“Through the Eye of the Needle”

Peter Brown is one of a few scholars for which one must simply stand back and let them pass.  Decades ago he published a seminal biography of St. Augustine that made his name in the field of late antiquity.  Since then he has done nothing flashy, contenting himself with “staying in his lane” and doing what he loves.  He keeps churning out new and interesting things about the transition from Rome to the medieval period, and his latest book, Through the Eye of the Needle is no exception. I did not read anywhere close to all of the book’s 600 pages, but found what I managed to take in eye-opening.

The title references the famous verse in Matthew 19:24, and the subtitle of the book indicates Brown’s purpose of showing how the Church dealt with the idea of wealth. His chosen dates of focus (350 – 550 AD) foreshadow a surprising assertion.  Most understandings of the early church take one of two paths:

  • The growth of the church within Roman society happened primarily in 2nd and 3rd centuries AD as a result of persecution.  Constantine’s “Edict of Milan” granting toleration and preference to Christianity did not create something new so much as confirm an already existing reality.

Or . . .

  • The “Edict of Milan” represents a key and decisive turning point in the history of the Church.  The growth of the Church as a “power” and distinct social force begins because of Constantine.

With this standard dilemma,  Brown both “splits the horns” and creates a new way of understanding the growth of the Church.

Obviously the church grew significantly from its roots in Palestine in the century following Pentacost. But at the time of Constantine Christianity still occupied fringe status in Rome, perhaps akin to Moslems in America today.  This means that, among other things, we cannot chalk Constantine’s adoption of Christianity to political reasons.   Something dramatic really happened in Constantine’s life that led him to shock his contemporaries and side with a distinctly minority faith. Just imagine the reaction the country might have if a newly elected president suddenly declared he was Buddhist.  But the church remained a side-note within the empire.  However the church prospered between the years of 312 – ca. 370, they had little impact on the wider Roman culture.  This may have been because the era of Constantine and his successors was the “era of gold.”  The stability Constantine brought returned economic prosperity to Rome in general and might have reinvigorated faith in Roman civilization.  As time marched on, however, the wealth remained even as Rome began to lose its grip.  When the wealthy began to enter the Church.  The Church needed to decide what to do with “real money” for perhaps the first time in its history.

If we think about money we need to consider it with a wide lens.

Genesis 1 shows us God creating all things good as a gift of His love.  God meant for Adam and Eve to enjoy the world he made.  As Alexander Schememann commented,

Man must eat in order to live.  He must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood.  He is indeed that which he eats. and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life.

Just as God created man soul and body, so too there need be no conflict between the physical and the spiritual.  We shouldn’t even have the categories in the first place.

An ancillary question might be, “Does money aid in our enjoyment of creation?”

In early Biblical history we might see a link between physical wealth and spiritual well-being.  We see this with Job, with Abraham, and with Jacob.  As the nation of Israel forms and grows roots, we certainly see it in the life of Solomon.  But after the division of the kingdom between the northern and southern kingdoms we have the age of the prophets, when God sought to “afflict the comfortable.” Now physical blessings come particularly to those outside Israel’s physical and ethnic boundaries, like the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4).

Jesus talks a great deal about money in the gospels, but never with one absolute message.  At Cana He blessed marriage, wine, and a general sense of “a good time had by all.”  He urges the rich young ruler to sell everything.  Zaccheus shows his repentance by giving away half of his fortune.  The rich will have difficulty entering the kingdom (the “through the eye of the needle” passage), but His “render unto Caesar” may indicate a laissez-faire approach to money in general.  Clearly Jesus Himself had little money, but Matthew may have been wealthy.  We are told in no uncertain terms that, “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and this might make us think of Ananias and Saphira.  But in the epistles we have the encouragement/command to generosity of giving, but not the abandonment of wealth.

Many writers accuse the Church of abandoning gospel simplicity in favor of “worldliness” in the late 4th century, but Brown rightly critiques these voices.  The Biblical evidence presents a complex picture, and ignores the Roman cultural environment in which the Church worked.

