Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions by Craig Blomberg (New Studies in Biblical Theology No. 7) (Leicester: Apollos 1999)
At a time when even committed Christians can refer to shopping as ‘retail therapy’ this book is sorely needed. However, a book about the Bible’s view of money could easily tell us more about the author and his own cultural presuppositions than about the Bible. Blomberg is aware of this problem from the very beginning and has attempted to guard himself against it by reading very widely and questioning his own presuppositions throughout. The result is a carefully crafted and holistic work which seeks to promote a balanced view of the Bible’s approach to possessions. Here there is neither a simplistic condemnation of wealth nor a ‘First World’ Christian justification of acquisitiveness. It is not a book which will make the relatively rich feel comfortable, but neither will it induce the sort of guilt and anguish which can rob us of our enjoyment of God’s good gifts.
Blomberg’s approach is rigorous and systematic. After a brief introduction (citing the inevitable statistics!) he moves into a broad sweep biblical theology. Starting with the Pentateuch and moving through the historical books to the wisdom and prophetic literature, he builds up a picture of the Old Testament’s view of wealth. There are useful summaries of each section along the way. That this is biblical theology and not simply an Old Testament theology is highlighted by his interpretative comments about the Law: ‘No command issued to Old Testament followers of Yahweh necessarily carries over into the Christian era unchanged” (p39). The only real problem with this section of the book is that the first three chapters all have the same heading at the top of the right-hand page – a printing error that will hopefully be rectified in the future as the book goes through the countless reprints of which it is more than worthy.
A brief but excellent survey of inter-testamental views of poverty and wealth provides the reader with plenty to follow up later in the footnotes if desired. The next 130 pages are devoted to an examination of the subject in the New Testament. The order in which the books of the NT are approached is a little strange (Jesus, James, Acts, Paul in reconstructed historical sequence, the redactional distinctives of the synoptic evangelists, the rest of the NT). At each stage, however, Blomberg seeks to defend his ordering of the material, and generally speaking he is persuasive. His inclusion of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles in the section on Paul will surprise some readers of course, but whilst he is keenly aware of the debates in critical scholarship over such issues he is by no means a slave to their ‘assured results’. He can use critical tools in the service of biblical theology to great effect, while rejecting the ‘substantial dichotomy between history and theology that has often plagued gospel criticism” (p214).
Transliterated Greek is quoted only in order to make exegetically significant points. The footnotes, whilst remaining unobtrusive, offer valuable contributions to critical debates and provide a rich bibliography of material to follow up. Throughout the book the author addresses current trends in prosperity and liberation theology, and shows himself to be conversant with a wide range of opinions not only on historical and exegetical points but on wider issues of biblical hermeneutics, contextualized theological systems and methodological concerns. Yet all the while his eye is not diverted from the practical implications of the teaching he seeks to expound. He forcefully refutes at least one ‘traditional’ line on Christian giving that I have heard (“Christians should only give to gospel causes – someone else will look after the poor and needy in the Third World”), and he forces us to think again about how we spend our money.
There is no space in a short review to delve into the minutiae of Blomberg’s exegesis or even into the validity of his wider conclusions. Suffice it to say that he clearly shows that ‘God does not require unmitigated asceticism’ (p47) but neither does God condone greed and an unwillingness to share with those in need. His practical suggestions are many and varied, including the suggestion that we seriously consider a graduated tithe (giving a greater percentage of our income as our income increases). His openness and honesty about his own family’s giving will surprise many readers. I have always thought it best not to share personal statistics on this matter for fear of inducing either guilt or pride in others. But Blomberg says, ‘we need leaders who humbly but forthrightly explain and model biblical values’ and that some disclosure by our leaders of actual practice in this area might be helpful ‘simply to encourage others that it could be done’ (p248). I wonder how many of us would be willing to do that, and whether our giving would be worthy of emulation anyway?
This review was first published in Churchman 113/4 (1999).