Unfiltered Fridays: Marxism and Biblical Theology aren’t Synonyms

Readers know that I’m a biblical scholar by training. What most won’t realize is that I’m a political junkie. My undergraduate degree is actually in History and Political Science. Since one of my graduate degrees is in history (albeit ancient history), I was able to teach western civilization on the college level to help support myself through graduate school. I’ve also taught U.S. History at a local community college. But while my interest in political discourse is high, I also have to confess to being an American political atheist. I don’t put my faith in any political party. The answer to the nation’s problems—to those plaguing a beleaguered world—is the kingdom of God, not a kingdom made by human hands, even American ones.

Why am I telling you this? It’s to make the point that, though my PhD is in biblical studies, I’m not a newbie when it comes to political theory. My background qualifies me to talk about a point of sloppy Christian thinking that is becoming all too trendy: the notion that the New Testament supports Marxism.

This thought is hermeneutically inept for a number of reasons. It shows a fundamentally flawed biblical theology of poverty and care for the poor, conflates the gospel with social-economic concerns, ignores overt anti-Marxist statements by Jesus and the apostles, and misrepresents communist political theory. In short, it manifests ignorance on multiple fronts.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament makes certain elements of any discussion of our topic pretty clear.[1. Some years ago I wrote a lengthy series on poverty and biblical theology on my personal blog, The Naked Bible.] Several biblical figures of high spiritual character have considerable wealth. The most obvious example is likely Abraham (Gen 24:34-35). Two of the Ten Commandments presuppose private property and criminalize its theft (Exod. 20:15; Deut. 5:21). Wealth is the fruit of labor (Prov. 10:4; 13:4). Inherited wealth is also not condemned (Deut. 21:16; Prov. 19:14).

The biblical world knew poverty all too well. There is a wide range of vocabulary for the poor in the Old Testament. But what does the terminology indicate about the status of the poor? That is, what kinds of poverty are described by the terminology? Poverty had various causes in the Bible. The most common were warfare (foreign invasion), famine and drought, laziness, and being victimized by the unscrupulous.

Other important questions are: Does the Bible tell us that being wealthy is inherently unjust, automatically leads to injustice, or necessarily causes injustice? Anyone spending some serious time in the biblical text will learn that the answer to all of these questions is no. Wealth is not an inherit evil according to biblical theology. What God hates isn’t wealth—it’s the abuse of the poor (Isa. 3:14-15; 32:7; Amos 2:6-7; 5:12; Jer. 5:28) by those who, for example, extort them, manipulate them, or withhold legal justice from them.

The question of context is also crucial. I would invite readers to read the short essay by J. Levenson, “Poverty and the State in Biblical Thought.” Levenson is a Jewish biblical scholar. His article is important for helping us think about the relationship of the Israelite state to poverty as it’s discussed in the Hebrew Bible. One of Levenson’s conclusions is significant:

The laws which protect the poor, then, are addressed to the individual and the clan, the local, highly organic unit of social organization. These laws are, thus, religious commandments, rather than state policy. They are obligations established by God and owed directly to the poor and not to the government as a mediator between rich and poor.

The crucial point here is that the biblical call to care for the poor is not one that calls for that care to come from the authority of a state with coercive power. It is a call to individuals who seek to please God and be their brother’s keeper.

The New Testament

Jesus and the apostles got their theology about poverty from the Hebrew Bible. While, in Jesus’ words, there will always be poor (John 12:8)—and so, unequal economic classes—God doesn’t disdain the poor. Instead, he is displeased when they are oppressed by the wealthy (e.g., Deut. 24:14; Prov. 14:31; Zech 7:10; James 2:6).

Still, some careless thinkers believe the New Testament endorses Marxism. One of the litmus test passages for people who presume this is Acts 2:42-47.

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

One of Marxism’s most famous slogans—“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”—seems to fit Acts 2. But that takes Marxism and Acts 2 out of context. Marxist interpreters of Acts 2 miss the obvious fact that everything we read in that passage was voluntary. There was no all-powerful state (or ecclesiastical authority) demanding redistribution of income and wealth. In Acts 5 believers were voluntarily selling property and distributing the proceeds among the believers. Even when Ananias and his wife sinned by deceptively withholding part of a property sale, Peter scolded, “And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” There is no coercion in this picture.

Acts 2 is also no justification for Marxist theory as an “application” of the passage for another reason: it would contradict the teaching of Jesus. It was Jesus who called for the separation of the Church and State, who spoke of the kingdom of heaven as distinct from the State (Matt 22:21).

Food for Thought

In my experience, Christians who get warm, fuzzy feelings about Marxism have a genuine concern for the poor, but then they filter the New Testament through a very skewered understanding of both the Bible and Marx. This post is about the former error, but the latter is just as readily apparent to anyone who has read Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels, Marx’s co-author for their epic tome, The Communist Manifesto (1845). Both were anti-Semitic. Their economic theory was designed to foment violent revolution, not care for the poor. It was Engels who said “Political liberty is sham—liberty, the worst possible sort of slavery” (Engels, “Frankreich,” 1843).

It’s easy to spot the glaring inconsistencies when people ignorant of biblical theology (including Christians) assume the Bible approves Marxism. But biblical theology doesn’t endorse a lot of what we see in capitalism today. Scripture is clear that wealth is not for hoarding or cultivating an aura of superiority. God wants wealth used to bless people. We as Christians violate Jesus’ teaching about the separation of Church and State when we forsake the care of the poor in tangible ways, presuming that the state will act on our behalf. In biblical theology, care for others is a personal spiritual duty, not something to be handed off to secular authority. But that is basically what we do. We presume the state will act as the church should—as we should. That theology is just as bad as pretending the Bible teaches Marxism.

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Agree? Disagree? Want to qualify? Sound off in the comments, like and share with your friends, and check by every Friday for more unfiltered insight from Dr. Michael Heiser.

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Written by
Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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Written by Michael S. Heiser