Almsgiving as a Christian practice seems to evoke a certain amount of embarrassment. For some, the specter of indulgences still haunt, an artifact of a previous age’s works righteousness polemic. For others, a more pragmatic, worldly spirit emerges. Isn’t the question rather one of care for the poor, and are we not better served not only using the language of modern social welfare, but also its bureaucratic facilities? This division between the soteriology of almsgiving and the social welfare of the alms has been long-standing within Western Christian traditions.
Look no further than the 16th century debates about the offertory during the Mass. While what is actually being offered during the Mass has changed drastically over the centuries, in the 16th century certain Reformers rightly saw that the offertory was inextricably bound up with the theology of the Mass, a theology they found troubling. Some insisted that alms collections went directly from your purse to the collection box, skipping the altar altogether. The argument was that the money was given for the living, not for the dead. Roman Catholics responded by claiming that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith cut the nerve of almsgiving, bringing into doubt the relevance of a dominical command.
Today the polemics are certainly more muted. Catholics rarely claim that the Protestant reforms of almsgiving cut the practice of charity root and branch, and Protestants infrequently accuse Catholics of indulgent works righteousness. But the tension between the soteriological and social aspects of the practice of almsgiving still rages, and we see this tension in both Protestant and Catholic theology. Recent contributions from Gary Anderson, Peter Brown, and Matthew Levering further suggest that a robust discourse of almsgiving in its biblical, historical, and dogmatic context is alive and well. Largely thanks to Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle as well as his most recent contribution The Ransom of the Soul, Augustine’s preaching on almsgiving has become central to the question of almsgiving. In his account of shifting trends, excitements, polemics, and teachings, Brown has given us a picture of a social world whose identity was influx and, for better or worse, being negotiated through categories of wealth, poverty, and money. These debates come to head for Augustine after 410, when Pelagius enters the scene. Augustine’s teachings on almsgiving are thus mired in the dark mysteries of debates with his ‘pelagian’ opponents. Through the historical thickets of these debates, I want to draw out a theological account of almsgiving that evinces Augustine’s social understanding of redemption.
Recent commentators are in agreement that Augustine’s most significant reaction to the ‘pelagian’ teaching on wealth is what some might call his ‘spiritualization’ of wealth and poverty. According to this spiritualization, wealth and poverty are not, theologically speaking, a matter of money, but rather one of pride, avarice, and greed. The ‘financial corollary’ of this is all too tempting. The rich, just as much as the poor, could be humble, that is, spiritually ‘poor’. What wealthy person wouldn’t like this gentler approach to their worldly status? So the argument goes. However, internalized ‘poverty’ as a privileged conduit for identification with the Incarnate Word has been overlooked in these social historical accounts. It is by way of this lacuna that I hope to say something more systematic about the very nature almsgiving.
To achieve this I shall focus on two features of Augustine’s soteriology of almsgiving by looking at s. 36 and en. Ps. 48(1), two sermons preached between 415 and 418. In s. 36, Augustine argues that in giving alms we are giving to Christ, but in so doing we are merely giving back what he has given us. While this is not in itself a novel argument, Augustine offers a figural reading of wealth that places Christ in the center of any redemptively significant practice of almsgiving. And in en. Ps. 48(1), Augustine turns to highlight the effect that the christological exchange between giver-Christ-recipient has on the community or ‘body of Christ’. For this christological exchange to take effect, everyone, both rich and poor, must be engaged in the practice of giving and receiving alms. Almsgiving is redemptively significant if, through the exchange of wealth in the community, Christians are, in fact, incorporating themselves as the body of Christ in communion with their head. In other words, the practice of almsgiving is drawn into the rhetorical trope of the totus Christus, that is, the ‘whole Christ’, both body and head.
Christological figuration of wealth (s. 36)
In s. 36, Augustine is not the orator who is shackled to a careful rhetorical composition. Rather, the Bishop of Hippo is comfortably engaging in what André Mandouze called ‘dialogues with the crowd’. The voices of the sermon are not, however, restricted to the bishop and his congregation, but include the ‘voice’ of Christ speaking through scripture. This strategy, common throughout his Enarrationes in Psalmos, is employed in s. 36 in order to form a kind of conversation between the rich, poor, and Christ.
