Acton Institute Powerblog

New series on Orthodox Christian social thought

At Every Thought Captive, a blog of Ancient Faith Ministries, I’ve been writing a series on Orthodox Christianity and modern Christian social thought.

In my first essay, I explore the question, “What is modern Christian social thought?”

The plight of the working poor in the nineteenth century came to be called the “Social Question,” and by the end of that century Christian pastors and intellectuals refused to remain silent or continue to pine away for a bygone social order that could never realistically be recovered in the age of modern democracy, industry, and science. In addition to charitable work throughout the century, the publication of two major works in 1891 marks a significant turn in Christian engagement with this multifaceted problem of the industrial era: Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (literally, “On the New Things”) and the Dutch Neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper’s address to the First Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands “The Social Question and the Christian Religion.”

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Pope Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper, but what many do not know is that this was a truly ecumenical effort:

Indeed, an ecumenical movement of “social Christianity” can be observed across the world at this time, variously emphasizing the duty of Christian care for the poor and marginalized, the pluriform nature of social life that cannot be reduced to politics (a lesson we Americans, in the wake of the most contentious presidential election of my lifetime, ought to take to heart), and an insistence that, despite their importance, the material needs of the body ought never to distract us from the spiritual needs of the soul, or vice versa. Salvation of the whole person means that one cannot displace the other. As [Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir] Soloviev put it, “It is written that man does not live by bread alone, but it is not written that he lives without bread.”

However, while many Western Christian traditions have more than 100-year legacy to draw from, the Orthodox civilizations of Eastern Europe and Russia suffered a tragic setback due to the rise of militantly atheistic Communism, following the Russian Revolution in 1917, which murdered millions, displaced people groups, upended cultures, destroyed families, and further impoverished the masses it claimed to represent.

That does not mean that there haven’t been any Orthodox contributions to modern Christian social thought in the meantime, but it does mean that we Orthodox could probably benefit from a greater familiarity with other traditions that were free to continue their own intellectual development during the more than 70 years when many Orthodox struggled just to survive.

To that end, I have begun this series by, in turn, briefly exploring Roman Catholic, Neo-Calvinist, and most recently Lutheran social thought.

In the future, I hope to explore the “social gospel” movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, which had more of an ecumenical and American flavor and has continued to influence many Christians today.

After that, I hope to explore some sources of Orthodox Christian social thought, such as the Bible, the church fathers, canon law, and a few modern Orthodox thinkers such as Vladimir Soloviev and S.L. Frank. With that basis established, I can begin to look at modern political economy and economic science, as well as further Christian movements such as distributism, liberation theology, and economic personalism.

My goal is that the end result will work as a handy primer for Orthodox Christians (and others!) who want to engage the manifold issues of our modern economies grounded in the teachings and principles of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) and remains ever-new from age to age.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.