“If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.”
This memorable quotation is often attributed to Martin Luther. While it may be an intriguing sentiment, it is almost certainly a misquote. There is no evidence that Luther actually said this.
Luther is not the only one to be misquoted. God is often misquoted in Scripture as saying, “Money is the root of all evil.” This is a misquotation of 1 Timothy 6:10. More accurately, this verse reads, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:10).
The context reveals that Paul is not just narrowly discussing money. Rather, he is talking about money as it relates to God-given contentment:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim. 6:6–9).
Money is not the issue. The primary issue is our relationship with money — whether we love God or wealth. Rightly reading Scripture is essential to rightly understanding how God’s people should relate to money.
Cryptocurrency: Bitcoin, blockchain and the future of currency
Ben Franklin is often credited as being the first to coin the phrase, “but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” It turns out this, too, is a misquote of sorts. Two other authors, Daniel Defoe and Christopher Bullock, wrote something similar long before Franklin.
Regardless of who said it first, taxes have been a certainty throughout human history. The same can be said for currency and trade. The concept of currency has roots in antiquity.
“Fiat currency” is money established by government regulation. The word “fiat” comes from Latin and means “let it be done.” A fiat currency requires governmental or institutional authority, someone to declare “let it be done” to give a currency value.
This practice goes way back in human history. China first used state-issued paper money around the 11th century. Prior to this, government-issued coins emerged around the 7th century B.C. (this was roughly around the time of the prophet Isaiah). For thousands of years, governments have issued currency as a means of trade between people. The U.S. dollar and the Euro are modern examples of fiat currencies.
While it may not be readily apparent, currency is a form of technology. Langdon Winner, a scholar of technology, defines technology as “modern practical artifice.” Technologies are the practical tools made and used by people in a particular time and place. In this regard, currency such as coins and paper money can be viewed as forms of technology. And, like all technologies, currency changes over time.
The most recent change is cryptocurrency. Essentially a digital version of cash, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have existed for about a decade. Unlike fiat currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the Euro, which are regulated by a centralized government or institution, cryptocurrencies are decentralized and self-sustaining. Cryptocurrencies do not directly rely on a nation-state for valuation or regulation.
Not surprisingly, the idea for this decentralized and self-sustaining currency emerged during the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. In that time of uncertainty surrounding governments and banks, Satoshi Nakamoto published an online white paper about a decentralized digital currency. This paper included a description and preliminary design for a digital currency called Bitcoin.
Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies can be explained (this is admittedly an over-simplification) like this: Bitcoins are like real coins, but you cannot hold them in your hand. According to the initial rules set up in the system, there will only ever be a total of 21 million bitcoins. Currently, there are roughly 18.5 million bitcoins in circulation.
More bitcoins are released into the system through “mining.” Bitcoin miners lend their computers to a network that helps keep track of all the digital transactions occurring around the world. As these miners assist with the record keeping of these transactions, they are rewarded with portions of new bitcoins as they are introduced into the system.
Cryptocurrencies rely on a technology known as blockchain. Every time someone wants to make a transaction, a validation request is sent out on the network. Computers on the network validate the request by confirming that the person rightly owns the funds and has enough for the transaction. Once a request has been validated, the transaction is completed, and a new block of data is created. This block of data, basically a digital ledger, records the transaction. The new block of data is then secured and chained together with existing blocks of data. While it may sound complicated, this ends up being a secure and efficient means of exchanging funds. Rather than putting their trust in the government, people put their trust in the public ledger of the blockchain.
This hardly scratches the surface of cryptocurrencies. Because it is such a paradigm shift from existing forms of currency, digital currencies like Bitcoin appear complex and esoteric. Ultimately, however, this new form of currency is a decentralized and direct way to transfer funds. Rather than relying on a government, bank or company, cryptocurrencies allow for rapid peer-to-peer digital transactions. While cryptocurrencies are not directly connected to a government, they are still subject to the Bank Secrecy Act and must comply with IRS regulations. Individuals can be prosecuted for fraud and other crimes connected to the use of cryptocurrencies.
The paradoxical world of cryptocurrencies
If this all seems a bit cryptic, that’s because it is. There are several paradoxes surrounding digital currencies. This new technology is transparent yet secret, secure yet volatile, simple yet complex.
For example, cryptocurrencies mix transparency and secrecy. Blockchain is a highly transparent ledger shared across many computers; all the network transactions are recorded and public. However, parties may choose to remain anonymous or use a pseudonym. Although the transactions are recorded and public, the people making the transactions can remain private. This is similar to Bitcoin’s founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, who is well-known yet remains a mystery.
Another paradox of cryptocurrencies is its certainty and uncertainty. The technology promises to be extremely secure because of the blockchain encryption. Also, since it does not directly rely on a government for valuation, theoretically it would retain its value in the event of a governmental collapse. However, it is also fraught with uncertainties such as a lack of governmental oversight and extreme volatility. For example, in 2010 during the early days of Bitcoin, two pizzas cost 10,000 bitcoins. Bitcoin value slowly increased over the next few years until late 2013. December 2013 was volatile for Bitcoin; its value dropped 29 percent in the course of just a few days. While its value has increased over the years, Bitcoin still experiences tremendous volatility.
While digital cash is conceptually simple, it is also complex. (To be fair, cryptocurrencies are probably no more complex than the intricate political and economic system that undergirds the US dollar; rather, digital currencies seem to be really complex because they are such a paradigm shift from existing forms of currency). Since cryptocurrencies can be exchanged across borders and without traditional bank accounts, people have used this emerging technology for nefarious purposes such as selling drugs and human trafficking. But, alas, paper dollars have also been used in this way for generations.
Let it be done
Fiat currency or cryptocurrency? US dollars or bitcoins? Fort Knox or blockchain? These are questions that the followers of Jesus will have to sort through in the near future.
These may be difficult questions, but they need not be fearful questions.
In Christ Jesus, God has given us eternal contentment. Anchored in the Word, baptized into the promises of God, nourished with the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar, filled with the Holy Spirit and blessed with daily bread, the followers of Jesus are not left in want. The presence of God in Word and Sacrament has the power to free us from the love of money: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5).
Both fiat currencies and cryptocurrencies have failed in the past. And they will certainly fail in the future. Whether spoken by a government or recorded by a computer system, it is wishful thinking to declare, “Let it be done.” Only God can speak these words and reliably follow through on them.
Jesus proved this when He healed the servant of a centurion with just a word. A powerful government leader came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant who was on the brink of death. And Jesus performed a fiat miracle: “And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment” (Matt. 8:13, emphasis added).
Jesus, not money, is worthy of our love. He truly follows through when He says, “Let it be done.” Few things are more certain than death and taxes — thankfully, Jesus is.