A review of Economic Shalom by John Bolt (Christian’s Library Press, 2013)
By Pete Rizzo
Bolt (Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary) acknowledges the challenge that Christians face in determining what the Bible says about economic policy right away in his book. In doing so, he identifies prior theologizing on the subject including social gospel, redistribution of wealth and the validity of the free market. Then Bolt makes his own argument for how Christians should act in light of what the Bible says about the economy. His approach is to be consistent with what scripture says about human flourishing and to apply general themes from the Old Testament.
The first theme is to look at how humans should view work: from an eternal perspective. God’s design for labor and the market begins with the family and connects humans to each other. Therefore, he argues that the market is an organic construction. This sets up the rest of his book. because the most important issue in the economy becomes the condition of people’s hearts and whether they are submitted to God and his design. Human flourishing increases as we obey God’s principles for right living. Bolt goes on to debunk the idea that the market can be morally questionable. Rather, it is individual practices that can be immoral.
In the end, Bolt argues that the economy will always be imperfect because only when Jesus returns will the Kingdom be fully established. In closing, arguments are made against coercion and interference in the market as they do not promote the best policy for the rich or poor. In fact, Bolt makes quite an interesting appeal for a change in policies in third world countries and how owned assets are the key to economic advancement in those areas of the world.
The important contribution that Bolt makes to the conversation surrounding economic policy is this: he de-villainizes the people who we perceive to be running the economy and stresses that the market is a “living” entity that cannot be controlled or predicted. Furthermore, that which cannot be controlled or predicted we must not try to unfairly manipulate. The problem with the book is then that Bolt gives very little for us as Christians to do in terms of policy. The policy is in fact to have as little policy as possible. Bolt gives a fair treatment to counter perspectives and dismisses them not as wrong but as misguided. For example, those who argue against personal property, he says, are arguing that God owns everything. Therefore, we should not presume to possess land as individuals. However, Bolt would say, neither should a governing body presume to own land either. So by their own argument Bolt defeats them. There are many good examples like this in the book and Bolt uncovers many of our biases when approaching the economy from a Christian perspective.
This book is a great beginning for anyone interested in viewing the market from a biblical worldview. It is a good conversation starting tool, covering multiple issues in the area of economic policy that are hot button topics in Christian circles. The book provides an overview and uses a lot of scholarly sources that could be useful for taking a more in depth look into certain topics. Also, while the text is intended for a certain audience it can be applied to a broad range of Christian denominations, not just the Reformed.