Socialism: Christianity’s Renewable Heresy (1)

The Church vs Socialism

By Dr. Gary North

Part 1

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any [of them] that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common (Acts 4:32).

But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back [part] of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God (Acts 5:3-4).

The first-century church was not opposed to private property, as Peter’s words clearly indicate. But great wealth is too great a temptation for most people. Jesus laid down the general rule: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). Nevertheless, this rule is not absolute: “When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:25-26).

The deciding factor is personal self-government under God’s law, whether we are speaking of great wealth, great power, great intelligence, great beauty, or any other blessing in abundance. Christians have been suspicious of great personal wealth in the hands of the spiritually average person. They are aware of God’s covenantal warning to Israel: beware, lest “thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day” (Deut. 8:17-18).

God gives individuals the power to get wealth. Should civil governments deny this principle by passing legislation that deliberately reduces this power for some men — specifically, the successful? On what biblical basis could such legislation be justified? These are rhetorical questions. There is no possibility of legitimately invoking biblical judicial standards to defend either socialism or modern egalitarianism, i.e., hard-core liberation theology or soft-core liberation theology. Peter’s words to Ananias are judicially and ethically authoritative. Socialism is therefore a form of ethical rebellion. This is why liberation theologians, not to mention outright Christian socialists, do not begin their analyses or manifestos with a detailed exegesis of this passage.

Until modern times, the leadership of orthodox churches steadfastly opposed socialism. They did not proclaim the ideal of free market capitalism, but they did proclaim ideals that eventually produce free market capitalism: the legitimacy of private property, geographical mobility for the sake of one’s service to God (the ideal of missions and one’s calling before God), personal responsibility, and voluntary charity to relieve individual cases of poverty.

Within the churches, there have occasionally been defenders of compulsory State socialism — as distinguished from the voluntary socialism of certain vow-taking religious orders — but they have always been regarded as heretical by the churches’ leadership. The march into socialist ideology by the leadership of modern mainline churches has been accompanied by their march out of theological orthodoxy.

Heretical Movements

Prior to 1660, there were numerous heretical movements within European Christianity that proclaimed various forms of Christian socialism. The best brief study of the heretical socialist movements of the late medieval and early modern periods is Igor Shafarevich’s book, The Socialist Phenomenon. Shafarevich, a mathematician, was a prominent member of the Soviet Union’s anti-Communist protest movement of the 1970’s. Shafarevich surveys the history of several of these heretical sects: Cathars, Free Spirits, Adamites, Taborites, and Anabaptists. Some were world-denying Manicheans and Gnostics; others were world-affirming pantheists. All were desirous of overcoming the Creator-creature distinction. He concludes: “All these individual theses can be reduced to one aim: overcoming the conjunction of God and the World, God and Man, which had been accomplished through Christ’s incarnation (the fundamental principle of Christianity, at least in its traditional interpretation).” But how could the Bible’s Creator-creature distinction be overcome theologically? Through either gnosticism or pantheism: escape religion or power religion. He writes:

“There were two ways to achieve this: denial of the world or denial of God. The first path was taken by the Manicheans and the gnostic sects, whose teachings conceded the world to the domain of an evil God and recognized as the sole goal of life the liberation from matter (for those capable of it). The pantheistic sects, on the contrary, not only did not renounce the world, but proclaimed the ideal of the dominion over it (again, for a chosen few, while others, the “rude” folk, were included in the category of the world). In their teachings it is possible to find the prototype of the idea of “subjugating nature” which became so popular in subsequent periods. The dominion over the world was considered possible not through the carrying out of God’s will — but by denying God and by transformation of the “Free Spirits” themselves into gods. The social manifestation of this ideology can be seen in the extreme trends of the Taborite movement.

Finally, the Anabaptists apparently tried to find a synthesis of these tendencies. In their “militant” phase, they preached the dominion of the elect over the world; moreover, the ideas of dominion completely overshadowed the Christian features of their world view (for example, Muntzer wrote that his teachings were equally comprehensible to Christians, Jews, Turks and heathens). In their “peaceful” phase, as can be seen in the example of the Moravian Brethren, withdrawal from the world was predominant: a condemnation of the world and a breaking of all ties with it.

