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Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Christians in an Age of Wealth" (Craig L. Blomberg)

TITLE: Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship (Biblical Theology for Life)
AUTHOR: Craig L. Blomberg
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (272 pages).

[Zondervan Special $3.99 ebook download here. Offer ends Dec 8th, 2013.]

It was 4% in the 1920s. Now, it hovers around 2%. In general, giving has gone down substantially over the years. At the same time, American spending patterns have risen astronomically with huge discretionary income allocated for "non-essential stuff" such as "pleasure boats, jewelry, booze, gambling, and candy." Craig Blomberg then takes aim at the rich Christians sector, especially those who had invested "state of the art facilities and technology" to sustain their church ministries. That is not all. The criticisms roll on:
  • How is it justifiable for rich Christians to channel funds to already wealthy establishments, and not worry about the those living way below the poverty line?
  • Is the Church guilty of "passing the buck" where a need is someone else's problem?
  • For those who gave to the poor, how much of those giving have actually done more harm than good?
  • Why must Western missionaries be paid "Western salaries" in the country they serve in?
  • Why are there so many initiatives, charity, mission work, and other ministry causes duplicating one another's efforts, without even trying to coordinate their efforts? 

These questions and more form the background of why a biblical theology of wealth is necessary. There are already many books written on this topic. What makes this book different from the rest? According to Blomberg, Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, what makes it different is the depth in terms of trying to understand what the Bible has to say about material possessions and the responsibilities that come with stewarding them. Using a canonical approach, Blomberg attempts to understand stewardship via genre chunks of the Bible. There is a warning that as the chapters progress, there is also a progression of material that is relatively certain to increasingly controversial. He begins with five big clusters of questions that lead up to the biggest section of the book.
  1. Is prosperity directly proportional to one's level of faith?
  2. In what ways is wealth particularly good?
  3. Existence and implications of a "minimally decent standard of living?" 
  4. What kind of socioeconomic bracket is appropriate for apostolic living?
  5. What is the biblical view of helping the needy, materially speaking?
In "Arriving at Answers," Blomberg cautions readers about the flaws and deceptions of the prosperity gospel. There is no biblical basis for health and wealth gospel. Any biblical references by the promoters is basically taking verses out of context. There is a difference between what God created as good and free versus what man demanded as entitlement. Prosperity theology is heavy on the entitlement that works as long one prays hard enough, gives substantial enough, or summons up faith enough. The Bible makes no such claims. Any prosperity is overshadowed by something greater: The kingdom of heaven. Even Proverbs remind us that helping the poor is not the ultimate good. Remember how Proverbs 19:22 says that it is better to be poor than to be a liar? 

Blomberg spends considerable time warning readers about the seductions material possession wield toward sinfulness. He looks at the Deuteronomy promises of providence for the Israelites in the desert, followed by blessings and curses set forth. Such a pattern of faithfulness leading to prosperity, and faithlessness leading to curses have often been used to justify prosperity gospel. He makes three observations which merit our consideration. First, God's promise to Israel is plural, not singular; corporate, not individual. Second, the arrangements are limited only to Israel. Third, there is no evidence that any New Testament Church has applied the Old Testament promises of peace and prosperity to the new era, the Church or individual believers. God can still bless, but there is no formula or guaranteed method to invoke any form of prosperity slot machine. Even the proverbs cannot be generalized and be used to form a dogmatic statement. Jesus in the gospels do not condemn the riches but often warn us how such riches can drag us down physically and spiritually. The extreme opposite of prosperity theology is also unhelpful. Blomberg reminds us of Randy Alcorn's assertion that "religious materialism" even in the name of poverty and asceticism is still materialism. While the wisdom literature warns us about the rewards and punishments for diligence and laziness respectively, they do not become a law unto themselves so that people can simply formulate a method to get rich! It is also good to be reminded by the Pauline letters that behind the instructions to work for our bread; to have leaders who steward their gifts well; and financial gain; and others; that godliness is something far better than material rewards. At the heart of it all, one must watch for any forms of rebellion, especially the rebellious heart.

