Journal Topics

Were Early Christians Communist?

The following article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL | Self Esteem from a Scalpel, Volume 33, Number 04 (2010).

When I graduated from college in 1989, it looked like socialism was dead. The Soviet Union—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—was in its death throes. In comparison, the American economy was booming, and countries around the world were beginning to liberalize their markets. After a sophomoric flirtation with socialism, I had concluded that capitalism was probably the most workable economic model. I had not resolved my lingering suspicions, however, that capitalism was immoral and that socialism was still the Christian ideal.

Part of that impression came from biblical passages that seem to suggest as much: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32–35 ESV).

Many who have read this passage have wondered if the early church was communist and the Christian ideal is communism. After all, this was the first church in Jerusalem. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31 NIV). If they didn’t get it right, who did?

On the surface, this looks like communism, but that’s a misreading. The details and context here are everything.

First of all, modern communism is based on Marx’s theory of class warfare, in which the workers revolt against the capitalists—the owners of the means of production—and forcibly take control of private property. After a while, Marx predicted, the socialist state would wither away and you’d get a communist utopia in which everyone lived in peace, harmony, and preternatural freedom. There’s none of this class warfare stuff in the early church in Jerusalem, nor is private property treated as immoral. These Christians are selling their possessions and sharing freely and spontaneously.

Second, the state is nowhere in sight. No Roman centurions are showing up with soldiers. No government is confiscating property and collectivizing industry. No one is being coerced. The church in Jerusalem was just that—the church, not the state. The church doesn’t act like the modern communist state. As Ron Sider notes, “Sharing was voluntary, not compulsory.”1 In fact, sharing by definition is voluntary.

It’s easy to lose sight of this later in the text, though, when Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira for keeping back some of the money they got from selling their land. If you don’t read it carefully, you might get the impression that he condemns them for failing to give everything to the collective: “Ananias.…why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the lands? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to men but to God!” (Acts 5:3–4 ESV). But look closely at the text; Peter condemns them not for keeping part of the proceeds of the sale, but for lying about it. In fact, he takes for granted that the property was rightfully theirs, even after it was sold. So Peter isn’t condemning private property.

Third, the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem is never made the norm for all Christians everywhere. In fact, it’s not even described as the norm for the Jerusalem church. What Acts is describing is an unusual moment in the life of the early church, when the church was still very small. Remember, this is the beginning of the church in Jerusalem. Thousands of new Christians probably had come from a long distance to worship in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They would have had to return home soon after their conversion if not for the extreme measures taken by the newborn church to allow these Christians to stay and be properly discipled. Given the alternatives, a mutual sharing of possessions seemed to be the best course of action.

Compared to modern nation states, the Jerusalem church was a small community banding together against an otherwise hostile culture. The circumstances were peculiar. For all we know, this communal stage lasted six months before the church got too large. It’s unlikely that all these new Christians, many denizens of the far-flung Jewish Diaspora, stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. Many probably returned home at some point, and brought their new faith with them.

We know from the New Testament that other churches in other cities had quite different arrangements. For instance, Paul sternly warned the Thessalonian Christians, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” and told them to “earn the bread they eat” (2 Thess. 3: 10, 12 NIV). Apparently some new Christians had begun to take advantage of the generosity of their new brothers in the faith. That’s not an especially surprising scenario, given the effects of the Fall. So it’s no surprise that the early communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state confiscating private property.

Communal living does have its place. Nuclear families live more or less communally. In functional families, however, someone is in charge, namely, the parents. So it’s not really a commune.

Many monasteries and religious orders are more or less communal to this day. These are highly disciplined, voluntary communities that are self-consciously separate from the ordinary life of family and commerce. Many of them survive for centuries—and in fact, the productivity of some early monasteries helped give rise to capitalism in medieval Europe.2

There have been other voluntary, nonmonastic groups that have tried to live communally. The American Amish and the Jesus People USA live in communal or semi-communal groups today. And there were lots of examples of Christian communes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ones that survived very long were small, voluntary, and intensely disciplined.3

The Pilgrims and Communism.. In fact, even most private, voluntary communal experiments fail. American children hear the story of William Bradford at Thanksgiving. Bradford was the architect of the Mayflower Compact and the leader of a small band of separatists who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. Most young students learn that the colony lost half its population during its first, harsh winter, but few know about the colony’s brief and tragic experiment with collective ownership. Because of an ill-conceived deal made with the investors who funded the expedition, the Pilgrims held their farmland communally rather than as private plots. They divided their food, work, and provisions evenly. This may sound nice, and the Pilgrims may have thought they were replicating the model of the early church in Jerusalem; but before long, conflicts arose among the colonists. Bradford reports in his journal what economists and common sense predict. In large groups, such an arrangement leads to perverse incentives, in which the lazier members “free ride,” taking advantage of the harder working. The other members grow more and more frustrated, and less and less productive. That’s just what happened in the early years of Plymouth Bay Colony.

