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A technological conception of giving dominates Western thinking about charity today. We tend to think of voluntary giving, at least at those moments when we are trying to be most serious and responsible, as an exercise in a highly moralistic form of applied sociology: if I give x to y, then z will happen, and the world will be a better place. Conversely, if z doesn’t happen, then my giving will have been a failure. I must therefore do everything I can to assess and measure the impact of my giving. Otherwise, what’s the point? How will I know I have succeeded?
This way of thinking is promoted by many leading social-sector institutions and their spokespersons. They tell us that the extent to which our giving more consistently directs our dollars to the places where they will do the most good we are best fulfilling our ethical duties as human beings. That is why, according to “effective altruists” like William MacAskill (see his recent book Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference), our giving should be guided as much as possible by sophisticated cost-benefit analyses that rely on metrics like QALYs—”quality-adjusted life years.” Thinking about giving doesn’t get much more technological than that.
In other words, today’s elite foundations and nonprofits most certainly do not think about what they are involved in as “charity.” Philanthropy is by far the preferred term, and has been for more than a century. This is no accident of terminological drift. For the conception of giving outlined above is untethered, at least explicitly, to any kind of theology, and that is precisely the point. Charity is, or was, an inescapably theological concept. As the West has understood the term and the characteristic practices associated with it (feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, succoring orphans), charity first flowered in ancient Israel and bloomed in Christian antiquity. The first “philanthropic” thinkers of the modern era—think Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt—wished to distance themselves from the Jewish-Christian charitable tradition precisely because it was too tied to the hopelessly impractical theologies they wished to transcend. Jewish-Christian charity was not technological enough. Indeed, as a social technology, charity seemed to be an utter failure. “One of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity,” wrote an outraged Carnegie. His attitude has endured.
But if Christian charity was not a tool for bringing about social change, what was the point? In Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity, Fuller Theological Seminary’s David J. Downs aims to answer this question. Though at times perhaps a bit too technical for the lay reader, anyone interested in the purpose of Christian charity must read this book, for Downs shows clearly what will surprise many: not only was social reform far from the minds of early Christians, but for key figures in the early church—far too many to ignore—charity, or more precisely “almsgiving,” was an efficacious way to atone for sin. That, and little else, was the point.
“The idea that caring for the needy can erase or in some way reckon with human sin,” writes Downs, “is widely attested in the literature of early Christianity.” The advocates of this notion were no minor players in the formation of the Christian mind. They included Basil of Caesarea, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine. Downs tells the story of how the idea of “atoning almsgiving” emerged in the first two centuries of the church’s life. He argues that the development of this notion constituted no betrayal of the doctrine that salvation comes through Christ, but rather was the fruit of faithful reflection on and interpretation of both the Old and New Testaments.
Almsgiving is not a word much used in Protestant circles today. Downs defines it as the “merciful provision of material assistance to those in need, including monetary distributions, food, clothing, and shelter.” (In Catholic parlance, the practices Downs associates with almsgiving would be regarded as among the “corporal works of mercy,” which include not only the provision of material goods to those in need but also the visiting of the sick and those in prison, and the burial of the dead; see Matthew 25:35-40.)
Different conceptions of almsgiving are present in the patristic literature. Downs distinguishes primarily between meritorious almsgiving and atoning almsgiving. The former connects the giving of alms with the receipt of some reward, for the giver or for someone else, either here on earth or in heaven. The latter envisions giving as a way of atoning for—cleansing, purifying from—sin. For Downs, the concept of atoning almsgiving refers to the soteriological notion that the effects of sin can be “counteracted by merciful deeds.” In short, almsgiving saves.
Downs argues that almsgiving was central to the formation of Christian—and especially what would come to be defined as orthodox Christian—identity. To give alms was to demonstrate “solidarity with a community in which the poor were treated with dignity, value, and compassion—at least ideally.” This practice contrasted not only with that of pagan Greeks and Romans, who as Peter Brown has argued essentially did not and could not even “see” the truly poor, but also with those of Christian communities (like those attracted to Docetism) that would come to be identified as heretical in their “disregard for the body, including disregard for the bodies of the poor.”
