The Lord made the world and called it good: the created order as a whole is good. Every part of the holy life has a canonical form, a form that conforms to the divine Word, the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. This revelation, recorded in holy Scripture, judges between good and evil. Wine, a legitimate part of the created order, though not invented until later, is generally praised as a good thing; though abused in drunkenness, it is commended by Scripture when consumed moderately. Abusus non tollit usum. Not so with gambling, which despite its prevalence in the ancient world (shown by the archaeological record in Egypt and Mesopotamia) is never favourably depicted in any of the biblical canon.
Why this lack of biblical sanction? To answer this question I must analyse the law of nature, upon which God has founded the cosmos. There are three legitimate ways of material gain that I can think of, three means that lawfully grant rights of ownership and use:
- (sub)creation (2 Thes 3.10–12; Gal 6.7–10);
- just exchange (Lv 19.13; Ez 22.12).
Each of these three begins with an act of God. For the Lord has (1) created the cosmos, (2) given gifts to men and (3) made covenants with others. Therefore we (1) receive gifts both spiritual and temporal, sometimes by discovery; (2) create more out of what already exists, and (3) buy and sell in commerce, which is a contractual exchange. Each impulse, then, has a pure and holy form, a form through which we may rightly worship the Lord. The first, receipt of a gift, is canonically motivated by gratitude and love; the second, (sub)creation of new things, is canonically motivated by the productive desire to create something that honours the Lord; the third, just buying and selling, is canonically motivated by love for one’s neighbour and by the desire for material with which to make something new.
Though of course these are not the desires that often move us, they are the proper motivations of the Christian who seeks to honour God, not idle but holy. Every lawful act has likewise a holy reason in the mind of God, a reason with the force of law, a reason by which we must learn to abide. Greed, therefore, is out of the question (1 Ti 6.7–10), as are its fruits: fraud, theft, adultery, murder. Every perverted desire must be turned to the faithful truth of Christ, and every impurity be turned over to the fire.
Gambling, having no ideal form, cannot join the three lawful means of gain. It has no godly form to be perverted, being itself a perversion of the natural order. A reform of gambling, therefore, will recover not the proper form of gambling itself but the proper form of what has been perverted into gambling. I leave it to the reader to devise such a reform.
If nothing else, the Christian tradition still argues against gambling. Nothing but holy Scripture, of course, can bind the conscience, but it is the ancient reading thereof that must stand until it be refuted. Gambling, in Christian history, is cast almost universally in an unfavourable light. Clement of Alexandria wrote against gambling in the Instructor 3.11, attributing the activity to idleness:
The game of dice is to be prohibited, and the pursuit of gain, especially by dicing, which many keenly follow. Such things the prodigality of luxury invents for the idle. For the cause is idleness, and a love for frivolities apart from the truth. For it is not possible otherwise to obtain enjoyment without injury; and each man’s preference of a mode of life is a counterpart of his disposition.
Likewise, Martin Luther, in A Treatise on Usury, attributed gambling wins to self-seeking:
Money won by gambling is not usury either, and yet it is not won without self-seeking and love of self, and not without sin; the profits of prostitution are not usury, but they are earned by sin; and wealth that is acquired by cursing, swearing and slander is not usury, and yet it is acquired by sin.
Indeed, so obvious was it to him that gambling was a self-seeking activity, that he paralleled it with prostitution and with the acquisition of wealth by cursing, swearing and slander in a larger argument against certain lending practices that he deemed usurious.
The burden of proof now lies on those who contend for the legitimacy of gambling. For gambling to be well accepted, an equally compelling case must be made in its favour.