Paul Oslington

This article is about the relationship between economics and Christian theology. It is concerned with economics in the modern sense (distinguished from the ancient art of oikonomia or household management, and personal financial decision making). Economics is about systems of provision for human need and flourishing. Economics, in the modern sense, is a science, and there are strong analogies between the economics/theology dialogue and the science/theology dialogue. The dialogue with economics is in some ways more complex because economic systems are not just products of nature but of human design. Theodicy, for instance, is more fraught in the economic domain than the natural world. After a brief sketch of contemporary economics, this article begins with an examination of scriptural teaching on economic matters. Emphasis is placed on the larger economic themes of the scriptures (such as creation, providence, eschatology, redemption, reconciliation, divine economy) rather than passages dealing with specific economic controversies. It then considers the reception of this scriptural teaching in different times and places. History is the best way of learning about the relationship between theology and economics.

The reception of scriptural teaching on economic matters is a diverse story, the only constant being the immense influence of such teaching on societies. Theology has influenced economic behaviour, systems, and economic ideas – including the formation of the science of political economy in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and its spread to North America and other parts of the world. The influence of Christian ideas about economics continues even as church attendance declines across the West. The shape of Christian economic ideas in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is important to the future of these regions. The aim of the article is to increase understanding of what Christian faith means in the economic domain, and understanding of the diverse engagements of Christian theology with economics.

1 Introduction

Economics is hugely important in contemporary culture, and much discussed by theologians. This article introduces economics and its relationship to Christian theology. It is written not just for professional theologians and economists, but also for the churchgoer who is curious or concerned about economics. A few clarifications are needed before we begin.

An important distinction is between ‘the economy’ on one hand, and ‘economics’ – which is the body of theory and empirical findings generated by the economics profession – on the other. Economists are not necessarily responsible for all the failings of an economic system, something that contemporary theologians critical of the economics profession often fail to recognize.

It is also important to distinguish between the personal economic issues we all face and questions about economic systems. This article emphasizes questions about economic systems because these are the ones that economists study. As we will see, however, the Christian scriptures and Christian theologians until recently have devoted more attention to the personal issues.

What is the relationship between the personal and the systemic questions? And what is the role of motivation, which looms large in personal economic issues but has no place in contemporary economists’ outcome-focused discussions of systems? There are of course other fundamental questions, such as the meaning of scarcity and rationality. Economic history, including connections between theology and the rise of the capitalist system (such as Weber 1976 [first published 1905] and Tawney 1926) are outside the scope of this article.

This article focuses on Christian thinking about economic matters. Consequently, it will leave aside the rich tradition of Islamic thinking on the subject, including the recent phenomenon of Islamic economics (Saeed 2001; Kuran 2004; Elashker and Wilson 2006). It will also leave aside economic thinking in the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism (examples are Schumacher 1973; Brown 2017). While Jewish economic thinking intersects with Christian, not least because of the shared Hebrew scriptures, recent writing about Jewish economics will likewise be left aside (see Levine 2010; 2012).

2 A sketch of contemporary economics

2.1 The economics profession

To understand the field of economists thinking about economic systems, it is helpful to have some understanding of the economics profession which is a fairly recent phenomenon. Foundational texts, such as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776; see 1976), appeared in the late eighteenth century, the first university chairs in political economy in Britain were created in the mid nineteenth century, and the first degree programs – such as the Cambridge Economics Tripos – took shape in the early twentieth century. Professional economics associations were founded from the late nineteenth century, including the Royal Economic Society in Britain and the American Economic Association.

The roots of the profession were in moral philosophy. Adam Smith, for instance, was Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Glasgow, and his lectures formed the basis of his Wealth of Nations. There were significant theological influences on the formation of the economics profession, well documented in the case of Adam Smith and early British writers on political economy, and perhaps best exemplified by the American Economic Association being an initiative of social gospel clergymen.

In the present period, economists in universities are part of a highly secularized profession, modelled on the ‘hard’ sciences and distant from subjects such as moral philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Economists often consider themselves superior to practitioners of these subjects because of their more advanced mathematical modelling and statistical methods (known as econometrics). Economics has been steadily invading these neighbouring disciplines. For example, in the sociology of religion, the rapidly growing field of the economics of religion which applies economists’ mathematical and statistical methods to religious behaviour and institutions (Iannaccone 1998 and 2012; Iyer 2016). Besides this tendency towards ‘economic imperialism’, the economics profession is also marked by a tighter orthodoxy than neighbouring disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. This tight orthodoxy – regardless of whether it is seen as a good or bad tendency – is maintained through the dominance in graduate training economists of a small number of American universities, with their overseas imitators. Young economists in these institutions learn that working in a particular manner with particular models and econometric techniques is the way to publish in the top journals of the profession and to succeed in the highly competitive academic job market. It helps of course to gain entry to one of the top American graduate programs, for their graduates are disproportionately represented on the top journal editorial boards and dominate hiring by the top American and overseas universities. Pursuing one of the heterodox research programs to be described below is a sure route to the margins of the profession, or unemployment (Klamer and Colander 1990; Klamer 2014).

Economists teaching and writing in universities are not the only members of the profession. There are also a large number of economists working in finance and industry; for instance, those forecasting economic trends to guide the strategy of corporations. Many economists work in government, formulating economic policy from within; or in think-tanks, writing and speaking in an attempt to influence economic policy from without. Others work for international organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization. Others work in consulting and lobbying, using cost benefit analysis and other types of modelling to advance the cause of their employers. Others are economic journalists.

