Marxism and Biblical Theology Aren’t Synonyms

I’m a biblical scholar by training, but what most people don’t realize is that I’m also 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 at the college level to help support myself through graduate school. I’ve also taught US 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 interests intersect in an area of 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 socioeconomic 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. 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. The Old Testament has a wide range of words describing poverty and the poor. But what do these terms indicate about the status of the poor? That is, what kinds of poverty does the Old Testament describe? Poverty had various causes in the Bible. The most common were warfare (foreign invasion), famine and drought, laziness, and being victimized by the unscrupulous. 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 this question is no. Wealth is not an inherent evil according to biblical theology. What God hates isn’t wealth—it’s the abuse of the poor by those who, for example, extort them, manipulate them, or withhold legal justice from them (Isa 3:14–15; 32:7; Amos 2:6–7; 5:12; Jer 5:28).

The question of context is also crucial. I would invite readers to read the short essay by Jon 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 insights 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.

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. Acts 2:42–45 is often used as a proof text for people who presume the New Testament teaches this:

And they were devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers. . . . And all who believed were in the same place, and had everything in common. And they began selling their possessions and property, and distributing these things to all, to the degree that anyone had need. (LEB)

One of Marxism’s famous slogans—“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”—seems to fit this passage in 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 religious 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 skewed understanding of both the Bible and the philosophy of Karl Marx. This post is about the former error, but the latter is just as readily apparent to anyone who has read Marx or Friedrich Engels, Marx’s co-author for their classic statement, The Communist Manifesto (1848 political). 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 slavery.”

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 either. 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 a 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.

***

why is the bible hard to understandThis article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. That’s a lot of hooey. #BernieSanders2020

  2. Paul Rowlands says:

    I agree that wealth in and of itself is not a sin. The question is, How was it Gained?
    The wealth that is gained through hard work and effort is a blessing from God, but the wealth that is gained through the exploitation of one’s fellow man is Sin. What follows is the Big Picture of this thought [I apologise for the way I express myself as my standard of education is quite basic]
    What concerns me, is how a large portion of Christians have swallowed without any consideration of how support for Neo-liberal doctrine compromise (the end justifies the means) the faith of one who believes in a God who is just, righteous and shows no favourable prejudices.
    To our detriment, Christians have ignored concerns raised by people like Chomskey. It is precisely where there is an intersection of justice righteousness and equity raised by Chomsky and friends the Christian world has dropped the ball.
    I have struggled through these issues over the past few years and what I found is the majority of Christian teaching and thought is biased in favour of Neo-Liberal doctrine. [Micah 3:1 Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?]
    What I look for is balance and Tim Mackie’s lecture on the Early Church and Politics solved my last remaining problem, How to deal with an authority that is unjust.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXcSJVW8rg4
    So where does that leave me? Looking for Christian Leaders/governments at all levels that are not willing to compromise their faith in God to achieve a result

    Neo-Liberalism
    Neoliberalism is the defining political economic paradigm of our time – it refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. Associated initially with Reagan and Thatcher, neoliberalism has for the past two decades been the dominant global political economic trend adopted by political parties of the center, much of the traditional left, and the right. These parties and the policies they enact represent the immediate interests of extremely wealthy investors and less than one thousand large corporations. —Robert W. McChesney

    https://citizenactionmonitor.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/what-neoliberal-capitalists-dont-want-you-to-know-about-how-they-rule-the-world/

  3. Alfredo Sosa says:

    Hello Mike,
    I know you wrote this portion from your book, maybe you can develop a course outline with these topics in Faithlife TV, like the one you have for Unseen Realm. This crucial message has to be shared. Because of the lack of this type of teaching, there seems to be a poverty of spiritual common sense.
    Myself as a leader, where there are many who come to the U.S. looking for elusive American dream, do teach on these things. Letting people know that it is the Word of God, not government that redeems us from sin and poverty.
    Mike, as always, great article… Consider one day putting this on a Faithlife TV series… I always refer people to FLTV…
    Al Sosa

  4. Earl Opperman says:

    Dr. Heiser, thanks for your thoughtful article which is so relevant for today. May I assume this philosophy is also the basis for “Liberation Theology” in Central America?

  5. Thank you Michael. This is so correct. The Bible alone gives us plenty of reasons to care for the poor without hating the rich in the process. And since the Bible starts with God rather than humanity, harmonizing it with any and all forms of Marxism will invite more problems than the exercise is worth. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, but seriously, why bother?

