Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess.
Blomberg, Craig L. Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship (Biblical Theology for Life; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013). Paperback, 271 pp. $24.99. ISBN 9780310318989.
This volume is a welcome updating and reworking of Craig’s earlier Neither Poverty nor Riches. There is a great deal of biblical and theological reflection followed by a surfeit of practical applications. Happily, Craig does not assume that all the biblical teaching for us regarding wealth is limited to the New Testament. Here I would like to review what he has to say on this important matter and to express my appreciation for it. I will also take the opportunity to comment on some of the Old Testament discussions, which are of particular interest.
The book begins with observations concerning the entertainment mentality that often describes the use of money and time by people in the West. In contrast, the loss of church attendance as well as Christian giving seems to mark the end of a significant role for Christianity and its proclamation of the faith through Word and deed. Craig revives the word “stewardship” as he discusses the volume’s aim in the careful management of resources over which the Christian (and the Church) may have responsibility. The theme of the goodness of creation introduces Craig’s discussion on wealth’s goodness. It is worth noting that “good” and “very good” in Genesis 1 carry the sense of that which is completely in harmony with the will of the Creator. Tracing through the covenants and wisdom literature, Craig shows how God addresses wealth and important aspects of its acquisition and stewardship. With the prophet, Craig emphasizes the new Temple prophesied in Ezekiel 36-48, something that he sees as fulfilled in the eternal city of Revelation 21-22. Craig continues to trace the theme of the blessings of wealth and the abundant provision of God in the gospel accounts. In interpreting texts such as 2 Cor. 9:6-11 we should not equate the promise of the meeting of needs with a guarantee of wealth for those who obey God. While I remain unconvinced that all “foreigners” who entered Israel were illegal immigrants, I applaud the warning about how the lack of wealth can make people much more aware of their need for God.
Craig then considers the role of wealth as seduction to sin. He finds in the Sabbath a means to avoid this as, for Israelites, “Their potential incomes were reduced by one-seventh” (p. 69). In addition, laws prohibiting usury are highlighted regarding Israel and their relations with one another. Tucked away in a footnote on p. 71 is the Pew Survey’s positive correlation between how religious a nation is and how poor the people are. Returning to the title of his earlier book on the subject, Craig refers to Prov. 30:8-9 and the prayer to avoid both the prosperity gospel and “extreme asceticism.” A remarkable indictment of the connection between sexual sin (and the demand for its immediate gratification) and lack of concern for the poor appears on p. 80. Pointing to the small, often overlooked prophecy of Zephaniah, Craig explains how divine judgment will be rendered against the nations of the world for their misuse of wealth. Into this concern must enter Christians’ use of wealth. Do we use our money for our own Christian entertainment, or does it effect the outreach of the message of the gospel? Nor is it merely a question of wealth. As the author elaborates, “A wealthy philanthropist who makes the safest possible investments for the purpose of increasing what he can give away has his or her heart in the right place. Poorer persons who remain stingy with their giving because they are eager to become wealthier have their hearts in the wrong place” (p. 85). There is a useful New Testament section that follows with comments that move warnings addressed to the wealthy from their original social contexts to provocative modern implications.
Craig’s chapter on generous liberality, especially toward those in need, finds this theme in each section of the Bible and challenges us as readers to reconsider our own patterns of giving. In the Torah we find Abram’s gift to his nephew by allowing Lot to make the first choice for the best land (Genesis 13). There are provisions for the poor to glean others’ fields and for less expensive sacrifices. Similar stories are told of Solomon and Job in other texts; even as God defends the poor in the Psalms. Like Jesus and the early Christians, the Old Testament prophets saw the image of God in concern for those in need (e.g., Isa. 58:6-7). When he turns to tithes and taxes, Craig notes how Abram gave to Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils of his recent battle (Genesis 14). Leviticus 27:30-33; Num. 18:8-32; and Deut. 14:22-29 all command tithes, whether given to a sanctuary and its workers, to the poor, or for a celebration by the offerers. Craig rightly questions whether these texts describe three separate tithes or, as seems more likely originally, various perspectives on a single tithe (or two). In any case, the commanded gift of resources continues throughout the Old Testament period and into the New Testament. However, he rightly notes that the New Testament nowhere commands a tithe for Christians. Nevertheless, giving to the poor, to ministers, and for the furtherance of God’s mission remains an intended part of faithful stewardship (see the summary on pp. 130, 132).
As Craig demonstrates in his chapter, How Much Is at Stake?, giving liberally to the Church and to Christian mission of various sorts remains as unpopular as ever. Nevertheless, the entire Bible argues to the contrary. Whether creation of humanity as rulers over creation (Gen. 1:26-28), or return of land to those who lost it due to debt, or the many prophetic indictments of the wealthy; there remains the expectation that the people of God naturally use their resources to help those in need and to assist the work of God’s kingdom. Thus giving one’s resources becomes the evidence of a transformed believer.
In the final three chapters Craig provides example after example of those who have illustrated stewardship of their resources from both church history and from modern contexts. This results in stories of individuals who balance their resources, of governments where these concerns are reflected, and of churches with an involved and committed membership. Most controversial here are the analyses of socialist systems (and of the nature of Scottish Evangelicalism). However, the overall thrust of the book argues for an informed and well-balanced approach to the use of our resources. The church provides a unique context in which to use our resources for the needs of mission, ministry, and community. I close with a convicting challenge that summarizes the message of this excellent book: “The best way, therefore, to maximize the goodness of material possessions and minimize their negative effects is to give a generous, even sacrificial amount of them away” (p. 244).
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages