Christian Socialism: An Old Heresy?

Does Christianity proclaim the materially poor to be God’s “elect,” while the wealthy are to be treated as enemies of the Kingdom? The author examines the “evidence” and finds it wanting.

Is there a “divine bias to the poor”? Does God’s special blessing rest on a particular socio-economic class whose merit is that its members are materially “deprived”; and is there a corresponding divine disfavor against the wealthy? Or are we to understand the expression “the poor” in Jesus’ teaching to imply some other teaching? For left-wing theologians the answer is clear: Jesus proclaims that the materially poor are especially favored by God and that the wealthy are the enemies of his Kingdom. To look for some other meaning in his message is to “spiritualize” the gospel.

On what is this understanding based? In his book, Bias to the Poor, Bishop David Sheppard helpfully offers five proof texts which, he believes, establish clearly that in Jesus’ teaching, the expression “the poor” carries clearly and unambiguously an economic meaning: “the poor” are the materially poor. These texts (RSV) are as follows:

1. Matthew 11.5: The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.

2. Mark 10.25: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

3. Luke 4.18: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…

4. Luke 6.20: Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

5. Luke 6.24: But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Removed from their biblical context and projected through the lens of a modern socialist political consciousness, these passages, assembled in this way, certainly appear to provide an impressive body of supporting evidence for Bishop Sheppard’s contention. How does his use of this particular collection of texts withstand closer examination?


Four of the five texts, all except 2, quote from or refer to a single Old Testament text, and Luke 4.18, of course, shows Jesus reading it aloud in the synagogue: afterwards he proclaims “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4.21). The text is from Isaiah 61.1-2:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me

to bring good tidings to the afflicted;

he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn

Luke’s text is in fact a conflation of this passage with another (Isaiah 58.6); this enables him to emphasize the theme of release, a word to be understood in the sense of forgiveness from sin (an essential Lucan theme). The basic text, from Isaiah 61.1ff, clearly identifies the poor in this context as the “afflicted,” or “poor” in the sense of “pious,” as those described by Professor Geoffrey Lampe, writing on Luke 6.20, as “the typical saints of Judaism, the poor, humble and pious.” In Matthew’s version of this beatitude they are described as “the poor in spirit”; the New English Bible (2nd ed.) helpfully translates this as “those who know their need of God” (Matt. 5.3). Very strangely, Bishop Sheppard accepts this interpretation for Matthew’s version, but claims Luke’s as one of the texts where “the plain meaning is that Jesus is talking about the materially poor.” What he does not mention is that they are in fact simply different versions of the same saying. Luke 6.20 is in fact one of those texts of which is it important clearly to understand, as the New Testament scholar Alan Richardson put it, “that the words `poor’ and ‘rich’ have in many contexts a religious and ethical content rather than an economic one.” Richardson identifies Luke’s “blessed are you poor” as having such a content, and continues:

Jesus means “the poor” in the sense in which the term is used as a technical expression in later Jewish literature, as denoting the class of pious, hard-working, humble folk who look to God for redemption and who do not put their trust in political schemes or material prosperity: theirs, says Jesus, is the kingdom of God.

The “rich” by antithesis (as in Luke 6.24) are the arrogant, those confident in their own strength, who insist on knowing God, if at all, on their terms rather than on his.


The misuse of such texts for the purposes of a merely political radicalism is most notable, perhaps, among socialists but is by no means confined to them. David Steel, the leader of the British Liberal party, for instance, invited by the Church Times to identify the specifically Christian aspects of his party’s philosophy, asserted that:

The gospel is radical and disturbing in its implications — there can be no possible doubt about that; and it is a denial of its truth to try to “spiritualize.” The parable of Dives and Lazarus, the sermon on the Mount, Our Lady’s words in the Magnificat about God putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek offer very little comfort to the members of the Conservative Party … Not for nothing did Bernard Shaw say that the Magnificat was more revolutionary than the Internationale.