The Romans built their civilization around the idea of civic love.  One could say that they worshipped the idea of Rome, or the actual city/cities of Rome, as their true gods.  The patrons of Rome were in fact the “patricians,” the aristocracy.  The patronized Rome with their service to the state, and with their money.  Spending large sums came with the territory, and it could take the form of buildings, religious festivals, and the like.  St. Cyprian in the 3rd century takes this idea and transmutes it.  All Christians, but especially wealthy Christians, should patronize the City of God.  This took the form of providing for the poor (especially or sometimes exclusively to the Christian poor), building churches, and providing for religious feasts.  These were Christian “civic” projects.  In contrast to the “earthly” giving of those in the City of Man, money given to eternal purposes got redeemed, in a sense.

This approach helped give direction to the giving of the wealthy and helped build a distinct physical identity for Christians apart from the Roman monolith.  Christians have a home “not of this world.”  The approach of the early Church, however, gave Christians a physical manifestation of the heavenly city.*  Augustine would use this line of thought to develop his monumental City of God, and he proved pivotal in changing the Church’s attitude toward wealth.

The presence of wealth in the Church for the first time in large numbers brought up the question of the place of wealth.  Wealth may present temptations and problems, but is it evil?  Some believed that no one could claim both wealth and the gospel.  Pelagius, who heretically affirmed the near absolute autonomy of the will, thought that only a grand gesture of giving away everything at once could give proof of true faith.  Augustine disagreed.  He believed foremost in the need for the unity of God’s people.  The rich should receive the same welcome as the poor.  Pride, not wealth, posed the real problem for the Christian.  Naturally Augustine pushed the need for generosity.  Unlike Pelagius, he thought with a longer lens.  Wealth need not be given dramatically all at once, but steadily over time and with a distinct purpose. Their giving should seek to help build another kingdom, the “alternate reality” of the City of God.

With this line of reasoning, the Church could possess wealth, but not individual clergy.  Clergy could use wealth for the Church, but never own it directly.  The line would inevitably be gray and abuses came and went over time, but the principle remained the same.

We think of Augustine as a Platonist, and certainly he had more Platonism in his thought than St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later.  But his ideas gave the Church an idea of a concrete, visible community on Earth.  The idea of making the Kingdom of God manifest in the here and now, comes from Augustine — who may not have been quite the Platonist that we might imagine.**

The concept of using wealth to redeem our experience of creation and to create a “City of God” has many possible consequences and gray areas up for debate.  I thought of Brown’s thesis when thinking about the late Renaissance and the monk Savanarola, who railed against what he saw as the frivolous use and abuse of art, jewelry, makeup, and so on.  That conflict did not end well for anyone or for the city of Florence.  We can begin by stating the obvious — too much attention to adornment risks skewing our priorities, while no attention to at all to appearance honors neither the image of God (in the sense of honoring maleness or femininity) or one another.   The question arises, then — is some degree of focus on our appearance our Christian duty, or perhaps our Christian privilege?  It can be fun to look nice, after all.  And if we should adorn ourselves to some degree, should we not adorn our churches, our “cities of God?”

From this line of thought we can see why priests, bishops, and so on would also want adorned.  If king’s and their counsellors wear finery to show forth the glory of England or France, should not God’s representatives and ambassadors also have a chance to show the glory of their city?  Some would argue that doing this  would mean merely mimicking the world.  But one could flip this — maybe the world has in fact mimicked what the Church should be.

Sometimes I think modern Christians are uncomfortable with such baubles for the right reasons, such as avoiding waste and maintaining proper priorities.  But I wonder if we might also fear creating truly separate identities for ourselves within the Church.  Sometimes I if we fear creation itself.


**Brown points out that St. Augustine did not invent the idea of a “City of God” entirely on his own.  It had roots in African Christianity going back to at least St. Cyprian in the 3rd century.  But St. Augustine does give the concept its fullest expression.