The ideas of chiliastic socialism constituted an organic part of this outlook. The demands to abolish private property, family, state and all hierarchies in the society of the time aimed to exclude the participants of the movement from the surrounding life. This had the effect of placing them in a hostile, antagonistic relationship with the “world.””

Socialist ideology is imbued with the notion of a coming fundamental break, of the end and destruction of the old world and the beginning of a new order. This concept is interwoven with the idea of “imprisonment” and “liberation,” which, beginning with the Cathars, is understood as imprisonment of the soul in matter and as liberation in the other world. Later, the Amalricians and the Free Spirits saw the idea as spiritual liberation through the achievement of “godliness” in this world. (The Amalricians were a 13th century pantheist, free love movement named after Amalric of Bena). And finally, the Taborites and the Anabaptists conceived of it as material liberation from the power of the “evil ones” and as the establishment of the dominion of the “elect.”

The New Hierarchy

Also involved in these heretical movements was the creation of a unique organizational structure: a concentric structure, with “a narrow circle of leaders who are initiated into all aspects of the doctrine and a wide circle of sympathizers who are acquainted only with some of the aspects.” system re-established a centralized hierarchy, but in the name of initiation into the inner circle of free men. The older magical humanistic ideal was steadily replaced (in public, anyway) by a secular humanistic ideal. “The leading role in the development of socialism passes to a new type of individual. The hermetic thinker and philosopher is replaced by the fervent and tireless publicist and organizer, an expert in the theory and practice of destruction. This strange and contradictory figure will reappear in subsequent historical epochs. He is a man of seemingly inexhaustible energy when successful, but a pitiful and terrified nonentity the moment his luck turns against him.” It is not surprising that the two primary streams of Europe’s nineteenth-century socialist revolutionary movements — international socialism and national socialism — had their origins in occultism and journalism.

From Revelation to Reason

The English Civil War and Interregnum of 1642-60 was the last occasion for the socialist heretical sects to gain power in Europe. The openly religious-ecclesiastical phase of socialist agitation ended in Europe with the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. As Shafarevich notes, “The development of socialist ideas did not cease, of course. On the contrary, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, socialist writings literally flooded Europe. But these ideas were produced by different circumstances and by men of a different mentality. The preacher and the wandering Apostle gave way to a publicist and philosopher. Religious exaltation and references to revelation were replaced by appeals to reason. The literature of socialism acquired a purely secular and rationalistic character…” This was equally true of the defenses of economic science. Appeals to Christian morality and biblical revelation were removed from the post-1660 literature of economics. It is this self-conscious removal that marks the origin of scientific economics.

The Advent of Christian Socialism: Nineteenth Century

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there were numerous English and American experiments in voluntary socialist communalism. These communes were sometimes described by their founders as Christian, but their founders were more often Unitarians or openly heretical. A good example is Adin Ballou (1803-90), co-founder in 1841 of the Hopedale Community, a joint-stock Christian venture, who led the group from 1841 until 1852. He was the author of Practical Christian Socialism (1854) and editor of The Practical Christian. He was a universalist, a pacifist, and an abolitionist.

