Monday, March 06, 2006

Tithing in the Ante-Nicene Period: The Third Century (part 1)

In the third century, five writings prove pertinent. Clement of Alexandria (pictured left)(150–215 A.D.), the forerunner to Origen in the Alexandrian school, considered tithing to be in the same category as the Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee. Therefore, since God gave the Mosaic law for the good of humanity, tithing, as well as the Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee, should not be viewed as compulsory, but should be done for the spiritual well-being of the giver.

Tertullian (pictured right)(160–230 A.D.), in his Apology, stated that churches had a treasury chest and Christians made contributions every month: “on the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary.” The church used these gifts for the poor, orphans, elderly, and others in need. Tertullian also emphasized that they held “all things in common,” except their wives. While Powers states that Tertullian believed that tithing was “seemingly” the minimum, he provides no evidence for Tertullian ever saying this. In fact, Tertullian’s own statements above are inconsistent with a mandatory tithe. His description of giving is more in line with the contributions of Greek associations (eranos) than tithing.

Origen (pictured left)(186–255 A.D.), in his work Against Celsus, said that Christians gave their first fruits to God. Based upon Origen’s belief in giving first fruits, Powers “assumed” that Origen also believed in tithing. However, Origen commented on tithing specifically. He said that since Jesus wanted the scribes and Pharisees to tithe (Matthew 23:23), and His disciples’ righteousness was supposed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), that Christians should give far more abundantly than the scribes and Pharisees. However, rather than this being an exhortation to tithe, Origen says explicitly that he does not do any of this (referring to giving tithes and first fruits). A final reference to tithing from Origen contains an application. After describing some of the Levitical tithing system, he correlates full-time ministers of the gospel to Levites and priests; however, he does not exhort Christians to tithe. Furthermore, some of Origen’s statements about the Mosaic law may be informative about any conclusion regarding his view of tithing. He said, “for we do not regulate our lives like the Jews, because we are of the opinion that the literal acceptation of the laws is not that which conveys the meaning of the legislation” and that “it does not follow that every believer, whether a convert from heathenism or from Judaism, must yield a literal obedience to the law of Moses.”

Resources and References:

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 2.18 (ANF 2:366). See also ibid., 2.11 (ANF 2:359) for a reference to “a tenth” that most likely has no relationship to tithes and ibid., 1.24 for an incidental reference.

Tertullian, Apology 39 (ANF 3:46). For some incidental references to tithing, see Apology 14, (Five Books) Against Marcion 4.27, 5.9.

Tertullian mentions tithing incidentally in Against Marcion 4.27 (ANF 3:394).

Hatch, Organization of the Early Christian Churches, 31, n. 12.

Origen, Origen Against Celsus 34 (ANF 4:652), 4 (ANF 4:431), 60 (ANF 4:569).

Origen, Homilies on Numbers 11.2 (cited by John Sharp, “Tithes,” in Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, 2 vols., eds. William Smith and Samuel Cheetham [London: John Murray, 1893], 2:1963).

Origen, Commentary of the Gospel of John 1 (cited by Murray, Beyond Tithing, 97).

Powers, “Historical Study of the Tithe,” 25.

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