To solve the problem, Bradford soon decided to divide the plots up to the individual families. Suddenly people had strong incentives to produce, and they did. Over the years, more and more of the land was privatized, and the colony eventually became a prosperous part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.4 If Bradford had not had the guts to divide the commune into private lots, our school children would not be making little cutouts of turkeys and Mayflowers every November, since there probably would have been few if any survivors.

The Early Christians Weren’t Communists—and We Shouldn’t Be, Either. The take-home lesson should be clear: neither the book of Acts nor historical experience commends communism. In fact, full-bodied communism is alien to the Christian worldview and had little to do with the arrangement of early Christians in Jerusalem. While there have been and still are small, atypical groups that manage to pull off some form of communal living, at least for a while, there’s no reason to think that communal living—let alone communism—ever has been the Christian ideal.

—Jay W. Richards

Jay W. Richards is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (Harper-One, 2009).

NOTES:

  1. Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 1997), 78.
  2. See Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005).
  3. For a detailed history of communism/socialism, see Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003).
  4. Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 37–45.

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Apologetics, Journal Topics

Thinking Clearly About God and Evolution

Christianity Today recently had a cover story reporting on Christians who claim that human beings could not all have descended from a single human couple. That story was a symptom of a current trend: more and more Christians, even self-identified evangelicals, claim that Christians must make their peace with evolutionary theory. In recent years, scientists such as Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, Ken Miller, Darrell Falk, and others have written books defending theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism.
            The historical reality of Adam and Eve is obviously central to historic Christianity; but it is just one of many issues that, as Christians, we must consider when exploring the broader debate over God and evolution. Unfortunately, the debate is often marred by confusion and ambiguity. Though we can’t discuss every related issue here, let’s see what we can do to think more clearly about the subject.

CAN WE GET A DEFINITION?

I am often asked questions such as, “Can you believe in God and evolution?” and “Isn’t evolution just God’s way of creating?” I always respond: “That depends. What do you mean by ‘God’ and what do you mean by ‘evolution’?” That might seem like a dodge, but everything hinges on the definitions.
            Presumably, a theistic evolutionist claims that both theism in some sense and evolution in some sense are true, that both God and evolution somehow work together in explaining the world. But of course, all the real interest is hidden behind the phrase “in some sense.” So we have to get more specific.

“THEISM”

A theist believes that a transcendent God created the world and continues to conserve and interact in and with it. God can act directly in nature or indirectly through so-called secondary causes, such as physical laws or the actions of human beings. At all times, however, God oversees and providentially superintends His entire creation, even as He allows His creatures the freedom appropriate to their station. Nothing happens as the result of a purposeless process.
            This is a minimal definition of theism. If someone believes a transcendent God created the world but denies that God can and does act within nature, then at best, he’s a deist.

“EVOLUTION”

It’s a lot easier to define theism than to define evolution. It’s been called the ultimate weasel word. In an illuminating article called “The Meanings of Evolution,” Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas attempt to catch the weasel by distinguishing six different ways in which “evolution” is commonly used:

  1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
  2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
  3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.
  4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
  5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
  6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.1