This diversity of roles within the economics profession sometimes creates tensions. For instance, a critic of the profession may pick holes in the economics taught to undergraduates, but their critiques would likely not be representative of economics at the research frontier. This problem of divergence between teaching and the research frontier of the discipline is not unique to economics, though perhaps the divergence is larger and more problematic in economics than some other disciplines. The highly mathematical nature of most contemporary economic research exacerbates this problem. Those without mathematical training, including many of the critics, find the literature at the research frontier inaccessible and are forced to rely on second-hand accounts, sometimes to take the easy option of dismissing that which they do not understand. This has been a particular temptation for theologians writing about economics.

Another example of how the diversity of roles creates difficulties is the way that economic language is appropriated for purposes that have nothing to do with the main body of economic theory and evidence. For instance, the appropriation of the language of competition and economic efficiency by a government that is cutting back on public services, or the appropriation of the language of ‘creative destruction’ in support of corporate downsizing. Theological language can also be misappropriated by politicians and religious entrepreneurs for causes that have little to do with the core of the Christian tradition. Because of the contemporary cultural power of economic language, it is much more often illegitimately deployed than theological language. In neither case is it fair to hold the academic discipline responsible for misuse of its theories.

2.2 Mainstream economic theory

Economics, like theology, is marked by competing theories and vigorous disagreement. However, it is possible to identify some core elements of contemporary mainstream economic theory. The terminology ‘mainstream economic theory’ is used deliberately rather than ‘neoclassical economics’ which refers to a type of economics stemming from the so-called ‘marginal revolution’ of the late nineteenth century which displaced the ‘classical economics’ of Adam Smith, T. R. Malthus and, David Ricardo. Neoclassical economics was further developed in the twentieth century, but towards the end of that century changes in the discipline meant that the label became less and less appropriate for mainstream economics.

Contemporary mainstream economists tend to be methodological individualists, meaning that they explain behaviour by tracing it back to rational action by individuals. If the behaviour of a larger entity like a firm or a nation needs to be explained, the process is then to aggregate the individual actions. What, then, is rational action by an individual? For economists, individuals who are endowed with preferences act to maximize on those preferences, with given prices, income, and time constraints, and with given information. Given the way models of individual maximization are set up by economists they usually generate a unique rational action, such as how much labour the individual chooses to supply, or how much income the individual spends on available goods.

Economists create models of entire economies by combining this model of ‘rational action’ by individuals with the operation of profit maximizing firms, and by specifying the resources and production technology available to the economy. The most famous of these models of an entire economy is the Arrow/Debreu general equilibrium model. The model determines equilibrium prices for all commodities, allocations of commodities, and incomes for all individuals, given a production technology, resources, and ownership of resources by the individuals. Furthermore, this equilibrium can be shown to be efficient, in the sense that no individual can be made better off without another being worse off – or, in other words, that there are no unexploited gains (this concept is known by economists as ‘Pareto efficiency’).

Together with these core elements of economic theory (individualism, preferences, rationality as maximization, equilibrium, and efficiency) there are some other typical commitments. Most economists are committed to some form of a distinction between positive and normative statements. This goes with their conception of themselves as scientists. Most economists, especially academic economists, believe that it is their role to describe what is the case through their theoretical models and empirical research, and that their positive science needs to be supplemented by normative elements from elsewhere (perhaps from moral philosophy, or normative commitments of voters ascertained through the political process) to generate economic policy. A minority of economists believe that there is a normative element to their discipline and explore this in their research (Hausman, McPherson, and Satz 2006). Economics has had a long historical association with utilitarian moral philosophy, going back to Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill, and normative economics tends to work with utilitarianism or one of its modern refinements. Those outside the discipline have found this attachment to utilitarian moral philosophy somewhat strange and limiting (Sen and Williams 1982) since, in other disciplines and theology in particular, alternatives to utilitarianism such as Kantian deontological theories and Aristotelian natural law ethics are more popular than utilitarianism. There is nothing in principle to stop an economist who accepts the positive normative distinction from combining their positive science with an alternative moral philosophy. Even perhaps a moral theology. But such a combination would take most economists outside their comfort zone.

2.3 Heterodox alternatives: Marxians, Austrians, post-Keynesians, institutionalists, behavioural economics

I have very briefly sketched contemporary mainstream economics, but at the edges of the profession there are several heterodox traditions which I will now describe.

The Marxian tradition is long-standing. Marx wrote during the time when political economy was taking shape as a discipline in Britain in the nineteenth century, and borrowed most of his theoretical framework from Adam Smith, T. R. Malthus and David Ricardo (Howard and King 1994). However, he described their work as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘vulgar’ economics that functioned ideologically to obscure the true exploitative nature of the capitalist system. Subsequent Marxian economists have built on Marx’s models of the dynamics of the capitalist system, and on his analysis of the ideological function of mainstream economics.

In contrast to the Marxist economic tradition, historical economics was a reaction in different times and places against the view that economic theory is universally valid (Tribe 2003). The English historicist reaction to Ricardo began with Richard Jones in the early nineteenth century. It then was taken up, with different opponents, later in the nineteenth century by William Cunningham and William Ashley. It was eventually sidelined into the separate discipline of economic history. German historical economics is represented by Wilhelm Roscher, Carl Knies, and Gustav Schmoller. Max Weber, another German economist, shared some of their historical concerns but was also a critic of what he saw as Schmoller’s rigid and politicized historicism (Tribe 2003).

The Austrian economists are another heterodox tradition, going back to the work of Carl Menger in the late nineteenth century. Key figures are Eugene Böhm-Bawerk, Friedrich von Wieser, Ludwig Von Mises, and Friedrich Von Hayek (Boettke, Coyne, and Newman 2016). They reject the mainstream emphasis on equilibrium in economic systems, instead emphasizing the economic process, and the role of information and uncertainty. These features are much less amenable to mathematization, and the work of the Austrian economists tends to be less mathematical and empirical than mainstream economists.

