Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 40
Luca Pacioli is a name that one is not likely to encounter during his or her church history courses while in seminary or a Christian college.
While I cannot claim to have read every church history textbook in existence, I nonetheless suspect that there is no church history textbook that makes mention of him, even in passing. A Franciscan friar and contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Pacioli is better known for his mathematical contributions than his ecclesiastical service.
Thomas Aquinas may have penned his Summa Theologiae centuries earlier in the Middle Ages, but Pacioli also penned a “Summa” of a different stripe during the Italian Renaissance: Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita, a treatise on all things mathematical. The ninth chapter of Pacioli’s Summa deals exclusively with the mathematics of business and trade, and tucked within the same chapter is a section on double-entry bookkeeping.
At first blush, this fact might not sound all that significant. However, this one, particular section is considered by financial historians as the first book on double-entry bookkeeping ever published, and it subsequently became one of the most influential financial texts ever written, impacting accounting standards even to this day. Luca Pacioli may be unknown in church history, but he is not unknown in a broader context, now being referred to most often as the “Father of Accounting.”
Theology and financial math: What an odd combination! Or is it?
In the centuries since Pacioli’s work was published, it has influenced countless accountants and financial professionals, perhaps most of whom paid no thought to the degree to which Pacioli’s theology might have underpinned his understanding of mathematics, and by extension, his understanding of accounting. Thinking purely in “secular” terms, why should they care? But, as believers, we have a different understanding of the way theology permeates the everyday. We know that when we dig deep into the minds of all individuals, no matter who they are, we inevitably arrive at an inescapable reality: one’s theology influences everything. There is no separation of any facet of life from what one believes about God. Not truly.
When we then take this reality and apply it to Pacioli specifically, we move closer to understanding a seemingly strange combination of theology and financial math because fundamentally, at its most basic level, accounting is about stewardship. Pacioli understood this. He knew that God is truth and, as such, there is the duty of any steward made in God’s image—any person responsible for the management of financial resources in any capacity—to tell the truth through numbers: to account rightly for what has been entrusted to his or her care.
But what is so interesting about stewardship, and the truth-telling through numbers that comes part and parcel with it, is how likely we are to feel the moral imperative of such stewardship in the capacities of our occupations and with resources that we openly acknowledge are not ours. It is much less the case in our own personal finances, with resources that we often pretend are ours.
What do I mean? Let’s take a hypothetical example.
Think with me about a financial officer of an unnamed company. He is a Christian, and as he goes about his daily work for the company, he feels the moral obligation to do everything he can to steward the company’s resources faithfully in order for the company to reach its goals. After all, it’s his job to do so, and he knows he is to perform his work for his employer as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). But let’s also say that if we were to take a look at the personal finances of this man, we would see that they are a mess. Though he earns a good income, he and his family are severely in debt. They keep significant balances on high-interest credit cards, purchasing more or less everything they want whenever they want. They live in a house they cannot actually afford. The man and his wife repeatedly lease brand-new luxury vehicles.
What’s wrong with this picture? If this hypothetical financial officer were to apply the truth-telling through numbers of sound stewardship that he regularly performs for his employer to his own family’s financial circumstances, he would not like the truth being told. Yet, he most likely isn’t willing to turn that level of scrutiny and circumspection toward his own call to Christian stewardship. If he were, he probably wouldn’t still be in his current situation. Why the proclivity toward overlooking this failing?
If I’m being honest, this is something about which I have to be vigilant in my own life, as I would suspect many of my fellow Christians do. While thankfully I’m not in severe debt and have not adopted the unwise practices of the man in my hypothetical example, I still do find that it’s all too easy for me to act as though the resources God has placed under my care are mine to do with as I wish, however large or small they may be. When I treat my resources more as means to benefit me and my family in the here and now than as means with which my family and I can have an eternal impact, there is a problem.
Seeing this tension between stewardship and selfishness in my own life is why I am passionate about “unofficially” educating seminarians about how personal finances are more theological than they might initially seem. Such an understanding no doubt informed Pacioli’s work. While not taught in the seminary classroom in courses under curricular requirements for theological training, sound personal financial practices should be an underlying part of any faithful ministry. I have had multiple conversations with seminary students in individual contexts about personal finance and investing. In each case, I’ve found that these students are eager to hear and to learn, seeking to be faithful not only with what God has entrusted to their care now but also with whatever he might entrust to them in the future.
As encouraging as these experiences have been, they reveal to me more work to be done. This isn’t the place to list statistics about the abysmal financial state of many American households or about the lack of financial literacy across America. Nor do I want anything said here to sound as though it is an attempt to shame. But I will say that Christians, understanding our role as stewards to be a matter of faithfulness for kingdom advance, should take personal finance seriously since it is very much part of the theological everyday. This isn’t to say that every believer is called to become a financial expert. Nor is it to intimate that Christians should develop an unhealthy attraction to money, potentially straying into what the Apostle Paul terms “the desire to be rich” (1 Tim. 6:9). Rather, my point is we shouldn’t overlook the importance of managing, as stewards, what God has divinely determined to place under our care. I would argue that doing so assumes at least some level of financial knowledge and even a desire to equip oneself with enough knowledge to be faithful in this respect. Perhaps Fra Pacioli—though not discussed in many seminary classrooms—would agree.