In last month's article, I dealt with the positive side of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal," as explained in the Westminster Larger Catechism. These are the duties, the positive obligations, imposed by the commandment. This month our interest is with the negative concepts in this commandment as presented in the Catechism.
What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?
The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing land marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor: What belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God has given us.
The broad expanse of the negative aspect of the Eighth Commandment is immediately obvious. No theft or robbery, that is, taking what God says you are not entitled to. This is the key, for property rights are not established by the legislative domain of Congress or Parliament but in the law of God. It is God Who distributes property and determines who "owns" it. And just to close the loop, the Catechism includes man-stealing as a prohibition. This indicates that property rights extend to more than "things." It resides in people as well. To take someone against his will or against the will of a parent or guardian constitutes theft. It should not be done. Beware our political system that decrees all children belong to it and so legislate their school years, who shall teach them, and what shall be taught, thereby proscribing parental control.
This idea of property rights as defined by God has serious implications for modern social welfare. If taking someone else's property (and property here would include money) is condemned, it is wrong only within the confines of how God distributes ownership. Does He, for example, say all wealth is the domain of the political state, as in socialism or communism? Does God say houses, cars, and factories belong to private owners, but the political state has ownership of all wages and salaries received and therefore may tax at its discretion, as in our modern democratic nations? If God does not give the political state ownership of people's money, then anything the state takes that is over and above what God says it is entitled to is theft. To receive that money in any form is to receive stolen money. We should not do this, according to this standard. Our modern welfare system, then, is in urgent need of an overhaul, first to determine what taxes might be legitimate, second to determine what receipts would avoid making welfare recipients the receivers of stolen goods.
The next section of the Catechism's explanation of theft takes us again into the realm of economics and political theory. There can be no fraudulent dealing, including weights and measures. Economists have long understood that modern fractional reserve banking is a violation of this principle. Fractional reserve banking, with its attendant practice of printing or coining money as the political state demands, lowers the value of existing money. This defrauds people of their current purchasing power. It is, by this standard, wrong, just as removing landmarks or refusing to keep the terms and conditions of a contract are wrong. Our politicians who confiscate property, even for supposedly good causes, are guilty of removing landmarks to substitute their own. Thus we can see that the Eighth Commandment has the potential for a large-scale change to modern politics.
Restraining Economic Appetites
Oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures, and depopulations are a curious mix. Yet they have this in common: they are there to put a restraint on unbridled economic appetites. Do not oppress or extort to get your own way. No usury (charging of interest) or bribery as a way to make ourselves wealthier. Lawsuits, often seen as a way of getting rich (for lawyers, if not for plaintiffs), should be reasonable. No unjust enclosures or depopulations as a way of driving up the price or keeping others from getting their share. Similarly, engrossing products, that is trying to get a monopoly situation in a product or service in order to command higher prices, is prohibited. What a world we would live in if people followed these rules!
The Catechism writers also give us the broad principles that govern their understanding. We should neither take nor withhold from our neighbor, especially if our motives are covetousness, greed, or worse, envy. We must learn to modify our economic appetite for worldly goods. On the other hand, their prohibition against idleness and prodigality ensure that we balance this. Economic goods are necessary. We must eat, clothe ourselves, our family, and, if we are faithful, use the wealth God gives us to expand His kingdom. This kingdom is built, however, by the expansion of Christian homes, businesses, and schools, so there is a balancing act. We must expand our wealth, but we may not make it a goal in itself. The attainment of wealth must serve God and His purposes.
We may not, the Catechism concludes, defraud ourselves of the "due use and comfort" of the wealth that God has given us. In an age where state and national governments rely on gaming as a major source of government revenue, thereby encouraging gambling in various forms, the inclusion of "wasteful gaming" in the list of prohibitions included in the Eighth Commandment is a timely reminder that our wealth is not our own. We are not free to do whatever we like with it. Wealth carries with it duties and obligations that are prescribed in the Word of God.
The Larger Catechism's understanding of the Eighth Commandment is drawn from a study of the Bible. By and large, contemporary Christianity does not find this the way to discover God's will for our lives. Instead, it advocates the mystical leading of the Holy Spirit as a substitute for Bible Study and exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. The result has been a minimal understanding of the Eighth Commandment as well as the other nine. Consequently, there is no criticism, for example, of fractional reserve banking or the modern welfare state from the Christian community. It's as if the Holy Spirit, in the way He is purported now to lead, ignores His own Holy Scriptures and provides a less comprehensive set of instructions.
In the final part of this study, I want to explore what is wrong with some contemporary understandings of the Commandments based on the Westminster Standards, and why this has placed Christianity in a state of borderline irrelevance to the economic culture in which we find ourselves.