The Magnificat is, perhaps, the most frequently misused text of all. Shaw here (followed by Steel, Bishop Sheppard and a wearisome list of others) imputes to the Mother of Christ revolutionary political beliefs on the strength of three verses (Luke 1.51-53):

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

Like the Benedictus (Luke 1.68-79), which it parallels, the Magnificat is made up of Old Testament quotations; it recalls particularly the Song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2.1- 10) , and the verses just quoted derive from the following (vv. 6-8a):

The Lord kills and brings to life;

he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

he brings low, he also exalts.

He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes

and inherit a seat of honor …

The passage as a whole is a hymn of praise to God, who controls life and death and the vagaries of human fortune; it ends with the assertion that he “will give strength to his king, and raise high the head of the anointed prince.” The reference here is to the monarchy of Saul and David: the song, thus, is very far from preaching equality; it asserts that it is God only who in the end confers rank and wealth, the possession of which with his favor is both desirable and legitimate. Mary’s own song may clearly not be legitimately interpreted in any radically different way. Her own Son, though born in great humility, will be raised high by him alone who gives greatness and power. It is manifestly not the purpose of Mary’s song to modify the Old Testament teaching (implicit in 1 Samuel 2) that wealth, though evil if gained by injustice (Isaiah 5.8) and spiritually dangerous if it leads to pride and rebellion against God, may nevertheless be a sign of God’s favor: Abraham, we are told, was “very rich in cattle and in silver and gold” (Genesis 13.2); Isaac (Genesis 26.12f) and Jacob (Genesis 30.43) are similarly recipients of God’s favor. In the New Testament, we can see Joseph of Arimathaea as the type of the wealthy though virtuous Jew. Despite his riches (Matthew 27.57) he was “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23.50); and we may see his gift of the tomb in which Our Lord’s body lay for three days as perhaps the most moving of all the many examples recorded by history of the sanctification of personal wealth to the purposes of God.


The example of Abraham amusingly reminds us of Mr. Steel’s incautious interpretation of the parable of Dives and Lazarus as a story about the innate evil of riches. Assertions that the possession of wealth is contrary to the spirit of the gospel are, of course, by no means new; St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria and other Fathers of the second century were in no doubt as to the danger of riches. But they have also emanated from less orthodox quarters, and in a very particular way which casts some light on our present inquiry. In the year 414, St. Augustine found it necessary to refute a heretical writer known as the Sicilian Briton, who was teaching, according to Hilarius, a perplexed Sicilian Christian, that “a rich man who continues to live rich cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless he sells all that he has, and that it cannot do him any good to keep the commandments while keeping his riches.”

St. Augustine’s counterblast was crisp and unhesitating: after reminding his correspondent of the riches of the Hebrew Patriarchs, he launches straight into a discussion of the parable of Dives and Lazarus. If Dives had shown mercy to the poor man, he would himself have deserved mercy:

And if the poor man’s merit had been his poverty, not his goodness, he surely would not have been carried by angels into the bosom of Abraham who had been rich in this life. This is intended to show us that on the one hand it was not poverty itself that was divinely honored, nor, on the other, riches that were condemned, but that the godliness of the one and the ungodliness of the other had their own consequences, and, as the torment of fire was the lot of the ungodly rich man, so the bosom of the rich Abraham received the godly poor man. Although Abraham lived as a rich man, he held his riches … lightly…

He held his riches lightly: here is the key to the meaning of Bishop Sheppard’s remaining “proof” text (no. 2) from Mark 10.25. This saying refers, of course, to the story of the rich young ruler which immediately precedes it. Perceiving that for him too close an attachment to his possessions has become spiritually dangerous, Jesus calls the young man not simply to obedience to the law but to perfection; For him, this will mean the renunciation of his wealth. But as Dr. Robert Wilson points out:

the “counsel” of perfection should not be generalized: this was the crucial test in this particular case, but the barrier in other cases may be different.

The saying about the camel and the needle’s eye which follows this has attracted a number of interpretations; according to one, for instance, the needle’s eye is the pedestrian gate of a Palestinian walled town where after nightfall when the main gate was shut, the camels would have to be unloaded and enter kneeling: a vivid image for humility and spiritual detachment from possessions. This interpretation finds little support from modern commentators, but it remains at the very least not incongruous with the saying’s context and meaning. Wilson, however, rightly says that any such possibility should not be used to weaken the saying which is “a vivid hyperbole to express what is humanly impossible.”

And here, we approach the crux of the matter. It is the question of what is humanly possible and what humanly impossible which is at the heart of the controversy between Augustine and the Sicilian Briton. It is this which gives this dispute its striking relevance to the debate in which the authors of this book are engaged. The Sicilian Briton was a militant protagonist of a heretical tendency known today as Pelagianism, named after a British monk, Pelagius. The Pelagians believed, briefly, that our own sinfulness is ultimately under our own control. We can decide to be sinless; and by our own effort we can achieve salvation. The chief obstacles to this are our own habits and settled dispositions whch may be changed by an effort of will, and our surrounding environment, which can be changed by social reform. Our sinfulness is not inherent in the nature with which we are born into the world. On the contrary, the inherent goodness of human nature is the fundamental teaching of Pelagian philosophy.


The beliefs of Pelagius were quickly taken up by others more extreme, notably the Sicilian Briton. For him, social reform had a quite clear meaning: “abolish the rich.” To those who argued that it was impossible to give to the poor if no one possessed the necessary superfluity of worldly goods from which to give (an argument not wholly unlike the more developed Tory belief that only by removing obstacles to the creation of wealth can the economy fund necessary welfare spending), he replies, strikingly, by asserting a necessary structural connection between poverty and the existence of the wealthy:

They do not understand that the reason why the poor exist is that the rich own too much. Abolish the rich and you will have no more poor. If no one has more than he needs, then everyone will have as much as he needs. For it is the few rich who are the cause of the many poor.

This is, for its times, a startling analysis; it does not simply remind us of modern socialism: as John Morris comments of the Sicilian Briton’s teachings as a whole.

The crisp argumentation that wealth and poverty had arisen in the past through “oppression”; that the existence of the rich, the fact that society is divided into such “genera,” is the cause of poverty, cruelty and violence; and that society should be wholly reshaped, now and in this present substance, by abolishing the rich and redistributing their property to the poor — is by any textbook definition socialism. Further it is socialism of a coherence and urgency that was hardly to be met again before the nineteenth century…

It is when we understand the rootedness of these writings in their author’s general theological presuppositions about the nature of man and the means of salvation that the parallels with much modern Christian socialism become most striking and most illuminating. There are differences, notably perhaps in the strong Pelagian emphasis on personal discipline. Nevertheless, the parallels remain sufficiently arresting. The tendency of Christian socialism to locate sin within the external “structures of oppression” rather than in the relationship of fallen individuals (social beings, undoubtedly, but still individuals) with God; a strong instinct towards belief in the innate goodness of the human race, a goodness distorted only by the weight of the past and the pressures of external environment: the idea that the Kingdom of God is attainable by the assertion of the human will: all these ideas and tendencies are strongly reminiscent of that heresy whose spiritual dangers Augustine rightly perceived and vigorously fought.


It needs to be said, of course, that some Christian socialists would not accept this description of their beliefs; and Bishop Sheppard, for instance, has even criticized Marxist Christianity asserting that “when political liberation has come, there will still be inside people’s hearts and minds greed, the will to dominate, irresponsibility.” It remains uncertain whether such respectable Christian fellow-travelers have really grasped the transformation of their theological understanding that has actually taken place, whether or not they are still able to accept the traditional formulae which still give so much Christian socialism the appearance of doctrinal orthodoxy. For all his differences of emphasis with “liberation” theologians, Bishop Sheppard is still prepared to propose the following beliefs as “common ground” between Christianity and Marxism:

The realization that the economic and social structures of society can form the minds and shape the destinies of those who are subject to them.

The questioning of who controls the means of production, and to whom they are accountable.

An indignation at unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.

A belief in a better future order.

A longing for a realistic program, which the poor especially can strive after.

The real problem is not whether these propositions are Christian in the sense that it is acceptable, even normal, for a Christian to hold them, in the sense that we may say that Nazism is not Christian. Certainly, the first article of belief here needs some qualification to allow for the grace of God acting in individual human lives — a significant (and characteristically Pelagian) omission. This proviso aside, it seems clear enough that there is no intrinsic incompatibility between these beliefs and the teachings of Jesus; but what is equally clear is that there is no pressing obligation on a Christian to profess them, either. The simple fact is that there is no necessary point of contact whatever between Bishop Sheppard’s list of social and economic beliefs and the teachings of Christ, just as there is nothing in common, say, between the drama of William Shakespeare and the economics of John Maynard Keynes, though there is nothing abnormal or intolerably irrational in approving of both. Quite simply, there is a radical discontinuity between their nature, content and purpose. The Bishop has simply made a list of Marxist beliefs and declared them Christian. It is a classic example of a now depressingly familiar characteristic of much Christian thought in the twentieth century, the absorption of theology by politics and economics and the location of Christian hope entirely within the possibilities (real or imagined) for human society. Entirely absent is the Christian longing for what lies beyond the world of sense, the knowledge of exile from the presence of God, which has been one mark of Christian spirituality through the ages. “Here we have no one abiding city,” writes the author of Hebrews; “but we seek one that is to come.” For Bishop Sheppard this is, doubtless, a text about urban reclamation; for him the “belief in a better future order” has been focused clearly on political “liberation,” though, to be sure, he leaves room for a kind of spiritual mopping-up operation to take place afterwards.


In 1923, Bishop Charles Gore looked back with some dissatisfaction, on the progress of the Christian Socialist movement in which he had for so many years been involved. There had, he thought, been a lack of certainty about methods and objectives.

Thus — to name only one point, though a most important one — we are embarrassed by an uncertainty as to what the principles of Christ, such as admit of being applied to society, really were and are.

For the Christian Socialists of our own day, such uncertainties have melted away; though not, one may be very sure, in a way calculated to lessen Bishop Gore’s embarrassment: already he was adding “militant socialists” to those he believed “grossly misrepresented” Our Lord.

To assert that there is no way in which we can deduce an ideal political system or economic doctrine from the teachings of Christ is not, it cannot be emphasized too strongly, to say that Christian people should withdraw into an unhealthy pietism, which is the standard counter-accusation. It is simply to assert the profound dangers for the Church, speaking as the Church, to identify herself and her teachings with any particular political analysis. Most obviously, as William Temple pointed out, because any such identification might well be falsified by History. Even more, as he went on to assert,

is it a matter of justice, for even though a large majority of Christians hold a particular view, the dissentient minority may be equally loyal to Christ and equally entitled to be recognized as loyal members of his Church.

And so it is, when he offers his own detailed proposals for a welfare state, that Temple makes it very clear that he is doing so “in [his] capacity as a Christian citizen.” And he goes on to say, in words which should be carved in stone above the entrance to every episcopal residence:

If any member of the convocation of York should be so ill-advised as to table a resolution that these proposals be adopted as a political program for the Church, I should as Archbishop resist that proposal with all my force, and should probably as President of the Convocation, rule it out of order. The Church is committed to the everlasting gospel and to the Creeds which formulate it; it must never commit itself to an ephemeral program of detailed action.

Now, forty years later, the Church appears less and less committed to its historic faith, more and more dogmatically committed precisely to ephemeral programs of detailed action. It may only be when history has begun to deliver its judgment on such programs that the bland certitude of their ecclesiastical protagonists will begin to waver. By then, alas for many Christian souls, it may be too late.

  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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