Economic Shalom–Bolt’s Theology of the Market Beyond Biblicism

boltEconomics 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

3 Cruddy Reasons No Christian Should Ever Use to Deny Aid to the Poor

generous justiceThe other day I wrote a piece in which I outlined 3 ways Christians could reasonably disagree on what to do about helping the poor politically. It was essentially an explication of how someone could look at all of those Bible verses about helping the poor, believe them, want to put them into practice, and yet still find themselves voting against politicians and policies that attempt to enact long-term redistribution and aid to the poor via governmental programs. It was a plea for mutual understanding between economically left-leaning and right-leaning Christians, especially for the former not to assume bad-faith motives such as greed or heartlessness on the part of the latter in their voting patterns. Again, often-times these patterns are rooted in legitimate concern for the poor and a genuine difference of opinion on what is actually helpful to them.

Unfortunately, these good-faith reasons aren’t the only ones that people, even Christians, use to justify their voting, or even their giving patterns. Often-times there is a deeply un-Christian sensibility that informs our attitudes towards aid to the poor, rooted more in American, middle-class self-righteousness than in the Gospel or sound political theology. It’s easily spotted when the subject of taxes or charity comes up–certain platitudes and memes are tossed about having to do with “rights” and having “earned” our way of life, so on and so forth, implying that the poor simply deserve their lot and not our help. To a certain extent, I get it. There’s biblical warrant for connecting work with wages, property rights, etc.  Still, these truths often get used to justify callousness and are turned into opportunities for spiritual-economic pride that just cut plainly against the grain of Scripture.

Now, I originally planned to write a more substantial post in which I dealt with a number of these attitudes myself, but I ran across a brilliant quote by Robert Murray M’Cheyne that about sums it up:

Now, dear Christians, some of you pray night and day to be branches of the true Vine; you pray to be made all over in the image of Christ. If so, you must be like him in giving…”Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor”

Objection 1 – “My money is my own.”
Answer: Christ might have said, “My blood is my own, my life is my own”…then where should we have been?

Objection 2 – “The poor are undeserving”
Answer: Christ might have said, “The are wicked rebels…shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But no, he left the ninety-nine, and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving.

Objection 3 -“The poor may abuse it.”
Answer: Christ might have said the same; yea, with far greater truth. Christ knew that thousands would trample his blood under their feet; that most would despise it; that many would make it an excuse for sinning more; yet he gave his own blood.

Oh Dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving. Christ is glorious and happy and so will you be. It is not your money I want, but your happiness. Remember his own word, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

-quoted in Generous Justice, Timothy Keller, pg. 108

Note, you may still hold that governmental redistribution of economic goods is unwise, stretches beyond the government’s actual scope of authority, and is actually unhelpful for the poor–that’s fine. But God forbid that ever bleeds into an overall attitude of disregard for the poor. Objections like these should never be at the heart of any Christian who has received and understood the Gospel. The Gospel is about a God who saves by sheer grace, giving freely of himself to the undeserving. That needs to sink down deep into our minds, our souls, and reshape the way we approach even our own heart-motives for taking the economic positions we do.

If you don’t think the government should be the main source of aid, then make sure you are giving yourself, either directly, or through a church body. If you’re arguing for what you deem to be a wiser fiscal policy, beware that any of these creeping self-righteous attitudes infect your logic and your rhetoric, especially if you’re going to talk about your Christian ethics in other areas of political concern. The bottom-line with everything is: when it comes to the poor, don’t forget the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 Ways Christians Can Disagree About What to Do About Poverty Politically

Disclaimer: Just to clarify, I’m not going to try and put forward any solution, any “true” answer, or definitive position on what Christians ought to be doing about poverty other than working to alleviate it. I’m not arguing for a particular political policy or party, or against a particular policy or party, despite what this may look like. I’m just trying to facilitate calmer, more empathetic, and Christ-like discussions within the Christian community by pointing a few things out.

Christians Should Care About Poverty
povertyLet’s start with the obvious. I don’t know that I really have to argue for this–I hope I don’t–but the Bible is idiot-proof clear that God’s people ought to care for the poor, work to relieve their suffering, help, etc. Depending on who you read, there’s anywhere from 300 to 2000 verses on the poor and justice. I’ll give three from the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels:

Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.

Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read… “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Clearly Jesus wants us to help the poor and he even sees his own mission having to do with that. Christians should want to help the poor–actually, not just want it, think nice thoughts about it, but actually do it. (Jas 2:14-17) The question becomes, “How?”

Strategies
Typically the least controversial approach is through personal generosity, independent charity groups, and the direct involvement of the church in the fight against poverty. Even minimal historical digging and contemporary research will show that for 2,000 years the church has, for the most part, been known for its charity and benevolence to the most vulnerable in society. In fact, the name “charity” has its origin in the practice of Christian benevolence in connection with the Christian virtue of caritas. I don’t think anybody will argue that the local and global Church shouldn’t be directly helping the poor.

votingTo many Christians (we’ll call them “Group A”) one equally obvious answer is to vote politicians into office who will act legislatively to create programs aimed at helping the poor through various redistribution and assistance programs. It really seems to be the obvious solution. That’s the quickest way to leverage goods and services on behalf of the poor at the national scale. So, when election time rolls around, they look, they read, and think about which party or politician seems most committed towards that end and they do their Christian duty and vote for her/him.

