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Affluent Christian Investor | September 20, 2017

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The End of Medieval Economics: How American Theologians and Merchants Abandoned Aristotle and Invented Capitalism


Why were the Middle Ages so poor? There are many reasons: a mini ice age suppressing crop yields, the rise of the Islamic empire cutting trade and shipping ties in half, ideologies which degraded commerce in contrast with ‘higher’ pursuits like church work are among them. But for economists, what stands out most starkly is the flawed theory which held that there is a ‘just price’ for goods, currencies, and services, and that just prices should be enforced by ecclesiastical and civil law. This idea does not come from the Bible, but from “The Philosopher” (Aristotle), who was viewed as the ultimate authority on world matters.

While Aristotle made genuine advances in almost every field in comparison with what had come before him, his great genius became a kind of new authority, a dead hand of tradition which held Europe back from progress in many disciplines. It was Aristotle, not the Bible, who created the scientific theory that the earth is the center of the solar system (which was then codified into Ptolemaic astronomy) and it was Aristotle, not the Bible, who created the theory that money is sterile and therefore that all interest should be forbidden.

The United States could never have risen to become the world’s financial center without moving past Aristotle, past just price laws, past capital controls. But it did not move past these by simply embracing ‘the enlightenment’ (whatever that is), but by detailed reexamination of the Scriptures and seeing that they were not hostile to financial innovation. They did it by developing a doctrine of providence which gave the colonies a calling to transform the world spiritually by also transforming it economically. It did this by adopting a positive theology of wealth creation and putting it in the larger context of world evangelization and resistance to tyrannical government.

To learn more about this, you can read Professor Mark Valeri’s excellent book Heavenly Merchandize, listen to our interview here, or continue reading for a partial transcript and the final installment in this series.

Jerry: “You could also add that perhaps Protestant theology had a greater predilection to project Aristotle, who I think is a pretty key thinker in the scholastic school’s rejection of usury. They’re not necessarily part of the Thomistic synthesis, so they’re more ready to reject the Pagan philosopher Aristotle than maybe Roman Catholics would [be]. Do you see that–?”

Mark: “Yes. In fact, in 1699 a group of Boston-area ministers meet to debate lots of different policies, including usury, and they actually deconstruct the Aristotelian/Thomist argument against usury, that usury is perforce in medieval Catholic teaching, which they get from Aristotle. Usury is perforce deceitful because money is only a measure; it cannot increase; it’s like a ruler, and you use it for exchange but it itself cannot be a commodity. It cannot enhance in value, because once money enhances in value, it ruins its role as a stable measure of merely exchange, if you will, value. That’s the Aristotelian argument.”

Jerry: “And therefore, Aristotle said, “Money is sterile.””

Mark: “Exactly. “It cannot increase.” Well, the Puritans actually go at that argument and deconstruct it. They actually take it apart and show where it’s wrong, towards the end of the 17th century.”

Jerry: “Is there a document where they do this?”

Mark: “Yes.”

Jerry: “What’s the document?”

Mark: “It’s called 30 Cases. Not a very exciting title. There’s two places that I cite in the book: Cotton Mather was the recording secretary for this clerical meeting, it’s published in 1699 in Boston and it’s merely called 30 Cases; and then the theologian Samuel Willard gives an even fuller explanation behind it in his systematic theology, in his huge systematic theology, where he’s commenting on the 8th commandment (the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,”) and he gets into usury and then he has even a more thorough deconstruction of medieval arguments.”

Jerry: “Is it Willard who said, “Aristotle says that money is sterile but in the world there’s practically nothing actually more fertile than money”? Who says that? Is it Willard… or is it Seward? It’s quoted in your book but I can’t remember.”

Mark: “It’s probably Willard, but I can’t recall off the top of my head.”


Article originally published on

Jerry Bowyer is a Forbes contributor, contributing editor of, and Senior Fellow in Business Economics at The Center for Cultural Leadership.

Jerry has compiled an impressive record as a leading thinker in finance and economics. He worked as an auditor and a tax consultant with Arthur Anderson, as Vice President of the Beechwood Company which is the family office associated with Federated Investors, and has consulted in various privatization efforts for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He founded the influential economic think tank, the Allegheny Institute, and has lectured extensively at universities, businesses and civic groups.

Jerry has been a member of three investment committees, among which is Benchmark Financial, Pittsburgh’s largest financial services firm. Jerry had been a regular commentator on Fox Business News and Fox News. He was formerly a CNBC Contributor, has guest-hosted “The Kudlow Report”, and has written for, National Review Online, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as many other publications. He is the author of The Bush Boom and more recently The Free Market Capitalist’s Survival Guide, published by HarperCollins. Jerry is the President of Bowyer Research.

Jerry consulted extensively with the Bush White House on matters pertaining to the recent economic crisis. He has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, The International Herald Tribune and various local newspapers. He has been a contributing editor of National Review Online, The New York Sun and Townhall Magazine. Jerry has hosted daily radio and TV programs and was one of the founding members of WQED’s On-Q Friday Roundtable. He has guest-hosted the Bill Bennett radio program as well as radio programs in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

Jerry is the former host of WorldView, a nationally syndicated Sunday-morning political talk show created on the model of Meet The Press. On WorldView, Jerry interviewed distinguished guests including the Vice President, Treasury Secretary, HUD Secretary, former Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice, former Presidential Advisor Carl Rove, former Attorney General Edwin Meese and publisher Steve Forbes.

Jerry has taught social ethics at Ottawa Theological Hall, public policy at Saint Vincent’s College, and guest lectured at Carnegie Mellon’s graduate Heinz School of Public Policy. In 1997 Jerry gave the commencement address at his alma mater, Robert Morris University. He was the youngest speaker in the history of the school, and the school received more requests for transcripts of Jerry’s speech than at any other time in its 120-year history.

Jerry lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan, and the youngest five of their seven children.


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