The first meaning is uncontroversial-even trivial. The most convinced young earth creationist agrees that things change over time-that the universe has a history.2 Populations of animals wax and wane depending on changes in climate and the environment. At one time, certain flora and fauna prospered on the earth, but they later disappeared, leaving mere impressions in the rocks to mark their existence for future generations.
            There’s also cosmic “evolution,” the idea that the early universe started in a hot, dense state, and over billions of years, cooled off and spread out, formed stars, galaxies, planets, and so forth. This includes the idea of cosmic nucleosynthesis, which describes the production of heavy elements (everything heavier than helium) in the universe through a process of star birth, growth, and death. These events involve change over time, but they refer to the history of the inanimate physical universe rather than the history of life. Parts of this picture of cosmic evolution contradict young earth creationism, but the generic idea that one form of matter gives rise, under the influence of various natural laws and processes, to other forms of matter, does not contradict theism. Surely God could directly guide such a process in innumerable ways, could set up a series of secondary natural processes that could do the job, or could do some combination of both.
            In fact, to make a long story short, virtually no one denies the truth of “evolution” in senses 1, 2, or 3. And, pretty much everyone agrees that natural selection and mutations explain some things in biology (number 4).
            What about the fifth sense of evolution, universal common ancestry? This is the claim that all organisms on earth are descended from a single common ancestor that lived sometime in the distant past. Note that this is not the same as the mechanism of change. Universal common ancestry is compatible with all sorts of different mechanisms or sources for change, though the most popular mechanism is the broadly Darwinian one.
            It’s hard to square universal common descent with the biblical texts; nevertheless, it is logically compatible with theism. If God could turn dirt into a man, or a man’s rib into a woman, then presumably He could, if He so chose, turn a bacterium into a bonobo or a dinosaur into a deer. An unbroken evolutionary tree of life guided and intended by God, in which every organism descends from some original organism, sounds like a logical possibility.3
            Besides the six senses mentioned by Meyer and Keas, there is also the metaphorical sense of evolution, in which Darwinian theory is used as a template to explain things other than nature, like the rise and fall of civilizations or sports careers.
            Finally, there’s evolution in the sense of progress or growth. Natural evolution has often been understood in this way, so that cosmic history is interpreted as a purposeful movement toward greater perfection, complexity, mind, or spirit. A pre-Darwinian understanding of evolution was the idea of a slow unfolding of something that existed in nascent form from the beginning, like an acorn slowly becoming a great oak tree. If anything, this sense of evolution tends toward theism rather than away from it, since it suggests a purposive plan. That’s why Darwin didn’t even use the word in early editions of his Origin of Species. It’s also why many contemporary evolutionists (such as the late Stephen Jay Gould) go out of their way to deny that evolution is progressive, and argue instead that cosmic history is not going anywhere in particular.
            It should now be clear that theism is compatible with many senses of evolution. In fact, for most of the senses of evolution we’ve considered, there’s little hint of contradiction. Of course, this is a logical point. It doesn’t tell us what is true-only what could be true.

SQUARE PEG IN A ROUND HOLE

But there’s one clear exception-the blind watchmaker thesis. Of all the senses of evolution, this one seems to fit with theism like oil with water. According to the blind watchmaker thesis, all the apparent design in life is just that-apparent. It’s really the result of natural selection working on random genetic mutations. (Darwin proposed “variation.” Neo-Darwinism attributes new variations to genetic mutations.)
            The word “random” in the blind watchmaker thesis carries a lot of metaphysical baggage. In Neo-Darwinian theory, random doesn’t mean uncaused; it means that the changes aren’t directed-they don’t happen for any purpose. Moreover, they aren’t predictable, like gravity, and don’t occur for the benefit of individual organisms, species, or eco-systems, even if, under the guidance of natural selection, an occasional mutation might enhance a species’ odds of survival.
            The blind watchmaker thesis is more or less the same as Neo-Darwinism as its leading advocates understand it. It is usually wedded to some materialistic origin of life scenario, which isn’t about biological evolution per se. This so-called chemical evolution is often combined with biological evolution as two parts of a single narrative.
            Unfortunately, the blind watchmaker thesis isn’t an eccentric definition of the word evolution. It’s textbook orthodoxy.4 For instance, Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson explained evolution by saying, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”5 Darwin himself understood his theory this way: “There seems to be no more design,” he wrote, “in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the winds blow.”6
            And here’s how the late Darwinist Ernst Mayr put it: “The real core of Darwinism, however, is the theory of natural selection. This theory is so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of adaptation, the ‘design’ of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention.”7
            Notice that Mayr says, “instead of.”
            These are representative quotes from the literature. From the time of Darwin to the present, Darwinists have always contrasted their idea with the claim that biological forms are designed or created. That’s the whole point of the theory.
            Theists claim that the world, including the biological world, exists for a purpose; that it is, in some sense, designed. The blind watchmaker thesis denies this. So anyone wanting to reconcile strict Darwinian evolution with theism has a Grade A dilemma on his hands.

RESOLVING THE DILEMMA, SORT OF

One way out is to redefine the theistic part. For instance, one could defend deism, with God getting things started at the beginning but not knowing or superintending nature after that. Dissolving a dilemma, however, is not the same as resolving it. If the adjective theistic in theistic evolution is not to be a misnomer, it should include a theistic view of God.
            What about redefining it in the other direction? A theistic evolutionist could maintain that God sets up and guides nature so that it gives rise to everything from stars to starfish through a slowly developing process. Organisms perhaps share a common ancestor but reach their goal as intended by God. God works in nature, perhaps through cosmic initial conditions, physical laws, secondary processes, discrete acts, or some combination, to bring about His intended results, rather than creating everything from scratch. Whatever the details, on this view, the process of change and adaptation wouldn’t be random or purposeless. It would implement a plan, and would reflect God’s purposes. This would be a teleological version of evolution, and so would flatly reject the Darwinian blind watchmaker thesis.
            This was the view of some early theistic evolutionists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the concept of natural selection. Here the word evolution is being used in the pre-Darwinian, even anti-Darwinian sense. History is the unfolding of a purposeful plan. This is a logically possible view; it is not, however, the view of many of today’s theistic evolutionists, such as Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller. They seek to reconcile Christian theism with Darwinian evolution. They may affirm design in some broad sense at the cosmic level, but not in biology.
            How should we respond? There’s not much use in looking for evidence for this brand of theistic evolution, for the simple reason that it can’t be true. It’s not logically possible. It makes no sense to talk about a purposeful process that is nevertheless purposeless, or to talk about God directing an undirected process. To the degree that a view is Darwinian (as Darwinists understand it), it will not be theistic. And to the degree that it is theistic, it will not be Darwinian.
            If you understand that basic point, you’ll be much better equipped to navigate the current debate over theistic evolution.