Sermone 36 is framed by Proverbs 13:7 (‘There are those who affect to be rich though they have nothing, and there are those who humble themselves though they are rich’). The upshot of this for Augustine is that the danger of wealth isn’t inherent in the physical thing of money itself, but rather in the spirit it cultivates. ‘The thing really to be afraid of with riches, you see, is pride’. Commentators have been quick to see in this internalization of wealth an acceptance of the external conditions of wealth. But if we look at the sermon as a whole, we can see that Christ is its central and constant referent.
Pivoting on 1 Tim. 6:17 (‘Command the rich of this world not to have proud thoughts’), Augustine follows the implication that, if there are rich of this world, then there are rich who are not of this world. This is, for Augustine, a reference to Christ. Proverbs 13:7 – ‘those who humble themselves though they are rich’ – is thus figuratively read by Augustine as referring to the Incarnation of the Word. Augustine further glosses these passages with 2 Cor. 8:9 saying, ‘He became poor for us, though he was rich’. Blending the christological discourse with the discourse on wealth, Augustine draws a line of continuity between worldly wealth and non-worldly wealth that runs through Christ:
So true riches are immortality. That is where true plenty is to be found, where there is no destitution. So it is because we could not become immortal unless Christ had been made mortal for us, that he became poor, though he was rich. And it doesn’t say, “He became poor though he had been rich.” He took on poverty without losing riches. Inwardly rich, outwardly poor. Unseen as God in his riches, visible as man in his poverty.
The nature of this exchange is not, literally speaking, an impoverishment: Christ maintained his ‘riches’, i.e., his divinity, inwardly and seen only by God, while also taking on human ‘poverty’, i.e., human flesh, outwardly and seen by both God and creature. This interiority of ‘riches’ is not so much here a spiritualization but rather a figuration of a discourse on wealth and poverty.
The social upshot of this is that Augustine maintains the rhetorical value of both the rich and the poor. Throughout s. 36 Augustine reiterates a standard theological response to wealth in the late Roman Empire and its dissolution: Christ’s wealth as permanent is set against the experience of money as temporary, liable to lose value, and likely to be taken from you by corruption, legal machination, or government fiat. But it is ultimately the redemptive aspects that Augustine finds most engaging. ‘Scripture signifies’, Augustine clarifies, ‘that it is talking about another kind of riches, because it goes on to add, ‘The redemption of a man’s soul is his riches; but the poor man does not endure threats’. Proverbs 13:8 – ‘the redemption of a man’s soul is his riches’ – serves to justify Augustine’s figuration of wealth: ‘You see, the more profoundly rich, rich in heart and mind, staunchness bearing their capital, commitment their fat rents, charity their dividends, are rich in themselves, their riches are within’.
The two clauses of Proverbs 13:8 – ‘the redemption of man’s soul is his riches’ and ‘the poor man does not endure threats’ – are rather oriented toward explicating the soteriological exchange inherent in almsgiving. Riches are safely kept in the ‘bellies of the poor’. The poor man in this verse is not the man whose belly would be filled, but rather the man who chooses to fill his barns and storehouses with grain instead of the bellies of the poor. It is, instead, martyrs whose riches are ‘solidly based on inner capital’. And more specifically, Christ is he ‘who is truly rich’ and Augustine thus implores his congregation to seek Christ ‘to make a rich capital investment’ in their hearts by confessing their poverty. The bellies of the poor, the rich man’s storehouses, and the transfer between them is not, then, primarily a matter of wealth transfer but rather of a unity between the rich and the poor in their need to confess their poverty and seek for Christ to endow them with riches of faith.
