Roman Garrison analyzes how and why the early Christian doctrine that riches prevent entrance into the kingdom of God came to be replaced by a doctrine of "redemptive almsgiving" in the Apostolic Fathers. This new doctrine, which "emerges unchallenged in early Christianity" (10), promotes almsgiving as an alternate form of atonement, "earning the individual entrance into the kingdom of God" (10) and competing with the death of Jesus as "the unique atonement for sin" (11). G. asks why redemption is promised to the almsgiver; why use such a powerful motivation and grant such theological prestige to this act? To answer these questions, he proposes "to explore the background of redemptive almsgiving in early Christianity and to investigate the theological, historical and sociological issues relevant to its abrupt appearance in the Apostolic Fathers" (25).
Arguing from the writings of Paul, Clement and Hermas, and excerpts from contemporaries such as Juvenal and Lucian,
G. argues that the marked economic stratification of Greco-Roman society as a whole is also true for Christian communities in cites such as Rome and Corinth. Such socio-economic disparity caused Christian communities to experience the class conflict characteristic of society at large. This explains why ". . . an original emphasis on the ethic of love (or love-patriarchalism) was gradually superseded by the doctrine of redemptive almsgiving" (33).
Greco-Roman moral teaching evinces little interest in almsgiving, he argues, not even providing a precise term for it. It is not pity but rather "contempt for the ptchos. . ." that charachterizes popular morality (43). Cynics repudiated wealth, but cared nothing for the impoverished. However, Stoicism "promoted compassion for the poor" through the belief in human "brotherhood" (44). But G. sees the most significant contribution of pagan morality toward the Christian doctrine of redemptive almsgiving as "the motive of self-interest. . ." (45).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, YWHW is depicted as the God of the poor, and the Torah promises reward for those who help the poor/slave/sojourner -- and punishment for those who do not -- but, except perhaps for Gen 19:1-23, "it is the cultic sacrificial system which provides the means of atonement" (47). In the Prophets and Writings, the role of sacrifice diminishes and gives way to social justice, thereby laying "the theological groundwork for the doctrine of redemptive thanksgiving. Good works, notably charity, demonstrate the individual's personal righteousness and these determine whether he [sic] is `acceptable' to the Lord." (48)
In the LXX, Dan 4:27, Prov 15:27a, Tobit 4:7-11, 12:8-9, Sir 3:30, and the Talmud explicitly teach what G. calls the redemptive nature of almsgiving: "[it] has the power to purge sin, to atone for and redeem iniquities. Almsgiving rescues from death." (55) A lack of precision in G's discussion appears at this point, since he assumes that the one `saved from death' is the one who gives the alms, whereas the more obvious meaning of the phrase is that it refers to the needy recipient. That it purges the sins of the benefactor as well shows the universally beneficial nature of almsgiving.
G. continues to see a link between almsgiving and atonement in the NT materials, especially in Luke-Acts and Paul -- although he admits that the term eleemosune "is not found in the Pauline corpus" (67) -- and also in the writings of the apostolic fathers. He concludes that this idea of "the salvific power of charity is in conflict with the view of Jesus' death as the unique and sufficient means of atonement" (75).
G's discussion of almsgiving is helpful in that he brings together rather
disparate sources and makes them easily accessible in this one book. His
argument is marred by a lack of precision in language (e.g., sin/sins)
and by the assumption that a connection between forgiveness and almsgiving
can only be understood as a challenge to the unique atonement of Christ.
The most promising point in G's study is his suggestion that social analysis
will illuminate how and why this doctrine of "redemptive almsgiving" arose,
and he does make a start in that direction (ch. 6). A more thorough analysis
of the social exchange involved in almsgiving (e.g., in regard to honor/shame
and patron/client) would be likely to undo the contradiction that G. thinks
he has discovered here.
Sheila Elizabeth McGinn, Ph.D.
John Carroll University
University Heights, Ohio 44118
30 October 1993