were familiar with and would have viewed as a lost status that they wanted to regain. Jesus is suggesting that they refocus their desires away from wealth, away from even thinking about tomorrow at all, and adjust their priorities such that their foundational focus is God and righteousness.
Matthew 6:25-34. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also”.
Wealth and the ascetic ideal
The ascetic ideal. Asceticism is a word which is directly translated as ‘exercise’ but ultimately refers to deliberately avoiding all pleasures in order to achieve greater spiritual and moral purity. Its only direct mention in the Bible is by St Paul: “And herein do I exercise myself to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men” (Acts 24:16). By this, St Paul means that he intends to work on himself and his mind, such that he and his conscience is not corrupted by temptation and greed, which would be offensive to God and man.
The life of Jesus as an ascetic role model. Although that is the only direct mention of the word ascetic, the theme of being disciplined in life as a follower of Christ is prevalent throughout the Bible. For example Jesus claimed that those who want to be his disciple should “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life was characterised by self-denial of possessions, devotion to prayer. He travelled constantly, depending on the charity and hospitality of others. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, facing and resisting temptation by the devil. Additionally, Jesus suffered on the cross.
Asceticism became a common practice in early Christianity, with ascetics renouncing marriage, having a home, property and practicing extreme forms of fasting. The ‘Desert Fathers’ were ascetics who chose to live away from society out in the desert. They were inspired by Jesus’ fasting in the desert.
In the Middle ages, more violent forms of asceticism developed, inspired by following the example of the violence suffered by Christ. Self-flagellation, which is whipping oneself, was one such practice. Human life needs suffering to truly emulate the life of Jesus.
Wealth and stewardship
Stewardship means taking care of something. In ancient times, a steward was a person with the job of taking care of a house. The Bible contains a theme of stewardship wherein God has made humans stewards of the earth and its resources.
The Genesis account of creation begins with God creating the world, including its animals. Genesis then sates ‘God saw that it was good’. God then created humans in his image so that they can ‘have dominion … over every living thing’. Once he had created humans too, God proclaimed his judgement that his creation was now upgraded to ‘very good’. So, the picture is an anthropocentric one where humans are the most important things in the universe who have dominion over the rest of it. However, this dominion is thought to mean stewardship, since God put man ‘into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it’ (Genesis 2:15).
Consider also that this creation is ultimately said to belong to God, not us: ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it’ (Psalm 24)
Furthermore, the old and new testaments are clear in their condemnation of greed.
Stewardship is thus a view that wealth should be managed and taken care of. The extreme of large wealth and greed is bad, however God did give the resources of the earth for us to make use of so the other extreme of deliberately trying to completely avoid money is also rejected.
The prosperity gospel of the Word-Faith movement
The prosperity Gospel is the view that Christians can expect to be blessed with wealth and good health if they make active declarations of faith, pay tithes (annual proportion of earnings, typically 10%) and give to religious causes. The prosperity Gospel gained popularity in America because of ‘televangelists’; protestant evangelical preachers who regularly appear on television preaching and asking for money. It is also popular in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
It is sometimes called the ‘Word – Faith’ movement due to its teaching that Christians need to actively proclaim/confess that they have health and wealth, even if they don’t. Their view is that it is important to demonstrate faith that God will provide health and wealth in order for God to actually provide them.
Proponents of the prosperity Gospel have two main types of biblical evidence. The first is that in God’s initial covenant with the Jews, God promised material goods and resources in return for following his commandments. God said that when freeing the Jews from Egypt he would bring them “to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).
The second is the emphasis in the Bible placed on faith.
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find” (Matthew 7:7)
“You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:3).
Proponents of the prosperity Gospel argue that these two biblical themes – the promise of material well-being and the emphasis on faith – are found together in cases like the Patriarchs who responded to God’s call with faith and in return were granted wealth. Abraham, for example, was a shepherd who was granted a large flock and money.
Practitioners of prosperity Gospel conclude that if they make a strong show of their faith, they will be granted material well-being. This is the reason for their practice of active confessional declarations of faith. They argue that their active public demonstrations of faith are a good way of achieving and strengthening faith which fulfils our human end of the covenant so that God will fulfil his and grant us material well-being.
Whether wealth is a sign of God’s blessing
The Biblical evidence argument for prosperity Gospel
The covenant & the emphasis on faith combined in cases like Abraham. Confessional declarations of faith as the means for modern Christians to fulfil the human side of the covenant in return for God granting them material well-being.
However, Prosperity Gospel conflicts with the teachings and example of Jesus. the goal of wealth of the prosperity Gospel conflicts with the model of the life of Jesus. It also conflicts with the message of Jesus and the old testament about the spiritually corrupting influence of money. The dangers of wealth.
