Historical Lessons in Economic Wisdom for the 21st Century

How we conceptualize periods of history affects the value of the information we study. Many are unaware that words like “Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” and even “Renaissance” are modern constructs, products of the Enlightenment disdain for religious values. Actually, the years 400 to 1400 — the years we often call the Dark Ages — are best seen as times of advance and retreat for Christianity and culture, to use the language of Kenneth Scott Latourette.

Historians rightly honor the New Testament apostles and their successors as they established Christianity in new lands in the first four centuries. Later we see the monastic missionaries of the Celtic Church in the fifth through seventh centuries, the surprising growth of the Eastern Orthodox church in Slavic lands led by Cyril and Methodius, and efforts of many missionaries all tell a story of gospel impact.

On the Silk Road, 400-1400

Phillip Jenkins’ book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died, has helped modern learners rediscover the global nature of the Christian faith and narratives that are outside the dominant Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant accounts. From the 400s to the 1400s, Christianity was established and thriving beyond the centers of Rome and Constantinople, with some signs of churches and monasteries along the Silk Road trade routes reaching to eastern China.

Here are five surprising findings both in Jenkin’s work and in many documents unearthed in recent decades:

1. The growth of the, ‘churches of the east’.

The first great division in the church came in the fifth century during debates on the integration of the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. Many of the churches of East followed the teachings of Nestorius that were condemned in 431 and 451. They are real Christians, affirming the gospel, the Bible, and the Nicene Creed.) came from dedicated monastics and missionaries bringing the faith to new lands without any military or political power. Contextualizing the faith and the birth of indigenous churches were normal.

2. Along with the missionaries came merchants.

The trade routes were an essential catalyst for new communities, with Christianity first found in oases and cities and then finding its way to rural habitations. Many know the story of 13th century merchant-explorer Marco Polo venturing to China. While compelling, it is actually just one among many such events.

3. Economic activity was a key catalyst for the dialogues, evangelization, and eventual establishment of churches and monasteries.

The churches from the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia lead the way in this expansion through her leaders and followers.

4. Interreligious dialogues and fairly peaceable relationships among scholars of different religions mark this history.

The few records we have reveal conversations between Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Confucian thinkers. Such moments were punctuated occasionally with intolerant decrees of local or imperial rules.

5. This millennium of Christian expansion and influence was destroyed by the conquests and religious wars of the 14th and 15th centuries.

This sobering history reveals that institutions and whole groups can be literally destroyed. In contrast, the enduring nature of Coptic faith in Egypt and other Christian churches now under Islamic rule is a tribute to the work of seeing the gospel penetrate the soil of a land or culture.

Medieval Economic Wisdom

As European churches and nations grew stronger in the 12th and 14th centuries, many universities were created as centers of intellectual and theological scholarship. Here are some voices that informed conversations on economic wisdom and the goodness of daily work.

Aquinas’s Just Price (1225-1274)

St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology is considered foundational for Roman Catholic Church. Orthodox and Protestant believers have benefitted greatly from Thomas’ synthesis of philosophy and theology, his outstanding apologetics, and his masterful Christian mind on a variety of topics. Thomas’ applied his mind to economic wisdom, especially the notion of the “just price” in trade and transactions.

Thomas saw economics as the fruit of a virtuous life lived in community. The needs of the community take precedence over the production and consumption, especially once basic needs are met. Thomas does not, however, condemn commerce and profit per se. Community flourishing benefits from expansion of opportunity and trade. Leaders are stewards of the well-being of their families and societies. He defends both private property and the common good.

Buyers and sellers negotiate and settle on a price agreeable to each side: the market price. For Thomas, then, the market price is the just price if the buyer and seller are honest and not trying to take advantage of each other. The ethical problem arises when there are dishonest participants, especially when the civil law allows or encourages such dishonesty. A just price should reflect the worth or value of a good or service. How is such value determined? Usually quite subjectively, hence marketplace haggling. Thomas affirms just prices vary over time and place.

As a non-economist, Thomas understands the ethics of buying and selling as one part of a virtuous life. The laws and customs of a society can either help or hinder the pursuit of virtue. There can never be a “just price” between evil people or for nefarious ends. The moral character of the buyers and sellers is more important than the act of buying and selling itself.

Thomas’ teaching about economics cannot be separated from what he says about God, reality, and virtue. The just price is not simply a matter of economics or individual practices. While Thomas leaves room for subjective valuations of the just price and legitimate human freedom, these are inseparable from concerns for humankind’s eternal destiny. The virtuous man is fair in all his dealings, including economic ones, giving to each his due and perhaps even more, but he cannot be virtuous on his own; he needs friends who also love virtue, good laws and customs, and, above all, God’s grace. As with most Christian thoughtfulness, Thomas’ ideas will not fit in the ideological boxes polarizing much of our world.

The University of Salamanca

Long before we see a “Protestant Work Ethic” from the Reformation and refined by the Enlightenment, Roman Catholic scholars at the University of Salamanca in the late 15th and 16th centuries were articulating and debating crucial issues of free trade, natural pricing, property rights, and the role of government in the economy.

Here are four examples:

  1. Francisco de Vitoria (d. 1546): The just price is one reached by common agreement. Government intervention in trade is a violation of the Golden Rule.
  2. Martn de Azpilcueta Navarrus (d. 1586): Building on Vittoria, he argued for natural pricing, currency exchange, and the positive integration of profit and human need.
  3. Diego de Covarrubias y Leiva (d. 1577): A student of Navarrus, he argued for the importance of personal property rights, including plant and mineral rights.
  4. Luis de Molina (d. 1601): An amazing scholar teaching in Portugal, Molina argued that the use-value of a particular good is not fixed between people or with the passage of time. It changes according to individual valuations and availability. He also defended retail-wholesale distinctions and private property.

Wisdom for the 21st Century

Christians will debate economic theories and policies until Jesus returns. There are, however, some insights from these narratives that will help local churches and global outreach:

  • Both clerical and lay leadership are vital for the Mission of God going forward.
  • Economics is not just statistics and theory – it is the study of how we flourish in the world of work.
  • Virtue is essential for free market economies to flourish and offer access to people of all classes and cultures. Historically, some Christian groups have experimented with communitarianism. It can work in a small setting but ends up being oppressive beyond a family or tight-knit community.
  • Seeing Christian character in the workplace was and is a vital part of effective witness.

A survey of history like this should keep us from two errors clouding our judgments: mists of nostalgia wishing for “good old days,” and the arrogance of recentism, where we dismiss the past and see only the new as good. As we consider both the past and present in light of Scripture and in community with each other, wisdom emerges.

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