Neither Poverty nor Riches:
A biblical theology of possessions (NSBT)
Craig Blomberg (IVP, 1999)Blurb Review by By Michael Raiter
Review by By Michael Raiter
One of the persistent tensions that I lived with when living in Pakistan was the enormous economic gap between me and the people I had come to work amongst. While, by Australian standards, my income was small, it was still often ten or fifteen times greater than most others in the local Christian community. Do I give to all who ask me for a loan knowing, when the word gets out, that there might then be a constant stream of genuinely needy people at my door? If one tries to both preach the gospel and meet physical needs at the same time how do you discern the motives of those who come to your door? I well recall the first time I preached in a village church and I joined the elders later for tea in the pastor's house. "Brother", they said, "we need a new roof for our church and wonder if you could help us?" Disheartened, I turned to my translator and asked him if I'd been invited that morning to teach the Bible or help them build their roof? "Both", he replied. Then there were the ubiquitous beggars.
The situation is often complex and many foreigners find it difficult to make a wise and just response to the overwhelming poverty.
Of course, the problem of a right use of one's possessions is still a vitally important one for Christians in the West. We may not be faced daily with such deep human need, but most of us have been blessed with considerable wealth and this brings with it the sober responsibility to use these resources generously. While there have been many books written about the Christian's response to possessions and the poor, Craig Blomberg's contribution to the excellent series, New Studies in Biblical Theology, is the most extensive biblical-theological treatment of the topic. Blomberg attempts to deal adequately with the full breadth of the Biblical teaching on the topic. Beginning with the historical books of the Old Testament, the author works his way through the wisdom and prophetic literature, the intertestamental writings, the Gospels, the teaching of Paul, and finally the remaining New Testament writings. Without being simplistic or reductionistic, Blomberg demonstrates the unifying motifs in the Bible regarding wealth and poverty.
In brief, Blomberg argues that neither excessive poverty nor excessive wealth is tolerable. In Proverbs 30:8b-9 we read,
. . .give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, "Who is the Lord?" Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.
Blomberg convincingly demonstrates that this principle is reiterated, in different ways, throughout all of Scripture. In the wilderness, each day the Lord provided manna for his people. There was never too much, lest they hoard it, but always sufficient for the needs of the day. This principle is echoed in the petition in the Lord's prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread." Then, in the context of his raising of financial help for the believers in Jerusalem suffering from a severe famine, Paul argues for a "fair balance" of wealth. He wants the poor not to be left in need, and the rich to give generously of their abundance (2 Cor. 8: 13-14). Paul then quotes from Exodus 16, in the context of the provision of the manna, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little". Blomberg points out that Paul is not against some people having more than others, only that there ought to be a relative equality (p.194).
How much of our income should we give away? For most Christians the principle of the tithe, or 10%, has been a useful rule of thumb. It must be said, though, that such tithing can be a convenient cop-out for well-off believers. Blomberg's treatment of the topic is both helpful and challenging. He correctly notes the complete absence of any reference to the tithe in Paul's writings, concluding that the standard to which the gospel calls us is both a more liberating and a more stringent one. Consistent with the call to be generous and the general principle of "neither riches nor poverty", he argues for a 'graduated tithe', that is, the more money one makes, the higher percentage one ought to give away. There are poor believers for whom, on occasion, the giving of 10% may prove crippling. However, for the majority of Western Christians such an amount would be negligible and falls far short of the call of the gospel to generosity. Without setting a new legalism, Blomberg shares how annually he and his wife have been able to give 30% of their income to the needs of the church and the poor. Each person must make up their own mind before God, but a sober reflection on the teaching of the Bible will surely lead many of us to a radical re-evaluation of how we've understood and practised the call to generosity.
Teaching and preaching about wealth and possessions is a hazardous activity. It is easy to fall into either of the twin traps of legalism and judgmentalism on the one side, or soft-pedalling the hard words of Scripture on the other. Blomberg carefully walks a wise and faithful middle path. He frequently reminds us that material possessions are a good gift from God, given to us to enjoy. The wealthy believers in the Bible are never condemned for being wealthy; however, their lives of generosity towards the poor are always noted. At the same time, Blomberg does not pull back from reminding us that the stewardship of our material possessions is often the most important test-case of our profession of discipleship (pp.126-127). In Paul's list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, after the sexually immoral are the greedy. Our sensitivity as Christians to sexual sin in our midst is often acute; sadly, we can be largely indifferent to the thoughtless and selfish amassing of a surplus of material goods.
This book will be hard to ignore, but the human heart, even the converted heart, is capable of the greatest self-deception. We are the rich of this world. The giving of the average American Christian is less than 3% of per capita income. I doubt Aussie saints do much better. But then, we have our well-rehearsed excuses. Like the golden oldie, "It's not what you do with your wealth, it's your attitude". A right attitude will surely lead to right action.
Inevitably one will not agree with all Blomberg says. I am far from convinced by his exhortation that missionary giving ought to be directed to those involved in holistic missions. By this he means those missions concerned with both evangelism and ministry to the poor of the world. I personally support some such missionaries, but it is hard to find anything, say, in the writings of Paul that enjoins this upon us. Indeed, it's striking that in Paul's raising of a collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem, he does not call for wealthy believers to give money to the wider poor community in Judea. Of course, it is appropriate to give to the poor of the world, believer or unbeliever, but given the Biblical emphasis on the primary responsibility of giving to the poor in the Christian community, Blomberg's injunction to give only to holistic ministry is overstated. It is equally appropriate to support those involved in student work, Bible translation, theological education and so forth, even where the missionary structures are not holistic.
This book presents a powerful and much needed challenge. It is a fine example of a biblical-theological approach to a topic. Many in our churches will be unsettled by the implications of the gospel for our stewardship, and it is for this very reason that Neither Poverty Nor Riches is a must read.
Review by By Michael Raiter
This review first appeared in The Briefing and is used with permission. No part of this review may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of Matthias Media.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature