The Christianity that gave us Magna Carta also gave us a much longer and more Biblical explanation of the Eighth Commandment. In the seventeenth century, Christians were struggling to define the Faith. In the aftermath of the Reformation, claims that the true Faith was to be found in Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, or a host of other -isms on the rise at the time needed to be defended by their proponents. One such group in England gave us the Westminster Confession of Faith and its accompanying shorter and larger catechisms. In the Larger Catechism we find an older, and more comprehensive, understanding of the Eighth Commandment. In their peculiar fashion, the framers of the Westminster Standards gave us a positive and negative view of the commandment. "Thou shalt not steal" has positive duties, they said, as well as things forbidden.
What are the duties required in the eighth commandment?
The duties required in the eighth commandment are: truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.
Consider the clauses and their implications:
"Truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man" forms the basis of our Western ideas of commerce. Every time we order goods and services over the phone, Internet, or by mail, we expect to receive the items as they were explained to us. We expect honesty in the description of goods, just as sellers expect the honesty of our checkbooks when they receive payment. We get these things most of the time. This is what makes commerce possible, and is a major cause of the economic advancement of the West. Without trust, suspicion arises, and suspicious people do not trade so readily with others.
"Rendering to everyone his due" is a strange clause to find in a commandment against theft, until we realize that God has ordained a non-democratic view of the world. While people may be equal in many respects, their positions are not. Fathers have certain responsibilities in the home. To deny these is to steal from the father his ability to carry out his God-ordained functions. God has also given the owners of property certain obligations, and it is our duty to ensure we do not steal the business owner's rights of ownership and their attending duties. By the same notion, heads of families and heads of businesses must not steal from those under them. This is revolutionary stuff in the modern boardroom and family. But its application in a godly manner would go a long way toward making better families and more industrious industries.
"Restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof," is often thought to be a relic of the past. But the framers of the Westminster Standards understood restitution as an application of the moral law. There is a direct application of this in penal law and the punishment of thieves. Everyone knows that a thief should repay what he stole — everyone, that is, except the learned judges of our courts who do little to make thieves repay to the victims that which they stole. This idea prohibits the claim of the state to eminent domain, and requires that even the state make restitution when it takes that which does not belong to it.
"Giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others" is something that makes it big time at Christmas, but the rest of the year often takes a lower priority. Yet it is this heritage, deeply rooted in the kind of Christianity explained in the Westminster Standards, that benefits nations around the world. How many countries benefit from the economic aid handed out by the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and other nations of Western Europe? In Africa, which country has the ability to give aid, and how many are the recipients of aid? The generosity of those nations influenced by Christianity is remarkable, and a hangover of Biblical Faith as explained in this part of the Larger Catechism.
"Moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods" means that money is not the highest priority in life. It is sad that many businesses, often in the name of Christianity, use wealth and its accumulation as the major motivator for staff. It would be better if we could help our staff see that wealth is not the end goal of life. Living the way God wants us to live is more important, and this could well come at the expense of worldly goods.
"A provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition" requires us to get out of bed and go to work. We have duty, it is claimed, to "get, keep, use and dispose." These may seem contradictory. How can we both keep and use things? By making right judgements about the present and the future. We must dispose of some things now. Others should wait. This is the same when we consider how to keep and to use things. We cannot do both at the same time, but we can certainly learn to make better judgements about the use of the things we possess now.
"A lawful calling, and diligence in it" implies there are some callings that are not lawful and, therefore, not available to us. It is not too hard to work out which callings we should keep away from: prostitution, murder, thieving are just a few.
"Frugality" encourages us to consider how we might use our resources. Wealth is not easily obtained and, therefore, we should be careful in the way we use it. This does not imply miserliness, another problem that needs our attention. But it
does encourage us to make sure that when we use our resources they are not just frittered away.
"Avoiding unnecessary lawsuits and suretyship, or other like engagements" is a reminder that some lawsuits are unnecessary. It is also a reminder that we should avoid suretyship — being a guarantor for a borrower. This applies to us as well as others, and would go a long way toward restoring sound money in our system, which is currently dependent upon debt to maintain the lifestyle of those who have borrowed against the future.
Here is the final duty outlined, an obligation by all just and lawful means, to "procure, preserve and further" our own wealth as well as the wealth of others. The implication of this is broad. This duty calls for a balance of our own desires against the desire of others. We have a duty to get wealth; we have a duty to help others become better off. We do this by exchanging goods and services with others, perhaps not always seeking the lowest possible price when we buy, or charging the highest price when we sell.
Well, there you have a Radical economics, with a capital "R," not based on the writings of economists, but on ideas drawn from the Bible by men who devoted themselves to a study of the Scriptures. It requires economists and others to take these principles and work them out in practice.
In the next part of this study, we'll consider the negative side of this commandment and consider the sins forbidden in the Eighth Commandment.
- Ian Hodge
Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.