The post-Keynesians take their name from J. M. Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936, and their work develops a particular interpretation of Keynes’ ideas (King 2002). It rejects attempts to incorporate Keynes into the neoclassical framework, and is particularly hostile to the IS-LM model which represents the neoclassical synthesis in textbooks and policy circles (King 2002). Instead, the post-Keynesians emphasize the radical nature of Keynes’ principle of effective demand. This is the idea that a market economy does not automatically generate the demand that is necessary to fully employ its resources, so that unemployment is a normal feature of such economies. For them, Keynes’ point is much more radical than the long recognized possibility that impediments to wage adjustment labour markets can generate unemployment. Some post-Keynesians connect Keynes to Ricardo or Marx, believing that the ‘marginal revolution’ was a wrong turn in economics, and construct their own synthesis of Ricardo and Keynes as an alternative to what they see as the misguided neoclassical synthesis. These post-Keynesians include Piero Sraffa and his followers. Closely related to this group are the followers of the Polish economist Michael Kalecki, a contemporary of Keynes who wrote independently on effective demand.

Institutionalists take their name from a group of early twentieth-century American economists Thorstein Veblen, John R. Commons, and Wesley C. Mitchell, who believed that the study of institutions – especially the institutions of the labour market – was an essential element of economics neglected by the mainstream (Rutherford 2001). The research program and many of the insights of the school have subsequently been incorporated into the mainstream and so the distinction between institutional economics and the mainstream is less clear in the present day.

Behavioural economics is much more recent phenomenon, stemming from the findings of experimental psychologists that human beings often act in ways that are inconsistent with mainstream economists’ models of rational action (Kahneman 2011). These findings began challenging economists’ thinking about rational choice in the 1980s, and a lot of money was made in financial markets by exploiting these findings that have increasingly been incorporated into mainstream economics. Views vary about whether behavioural economics is a fundamental challenge to mainstream economists’ models of rational action, or merely supplementary to them (Sent 2004).

Despite existing on the margins of the economics profession, heterodox economics is important to consider here because some of them – institutional and post-Keynesian economics in particular – are influential among some theologians who are sceptical of mainstream economics.

After this sketch of mainstream economics and heterodox alternatives, we can turn to the Christian scriptures, which are the basis of theological engagement with economics.

3 Scriptural teaching on economics

When teaching courses on economics and theology, it is illuminating to ask students which scriptural texts they think are relevant. Answers vary greatly according to disciplinary background, church tradition, and political background of the student. Theology students in mainline churches tend to go to the prophetic and synoptic gospel condemnations of greed and injustice. Those in the Reformed tradition often refer to the Pentateuchal laws about economic arrangements, especially the year of Jubilee. Pentecostal students often pick out the promises of divine material blessing, especially in the Old Testament. The book of Revelation is sometimes chosen by students from contexts of poverty and dysfunctional economic and governmental systems – perhaps because Revelation promises divine judgement on these systems. Economists understandably tend to be less familiar with the scriptures than theology students, but will often refer to passages about the connections between diligence and prosperity, and passages they see as supporting economic theory.

Students tend to select passages that refer directly to the world of work, markets, and money rather than passages about larger biblical economic themes such as redemption, reconciliation and the divine economy. Students find it much easier to identify biblical teaching about their personal economic dilemmas than about economic systems. This is also true of extensive literature on the bible and economics (Hengel 1974; Sider 1977; Gordon 1989; Meeks 1990; Blomberg 1999; Johnson 2010; Schneider 2002; Rosner 2004; Barrera 2013; Boer and Petterson 2014; Boer 2015; Brueggemann 2016).

Hermeneutical principles, of course, matter greatly (Wolterstorff 1987; Hay 1989; Williams 1996). If, as seems unavoidable, we work with economic models in interpreting scriptural material about economic systems, then it matters what types of hermeneutical models we work with (Esler 1994; Oslington 2015).

I will now briefly review the scriptural material:

3.1 Old Testament

The book of Genesis opens with an affirmation of the goodness of creation (Gen 1:31), and this is one of the key biblical themes relevant to economics. Moreover, men and women are described as being made in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27) and given dominion over the Earth (Gen 1:28). This image persists in spite of human sin, seen in the story of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3).

When God’s saving plan unfolds in the biblical story it has a clear material element. The blessing of Abraham includes livestock, silver, and gold (Gen 12:2–3; 13:2). Israel is delivered from oppression in Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey (Exod 3:8). On the way to the promised land they eat manna in the desert (Exod 16 and Num 11). The laws given to Israel for their life in the new land include the sabbath (with its economic dimensions), and prohibitions of idolatry, theft, and covetousness (Exod 20 and Deut 5). Other laws have an economic dimension, including the year of Jubilee (Lev 25), the tithe (Deut 12), and the sabbatical year (Deut 15). The prohibitions of idolatry are soon illustrated when the Israelites worship the golden calf they have made (Exod 32). Usury, or the exploitation of inequalities of power in finance, manifested in the agricultural society of ancient Israel as the charging of interest by the moneylender, is consistently condemned (Exod 22:25–27; Deut 23:19–20; Mic 3:2–3).