The scriptural texts to which the defenders and developers of atoning-almsgiving doctrine repaired included texts like Tobit and Sirach, which were rejected as noncanonical by Protestant Reformers. Nevertheless, Downs defends at length the thesis “that readings of the Bible by important voices from the church’s tradition who advocate the power of almsgiving to atone for sin cannot simply and collectively be dismissed as theological aberrations.” This was not, in other words, a marginal idea in the early Christian world.
In support of his thesis, Downs delivers close, scholarly readings—and translations—of key scriptural texts and their rabbinic and patristic interpreters. In Deuteronomy and Proverbs, for example, we find that God rewards those who care for and are generous toward the poor. In Tobit 12:8-9, we are told that “merciful action delivers from death, and it cleanses every sin.” Likewise, in Sirach 3:14 we find that “merciful practice . . . will be credited to you against sins,” and Sirach 3:30 tells us that “merciful acts atone for sins.” In the patristic period, Cyprian of Carthage likewise held that works of mercy were the means by which we are cleansed of postbaptismal sin.
The Synoptic Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, carry the basic idea forward. Jesus explicitly connects acts of mercy done in secret with heavenly reward in Matthew 6:2-4. (“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [NRSV].) Luke 11:41 and 1 Peter 4:8 were especially important biblical texts for patristic promoters of atoning-almsgiving doctrine. Downs renders the first passage as “Give alms with respect to the things within, and see, everything is clean for you.” The second reads “Above all, have constant love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” Downs points out that for a number of early interpreters of this passage, this Petrine command was understood to mean that “providing material assistance to the needy atones for the sins of the donor.” Among these early interpreters was the author of 2 Clement, who wrote that “merciful practice is good as repentance for sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but merciful practice is better than both, and ‘love covers a multitude of sins.'” Tertullian and Origen also referenced 1 Peter 4:8 and/or Luke 11:41 in working out the doctrine of atoning almsgiving.
I am here merely gesturing toward the dozens of examples and careful readings Downs produces in support of his argument. It is difficult to see how his case can be easily dismissed, or dismissed at all, even if one holds the greatest thinkers of the early church in comparatively low regard, given the many biblical texts he introduces in support of his thesis. Clearly, when it comes to the theology of atonement Downs’s work poses a challenge to certain “contemporary theological traditions,” as he gingerly puts it.
The loss, or conscious rejection, of the doctrine of atoning almsgiving may be one reason why for many if not most Christians, whether inside or outside the Protestant tradition, the theological logic of charity has been replaced by the techno-logic of philanthropy, even if this latter mode of thinking is often given a Christian gloss.
Consider: I know of a church in which a well-meaning businessman recently set up a class on “responsible giving.” What was the essence of responsibility in this course’s conception? Being faithful to the gospel? Attempting to apply the church’s historic teaching and thinking about charity? Come on. The term charity was not used at all, let alone almsgiving. Responsibility consisted of identifying and articulating your own “goals and passions,” identifying potential recipients that would help you realize those goals and satisfy those passions, evaluating the worthiness of potential recipients of your gift (Carnegie would be so proud!), and following up to see if your gift was effective (ditto Franklin and Roosevelt!). Guidestar, a well-known online database of nonprofit information that rates nonprofits using metrics that in actuality reveal little about organizational effectiveness, to say nothing of worthiness, was presented as a crucial tool for Christians to consult before giving. Not the Bible, not Augustine, and certainly not Cyprian.
Now, this businessman’s way of thinking about giving may or may not be a good thing. But it has little to do with the Christian tradition of charity, and even less with the theology of almsgiving that gave rise to that tradition. David Downs’s book goes a long way toward recovering that theology. Perhaps, by God’s grace, it will one day penetrate church classes. Or even the minds of businessmen.