Better candidates were the co-founders of nineteenth-century British Christian socialism, Rev. Frederick Denison Maurice, an anti-Unitarian, anti-Catholic theologian, King’s College historian, and a Church of England cleric, and his close friend, Rev. Charles Kingsley. They were a strange pair. Kingsley was a successful novelist (YeastAlton LockeWater Babies), a Darwinian evolutionist, and chaplain to Queen Victoria. He was vehemently opposed to Calvinism. The orthodoxy of his theology can be judged by a letter that he wrote to Maurice in 1863 to describe his new discovery that “souls secrete their bodies, as snails do shells. . . .” Maurice, in contrast, was devout, but his language indicated that he as a universalist. At best, he completely confused common grace with redemptive grace. “Every man is in Christ; the condemnation of every man is that he will not own the truth — he will not act as if it were true that except he were joined to Christ he could not think, breathe, live a single hour.” Every man, “as man, is the child of God. He does not need to become a child of God, he needs only to recognize that he already is as such.” This confuses the two forms of sonship: disinherited (Adamic) and adoptive (Christian). Mauruce wrote to Kingsley in 1847 to criticize him for having inserted what Maurice regarded as “a sneer against the idea of a Divine Bridegroom…I fully defend your right to be humorous, if by any words in your own mouth or any other you weakened people’s faith in this mystery, I should think you were inflicting a deep wound on humanity.”

Maurice and Kingsley were socialists in the post-1848 era. The failed socialist revolutions of 1848 were a major turning point in European thought and culture. These simultaneous uprisings were important for the subsequent development of a confrontational Christian socialism. Kingsley wrote to John Stuart Mill in 1869: “In five-and-twenty years my ruling idea has been that which my friend [Thomas H.] Huxley has set forth as common to him and Comte; that `the reconstruction of society on a scientific basis is not only possible, but the only political object much worth striving for.'”

Beginning in the post-Civil War (1861-65) era in the U.S., the rise of the Social Gospel movement within Protestantism led to a fusion of liberal religion and socialism, or at least government intervention into the economy. The general morality of socialism was defended in the name of Christian morality. The Social Gospel movement gathered momentum in the first third of the twentieth century, effectively challenged only by the rise of officially non-political neo-orthodoxy after the First World War and by neo-evangelicalism after the Second World War. But both of these alternative movements have incorporated many of the Social Gospel’s ideas regarding “social justice,” i.e., State intervention. The leaders of both groups have repeatedly embraced political liberalism. Twentieth-century political liberalism is addicted to humanism’s messianic dreams of salvation by civil law. This is the socialists’ dream, too.

The Drifting Evangelicals

All socialist economic thought relies on a specific view of civil law, namely, that it is legitimate for the State to use its power to redistribute wealth from richer residents to poorer residents. This view is inescapably a denial of the requirements of Leviticus 19:15: “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.”

Socialism comes in many varieties: utopian, Communist, Fabian, and Keynesian interventionist. In some periods of Western history, it has even come in the name of Jesus Christ. Prior to the nineteenth century, however, such claims were regarded by the church as heretical. No longer. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that few churches today are willing to define heresy formally, and fewer still are willing to impose the negative institutional sanction of excommunication against those who publicly uphold heresy. It is not merely that socialism is no longer identified as heretical; it is that almost no belief is defined as heretical.

Throughout the twentieth century, the evangelical churches have been progressively unwilling to make up their collective minds about much of anything. They have steadily abandoned the non-negotiable doctrines of the past. When the spokesmen of the church of Jesus Christ no longer believe that God created the earth in six 24-hour days, that God sent a universal flood, or that hell is a real place, we should not expect them to be able to decide in God’s name between the biblical legitimacy of competing economic ideologies. J. Gresham Machen identified the theological problem in 1923: modernism, a rival religion. For doing so, and doing it so effectively, he was savagely attacked personally by his liberal critics and was thrown out of the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1936, though of course not for theological reasons, according to the hierarchy. No one is thrown out of the modern Protestant ministry for theological reasons; only for bureaucratic reasons. By the 1970’s, modernism was triumphant in the mainline denominations and was nearly triumphant in all but the smallest denominations. One by one, decade by decade, evangelical seminaries drifted into theological liberalism and Barthianism. By the 1970’s, the neo-evangelicals had become, in the perceptive phrase of Richard Quebedeaux, the worldly evangelicals. Without an anchor — the ideal of an infallible Bible and its permanent and universal relevance to every society — there has to be drift away from orthodox Christianity. There is no neutrality in life.


Article from

Part One has been slightly edited by Gospelbbq.





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