One of the most influential Europeans in the past two millennia has to be Benedict of Nursia.
He was born in Italy around 480 when the Ostrogoths ruled the peninsula, and died in 547 at the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino. He established an order of monks and gave them a rule of life that shaped the world of medieval monasticism till the rise of the Franciscans and the Dominicans in the 13th century.
Owning personal possessions
Benedict’s Rule, which sought to regulate the life of his monks and is still employed as a guide to Christian living by some today, makes for fascinating reading. Recently reading through it, I was struck by Chapter XXXIII, which is headed thus: ‘Whether the monks ought to own anything as their personal possession’. The answer is then given: ‘The root of this vice [the ownership of private property] has to be especially excised from the monastery’. After detailing what this entails, this chapter concludes with a Biblical reflection from Acts 4:32: ‘Let all things be common to all, as it is written. And let no one call or take to himself anything as his own’.
Does the Rule believe that personal ownership is intrinsically evil and should be dispensed with entirely? Notice, it says, personal ownership was to be removed ‘from the monastery’. So, we are not talking about the entirety of society. But nonetheless, in the monastery, where it is assumed that the monks are truly committed Christians, private ownership can only be seen as ‘a root of vice’. And thus, personal property is seen as potentially dangerous for a person’s formation and growth in Christ.
Given the influence of the Benedictines upon the Middle Ages, it is clear that a passage like this will have enormous implications for the medieval world’s thinking about personal property and the money that acquires it. It is obviously quite a different way of thinking from that undergirding capitalism, which currently dominates the West.
Initially, when I read Rule XXXIII, my concern was to understand what was being said and why. But I quickly realised that many contemporary evangelicals have a very different take on private ownership, as I do myself.
Many of us see free-market capitalism as Biblical economics in action: it is ‘transformative’ in the minds of some, while others see it as a natural reading of the Bible. Of course, if it is a natural reading of the Bible, why does Benedict, a passionate reader of the Scriptures, not read it so? And there are a host of other readers in the monastic world for a millennium who would have agreed with him in this regard.
This chapter in Benedict’s Rule forces me to ask: is my Western evangelical reading of the economics of the Bible actually true to Scripture, or have I baptised my culture’s assumptions? Now, let me say definitively, that I do not think the Rule is right at this point. I do think the Bible supports the right of private ownership, but this little exercise reveals one benefit of reading the past: it forces me to ask, are my convictions actually Biblical or am I unthinkingly following the path of my culture?
A danger to my soul
But there is more here. This portion of the Rule also compels me to realise that the acquisition of possessions and the desire for the money that buys them can be dangerous to my soul.
Unlike Benedict I do not think private ownership automatically clashes with spiritual formation per se, but nor can I ignore the reality that by owning things and having the means of purchasing them, I am exposing myself to significant temptation even to the point of spiritual ruination. As the apostle Paul recognised in 1 Timothy 6:10, five centuries before Benedict: ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…’ (CSB).
Professor Michael Haykin
Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.