According to the biblical narrative, God’s intended blessing of Israel is undermined by their covetousness and greed. As they enter the promised land, Achan is punished for disobeying God and taking some of the treasures of conquest (Josh 7). Later on, under Israel’s kings, things only get worse, exemplified by Ahab and Jezebel’s theft of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kgs 21). At this time of wealth for most of God’s people the prophets denounced greed and injustice, because they believed the nation was turning away from the laws given to Israel, and that wealth was a clear indicator that the people were turning away from God. These prophetic denunciations include Isaiah’s of the rich who add house to house and field to field, calling evil good and good evil (Isa 5), his call to practice true religion by providing for the destitute (Isa 58), Jeremiah’s catalogue of economic iniquity (Jer 5:25–29), and many others (Ezek 18:5–9; Amos 2:6–7; Mic 2:1–2; Hab 2:4–5). The theme of idolatry and economic injustice as an indicator of where people stand with God is a common one in scripture. According to some of the prophets, repentance and a restoration of right economic relationships are necessary if national prosperity is to be restored (Amos 5:24; Mic 6:8; Mal 3:10). Some prophets use the evocative image for this of each Israelite sitting under his own fig tree (Mic 4:4; Mal 4:3–4; Zech 3:4), an image beloved of contemporary Christian small business owners and advocates of economic liberty.

The wisdom books contain a great deal of economic teaching. The goodness of wealth is affirmed, while its ephemerality and the temptations it poses are recognized (for instance Prov 10:15; Eccl 3:12–13; Eccl 9:7). Riches gained through injustice are seen as particularly fleeting and unlikely to satisfy (Prov 16:8; 21:6). There seems to be a link between work and wealth, though this is not always so (Prov 10:4; 13:4; 14:23). Wealth comes with responsibility to the poor (Prov 14:31; 19:17; 22:22–23). It is said to be wise to seek sufficiency, avoiding both poverty and riches (Prov 30:7–9).

3.2 New Testament

The gospels are full of stories and teaching about economic matters. Jesus’ affirmation of the creational intention for human beings to flourish is at least implicit in the stories of him feeding the crowds (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 8:1–9; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–14) and of the kingdom as a banquet (Luke 14:16–24). Jesus instructs his disciples to pray for their daily bread (Matt 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4). Interestingly, believers are also to pray for forgiveness of sins or ‘debts’, a command which picks up an understanding of sin – as debt to God – which also appears in the intertestamental literature. Jesus warns his disciples that wealth can be a trap and a distraction from true faith in God, exemplified by Jesus describing his ministry as the preaching of good news to the poor, and describing the poor as blessed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3; Luke 6:17). Jesus clearly here refers to the materially poor, but he can also be understood as referring to those who are not distracted from the gospel by worldly things. Elsewhere, Jesus warns about wealth as a barrier to discipleship (Luke 14:33), saying that one cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:1–13), that someone’s wealth cannot save them (Luke 18:18–29). We see in the story of Zacchaeus that salvation can express itself economically (Luke 16:19–31). None of this teaching about the dangers of wealth overrides the consistent scriptural teaching about the goodness of the material world that God has created.

A constant danger when interpreting scriptural material on economic matters is of readers importing their own prejudices. A good example is the parable of the talents or minas (Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–28, discussed by Storie and Brett 2009), which is placed differently in the structure of Matthew and Luke’s gospels, and which it cannot be assumed means the same in both cases. There are some puzzling features, such as Luke’s version seeming to equate the master who goes away with the notoriously rapacious ruler Herod Archelaus (who partially succeeded his father Herod the Great after going away to Rome to appeal his case). For some readers, this makes identification of God with the master in the parable problematic (Storie and Brett 2009). The tendency to identify God with the master may come from the exaltation of entrepreneurship and finance in contemporary culture – readers may assume that those who multiply money are praiseworthy, and that burying the money rather than investing it at interest is worthy of condemnation, or is at least irrational. This perspective, however, does not account for first-century culture, where multiplying money was often thought to indicate oppression (and there is a hint in the parable that the multiplication of the money came through rights to tax that the master granted). Nor does it account for the realities of first century financial markets, where lending tended to be by kings for wars or building projects, or by moneylenders preying on poor farmers’ misfortune. In other words, multiplying money tended not to be the praiseworthy result of enterprise and hard work, facilitated by competitive financial markets, that modern readers assume when reading the parable. What then does it mean? Jesus himself offers no explanation. In Luke’s version, the point perhaps is that Jesus’ kingdom is very unlike that of the master of the parable – and readers learn more about what Jesus’ kingship means from story which follows, that of the salvation of Zacchaeus the tax collector and the events in Jerusalem.

Luke’s narrative continues in the book of Acts, with a focus on the economic dimensions of salvation. In Acts, money and possessions are shared communally by the first Christian believers, in response to the Holy Spirit (Acts 2 and Acts 4–5). That the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be bought (Acts 8:9–12), and tells how salvation disrupted the business of the owners of a slave girl who had a spirit of divination (Acts 16:16–24). Significantly, the Council of Jerusalem insists that that the Gentile churches remember the poor, both in the Jerusalem church and (probably) within their own communities (Acts 15:1–29). This injunction to ‘remember the poor’ is echoed by Paul in his letter to the Galatian church (Gal 2:10).

Paul’s most sustained reflection on the economic implications of the gospel is in his appeal to the Corinthians for funds to take back to the poverty-stricken believers in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8–9). He appeals to Christ’s giving of himself and the fundamental equality between believers that it establishes, and argues this should be expressed economically.

Elsewhere Paul warns against covetousness and connects it with idolatry (Col 3:5; Eph 5:5; 1 Tim 6:9–10) and false teaching (Titus 1:11). These, says Paul, are especially dangerous in the church, and so church leaders cannot be lovers of money (1 Tim 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7–8). Nor does he believe that the church should support the idle (2 Thess 3:10). His advice for believers is to work diligently and enjoy the fruits of their labour, yet not to put their trust in riches but instead be generous (1 Tim 6:17). Paul wants fair treatment of slaves and recognition of their equal status in the Christian community, but does not seek to overthrow the institution of slavery (Col 4:1; Eph 6:5–8; 1 Cor 7: 21–24 but also the book of Philemon).