Spiritual dependence of rich and poor in en. Ps. 48(1)
This unity that the rich and poor have in Christ is enacted through the shared practice of almsgiving. Crucially, the rich and the poor are equally dependent on each other for almsgiving to have soteriological significance. This occurs, in particularly striking terms, in the first exposition of Psalm 48, which is likely preached during the same calendar year as s. 36 (415). Augustine’s multi-vocal approach is amplified in his Enarrationes in Psalmos. The Psalms are a rich resource for Augustine’s reflection on almsgiving, for the voice of the psalmist is the ‘paradigmatic human sufferer and struggler’. The exchange of voices is particularly significant between Christ and the church, for the Psalms are Augustine’s laboratories for experimenting with the unity of Christ and the Church in the doctrine of the totus Christus. In the voice of the Church Christ cries out the woes of human existence; in the voice of Christ the Church answers back the words of love the Son speaks to the Father. The verticality of this unity and exchange is marvelously displayed in a number of Augustine’s Enarrationes. But I want to focus here on an implied horizontal unity in the practice of almsgiving that is drawn into Augustine’s discourse on the totus Christus.
Enarratio in Psalmo 48(1) is richly interwoven with anti-Pelagian polemics that are drawn from his debates with the Donatists and memorably formulated in the City of God as the commingling of the two cities here on earth. In distinction to a ‘pelagian’ righteousness that bears itself gloriously in the manifest virtues of piety, Augustinian righteousness is invisible. The moral valence of wealth and poverty is, for Augustine, also invisible, and, by extension, rich and poor are exchangeable. In 1 Tim 6:17, Augustine claims that Paul turned ‘rich people into poor people’ by taking away ‘their reason for wanting to be rich’, that is, to exalt themselves above their fellow humans. The category of ‘rich’ in en. Ps. 48(1) is just as applicable to the materially poor as the category of ‘poor’ is to the spiritually rich.
An unexpected practical corollary of this confusion of the categories is that all are required to give alms. There is one salvation and thus one command to share in the practices of charity; just as no one is exempt from faith in Christ, so too is no one exempt from almsgiving. But one cannot imagine that this is simply a two-part exchange. In en. Ps. 48(1), the propitiation for sins through alms is filtered through the christological exchange observed in s. 36. ‘You must lend your money to Christ’, Augustine argues in en. Ps. 48(1), ‘make sure Christ receives these trifling things on earth, that he may pay you back most handsomely in heaven’. Giving to one another is thus an act of giving to Christ. In s. 18, Augustine memorably articulates this as, ‘Had you given to my members, what you gave would have also reached the head’. It is only by virtue of one’s giving back to Christ that ‘righteousness’ can be accredited to the human agent as ‘faith’.
Augustine, just as much as Pelagius, recognizes the scriptural promise that alms can forgive sins (Lk 11:41). Augustine, however, is insistent that alms are redemptively significant only as a christological exchange, wherein the poor and rich are incorporated into the body of Christ. The process of incorporation does not wish away the differences and inequalities that were ever-present in 5th century North Africa. Rather, it occurs through the inversion of the categories, sufficiently confusing the social expectations of who is giving to whom. Augustine’s insistence that the unity of the body depends upon each member supplying what is lacking for the other highlights that, despite their unequal material means, the rich and poor alike are to give to one another. While the rich bring money, the poor bring faith; one’s richness is exchanged for another’s richness. However, the poor are commanded also to bring money, just as the rich are expected to bring faith. Neither money nor faith is, for Augustine, considered any less an act of almsgiving than the other. But, for alms to be propitious, they must be made both in money and faith, and while individuals are expected to do so it is primarily the community as a whole that gives in such a way. For alms to be propitious, they must be given within a community of exchange between the rich and the poor. In other words, it is the ‘spirituality of dependence’ that Augustine opposes to a ‘pelagian’ ‘spirituality of autonomy’ in his teaching on almsgiving.
‘The sharing of goods within a congregation realized the church’s unity and symbolized its hope of sharing eternal life’, Patout Burns and Robin Jensen have thusly summarized the practice of almsgiving. For Augustine, the hope of sharing eternal life is dependent on the Church beginning the process of unity. We are today squeamish about the association of money and God. Maybe it’s because we sometimes have a little too much of both.