Prosperity Gospel is unbiblical
Craig Blomberg argues that the covenant between God and the Jews didn’t depend on personal faith. The promises of material well-being God made did not depend on the personal level of faith of individual Jews. It was made to the entire group of Jews as a whole if they follow God’s commandments. The ten commandments were given as part of this covenant.
Arguably the Christian view of the covenant changed the old Jewish covenant in ways which fit better with the prosperity Gospel. In Christianity, the covenant it is no longer with one particular group or tribe of humans, but with all humans who are all called to salvation if they have faith in Jesus. This is especially true of the protestant view of the covenant which typically rejects the role of good works and focuses only on faith as that through which we are saved. In that case, arguably prosperity Gospel only clashes with the Jewish view of the covenant.
Justification by works would disagree.
However, with the new Christian covenant came new promises. The promise of the new covenant made by Jesus for those who accepted it and followed him was not material well-being but eternal life in heaven. So, prosperity Gospel fits with neither the requirements of the Jewish covenant nor the promises of the Christian covenant. It is therefore unbiblical.
Prosperity Gospel is exploitative
Televangelists are sometimes criticised for exploiting the faith of their audience for their own financial gain by taking donations in return for promising them that God will reward them with greater wealth. Prosperity Gospel has popularity amongst the poor, which some argue suggests that its attractiveness to them is due to their economic desperation.
However, arguably prosperity Gospel isn’t inherently exploitative, it could just be that it is sometimes exploited by some televangelists. If the arguments for its biblical basis work, then we can’t claim it is invalid just because some people misuse the doctrine.
Arguably because of the current social conditions of capitalism, many people are vulnerable to promises of wealth and are thus susceptible to exploitation. This means that regardless of the arguments for its biblical basis, it may not be suitable for today’s society.
Whether the ascetic ideal is compatible with Christianity
Jesus’ interaction with the rich man and the eye of the needle quote arguably shows that ascetic renunciation of all possessions is a goal Jesus recommended.
However, Jesus only told the rich man to give up his possessions after the rich man had implied that keeping the ten commandments weren’t enough to make him feel spiritually pure enough. So arguably Jesus’ claim about wealth being a hinderance to salvation only applied in the case of this particular person or at most persons like him who are wealthy yet feel spiritually incomplete.
Jesus’ final statement seemed to be a generalised claim about all wealthy people; that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be saved. He seems to be talking about all rich people, not just this particular person. So, Jesus seems to be suggesting that wealth has a dangerous spiritually corrupting effect such that, in general, wealth makes salvation harder. We should conclude then that Jesus recommends the renunciation associated with asceticism in cases where a person is wealthy. It is only those who have been spiritually corrupted by wealth that should take the drastic steps of asceticism. So the ascetic ideal is justified but only in a minority of particular cases.
The life of Jesus as an ascetic role model
Although that is the only direct mention of the word ascetic, the theme of being disciplined in life as a follower of Christ is prevalent throughout the Bible. For example Jesus claimed that those who want to be his disciple should “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life was characterised by self-denial of possessions, devotion to prayer. He travelled constantly, depending on the charity and hospitality of others. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, facing and resisting temptation by the devil.
Bonhoeffer’s alternative interpretation. Some Christians make different interpretations of Jesus’ statement about taking up your cross, however. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that it meant that a disciple of Jesus must ultimately make sacrifices which he called ‘costly grace’. The crucifixion was a sacrifice. This didn’t necessarily involve anything ascetic. Bonhoeffer himself was part of a plot to kill Hitler that failed, and he died in a concentration camp as a result. Perhaps that is what it meant to take up your cross and follow Jesus, not the ascetic ideal.
Alternatively, Jesus’ simple life may have simply been out of necessity rather than because it was an ideal.
Asceticism is a distraction
Asceticism distracts from helping the poor and oppressed and spreading the faith. Jesus did fast for 40 days, but then he went back to society and helped people. Arguably these goals are better served by an attitude of stewardship, which asceticism arguably conflicts with. Living out in the desert in search of your own spiritual development doesn’t do anything to help others, yet helping others was clearly part of Jesus’ life and the morality he commanded for everyone. Stewardship involves taking care of resources and managing them so that they can be effectively used for purposes such as helping others. Prosperity gospel seems to ignore Jesus’ teachings on the dangers of wealth, Asceticism seems to ignore the teachings on helping others, stewardship seems to be the approach which takes into account both Jesus’ warnings on the dangers of wealth as well as his commands to help others.
People are different however; some have more issues with greed than others. Perhaps in those cases, a more extreme approach like asceticism is justified. Arguably the best way a greedy person could help others is to become an ascetic, so that their greed doesn’t harm others.