Brown's book is at its best in showing the slow transformation of Roman society into Christendom and in explaining how the story of wealth forms one of the main threads in the story of "Christianization." Under pressure from biblical sources, Christians reconceived poverty not as economic deprivation but as social and political vulnerability. In Scripture and eventually in the Christian imagination, the poor were those who seek justice. This definition of the Christian poor "did the most to secure the eventual triumph of Christianity in the cities in the course of the fifth century" because it implied that the church's response to poverty had to establish systematic justice rather than being satisfied with charitable relief. In his writings on wealth, Ambrose evaded systematic oppressions like the Roman tax system, but later Western thinkers concluded they could assist the poor only by aiming for a wider transformation of society. Christianization involved both a change in the external circumstances of the church and an internal transformation of the goals of Christianity itself, and the poor were crucial to that internal shift.
Pluses and Minuses
So the rich squeezed through. What should we make of that? On the plus side, Brown demonstrates that the medieval theory of giving took shape as the church became increasingly conscious of the biblical emphasis on justice for the poor. Late antique Christians were also right to acknowledge that Jesus does promise rewards to the generous. On the down side, the monks, with their vows of poverty, made wealth innocuous to everyone else. So long as the rich gave bequests to monasteries and churches, their wealth seemed unproblematic. The system removed the sting from the prophetic "Woe to the rich." And, the basic lineaments of the crass quid-pro-quo of late medieval indulgences become visible quite early, articulated by no less a figure than Augustine.
That Through the Eye of a Needle leaves the reader in a somewhat bewildered state of ambivalence is a sign that Brown has captured the rough texture of real history. It is testimony to the success of Brown's subtle, provocative, and beautifully written book.
Peter Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author, most recently, of Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Cascade Books).