—Jay Richards

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperOne, 2009). His article “Think Clearly about God and Evolution” appears in the Volume 35, No. 1 special origins issue of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL. This special issue also includes a sneak peek at Hank Hanegraaff’s forthcoming The Creation Answer Book where he answers questions like: Did Adam and Eve really exist? Is animal suffering a consequence of Adam’s sin? Can the Big Bang be harmonized with Genesis? When was the universe created? This special origins issue available by donation only.

NOTES:

  1. In Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, ed. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2004).
  2. See the explanation for the meaning of “evolution” from the BioLogos Foundation, which seeks to give a Christian defense of evolution. The explanation begins with “change over time,” then goes on to fill out the definition with common descent and the Darwinian mechanism. But it quickly slips from defining the term to presenting the details as if they were uncontested facts. At: http://biologos.org/questions/what-is-evolution/.
  3. I’m not saying this is true. I’m merely dealing with the logic of the ideas here. Since design is logically compatible with universal common descent, one could, strictly speaking, endorse both intelligent design and theistic evolution. Nevertheless, these days, ID and theistic evolution often describe people with different positions. See discussion of this point in the comments of Thomas Cudworth, “Olive Branch from Karl Giberson,” Uncommon Descent (April 15, 2010), at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/olive-branch-from-karl-giberson/#more-13010.
  4. For discussion, see Casey Luskin, “Smelling Blood in the Water: Why Theistic Evolution Won’t Appease the Atheists,” in God and Evolution, ed. Jay W. Richards (Seattle: Discovery Institute, 2010).
  5. G. G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man, rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 345.
  6. Francis Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1 (New York: Appleton, 1887), 280, 283-84, 278-79.
  7. Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversy, with a foreword by Ernst Mayr (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), xi-xii. Quoted in ibid.

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This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 1 (2012).  For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Apologetics, Journal Topics

God & Evolution

For Christians, the question of “God and evolution” is becoming more acute. For decades, of course, liberal Christians have found ways of accommodating their theology to Darwin’s theory of evolution. But these days, otherwise conservative evangelicals and orthodox Catholics seem to be doing the same thing. For evangelicals, there seems to be a desire to overcome the “Scopes Monkey Trial” stereotype that has prevented reasonable discussions of the subject for over eighty years. Orthodox Catholics, for their part, seem intent to overcome the “Galileo stereotype” that says the Catholic Church is anti-science. So now we’re seeing all sorts of proposals for reconciling Christianity and Darwinism.

But surely any attempt to reconcile scientific claims with theological claims should determine (1) what those respective claims are, and (2) what is true. When it comes to Darwinian evolution, however, that’s easier said than done. That’s because the word “evolution” means all sorts of different things and it’s not easy to separate the evidence for Darwinian evolution from its marketing.

In God and Evolution, the contributors and I try to provide some much-needed clarity to the debate, so that disputants will not argue past each other. We decided not to weigh in on specific theological controversies such as the historicity of Adam and Eve (though that is a very important question).

Clarity requires asking the right questions. The most common question I am asked when dealing with this issue is something like: “Isn’t evolution just God’s way of creating?” Regrettably, that question begs all the good questions, such as: What is “evolution?” What evidence is there that natural selection and random genetic mutations can create new biological systems? And my personal favorite: Can God guide an unguided process?

— Jay W. Richards

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperOne, 2009). His feature article, “Think Clearly about God and Evolution” on which this post is based appears in the Volume 35, No. 1 special origins issue of the Christian Research Journal available by donation.

For future issues of the Christian Research Journal subscribe or renew your subscription or give a gift subscription.

Jay Richards will join Hank Hanegraaff on the Bible Answer Man broadcast in February to discuss the pivotal apologetic topic of origins! Tune in daily at 6PM ET at our website, www.equip.org! The Bible Answer Man can also be heard daily on Sirius-XM satellite radio on Family Talk channel 131.The Bible Answer Man can also be heard on local radio stations. Click here for stations and times.