The book of James strongly attacks those who put their trust in riches (Jas 1:9–11), those who neglect the poor (Jas 1:27 and 2:5), those who exhibit covetousness (Jas 4:1–3), and those who gain wealth through injustice (Jas 5:1–6).

The book of Revelation picks up the Old Testament imagery about trade (for instance the ships of Tarshish of 1 Kgs 10:22; Isa 23; Ezek 26–28; and Babylon) and intensifies it in the vision of the end of the idolatrous trading city (Rev 18). In the final chapters of the book it is a new or renewed city – presumably with markets and the economic infrastructure of all cities – that God’s people are to inhabit. This suggests that it is corrupt idolatrous trade which is being condemned in the earlier chapters, rather than trade itself.

3.3 Larger scriptural themes

What is not often recognized in the literature on biblical economic teachings is the place of larger themes in the discussion. For instance, the economic background of some of the key images for salvation. Sin is sometimes equated with debt, and salvation with the discharge of that debt (Anderson 2009). Redemption is an image from the marketplace, the buying back of something that has passed out of one’s possession (Mark 10:45). Reconciliation is an image from the world of accounting, of bringing together that which was separated, or even opposed (for instance Rom 5:10–11; 1 Cor 5:18–20).

In the New Testament, the image of the divine economy may not be apparent to present-day readers, especially where economic language in the original text does not carry through in translation. However, it is important for the exploration of connections between economics and theology. Although the English word economics comes from the Greek oikonomos, this word referred to the steward or manager of a household, rather than the modern sense of economics as referring to systems (Leshem 2016). There is evidence that the use of the term expanded to cover such things as the design of a literary work (Reumann 1992), bringing it closer to our modern usage. It represents God’s creational and providential arrangement of the world for human benefit.

The divine economy image is developed in the Pauline epistles. Paul suggests that the gospel itself is an economy when describes himself as an oikonomos (1 Cor 4:1) who has been entrusted with an oikonomia (1 Cor 9:17). He writes of being a servant of God’s oikonomia for the Christian community (Col 1:25), but also of a divine oikonomia for the fullness of time (Eph 1:10), an oikonomia of God’s grace (Eph 3:2), a divine oikonomia hidden for ages (Eph 3:9), and a divine oikonomia that is known by faith (1 Tim 1:4). This raises issues about the nature of the divine economy and how it relates to a modern understanding of economics.

Most important of all to the relationship between economics and Christian theology are the biblical doctrines of creation, providence, and eschatology (Viner 1972; 1978). These doctrines connect humanity’s current existence to a deeper reality. This is expressed in the doctrine of creation in terms of humanity’s beginnings, in the doctrine of providence in terms of God’s role in history, and in the doctrine of eschatology in terms of the deeper reality that is humanity’s final destination. The goodness of creation, obscured but not destroyed by human sinfulness, is a fundamental truth that frames Christian theological reflection on economic matters. If creation were not good, then there would be no point in an economic system nurturing and harvesting the fruits of creation. If human beings were not granted dominion over creation, then such economizing would be working against the grain of creation. The doctrine of providence opens the way to interpreting theologically the provision of human needs though an economic system. An understanding of the eschaton affects a valuation of material goods – if they disappear at the end of time and our future is without them then they are of less value than if they are part of our final destiny.

4 Reception of scriptural teaching

4.1 The early church

Any attempt to summarize the first two centuries of Christian writing on economics struggles with the diversity of contexts and writers. First, there is an obvious division between Greek and Latin writers. The most significant early church writers on economic matters are the authors of the Didache and of the Shepherd of Hermas, and apologists such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Lactantius. This article can do no more than point to some of the main themes, but there is an extensive literature (including Phan 1984; Gordon 1989; Viner 1978; Gonzalez 1990; Rhee 2012). Important themes include the patristic theology of work, the redemptive power of alms (giving to the poor), and the use of economic metaphors in patristic teaching and preaching.

The church in the first two centuries was a minority in an often-hostile society. This reality shaped early Christians’ reception of the biblical material. Neither in the church nor in wider society was there anything like the modern conception of an economic system, nor possibilities of influencing it. In this context it is not surprising that biblical passages about work, wealth, and the Christian community were picked up by the early church writers. Though the early church was a mixed community, the biblical warnings about the dangers of wealth were prominent in their writings, partly because of the association of wealth with Roman rulers. Some writers advocated communal ownership of property. Agricultural labour and craft occupations were regarded as more legitimate than trade, reflecting the Greek philosophical suspicion of trade and the importance of this background for some of the early Christian writers. Slavery was considered a normal part of life, and condemnations of it tended to follow condemnations of other types of wealth. The charging of interest on loans was almost universally condemned, picking up the biblical laws but also the Greek philosophical view of the unnaturalness of money begetting money.

4.2 The Constantinian church

The context of Christian writing on economic matters changed significantly with the conversion of the emperor Constantine, which ended a period of persecution for Christians. Confiscated property was returned to the church, its property holdings grew, churches and clergy were exempt from taxation, and the church took an increasing role in alleviating poverty. Churches gained more members who had wealth and political influence within the Empire. Alongside these members, the church saw the birth of the monastic movement, which was a reaction against the church’s increasing entwinement with the Empire. Major Christian writers in this period include the three Cappadocian Fathers – Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus – and John Chrysostom, all of whom wrote in Greek, and the Latin writers Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and Augustine. Again, there is an extensive literature exploring this issue (including Phan 1984; Viner 1978; Gonzalez 1990; Holman 2009; Rhee 2012; Brown 2015).

Many themes carry over from the earlier writers, but there were also new issues. For example, the justification of property ownership for individuals and the church, the place of charity in the Christian life, and the organization of poverty relief in the decaying Roman Empire. Of lasting significance for the increasingly wealthy church was Augustine’s emphasis on believers’ attitudes towards possessions, rather than the quantity of them (City of God, Book 14).

