Economics in the Christian Worldview – Part 1

Christianity teaches that greed is evil.
Capitalism is the belief that greed is good.
Therefore, capitalism contradicts Christianity.

And that’s about as far as many Christians go in their analysis of economics. Some will look for examples of their premises. They’ll find a corrupt businessman who schemed his way through insider trading into bankrupting his company to line his pockets*. They’ll find a CEO who makes fifty million dollars a year and call it greed and corruption. His employees don’t make that much! They’ll assume that profits are driven by greed, coming at the expense of someone else, so that non-profits must be preferred to corporations.

The argument is flawed. Not in its reasoning, but in the premises. Christianity indeed teaches that greed is evil and anyone who would contradict this would contradict Christianity. But, despite the popularity of the opinion that capitalism is based on greed or somehow rewards it, the opinion is false. Not only false, but dangerous.

In a world of scarce resources which have alternative uses (to quote Thomas Sowell), we must have some sort of economic system in place. Of the many questions that we could ask about economics, the most important one is: Which system is best allocates these scarce resources? And by “best”, we mean, which one moves them to where the demand for them is highest. That is, in which system do we least feel the fact of scarcity? We must answer all other questions by the light of the answer to that one.

Today, I want to start a series of posts on economics and their relationship to the Christian religion. These will be informal essays. I’m not trained in economics, though I read books about economics as others might read fiction: for fun.

Revelation

Many Christians have strange beliefs about revelation. They’ll say that the Bible is the total sum of truth, that nothing outside of Scripture is true, or that the Bible is the ultimate source of knowledge on all topics.

These things are all clearly false. The Bible doesn’t contain the statement “the Bible is the total sum of truth”, and it would need to if that statement were true. Canada is north of the United States, yet the Bible doesn’t say so. The Bible doesn’t say anything about how to program a thermostat. If it were the ultimate source of knowledge on all topics, that would include the thermostat in your house.

All truth is God’s truth. That doesn’t mean all truth needs to be revealed by divine revelation. Some truth does, but we can learn a lot of things from observation and reason, both of which are given to us by God, who expects us to use them. The sort of divine revelation we have in Scripture is called “special revelation”. The sort of revelation we have access to by our senses and our reason is called “general revelation”. Scripture acknowledges general revelation throughout. In most passages, it even presumes it. Romans 1 is particularly clear about it.

The point is while we need to consult the Bible for what God says about economics, money, greed, and work, we also need to bring our knowledge about the world in as well, to understand what we should really believe. The Bible is not an economics textbook. The point of the Bible is not to tell people which system they should use to efficiently move scarce resources with alternative uses.

No one in history would have thought of the Bible as an economic textbook, either. Some books (Leviticus and Deuteronomy) may contain entire legal systems, but even they don’t read like textbooks, describing economics generally and then comparing competing systems. Beyond those books, no other portion of the Bible is given to the purpose of creating an entire civilization, and so economic ideas are mentioned incidentally everywhere else.

Good hermeneutics (interpretation) of Scripture begins by understanding the genre of each book, the intended audience of each book and how they would have understood it, and the meaning the author was attempting to convey. Every passage must be kept in context while attempting to figure these things out. The first task will be to find the passages that deal with economic principles (no matter how broadly). The second will be to apply a good interpretation to those passages.

So what does the Bible say?

Economics in the Bible

While the Bible isn’t a book about economics, it has a lot to say about money and economies. The passages which speak about money can be divided into a few groups.

Greed is Evil

Luke 12:15 says Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

And 1st Corinthians 6:10 says “…nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

It’s important to define greed, since the term can be ambiguous and is open to abuse. It is not greedy to want to acquire wealth to support a family. It is not greedy to think wealth is good or important.

In fact, greed is not a desire for wealth in the first place. Greed is intense, selfish, and unbalanced desire. It views the acquisition of wealth as an end in itself. Greed views wealth as more important than it really is. It’s the opposite of generous. Poor and rich people alike can be greedy, just as they can both be generous. This is a very important clarification, as will be seen.

Wealth is a Reward

For those who work diligently, wisely, and fairly, wealth comes as a natural reward. Proverbs 10:4 says “Lazy people are soon poor; hard workers get rich.”. Many other proverbs echo this: Proverbs 13:11, 14:23, and 20:13 for example. These passages and those like them show that wealth acquired dishonestly will usually disappear.

