The Bible’s (Six?) Principles of Economy

Screen Shot 2016-10-29 at 10.16.11 AMTo study what the Bible “says” about the economy and about finances is to enter into a field fraught with two major challenges: first, the radical difference between those economies in the Bible times (we are dealing here with possible two millennia, and one must at least ponder whether what is said to a covenant based people, Israel, is for non-covenant based people) and ours (Western history of capitalism and free market, with not a little influence from the so-called Protestant work ethic) and, second, the investigator’s invisibility to his or her own bias. I’ve read some capitalists and free marketers who think the Bible had the same principles at work (and are therefore justified) and I’ve read socialists and social democrats who think the Bible is on their side. My favorite book on this topic came from the Vatican: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. (I checked through the bibliography and index and don’t see this very important study.)

Hence, watch for the big picture and observe what is both present and what is absent.

Walter Brueggemann has the courage to weigh in in his new book Money and Possessions in the very helpful series Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. I remember first reading him on this theme in his big seller The Prophetic Imagination as he compared Moses with Solomon.  He knows the second problem above and begins with it:

All readers can find what they want in the Bible concerning money and possessions. It is impossible in any survey to notice or discuss every possible reference, so one’s treatment of the subject is sure to be selective. 1

What we find in his opening section is a selection of six theses on the Bible and possessions.

1. Money and possessions are gifts from God.
2. Money and possessions are received as reward for obedience. [Reverse is present too.]
3. Money and possessions belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community. [1 and 3 are together.]
4. Money and possessions are sources of social injustice. [And justice.]
5. Money and possessions are to be shared in a neighborly way.
6. Money and possessions are seductions that lead to idolatry. [R.P. Martin once called this “mammonolatry.”]

What do you think of these theses? Adequate? Do we need more?

He turns these theses against “market ideology,” his catch all for the problems he sees in the American and Western way of life. His description here is typical of the critics of capitalism and he does not provide an explanation of how an economy works across the board, but rather focuses only on problems. Thus, he says the market ideology thinks there “are no gifts, no free lunches” (9). Overstatement ignoring the generosity of the wealthy as well as at least some institutionalized welfare in all societies even today. He needs at least to sketch economic theories, economic justifications, and economic criticisms, not least because what we face in capitalist countries is not the same as what Israel faced. I recommend for a starter a book called Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan and Burton G. Malkiel. I suspect I will raise more than a few eyebrows because of his embrace of what he is calling “market ideology” but I for one am convinced Brueggemann’s biblical work will toss all kinds of freshness on the Bible’s themes as well as on how to live them out today.

I agree in general with his six theses but there are others, and for now these can be mentioned and I’m thinking he will bring at least some if not most of these up in the book: sometimes the righteous suffer poverty; sometimes people are voluntarily poor; sometimes people are poor because they are lazy (see Wisdom literature and Proverbs); sometimes poverty results from YHWH’s discipline and sometimes from disaster and tragedy; some people are wiser and more advanced in their farming than others, in their fishing than others. On top of this, the Bible frames “work” as labor for the sake of sustenance and provision. On top of this are some fundamental virtues, like responsibility, ambition/labor, preparation and apprenticeship, the connection of possession to labor, and the training of one’s children into the “system” (whatever it might be, but those principles are also at work in Israel). So, one can’t talk about money and possessions without these elements on the table, too.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.