If there is any basic rule of thumb, it will not be about relentless earning of material riches, but about generous giving as the way of life. Economic inequity has been in existence since the Fall of Adam and Eve. Throughout the Bible, we read about the disparity of the rich and the poor, with consistent reminders that the rich ought to help the poor. Even Jesus has demonstrated that in his ministry and teachings. Moreover, if giving away something helps us prevent it from being enthroned as Mammon, giving essentially is a safe bet to reduce the influence of Mammon in our lives. On tithing and taxes, Blomberg traces the development from the Old Testament to the New, followed by how the Early Church and the Christian forefathers develop the ideas of tithing and giving. There is a mixed bag of opinions whether tithing still applies to modern Christianity. Blomberg takes a practical approach, saying that while he does not oppose anyone who chooses to tithe regularly and strictly, he is strongly against anyone who teaches tithing as a mandatory discipline. On taxes, in general, it is appropriate to pay taxes, but he makes an allowance for forms of "civil disobedience" when the money goes to anti-Christian activity and corrupting institutions. Any such tactics must not be done with hatred but with love.

Other observations made include the comments by Mark Brewer that the two biggest threats for Christians are "their wallets and their zippers" pointing out the giving and the sexual disciplines respectively. He links all of these back to materialism and the idolatry of our age. Blomberg then uses his Genesis to Revelation framework to sweep for guidance with regards to how much is actually at stake. For the author, it is a lot, simply because all of these things vie for attention away from God. "Mammon is God's arch-competitor for human allegiance," says Blomberg.

The final part of the book deals with the issue of relevance. As the Bible's references to promises and prosperity are not directly addressed to individuals, this makes the chapters that follow rather interesting. Blomberg decides to focus on the responsibilities to be good financial stewards. Modest living and careful spending remains key. He touches on the need to use whatever resources we have for kingdom purposes. People must not simply spend, but spend wisely, and if possible, use their expenditure for the sake of the Kingdom of God. He distinguishes generosity from sacrifice, saying that the latter requires more of a conscious choice to give up something precious. Graduated tithing is something recommended, so that those who have much ought to give more. Those who have can give less without feeling guilty. Whatever it is, stewarding one's resources need to have a community awareness, and a kingdom perspective.  Resources also ought to be shared. On government and society, Blomberg observes that giving is only part of the picture. There is a need for systemic correction and institutional reforms. Modern economic systems comprise different levels of capitalism, socialism, and some forms of feudalism. He gives three reasons why one cannot derive a biblical economic system. Firstly, the society we live in is already not based on a biblical model, which limits any social or biblical economic reforms. There is no pattern or model to follow. Secondly, there is no convincing evidence that the two major economic systems in the world now is biblical. Both have their pros and cons. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Even the idea of a welfare state is quite difficult to justify or deny, just by reading the Bible. For if Capitalism leads to rising rich-poor divide, socialism leads to suppressed creativity and fails to provide adequate support for a free market system.

So What?

I am fascinated by Blomberg's three models of how the Early Church helped the poor. The first model is based on Acts 2:44 which seems to promote an economic system of socialism or communism. The second model is a distribution model which occurred in Acts 6:1-7 in which the apostles devised a new system to make sure that the widows are well taken cared of. The third model is from Acts 11:27-30 where a special collection is taken to help the poor. We can learn and adapt these models for our modern age, but we need to be careful not to make it an absolute model, as the Early Church had not made it an absolute model. I agree. In fact, the moment we try to absolutize anything, there is a chance that it is a Mammon in the making.

Bravo to Blomberg for putting clarity a very important topic. While God may be the perfect Giver, man remains an imperfect receiver. That is why even if the health and wealth gospel is flawed, man's capacity to receive and ability to steward God's resources will be imperfect in various degrees. The strengths of this book lay in a very commendable biblical framework to look at the economics of giving and receiving; of stewardship and generosity, of government, economic systems, and Church. By making an argument for Church stewardship needing to mirror individual stewardship, Blomberg has broadened the application of the golden rule: "Do to others what you want others to do to you" and applied that to Church. Spending on facilities and property need to be modest, not lavish. Biblical priorities must take precedence. Clergy must be paid appropriately so that they will not be forced to take a second job elsewhere. Do not back away from existing commitments too readily. Grow the hearts of givers to give bountifully and beautifully.

There is a lot of material in this book to teach both the Church as well as the individual. There may be a tendency to use a book like this to start a Christian Education curriculum for the Church to teach her congregation about money and stewardship. Yes, it can be beneficial, but based on Blomberg's philosophy of Church giving to mirror individual giving, it seems like individuals will benefit more if they can learn and to read this book first. My recommendation is, if any teacher, pastor, preacher, or seminary professor wants to teach a course using this book, encourage students to read this book once through first. Then, the material will be more engaging at the class level.

For its biblical and historical sweep, and its constant bridging of the ancient and the modern,this is one of the best books on biblical stewardship.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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