At the same time, there is a significant chunk of Christians (we’ll call them “Group B”) who apparently don’t buy that answer. This actually seems to be a significant chunk of the American church and probably a majority of American Evangelicals. They tend to vote against politicians who favor those sorts of long-term assistance and poverty-related legislation and generally are opposed the large-scale, governmental efforts in this regard–often-times quite passionately. Now, unsurprisingly this sort of voting behavior on the part of Group B leaves Group A scratching its collective head. “I thought Christians were supposed to care about the poor? How could you possibly be opposed to Politician X, or policy Y?”

Three Reasons
What I’d like to do is just quickly point out three reasons (and there could easily be more) why a sane Christian, who has read all those verses about the poor, cares passionately about them, wants to relieve their suffering, and work for justice on their behalf, might still fall into Group B. I’m not necessarily endorsing these views, just trying to explain some of the thought process and logic of it so that Group A doesn’t immediately have to assume bad faith, or a hardness of heart against the poor on the part of Group B. So, here goes:

  1. Church Not Government- The first reason is that they might simply think that poverty-relief is not the job of the government, but rather that of the church. They read the Scriptures, see all of those injunctions to God’s people to care for the poor, and conclude that they are, in general, only for God’s people. The church should be taking care of the poor, working in the inner-cities, creating communities in which sharing is the rule and poverty-alleviating generosity is second nature. The government on the other hand is there to bear the sword, maintain legal justice, ensure the rule of law, and other such functions. In essence, it’s a difference in political theology, in their understanding of the role that God has ordained for the government and for the church. Some Group B Christians think that voting in extended-duration welfare-style legislation is a sort of unwarranted outsourcing, and maybe even an excuse for negligence on the part of the church in their call to serve the poor. The point is not to ignore the poor, but help them in the way they think God has called them.
  2. Government Okay But Ineffective- Another line of thinking might not make that sharp distinction between the church’s job and the state’s job, but might simply find the government ineffective at doing that job. This one shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Basically, the logic is that it’d be fine if the government helped out, but by and large it isn’t very good at doing that. In fact, often-times when you compare the effectiveness of government-run programs and that of church or independent non-profits, they just don’t line up well. Group B might cite cycles of dependence, the destruction of social structures, and various other side effects that are said to accompany government intervention. Now, this isn’t necessarily a specifically Christian way of thinking, but rather a pragmatic one that a Christian might be persuaded of. Again, the issue here is not whether Group B cares about the poor, but what they think will actually help the poor.
  3. Government But Not that Policy- This third reason is really kind of a special version of the second. You might find Christians who actually think that the government has a role to play in combating poverty, a strong one in fact, but still think that certain policies currently touted as main planks of a poverty-combating platform to be faulty and harmful. The recent big one I can think of is the Affordable Care Act. Now, correct or not, I know people who generally think the government should be involved in this sort of thing, actually want health care reform, but simply thought the Act was/is a bad way to go about it–that it might actually be detrimental in some respects. They want the poor to get health care, good health care, but they think this Act doesn’t do it in a sustainable or helpful fashion and so their opposition to it is, in fact, motivated precisely because of their concern for the poor. There are probably other examples, but this was the obvious one.

I fully acknowledge at this point that there are likely many Christians in Group B who don’t vote the way they do for these reasons, but rather for very selfish reasons unconnected to any principled theological concerns. (Actually, I’m planning on writing a post about reasons Christians should never use for opposing poverty legislation soon.) Still, these are three possible, plausible, non-poor-hating reasons for being a Group B Christian.

Conclusions
Now at this point you might be thinking this was one big apology for Christians voting conservative and Republican and really just a stealth argument against Democrats. You’re free to go ahead and think that. I mean, that’s not what I’m doing, but I have no control over your mental habits. Once again, in order to compensate for my incompetence as a communicator or the sheer perversity of some readers, I’m just trying to point out that there are processes of thought by which someone might arrive at a Group B voting pattern, while still having read all those verses about poverty with an aim to obey them.

Of course, it may be that all three of those stances are flawed whether in their approach to the scriptures, their understanding of the pragmatic situation, or their judgment about particular pieces of legislation. Who knows? Maybe the Affordable Care Act really is a great plan. (Please don’t argue either for or against in the comments. It’s not that I don’t care, but I kinda don’t for the purposes of this blog.) All I’m trying to do is ensure that Christians in Group A don’t immediately assume or accuse Christians in Group B of not caring about the poor. Instead, you should work to engage them theologically about the role of the government, or informationally about real effects about various programs or policies.

And really, it’s not even just this issue. Generally-speaking, assuming bad faith motives like “they just hate the poor”, as the only possible reason someone might disagree with you politically, or in any other area, is generally not a winning strategy, either for understanding or communicating. I guess what I’m trying to foster, in my own inadequate way, is the intellectual empathy Matthew Lee Anderson’s been talking about lately. If we’re going to have a real conversation about any of this, especially in the body of Christ, we need to be able to at least try to understand where the other person is coming from, even if you still end up thinking they’re wrong.

Well, this blog’s too long already and I don’t know how to end it so there.

Soli Deo Gloria