Proverbs 21:17 hints at a fundamental truth about wealth: that the actions and character which tend to make someone wealthy tend to be good things, while evil actions and bad character tend to make someone poor. These aren’t universal, but they are typical and reliable.

Money Must be Handled Justly

James 5:4 says “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

When you owe people money for work they do for you, you are obligated to pay them. And if you have worked for someone else for a wage, they are obligated to pay you. Passages like this must be taken in proper context. The preceding verses, when used in isolation, appear to condemn wealth altogether, but verse four makes it clear that what is condemned is failure to pay wages, not wealth.

Generosity is good and stinginess is bad. To act justly with money, we need to be generous with what we have.

A Summary

There are hundreds of verses about money in Scripture, but they broadly fit into the three groups above. Money must be handled justly and wisely, wealth is often a reward, and greed is always evil. But how do we bring these principles together? What kinds of conclusions can we draw from these raw materials?

First, wealth is good. Often given as a reward, it is used to alleviate suffering, feed hungry people, and free our time to pursue things beyond survival.

Second, wealth is dangerous. Those who are wealthy can be tempted by their wealth to do evil things. They can hide from the reality of their own mortality, they can trust in riches, and they can imagine their wealth to make them better than those who don’t have as much as they do. Importantly, this seems to be a universal human problem. There aren’t intrinsically “wealthy people” and intrinsically “poor people”, such that a poor man wouldn’t be tempted in the same way if he won the lottery. In fact…

Third, wealth is usually acquired as a result of doing good. Many of the wealthiest people we can read about in Scripture acquired their wealth by diligently working and they learned to handle the increases of wealth little by little. It’s not unlikely that if they acquired their wealth suddenly, they’d have squandered it. Wealth tends to come to those who are capable of handling.

There’s a problem here. It’s almost a contradiction. Most people hold it in the back of their minds and never resolve it:

  1. Wealth (often) comes to those who do good things
  2. Wealth (often) tempts those who have it to do evil things

How do we resolve this? If wealth is good and God gives it as a reward, doesn’t that mean He then tempts us? If wealth is good, why does it cause evil? Is it a cycle where good people work hard, are rewarded, and become evil people?

We can’t answer these questions or this apparent problem without understanding economics and the history of economic ideas. Why do I say that? Part 2 coming soon!


*  One of the most well-known insider traders is the patriarch of the Kennedy family. One of the great ironies about economic corruption is that the party which bemoans free trade the most is the one most often involved in the corruption of free trade.

The Case for Jesus

I am trying to replace my bad habit of watching YouTube videos on unimportant things with a better habit of watching lectures instead. One of my favorite so far is this presentation on the Case for Jesus by J.P. Moreland.

There’s nothing I can add, so I’ll just let him speak for himself:

Digital Limitations

If you’ve never heard of the Art of Manliness, you need to head over and check it out. It’s one of the best sites around. Thanks to a culture that demeans masculinity more every year and devalues fathers and husbands, we really need content like the Art of Manliness provides.

The AoM Podcast (which you should subscribe to) recently featured a book by David Sax called The Revenge of the Analog. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was thorough, and I got the impression that author has a pretty good idea of the situation he is describing. The essential point he makes in the book is that, despite the benefits of digital technology, people are increasingly moving away from digital approaches to doing things that can be done by hand. A few examples he offers are:

  • A demand for vinyl records that has caused a rebirth of the record pressing and distribution industries.
  • Paper planners, calendars, and pocket notes.
  • Physical books dominating an industry that was “fated”, according to experts several years ago, to be entirely digital by now.

He made the important point during the interview that these things aren’t simply an example of hipsters wanting to differentiate themselves. Most of these things are being purchased and used by all kinds of people, and the industries making them are growing; a sign that this is a mainstream phenomenon. It’s also a phenomenon the author discovered first-hand.

David Sax relates a story during the podcast about how he and a roommate had set up a digital music system through their home to stream audio from a computer. They suddenly had access to any music they wanted at any time in any room they wanted it with a couple of clicks. Within a few weeks, the amount of music that was actually played had dropped to almost nothing. There was something about the digital approach that made listening to music lose its appeal.