4.3 Scholasticism

There is a large temporal and contextual leap to the thirteenth-century scholastic discussions of economic matters, and much of it carried on in Latin, at the University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas is foremost among these writers, who also included the Franciscans Bonaventure and Peter Olivi, Thomas’ teacher Albert the Great (who was especially important for the reception into the tradition of Aristotle’s writings on economics), Giles of Lessines, Henry of Ghent, and John Duns Scotus. The literature on these writers is vast, but often without much attention to the economic teachings, and a smaller literature focuses their economic teachings (including Langholm 1992 and 1998; Hirschfeld 2018). Alongside these are a group of sixteenth-century Spanish writers on economic matters including Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Francisco Suárez (Grice-Hutchinson 1978).

The justification of property ownership continued to be an issue for the scholastic writers. Merchants came to be seen as useful to society, and the older view of trade – as a dangerous occupation with a tendency towards avarice – was less prominent. Market exchange began to be considered more deeply than in earlier Christian writings, and the concept of a just price emerged, along with analyses of unjust practices including deception, coercion, and taking advantage of a buyer’s extreme need. Usury, or the charging of interest, was still condemned, and the scholastic authors considered in great detail the conditions under which the condemnation applied (Langholm 1992; 1998; Mews and Abraham 2007).

4.4 Early modern emergence of the science of political economy

Another huge leap takes us to the early modern period, with particular focus on the eighteenth century when the science of political economy emerged in Europe. Major figures include the German Cameralists; Antonio Genovesi in Italy; Pierre Boisguilbert, the Physiocrats, and Turgot in France; Bernard Mandeville writing in the Netherlands and England; the Scottish Enlightenment luminaries David Hume and Adam Smith; and the much maligned but hugely important English writer T. R. Malthus (Winch 1971 is an excellent short account).

Many histories of economic thought tell the story of the emergence of political economy as being the result of the Enlightenment-period shedding of religious prejudices (Schumpeter 1954). In this view, the new intellectual climate made possible new thinking by philosophers about economic matters, as well as by advisers to the new European nation states and the merchants whose profits depended on state policy. However, this is a fanciful account of the Enlightenment, especially of the Enlightenment in Britain, which occurred within the context of religion rather than against it. The anti-religious narrative does not fit most of the early political economists listed above. Consider the example of Adam Smith. The key influences on his famous argument – that individual self-interest operating in a particular institutional environment could generate benefits for all – were Scottish Calvinism and British scientific natural theology (Oslington 2011; 2018). Smith’s argument simply transferred a version of the doctrine of providence from history to the economy. His Calvinist sense of the limitations of human knowledge and reason fed his suspicion of government control of the economy. A theologically informed view of virtue and justice permeated his economics. Another example is the seventeenth century Frenchman Boisguilbert, whose understanding of the possibility of self-regarding action to generate a stable and productive economic order owed a great deal to his Jansenist theology (Faccarello 1999). Additionally, see the influence of theology on the important early Neapolitan political economist Antonio Genovesi (Bruni and Zamagni 2007). For these and many other early political economists, their economics was deeply intertwined with their theology.

4.5 Separation of economics from theology

Political economy and theology parted ways in Britain in the middle years of the nineteenth century. The increasing professionalization of the economics discipline contributed to this, just as professionalization also contributed to the separation of other sciences from theology. For political economy, the separation had a particular theological dimension, as early nineteenth-century political economists such as T. R. Malthus, Richard Whately, Thomas Chalmers, and William Whewell struggled with problems of theodicy raised by the new discipline (Waterman 1991a; 2001). For these men, evil and suffering were a different problem in the economy than in the natural world, because in the former they were a product of human design and increasingly seen as remediable through the application of political economy (Oslington 2018). By the late nineteenth century, there was little interchange between professional economists and theologians in Britain. Some British theologians began developing their own amateur alternatives to political economy, such as the Anglican Christian Socialism of F. D. Maurice, J. M. F. Ludlow, and others in late nineteenth-century Britain (see Norman 1987). The separation of economics and theology was not only a result of economists being less theologically-minded but also of theologians turning away from serious economic analysis (Waterman 1991a).

In North America, the separation occurred later than in Britain. The political economy in early America was largely derived from Britain, and the same tendencies towards separation operated in nineteenth-century America. However, the rise of the social gospel movement in late nineteenth-century America gave a new religious impetus to economic thinking. This was symbolized by the founding of the American Economic Association by a group of mostly clergymen oriented towards the social gospel, with a vision of an economics profession that would inform social reform in America (Bateman and Kapstein 1999). Eugenics was a component of this movement (Leonard 2005). The separation of economics from theology in America eventually came, with the weakening of the social gospel movement, and economics was secularized in America in the middle years of the twentieth century. The career of American economist John Bates Clark exemplifies this shift, moving from economics as a tool for religious advocacy in his early work to technical analysis without religious reference in his later work. For Clark, this shift was defended on religious grounds (Henry 1995).

Some argue that despite the separation of economics from theology, there are continuing religious influences on economics (Nelson 2004 and 2010; Friedman 2021).

4.6 Contemporary developments

Any church member or theologian reading the literature of contemporary mainstream economics or attending a mainstream economics conference would find little reference to theology. However, at the margins of the profession, there are journals, conferences, and groups which support discussion of connections between economics and theology. These began appearing in response to the separation of the two disciplines, and include Faith and Economics (published by the US Association of Christian Economists since the 1970s), the Journal of Markets and Morality (published by the Acton Institute in the US), the Review of Social Economy (begun by the now-defunct Catholic Economic Association), and the Journal of Economics, Theology and Religion (a more recently established journal published in the Netherlands). The US Association of Christian Economists runs sessions every January at the ASSA the largest gathering of professional economists, alongside the American Economic Association, the Econometric Society, and other associations. The UK Association of Christian Economists continues to hold a conference each year in Cambridge, though its journal has ceased publication.

