In his characteristically splendid Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, Peter Brown describes the career of Paulinus of Nola, whom he describes the first male Christian to follow Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler more or less to the letter: Sell what you have and give it to the poor.
For Paulinus, commercium spiritale was a central concept (pp. 231-2): His renunciation of earthly wealth stored up treasure in heaven. Brown does not think it accurate to understand this in what we would call a “crassly commercial” sense, however.
In Paulinus’ Latin, “the word commercium evoked any form of profitable bonding. It conjured up the idea of fruitful reciprocity. More generally . . . commercium implied a ‘harmony within duality’” (quoting Carole Newlands).
In this perspective, Paulinus’ commercium spiritale was rooted in the “decisive joining of heaven and earth brought about by the coming of Christ. The incarnation of Christ had been the foundational act of ‘exchange.’” And the link of heaven and earth established by charity also anticipated the final “harmony” and “bonding” of the new Jerusalem.
It would be profitable, perhaps, to revisit Anselm’s theory of the atonement with this in mind. Perhaps also Paul’s. Do the commercial terms they use have the same connotation as commercial metaphors do for us?
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 9:03 am
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