Economics is complicated. Establishing a Christian approach to economics seems even more daunting a task, especially given the amount of ink that’s been spilled when it comes to a Christian approach to money and wealth. Trying to wade into the conversation without any sort of guide then, can be overwhelming. As someone who has only begun to stumble towards developing my own thought in this area, I was delighted to receive a copy of John Bolt’s new little volume in the Acton Institute’s series of primers on faith and work, Economic Shalom: A Reformed Primer on Faith, Work, and Human Flourishing.
Though the cover’s a bit drab and uninspiring, the writing is not. Bolt manages to deliver an accessible, lively introduction to basic economics in what amounts to an “unapologetic defense of a free market economy set within a democratic liberal polity” (pg. 171) from a Reformed theological perspective. I emphasize “a” Reformed perspective for two reasons. First, Bolt explicitly draws from a primarily from the Dutch Reformed tradition, most specifically from the thought Neo-Calvinists like Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper. Also, as is evident in his arguments against them, there are other Reformed voices who would probably disagree with his construal.
Now, while I don’t have the time give it the justice of a full review, I did want to highlight the couple of key strengths that make this a valuable resource for those looking to give deeper thought to the issues of faith and economics.
The primary strength of Bolt’s proposal is try to move us past the simple biblicism that tends to run rampant in these theological discussions. In the first chapter, he disposes of the idea that there is clearly one “biblical economics” that can be cleanly read off the surface of the text. He does so partially by surveying the economic thought of three major christian ethicists, Walter Rauschenbusch, Ronald Sider, and David Chilton, using essentially the same biblicistic assumptions, end up with a wide variety of contradictory economic proposals ranging from interventionist socialism to theonomic libertarianism.
Instead, he holds up the thought of Herman Bavinck, who put forward a more chastened reading of Scripture that takes into account it’s salvific purposes:
A Reformed approach to the Bible resists reading it in a flat manner as so many disparate bits and pieces of inspired, useful knowledge that can be picked up here and there as we have need of them. A Reformed handling of Scripture does not treat it as a manual for child-rearing one day and a textbook for financial management the next. It is a mistake to go to the Bible for scientific knowledge, a point John Calvin already made in his Genesis commentary when he observed that the words “let there be a firmament” (1:6) are meant not for the sophisticated mean of learning but “for all men without exception” and can be understood even by the “rude and unlearned.” Calvin then added: “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Two important aspects of Reformed hermeneutics are illustrated here: The first is the perspecuity of Scripture, the conviction arising from the priesthood of all believers that Scripture’s essential message can be grasped by all who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. Reformed people do not rely on a priestly caste of theologians to tell them how to read the Bible. Second, though the Bible is relevant for every dimension of human life, it has a very specific and well-defined purpose: “that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Bible is a salvation book and not an economics textbook or social renewal manual. And it is with this particular focus on salvation that Bavinck addresses the question of the Bible’s relevance for economics. (pg. 15)
Instead of piling up a bunch of verses and trying to see which specific commands can be cleanly mapped onto the current political system, Bavinck proposes we recover the main spiritual purpose of the Scriptures–the restoration of fallen man to God through the Gospel. From there, humans begin to be restored to their proper relationships with each other and are enabled to begin taking up the form of life rooted in God’s creational norms. Where do we go to find those norms? Well, back to the Scriptures, but now, we don’t go looking for particular commands, but the general principles that underlie and inform them. For this reason, Bavinck won’t speak directly of a “biblical economics”, but rather an economic system that is consistent with Scripture.
While not slavishly following Bavinck at all points, Bolt’s approach is broadly consistent with it. He offers up a defense of the ordered liberty of free-market capitalism as consistent with a broad biblical theology we find in Scripture: creation bursting with potential awaiting cultivation; the freedom and vocation the of Imago Dei; the universal sinfulness of humanity after the Fall; our epistemic limitations as finite creatures; the providence and sovereignty of God in the allocation of resources; biblical principles of work and charity from the wisdom literature; a conception of justice as opportunity and the restraint of evil; the truth of our redemption through Christ; an amillenial eschatology that eschews over-reach or pessimism. It is in light of these principles that he draws on the work of economists to deal with the market, consumerism, ordered liberty, and social inequality.
I’ll be brief about the second strength, as it follows directly from the first: Bolt demonstrates a humble restraint in his judgments on a where rhetoric typically runs wild. Because of this, Bolt goes about explaining basic economic concepts, demonstrating their compatibility with Scriptural principles, and dealing with common Christian objections to a market economy with sanity and grace. While it’s easy to imagine a number of robust challenges to Bolt’s account, it won’t be on account of undue dogmatism or a lack of Christian charity.
All of that to say, I would warmly commend Economic Shalom to anyone tired of simplistic accounts, both on the Right and the Left, theologically and politically. Bolt has done the Church a service writing it.
Soli Deo Gloria