Much of the discussion of the relationship between economics and theology occurs outside the economics profession, and is therefore ignored by most professional economists. Associations and journals of Christian ethics and Christian theology host some of these discussions.

The divergence between personal economic ethics and the ethics of economic systems presents a challenge for Christian ethicists and theologians. The point about divergence goes back at least to Adam Smith, but has been particularly emphasized by Frank Knight et al. (1947) and Paul Heyne (2008) in their work on the relationship between Christian theology and economics. An ethic of Christian love may be considered appropriate for face to face interactions in small communities, but both Knight and Heyne have demonstrated that it can be unhelpful and even harmful in large scale market economies.

One of the most significant theological discussions of economics is within the tradition of Catholic social teaching. This discussion has arisen from the papal encyclicals (Pope Leo XIII 1891; Pope John Paul II 1991; Pope Benedict XVI 2009) about which there is an extensive literature (Curran 2002; Waterman 1991b; 1999; 2013; 2016; Novak 1982; Gregg 2014).

There is also an Anglican tradition of social doctrine, going back perhaps to Richard Hooker, whose main exponents – aside from the nineteenth-century Christian socialists referred to above – are the great early twentieth-century archbishop William Temple (1942) and a line of writers who followed him: R. H. Preston, John Atherton (1992), Peter Sedgwick (1999), Richard Higginson (2012), and Eve Poole (2010). Anglican critics of this tradition, such as Josiah Stamp, Denys Munby (1957), Brian Griffiths (1982), Donald Hay (1989), Kim Hawtrey (1987), A. M. C. Waterman (1991a; 2003), and Peter Heslam (1998; 2010), are more positive towards markets.

Ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, have also generated a literature on economic issues (discussed by Ballor 2010). Outside the West, especially in Latin America and Africa, there is an emerging conversation that holds out hope of recovering some of the dimensions of scriptural teaching on economic matters that have been lost in other conversations. At its best it is less inclined to separate economic and theological issues, and less blinded by the materialism that afflicts the Western church. At its worst it recycles dubious narratives of colonial blame for all manner of economic problems.

5 Connections with the science/theology dialogue

The history of the relationship between economics and Christian theology has many parallels with those between other sciences and Christian theology. Especially illuminating are comparisons with sciences such as psychology, anthropology, and sociology, which – like economics – deal with human beings and human society.

The ‘emancipation from religion’ narrative about the rise of Western science has, in recent scholarship, been balanced with an appreciation of the ways theology has shaped other sciences (Brooke 1991; Harrison 2015). This makes the mounting historical evidence and emerging consensus among historians of economics about the importance of theology for the emergence of economics unsurprising. The story of how economics was separated from theology, in response to a mixture of sociological and intellectual forces, shares much with the stories of other sciences. The sociological force of professionalization of the discipline operated similarly in economics as in other sciences, but for economics there was an important difference. In economics, the force of professionalization was complicated by the greater power of economics (relative to sciences like anthropology and sociology) in shaping government policy. The secularized economics profession had tense relations with governments who were responsive to a less secularized electorate, exemplified by tensions in Britain during the Thatcher years (1979–1990). The intellectual issues involved in the separation are subtly different for economics than for other sciences, especially the issues of theodicy discussed in a previous section. Just as other sciences have been used for religious apologetic purposes, so too has economics. A good example is the argument of Richard Whately, a theologian, philosopher, and economist who held the first chair in political economy in a British university, the Drummond chair at the University of Oxford. Whately argued that the provision of sustenance for the city of London through the operation of the market demonstrated God’s wisdom and care much more powerfully than anything in the natural world (quoted in Oslington 2018).

As well as sharing features with other sciences in the history of its relation to theology, economics shares with the other sciences a set of interpretations of that relationship. It is not hard to find representatives of what John Hedley Brooke (1991) calls the ‘harmony of science and theology’ thesis. The work of Jay Richards (2009) is one example, in which truths of economics and the free market policies that are believed to follow from these truths are harmonized with theology; though many similar works are produced by American thinktanks. At the other end of the political spectrum, varieties of heterodox economics are harmonized with theology, and there are calls for a new economics built on theological foundations. An example is the neo-Calvinist Christian economics movement that arose in the 1970s, exemplified by the work of Bob Goudzwaard (1986), John Tiemstra (1990; 1994), and the Jubilee group in Britain (Schluter and Ashcroft 2005); though this movement is criticized by Heyne (1994), Richardson (1994; 2014), and Oslington (2020). The literature is awash with representatives of Brooke’s conflict thesis – writers who believe that that there is a fundamental conflict between economics and theology. Recent examples include the work of John Milbank (1990), Kathryn Tanner (2005; 2018) and Eugene McCarraher (2020).

6 Rhetoric

A striking feature of the contemporary discussion of relationship between economics and Christian theology is that it consists of many conversations among different groups, with very little connection between them. This invites the sort of rhetorical analysis of these conversations pioneered by Deirdre McCloskey (1998) and Arjo Klamer (2007).

