Historical Theology can be a tricky discipline. It isn't enough to simply list people off who agree with your particular theological stance. Even giving a citation could be misleading. Instead, getting to the reason they believed what they believe is important. Too many times the reasoning has been left out of the discussion with tithing. Other times a more full-orbed perspective on the ancient document or person is needed to grasp their reasoning.
DeYoung cites three historical sources that advocate tithing: the Apostolic Constitutions, Irenaeus, and Augustine. Let's look at those in order.
1) The Apostolic Constitutions (300s)– This document truly is an early and strong advocate for tithing. Two things should be considered when citing this document for tithing. First, the Constitutions equated/likened bishops to priests and Levites and the tabernalce to the Holy Catholic Church. Those two views seem to have driven its stance on tithing. If you disagree with either of those views, you may want to reconsider using this document as a source to back up your views on tithing. Second, in the introductory notice to the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Volume 7), on page 388, the editors noted that books 1-6 are the earliest portions, with book 7 being “somewhat later,” though still very old. The portion in the Apostolic Constitutions that contains the advocacy for tithing is found in book 7. Also, DeYoung rightly notes that the section in the Constitutions that advocates tithing says to utilize “freewill offerings” to support the poor. However, it should be noted that tithing was used for this function in the Old Covenant.
2) Irenaeus (died in 200 A.D.) - Admittedly, the quote from Irenaeus given by DeYoung (from Against Heresies, 4.18.2) is a difficult one to interpret. DeYoung believes that Irenaeus was mandating tithing. However, note these scholars who appear to differ from DeYoung's interpretation of the ambiguous Irenaeus quote:
- Powers (dissertation titled “An Historical Study of the Tithe in the Christian Church to 1648”) said: “the whole spirit of Irenaeus was that the law of the tithe had been abrogated” (Powers, page 21).
- Charles Feinberg (in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5:758) concluded only that the church fathers emphasized Christian freedom in giving.
- Stuart Murray (Beyond Tithing, 99-101, 106) said that Irenaeus rejected tithing.
Irenaeus' quote, when read in context, is much more ambiguous than DeYoung leads on.
3) Augustine (around 400 A.D.) - I readily admit that Augustine did truly advocate tithing. But two factors need to be considered. First, Augustine clearly misunderstood the Old Testament's teaching on tithing. He is crystal clear in his belief that Jews gave 10% of their income under the Mosaic Law. This misunderstanding of Augustine's fed into his advocacy for tithing. Second, Augustine believed (and practiced) that Christians should sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. This is truly the command of Christ. However, since Christians are so unwilling to do that, they should at least give what the scribes and Pharisees gave, especially since our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. That is a summary of Augustine's teaching. So recognize his view that tithing isn't really the command for Christians, but sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. He actually lessened the command down to only 10% of income. I've never actually heard someone utilize that argument in a pulpit, but that was Augustine's. Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all argued that way.
So while those three sources argued for the continuation of tithing (and there are more), what DeYoung did not mention in his sermon were the early sources that went in the other direction, arguing against the continuation of tithing. I'm not going to get into the specifics of their reasoning (as I don't necessarily agree with how they reach their conclusions and I've done this already in You Mean I Don't Have to Tithe?), but here are a few early sources arguing against the continuation of tithing:
1) Didascalia Apostolorum (about 225 A.D.)
2) Origen (died about 255)
3) Epiphanius (about 370) – This last ancient source, though he is not well-known today, is interesting as he was known as a defender of orthodoxy.
After studying the doctrine of tithing throughout church history, I've concluded that their were godly men on both sides of this debate. The early church was divided in her views, in the Middle Ages advocacy for tithing grew, but division occurred leading up and in to the Reformation. There has not been a consistent view on this issue over the last 2,000 years. The key thing to remember when studying tithing (or other doctrines) in church history is not so much “who concluded what” but more “why and how did they come to that conclusion.” Then we can weigh their arguments and not just say “I'm with Augustine” or “I'm with Epiphanius”!
This series will have one more concluding post.