The interview shifted from descriptions of the phenomenon to explanations early on, and I agree with several of the points the author made. First of all, the move away from digital products isn’t caused by a single force. There are all sorts of different reasons and they vary depending on who you talk to. Second, very few people are interested in giving up every digital luxury they have. Instead, it seems that people want a balance that doesn’t exclude physical objects, and that in many cases (but not all), physical objects are preferred.

The motivations for these preferences were described as irrational, which was about the only thing I disagreed with. It’s true that people give up some convenience and features by choosing physical objects instead of digital replacements, but I think the choice is rational. In fact, I think the choice is spiritual. This was an element that I didn’t hear in the interview, but which may be in the book.

From a Christian perspective, I can affirm the tangible benefits of reading a physical book over a digital book, for instance (it’s easier to remember the content when you can imagine the book; books allow for note-taking; books don’t require power). But there are certain intangible benefits that I think are spiritual in nature that I think the Christian worldview can account for.

God created the physical world and He called it Good. It’s His Creation, after all. There’s something in our human natures that makes us appreciate physical objects. There’s something in the nature of men especially, I’ve found, that makes us appreciate collections of physical objects and their maintenance and organization. In a fallen world and with our human nature corrupted so that we can fall into sin by coveting what others have, by being inordinately proud of what we own, by thinking ourselves better than others for our possessions, or by thinking that physical things are ultimate. These are terrible things and we need to carefully avoid each of them. But these are sinful precisely because they corrupt something good. And what is good is human beings creatively making things like their Father before them and maintaining Creation. There’s something about physically sensing a book through sight, touch, and smell which reminds us of the creative process and which lets us maintain Creation itself in a small way. That isn’t to say that digital incarnations are somehow bad or not a result of human creativity, but that physical objects have a benefit that can’t really be transferred to digital counterparts.

I think the “revenge of the analog” is a small symptom of a larger desire that our civilization has to move back to something more concrete, universal, and objective. People have been jaded by promises that we can control everything about ourselves and our natures which aren’t true. The same movement is seen in the increased interest in liturgy in churches, in Christianity in philosophy departments, in more interest being generated for trades than graduate degrees, and even in a booming board game industry.

It seems like we’ve reached the tipping point in our world where enough people are ready to move back to more permanent things that even people not paying attention to them are starting to notice the effects. And this is a good thing.

Misconception Monday – Christians Shouldn’t Try To Make People Good

“Christians shouldn’t try and make people good; they should preach the Gospel.”

This is a declaration I’ve read many times in many forms, and since it’s the subject of today’s Misconception Monday, you might have already deduced my thoughts about it. Before I criticize the motivations people have for using it and some of the thinking behind it, I want to say that on the surface, I actually agree with it. Christians are commanded to make disciples, not merely people who don’t sin as much. The purpose of life, after all, is not to start doing more good things than bad things, but to know God. If this is the intended meaning of the expression, then it is a misleading way of saying a good and true thing. It’s the misleading elements and the motivations behind it that are worthy of some criticism.

There seem to be at least three reasons why Christians might try and encourage, incentivize, or impose morality on others. It’s important to realize that all legislation, executive action, and judicial decision-making is moral in nature. That means if it isn’t Christians imposing their morality on others, it’s someone else. I believe Christianity is true, so I have no problem with Christianity guiding this work. In fact, the founders of the United States and the progenitors of English Common Law all saw their work as reflective of Christianity.

The first reason has to do with society as a whole. If Christianity and God’s moral laws are true, it follows that the best way to order a society is to encourage obedience to those objective moral rules found in God’s moral law. While human beings break laws and do evil no matter what laws exist, the law is still a teacher and not just a reflection of culture. We should want to have the most perfect law in place to guide our society. It ought to result in better lives for everyone, just as acknowledging the laws of nature – like gravity – we are all forced to obey will result in less pain and suffering.

Secondly, it seems obvious that while none of us can please God except through Christ and that all of our own righteousness is worthless, it is still better not to sin and instead to do good. Doing evil makes our consciences less effective, insults the Image of God in each of us, and angers God. While the only way to truly know God is to come to Him by faith through Christ, it still seems right that it is better for those who have not accepted Him to do good instead of evil. Not just for the practical reasons identified above, but because sin really is bad, and it really is better not to do it, whether a person is a Christian or not.