Let us first consider the discussion of economics within Christian ethics and theological circles is usually heavily critical of economics. What is the audience and what purpose does it serve? Economists certainly are not the intended audience; the economists’ language of models and data is not used, and few economists read or even are aware of the existence of this literature. Nor are policymakers the intended audience, for policy recommendations in this literature tend to be vague to the point of meaningless and rarely supported with convincing evidence. The audience seems to be other Christian ethicists and theologians, and I suspect the purpose is to reassure themselves of the relevance of their enterprise by referencing economics, and to signal their political commitments and virtue to colleagues. Without economists in the audience there is no discipline exercised on historical, theoretical or empirical claims about economics, made in this literature, with fairly predictable results for the accuracy of such claims. Criticism of economics and economists usually plays well at a theological conferences or seminars. There are of course exceptions to these generalizations about the sorry state of the Christian ethics and theological literature about economics, where authors engage carefully with economics.

Another conversation occurs in Christian economics circles. Participants often work in Christian colleges (a US rather than British or European phenomenon) and need to signal their commitment to the Christian vision of the college. They are often working in an environment where research time and resources are severely constrained. The work of economists in these contexts thus shares some of the features of the conversation within Christian ethics and theology, though the standard of discussion of economics is higher. Models and data are more often employed. However, the lack of advanced training in theology tends to make these Christian economists’ contributions weaker when they attempt to engage with matters outside of the purely economic field.

Arguably, these weaknesses of the economics and theology conversation could be observed in most conversations which cross disciplinary boundaries. Christian ethicists and theologians don’t have much professional incentive to make the large investment of their time and in learning mathematics and engaging deeply with economics and economists. These weaknesses are also found in the work of scholars from other fields who also choose to write about economics (Coleman 2002). From the other side, economists – even economists working at Christian institutions – don’t normally have the professional incentive to learn biblical languages and the ways of biblical scholars, or engage deeply with the world of Christian theology. It may be true that multidisciplinary research is difficult, but one is entitled to expect more humility in Christian circles about claims made about other disciplines.

One of the most fruitful conversations is among intellectual historians, including historians of science. By virtue of being historians, rather than professional theologians or economics, they don’t have a stake in the professional culture of theology or economics. History is common ground shared by the two disciplines, and thus a more neutral place for the conversation about the relationship between the two disciplines to occur. Intellectual history nevertheless has its own professional peculiarities and incentive structures as a discipline. A strength, relative to theology or economics, is intellectual history’s openness to the diversity of relationships between economics and theology across time and space, and a suspicion of theoretical grids imported from either economics or theology. Its breadth and openness, however, increase the danger of superficial engagement, especially since economics and theology require investments in mathematics or languages. The main problem though with intellectual history as a way forward is that while theologians read it, economists do not, even the history of their own discipline. Can it be a fruitful conversation if economists are not at the table?

Finally, there is a ‘non-conversation’; the lack of attention that mainstream economists pay to Christian ethics and theology – this includes mainstream economists who are Christians. It should be noted that the conversation within explicitly Christian economic circles is not representative of the opinions of Christians who are economists. The ‘Christian economics’ conversation is a small and unrepresentative sample of Christian opinion. In particular, those who assume Brooke’s ‘harmony or conflict’ (1991) views of the relationship between economics and theology are probably overrepresented, and those who believe that economics and theology have no connection with each other are underrepresented. This holds whether these economists’ beliefs about lack of connection comes from ignorance or whether they have invested time necessary to inform themselves and considered the issues. Paying attention to another discipline is difficult for those working at the research frontier in economics, perhaps even more so in economics than some other sciences because of the tight professional orthodoxy and the scepticism of other disciplines that form part of the culture of the economics profession. Given the intense competition among young economists working at the research frontier of their discipline, it will often be the less able and older economists who have a lower opportunity cost of the investment necessary to engage with other disciplines. This no doubt has consequences for the quality and professional impact of conversations about ethics and theology among mainstream economists.

Another area of conversation across the two disciplines is the rise of the economics of religion (Iannaccone 1998 and 2012; Iyer 2016), where mainstream economists apply their models and advanced empirical techniques to religion. The technical quality of the economics in this field is usually high, but the same sort of incentive problems which apply to Christian ethicists and theologians writing on economics also apply to economists writing on religion. That is to say, their audience is restricted to other economists, as is clear from the mathematical language and the journals where the research is published. Without the presence of religion scholars in the discussion who could provide discipline to their claims the claims about religion will likely be less accurate. The response from scholars of religion who read the literature of economics of religion is often that the model and treatment of the data may be impressive, but that the analysis does not correspond to any religion in the real world.

7 Concluding reflections

Despite the shortcomings of the contemporary discussion, the relationship between economics and Christian theology remains hugely important for Christian engagement with the contemporary world. It is possibly more important than the relationship between theology and any other science. How then can the several contemporary conversations about the relationship between economics and theology be improved and connected up? How do we deal with the incentive problems that plague and sour the conversation among ethicists and theologians and that make it difficult to draw economists into the conversation?

8 Notes on further reading

Surveys from a variety of perspectives include Hay (1989), Brennan and Waterman (2008), Heyne (2000), Stackhouse and Miller (2011), Pollitt et al. (2006), Finn (2010), Williams (2010), McCloskey (2006; 2010; 2016). Oslington (2003) and Oslington, Williams and Hirschfeld (2018) are collections of key papers in the field with a brief introductory survey.

Useful edited volumes include Brennan and Waterman (1994), Stackhouse McCann and Roels (1995), Schweiker and Mathewes (2004), Henderson and Pisciotta (2005), Bateman and Banzhaf (2008), Harper and Gregg (2008), and Oslington (2014).

For those unfamiliar with economics, a good place to start is a history of economics such as Backhouse (2002) or one of several excellent accounts of the way economists think, see Heyne (1973), Harper (2018), and Menzies (2021).


Copyright Paul Oslington ORCID logo (CC BY-NC)

Professor of Economics and Theology, Alphacrucis University College, Sydney, Australia and Honorary Research Professor, Centre for Religion Ethics and Society, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia.


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