At a recent Theopolis intensive course on political economy, James Jordan argued that only a theological treatment of value can account for the double-sidedness of the concept. On the one hand, certain goods have cross-cultural, trans-historical value; gold and silver have remarkable staying power as money or back-up for other forms of money. On the other hand, some goods have value only in very specific cultural circumstances; a lock of John Lennon’s hair is valuable in places where John Lennon is a demi-god, while John the Baptist’s foreskin would be considered a precious commodity in a different age and culture.
Utility cannot explain either side. Gold, silver, and diamonds have their uses, but for many tasks (making tanks, for instance) more useful materials are readily available. Value doesn’t seem to be entirely subjective either, since certain things seem to retain value across space and time and culture, even if their value isn’t strictly universal. Value doesn’t come entirely from the labor invested in production; John Lennon didn’t expend much energy to produce his hair, nor to snip off a lock. Value isn’t entirely a function of scarcity either; certain materials are scarcer than gold, but not as consistently valuable.
Jordan argued that the common theological root behind both aspects of value is “glory.” God is a God of glory, and He has made human beings both glorious and responsive to glory. Created things that resemble, reflect, or mimic God’s glory are considered valuable. The fiery appearance of gold and diamonds manifests the glory of God. John Lennon’s creativity and fame is a reflection (however distorted and pale) of the fame of the Creator. Value is a theological concept, a matter of theological aesthetics, the response of human beings to the glory of the Lord.
The Greek equivalent is timios (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:12; Revelation 21:18-21), related to time, “honor,” an attribute of God (Revelation 4:9, 11; 5:12-13). In the New Testament, the Greek axios behaves similarly. Like timios, it had a basic sense of “weight” (as does the Hebrew kabod, “glory”), and it designates the weightiness of God (Revelation 4:11). The Lamb is worthy to receive and open the book (Revelation 5:9, 12), and the saints who follow the Lamb wherever He leads them also prove their worth/value (Revelation 3:4). No thing is called “worthy” in the New Testament, but the logic is the same as in the Old: God is worthy, and things that resemble Him reflect or share in His value.
Thus: God is precious and honorable; His gifts are precious; and their value depends on how closely His gifts manifest His own glory and honor.
If this is correct, then it follows that value isn’t merely subjective, not merely a matter of personal choice or will. Value is not projection. Some things are valuable, and ought to be valued. In the New Testament, worthiness is attributed to God or to human beings (1 Timothy 5:18, 6:1), and “worth” implies certain obligations of payment, praise, respect, or punishment. If diamonds and gold manifest the worth of God’s glory, we ought to admire them; if certain people image the glory of God, they ought to be given proper honor.
In short: Economics isn’t an ought-free zone.