  6. Will Cooper says:

    Every economic system in human history has and always will acummulate pockets of financial excess…Marxist Communism/ Socialism always has resulted in the government becoming excessively wealthy and unresponsive to the needs of its citizens, who usually end up living in abject poverty. Ultimately they turn into ONE Party dictatorships..USSR, North Korea, Venezuela, China…(with exception of Hong Kong which practices free market capitalism—and China is about to crush the life out of Hong Kong)
    Free market Capitalism (Neoliberalism) on the other hand allows for wealth to accumulate in the hands of individuals and corporations and has accounted for the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

    And help me understand how on one hand you are and I quote, “Looking for Christian Leaders/governments at all levels that are not willing to compromise their faith in God to achieve a result…” Then you give a link to Noam Chomsky AN AVOWED ATHEIST…An ardent COMMUNIST…Yes albeit in his ideal world the new socialism will be kinder, gentler, and more democratic than the USSR or China… Unfortunately any time you set Utopian ideals next to reality…Reality will always seem lacking…How can free market capitalism compete with the utopian heaven on earth promised by Chomsky…One problem everywhere it’s practiced it always devolves into totalitarian, atheistic, one party rule…and yes even Canada and Europe are on their way to the same fate.

    https://www.economist.com/leaders/2013/06/01/towards-the-end-of-poverty

    • Paul Rowlands says:

      You missed my point and at the same time proved it.
      Did you bother to watch the video on politics and the early church?
      Yes Chomsky probably is a atheist but that in and of itself don’t discredit some of what he has to say on the Toxicity of Neo-liberalism when it compromise RIGHTEOUSNESS, JUSTICE, And EQUITY, such as in the case of the exploitation of ones fellowman.
      For instance take note of this quote from John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State in the 1950’s
      “Somehow we find it hard to sell our values, namely that the rich should plunder the poor”
      Once you figure out who this bloke was I recommend that you watch this video on how he encouraged the plundering of the poor.
      https://youtu.be/YkI3zkQ4WBo
      Now if you don’t have a problem with that as a believer in a God who is righteous just and equitable then we are definitely not on the same page.
      When it comes to Christian Leaders I look for who aren’t willing to compromise some part of their faith in God to get a bit of legalisation passed (the end justifies the means) This is a slippery slope. This is the only type of leadership I can support as anything less wild compromise my faith in God

  7. Carl Lindstrom says:

    Is it black-and-white thinking to say capitalism is good and Marxism is bad with everything being either good or bad (evil)? Are Marxism and socialism synonymous? Are there red herrings where the bugbear of poverty is addressed in place of the status of work and workers? I have terminal cancer but have been supported by both church and state and am very thankful. My first Philosophy textbook was Ebenstein’s “Great Political Thinkers” and even free speech is getting more and more problematic let alone free social experiments. Capitalism is such an experiment. Let’s hope power politics and an American empire don’t happen. Environment cannot be left out of discussion either.

  8. Carl Lindstrom says:

    Being primed toward Biblical Theology and already interested, I acquired the free book of the month and read the first two chapters. Imagine applying Kingdom and Covenant to modern politics. Ancient History, whether that of OT Israel or Greece and Rome (or even China and India) can give one a perspective outside the current generation and tyranny of the urgent. However, those who fail to plan do plan to fail. Policy design with portfolios of governing instruments such as those of Christopher Hood: nodality (location in networks), treasure (i.e., incentives or tax breaks), authority (certification), and organization (staff and departments) are not optional. This applies to work and workers, health and healthcare, and to disability and the disabled. Hope to get more of Michael’s materials soon.

  9. Carl Lindstrom says:

    My bias is a bit toward Green Politics. I did some of the “Green Theory” in Wikipedia. Interested in the communication and literature aspects, I just read “The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment” (2011) and “The Value of Ecocriticism” (2019) both by Timothy Clark. Is it possible to have an environmental literature with God’s view of the environment — an apologetics of sort — maybe God’s view of the Apocalypse. At least an answer to Derrick Jensen’s felt need for “hope bashing.” Or is it necessary for people who love the Earth and what is in the Earth to live without hope?

  10. Carl Lindstrom says:

    I listened to a lecture at Langara College by Derrick Jensen that is at http://www.archive.org and it was not satisfying. Now, I just read a bit over halfway through “Endgame 1” by Jensen. How we interpret Genesis 1:28 does matter. Dominion and Lordship. Does the Lamb in Revelation open a scroll which could be title deed to the Earth? Kinsman-Redeemer? Clearly the ecocide in Revelation is a Judgment. It may well be happening before our very eyes. Curses must be answered with repentance — personal and national and maybe species wide too. Hope is for Grace or seeing Jesus face-to-face. Maybe Jensen fails to see how bad the injustice of humanity goes. Maybe the Earth itself harbours corruption and needs some kind of cleansing (in a good sense). In the Notes or Bibliography, Jensen mentions that seeming atheist David Hume. “Of the First Principles of Government” is not the same as Kingdom and Covenant. What would a return to God look like, were it possible (allowed)? Healing of nations and lands? New Heavens and new Earth could happen some time later perhaps. But just because it sounds nice does not make it Biblical scholarship. Universalism sounds nice too; but, is not usually considered sound scholarship.

Speak Your Mind

*