Third, and maybe most importantly, has to do with Salvation itself. In order to become Christians, a man needs to repent of his sin. If he is convinced he hasn’t done anything wrong, then there is nothing to repent from. Living in a society governed by Christian virtue, however, means that he is confronted with his sin frequently (instead of ours, when many – even Christians – seem to actively discourage this confrontation). Additionally, if his own subjective understanding of right and wrong matches the objective standards found in God Himself, this is the best possible comparison he can have to demonstrate his need for Christ through repentance.

One of the roles of the Holy Spirit in the world is to convict the world of its sin. As Christians, why would we want to deliberately sabotage this effort? Why not seek to help? We can’t convict people in the same way as the Holy Spirit (and attempts to do it explicitly will probably have the opposite effect). But if we can help order our society in a way where the existence of sin is apparent to everyone, we certainly aren’t going to hurt anything. I’d argue we should actively try and do this. As I said previously, someone is going to impose their morality on everyone else. Why shouldn’t the laws we have come from the source of all objective morality in the first place?

Why would Christians oppose this? I think part of it is simple misunderstanding. There are Christians who think that pursuing a just and god-fearing society is a mutually exclusive goal to winning people to Christ because both require effort and the effort must be spent on either one or the other. This isn’t the case, however, and I’d argue that the two are complementary.

Another issue is one of character. Some Christians are lazy and hide behind the expression as a way to avoid doing work. Others are afraid of what might happen if they followed through.

Many Christians (and people in general) are sloppy thinkers. They don’t think about any of this stuff and just accept what is handed down to them from others whom they trust. This is inexcusable, but unfortunately common.

I think the most insidious reason is that many people who profess to be Christians actually despise Christianity. They hate God’s moral law and they completely embrace our culture’s anti-Christian standards. This happens often, and usually involves people in leadership positions. When I hear these sorts of people use the expression “Christians shouldn’t try to make good people; they should preach the Gospel”, I think it’s best to understand their meaning as “Stop making people feel bad and start telling them what they want to hear.”

If you are a Christian, you should know that if Christianity were all about telling people things that made them happy and comfortable, Christ wouldn’t have been crucified.

Misconception Monday – Forgiving the Unrepentant

Misconception Monday on a Tuesday? Blasphemy! It’s my own fault for having written the whole outline to an article yesterday morning but failing to remember it was just an outline after all, and not a full post, so that when I went to publish it last night, I was disappointed. Since I had the day off yesterday anyway, today is basically Monday. Choose for yourself which of those excuses you find more forceful.

Today, I want to look at forgiveness. And fittingly, a misconception about it. I’ve never written an article in the form of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, but this whole topic works very well with the format. (If you are unfamiliar with it and have trouble following it, here’s a primer.)

Can we grant full forgiveness to someone who doesn’t repent?

Objection 1. It seems that we can forgive without demanding repentance, because people do it all the time. It is seen as a righteous act.

Objection 2. You need to be able to forgive those who you can’t see again (e.g. who are dead), so we must be able to forgive without demanding repentance.

Objection 3. Forgiveness helps the person wronged so they don’t hold a grudge, so it seems we should forgive even without repentance.

Objection 4. Jesus Himself says “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” So it seems we ought to forgive even without repentance.

On the contrary, God Himself demands repentance as a prerequisite for granting His forgiveness. “Unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13:3)

I answer that there are multiple kinds of forgiveness. The sort of forgiveness which grants full restoration is called exoneration. This kind of forgiveness requires repentance. It simply cannot occur without both parties being fully involved, because it is a restoration of a relationship. A relationship cannot be restored if one party is unwilling to acknowledge a breach. At best, a relationship of this sort could be abusive.

It is also possible to ignore small offenses and especially those done unintentionally. A person can also have a forgiving attitude, such that at the moment of genuine repentance from the offending party, they are quick to genuinely forgive. This is how Christians ought to live. Dr. Stephen Marmer has a short presentation on Dennis Prager’s PragerU site that describes an approach consistent with ancient Judaism which breaks forgiveness into three types.

Since hatred can damage one’s own soul if directed at others (who are made in God’s image and thus His reflection), it is good to fight the temptation to hate those who do wrong to us. When evil is done to us, we deserve (through justice) some sort of restitution. However, giving up this demand and releasing the person who has wronged us from the responsibility of providing restitution can help us move past the wrong.

