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The Christian Faith and the Financial Crisis
Part One: The Christian Faith (6)


Griffiths may feel he is on safer ground when he turns his attention to the Old Testament. In an article published in 1984, 'Christianity and capitalism' he explains: 'Insofar as the Judaeo-Christian religion deals with principles for ordering socio-economic life in a fallen world, it is to the laws of the Pentateuch rather than the spontaneous sharing of the early Church that we should look. Above all, the Old Testament background is fundamental to an understanding of Jesus' teaching on economic matters.' (8)

(8) The article was published in Digby Anderson (ed):The Kindness That Kills: The Churches' Simplistic Response to Complex Social Issues, London, SPCK, 1984. It was republished later that year in the USA in the Roman Catholic Crisis Magazine. It can be read online at

Looked at from Griffiths's Old Testament view - which, he tells us (Creation of Wealth, p.49), is not stated in Jesus's teaching because Jesus assumed everyone knew it - God created the material world, therefore the material world is good. God created man in His own image, therefore, just as God is creative and ingenious, so man is creative and ingenious. God gave man dominion over the world so man has the right to use the material world to create wealth - while always respecting the material world as God's creation and as a storehouse for future generations. 'Biblical Christianity' he says, summarising, approvingly, the argument of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 'placed emphasis on the world as God's world and the universe as his creation. The image of man which emerged was of a creative, evaluative, resourceful person, with a mandate to transform his environment in response to his earthly calling' (Creation of Wealth, p.34). Through the Mosaic law, God gave us a number of principles which, though formulated in terms suitable for a primitive agricultural society, are applicable to economic life in general. Here, however, he runs into difficulties, because the Mosaic law includes a ban on usury, lending money at interest, within the community (eg Leviticus 25.36 and Deuteronomy 23.19-20); the principle of the 'jubilee', according to which every fifty years all exchanges of property are annulled and everything reverts to its original condition at the time of the division of the spoils in Canaan (Lev. 25.9-12) (9); and the 'sabbatical year' according to which every seventh year no work at all was to be done on the land throughout the whole year, which in an agricultural society effectively means no work at all (Lev. 25.3-7).

(9) Griffiths presents the division of the land in Canaan as a divine endorsement of the principle of private property, pointing out that the land was given to individual families not to the community as a whole, as it would have been under Socialism. However, in order to share the land out, the community as a whole had first to get hold of it at the expense of the existing inhabitants. The process by which this was achieved - the real origin of the system of private property established in the Mosaic law - is described in the Book of Joshua. As always, the Old Testament faithfully presents the logic of how things happen in the world. Griffiths, however, averts his eyes from the Book of Joshua and tells us chastely that 'The story of the Hebrews is of a nomadic tribal people who settled the Holy Land - a depopulated [sic! - PB. Though of course it was depopulated - somewhat forcefully by the Hebrews] fertile agricultural area.' (Morality and the Market Place, p.81).

Indeed, much of the mosaic law consists of prohibitions on work. This goes beyond the famous prohibition of work on the seventh day. If we cast our eyes over the word 'work' in Cruden's Concordance, we find:

'No manner of work shall be done in them' - Exodus 12.16; 20.10; Leviticus 16.29; 23.3. 28, 31; 29.7.

'whosoever doeth any work therein shall be cut off' - Exodus 31.14; Leviticus 23.30

'Ye shall do no servile [Jerusalem Bible translates as 'heavy'; OSB as 'service'] work therein' - Lev. 23.7, 8, 21, 25, 36; Numbers 28.18, 25, 26; 29.1, 12, 35.

These are all references to holy days, but that is the point. The holy days (and years) are periods of communion with God and communion with God is presented as incompatible with work. And the prohibition on work is very severe. The penalties include expulsion from the community, and death.

In The Creation of Wealth he explains the Mosaic law as follows: 'Every fiftieth year, the Year of Jubilee, all debts were cancelled and land was to return to its original owners, if ownership had changed (Lev 25.14-17; Deut 15.1-11). The reason given for this redistribution is that while the people were tenants, the true owner was Yahweh. 'The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants' (Lev 25.23. KJV, RSV and LXX as in the OSB all have 'sojourners' rather than 'tenants'. Jerusalem Bible has 'guests'). Usury, the lending of money for interest, was prohibited between fellow Jews (Lev 25.35-8; Deut 23.19-20). The major purpose of these laws was to put a brake on the ownership of land being concentrated in a small number of families - to prevent a cycle of deprivation developing where those in difficult circumstances sold their land, increased their debt and finally found themselves on a treadmill: a situation little better than slavery. Put more positively, each family had the opportunity of a second chance.' (p.57) And, one might add, a third, fourth, fifth, sixth etc chance.

He then works his way round to this conclusion:

'The view of property that emerges from the Pentateuch has one very important implication. The freedom and ability to exchange rights to private property constitutes the definition of a free market. A free market is nothing more than an opportunity for property owners to exchange their titles to ownership. Any economic system therefore which involves private property rights also involves to a greater or lesser degree reasonably free markets. From this it follows that markets are likely to be features of all societies, ancient and modern, which allow some degree of economic freedom.' (p.58)

It seems to me, though, that the cancellation of all exchanges of property after fifty years, the refusal of the right to lend or to borrow at interest, and the insistence that no work is to be done for a whole year every seventh year represent very severe restrictions on the right of property - and on the right to a free exchange of property - which would have the effect, if applied, of maintaining the society at the level of subsistence agriculture and certainly prevent the emergence of an industrial society, which implies a certain accumulation of capital (concentration of wealth into the hands of a small number of families), money borrowed to enable investment - and therefore the incentive to lend money that is provided by interest - and reduction of large numbers of people in difficulties to a state of virtual servitude (a proletariat).

In this context it may be worth mentioning that in the Book of Genesis the development of crafts and the building of cities is presented as being the work of the children of Cain (Genesis 4.17, 21, 22). The material world is indeed the creation of God, God did indeed 'see that it was good', He did indeed create man in His own image, but as a result of the Fall, of our acquisition of 'the knowledge of good and evil', we were progressively estranged from God, we progressively lost the image, and the earth became progressively refractory and difficult to work:

'cursed is the ground in your labours. In toil you shall eat from it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken.' (Genesis 3.17-20).