Faith and money lie at the core of all religious institutions, and although faith can exist without money, religious institutions cannot. It was hardly surprising that the French theologian Alfred Loisy declared in 1902 that although Jesus proclaimed the coming of the celestial kingdom, it was the church that actually arrived (“Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c’est l’Église qui est venue”). His insights here and elsewhere led ultimately to his excommunication, but he was right to emphasize the transition from the otherwordly aspirations of early Christianity to the accumulation of ecclesiastical wealth. Jesus famously advised a rich young man to sell what he possessed and give to the poor, and in return for this generosity he would store up treasure in heaven. But it was never clear how to draw upon that treasure, invest it, or exploit it for advantage in this world or the next.
Christians were eventually able to work out systems in which personal wealth that had been acquired on earth could be deployed to allay anxieties about what lay ahead after death. Giving to the poor (almsgiving) could be seen as a kind of insurance for a benevolent reception in the world to come and as a payment for prayers for and to those who were already dead. Alms together with prayers in celebrating the Eucharist were naturally channeled through the church, which encouraged donations for such manifestations of piety and for efforts to reach beyond the grave. This proved to be arguably the most successful development campaign for any institution in the Western world.
Christian success in attracting money to the church depended inevitably upon uncertainties and fears about the afterlife. The mechanisms to suppress dread of the future, while simultaneously adhering to Jesus’s explicit teaching, necessarily presupposed giving away wealth to the poor or, at least, ensuring that it was transmitted to the poor. It was in the interest of any donor to prepare for the life to come and to address in some way the persistent Christian emphasis on sin, which stood forever in need of expiation. It is easy to understand the theological desperation of Augustine when confronted with the Pelagian heresy. Its founder, Pelagius, believed that it was possible to live a sinless life, free from any sin inherited at birth, and Augustine was quick to realize that if there were no sin there could be no argument for giving money to expiate it.
In his extraordinary new book, The Ransom of the Soul, which is the third that Peter Brown has devoted to the function of money in the early centuries of Christianity, he picks up on themes he introduced in 2000 in his Jerusalem Lectures on poverty and subsequently expanded at length in his recent book Through the Eye of a Needle.* The new work, which…
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