Reply to Objection 1. People who say they forgive those who don’t repent can’t possibly mean full forgiveness, but a lesser kind. They demonstrate a forgiving attitude, which is indeed righteous, and they are well-prepared to act rightly if repentance ever occurs. This is a way of loving one’s enemy, which is itself a righteous act.

Reply to Objection 2. The lesser sorts of forgiveness can be given to those who can’t receive full forgiveness (e.g. who are dead). Even if the person can never repent, they can be released of their duty to provide restitution and we can fight the urge to remember them with hatred.

Reply to Objection 3. Lesser forms of forgiveness and having a charitable attitude take the burden away from those who are wronged, even without repentance. But they aren’t full forgiveness. As has been discussed several times already in this article, there are many ways for the person wronged to avoid any further damage even if the other party refuses to repent.

Reply to Objection 4. Jesus also teaches that ““If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Clearly, he can’t mean both things at the same time in the same way, since they contradict. Jesus in His teaching is perfectly consistent: full forgiveness requires repentance, because full forgiveness is restoration. Without repentance, restoration is one-sided and incomplete. Jesus on the cross isn’t giving a thorough lesson in how forgiveness and repentance works. He’s demonstrating His love for a fallen world and those who don’t realize the gravity of what they’ve done. He demonstrates His love, not a process for forgiveness that trumps His far more thorough teaching during His ministry.

We are reassured of this because His apostles don’t transform this declaration of love into a new teaching on forgiveness. For the rest of their writing in the New Testament, they always make repentance a prerequisite for forgiveness. If we took His declaration on the cross as His standard for forgiveness, we are left with some massive theological problems. We must deliberately disobey Him in regard to forgiveness and we must set ourselves up as more forgiving than God Himself, who does require repentance. In matters where we aren’t completely sure of one interpretation or another, it’s always best to err on the side of some small confusion than on the side of total exegetical chaos. Life is messy; we ought not make it incomprehensible from our efforts at cleaning up the mess.

See this article by Wintery Knight for more information. And go follow his blog!

Misconception Monday – What is Hypocrisy?

I’m restarting a project I had begun years ago: to have themed posts on certain days of the week. Monday, beginning as it does with the same letter as “misconception”, will be dedicated frequently to dealing with instances the same. This week’s target is the modern erroneous perception of hypocrisy.

For a modern post-Christian who believes in moral relativity, there are still two moral absolutes (however contradictory this is): consent and hypocrisy. Anything consented to is moral, and anyone who is a hypocrite is immoral. While I’ll save an analysis of the utter weakness of basing a moral framework on consent, this post is concerned with the definition of hypocrisy that is used in this context.

Hypocrisy is often described as the act of failing to live up to your own standard, or failing at a standard you think applies to others. Neither of these is correct.

In fact, hypocrisy might be the most misused word in the English language. It doesn’t mean having a moral standard which you fail to meet. It doesn’t mean believing something differently now than you believed in the past. It doesn’t mean believing people should be held accountable for something even if you have been guilty of it, too.

Hypocrisy means pretending to be one thing when you are really something else (from Greek hupokrisis, which has to do with acting a theatrical part)*. That’s it. This is the meaning used in the Christian Bible as well.

People are quick to call anyone with a moral standard a “hypocrite” and then express all sorts of moral outrage, not realizing that in doing so, they are actually the ones guilty of hypocrisy (by pretending to be moral superiors while denying morality). The people they are outraged by are guilty only of failing to live up to a standard. But any standard worth having is beyond our grasp. If it was better to live up to any standard than to fail at living up to a good one, we all ought to adopt standards that are impossible to fail. Doing so would do no good, but would tempt all kinds of evil.


* I’ve heard it argued that the origin of a word has no influence over the meaning of a word. This is nonsense and is like saying the origin of an automobile has no influence over its current use. The original meaning of a word and its context does not tell us everything about the word as it is used today, but it tells us a great deal. It also tells us what the word meant to the people who established our cultural traditions regarding its meaning. “Person”, for instance, was originally used to refer to the masks worn by actors (“persona”), and was adopted as an aid in explaining the Trinity. “Personhood”, then, gets its moral power from the relation to God that humans have, being made in His image. This causes bizarre contradictions for modern people who don’t believe in God.

Something similar happens for “rights”, which only have moral weight when the term is used in a way foreign to the demands of activists today.

But both of these are topics for two more misconception Mondays.