An Evangelical Looks at Centesimus Annus, the Nature of Man, and Human Economy

There are good reasons to celebrate Centesimus Annus. Pope John Paul II’s blistering rejection of socialism and warm accolades for free enterprise should be trumpeted around the world–as indeed they have been.

In large part, however, the pope’s comments on socialism versus capitalism are merely the announcement of a judgment long since obvious to anyone who observed history with discernment. Nevertheless, I am excited about Centesimus Annus and see it, in one important respect, as on the cutting edge of economic thinking.

Why? Because it focuses on the nature of man, and not in terms of the Enlightenment idea of man as autonomous but in terms of the Biblical idea of man as fallen and sinful, yet still bearing the image of God and capable, particularly when redeemed and transformed by the grace of God, of expressing that image in everyday life.

It was not the mere nonproductivity of socialism and tremendous productivity of capitalism that led the pope to condemn the former and praise the latter. Far more important to John Paul II is this issue of human nature. “Not only is it wrong from the ethical point of view,” he wrote, “to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in practice it is impossible to do so. Where society is so organized as to reduce arbitrarily or even suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline.” Hear! Hear!

This, however, might readily have been said by a secular libertarian. The great significance in Centesimus Annus is that Pope John Paul II did not stop at freedom in his analysis of human nature but went on to what is of even greater consequence to man’s economic activity. Like the good man who brings forth treasures both old and new, John Paul reaches back into the long Christian and humane tradition of rooting property rights in work and then applies to it more recent recognitions about how essential human work is to a productive economy and how that work expresses the image of God in man:

“The original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Genesis 1:28). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone. This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. The earth, by reason of its fruitfulness and its capacity to satisfy human needs, is God’s first gift for the sustenance of human life. But the earth does not yield its fruits without a particular human response to God’s gift, that is to say, without work (emphasis added). It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, succeeds in dominating the earth and making it a fitting home. In this way, he makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part that he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property. Obviously, he also has the responsibility not to hinder others from having their own part of God’s gift; indeed, he must cooperate with others so that together all can dominate the earth.“

In this brief paragraph (31 of the encyclical), John Paul II touches on several important Biblical themes, all intimately related to the image of God in man: that man, like God, is a worker; that since man mimics God in creative work, property rights, like God’s own dominion over all of creation, flow from work; and that man, reflecting the Trinity, works best in cooperation with others. But John Paul is not finished. The next paragraph carries perhaps the most important insights in the whole encyclical:

“In history, these two factors–work and the land–are to be found at the beginning of every human society. However, they do not always stand in the same relationship to each other. At one time the natural fruitfulness of the earth appeared to be, and was in fact, the primary factor of wealth, while work was, as it were, the help and support for this fruitfulness. In our time, the role of human work is becoming increasingly important as the productive factor both of non-material and of material wealth. Moreover, it is becoming clearer how a person’s work is naturally interrelated with the work of others. More than ever, work is work with others and work for others: it is a matter of doing something for someone else. Work becomes ever more fruitful and productive to the extent that people become more knowledgeable of the productive potentialities of the earth and more profoundly cognizant of the needs of those for whom their work is done “(emphasis added).

Shortly he adds ,“ … besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied…. Whereas at one time the decisive factor of production was the land … today the decisive factor is increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.“

The reversal of the primacy of land (material resources) and labor (human wit and work) is the most important distinction between the economy of yesterday and the economy of today and tomorrow. Once the earth was most important; today and increasingly in the future, man is. And that reversal is in large part an outworking of the Biblical doctrine of the image of God in man.

The locus classicus on the image of God in man is Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ ” Unfortunately, however, theologians rarely pay much attention to the immediate context in addressing what it means to say that God created man in His own image and likeness. Oh, they readily acknowledge the importance of dominion; that is inescapable, being in the same verse. But then they usually cast about for other passages that mention the image of God in man. In the Reformed tradition, of which I am a part, they usually land on Colossians 3:10, which tells us that knowledge is part of the image of God, and Ephesians 4:24, which tells us that righteousness and holiness are part of that image. Well and good. But we have missed the most critical information on the image of God so far as Genesis 1:26 itself is concerned. And to see it, we must back up, distance ourselves, as it were, from the Biblical text and our familiarity with it as Christians.

What would the novice reader of Scripture think of as the image of God in man if he attended carefully to the immediate context? Imagine yourself in his place. You have just read this rather startling statement: “And God said,‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’ ” What would you already know about God that would help you to understand the meaning of the phrase “in Our image”?

Well, you would know what you had read in Genesis 1:1-25. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”–so the image of God includes creativity. “Then God said, ‘Let there be’ ”–and behold! Look at the list! Light, a firmament, and oceans, and dry land, and grass, and herbs, and trees, and stars, and sun, and moon, and birds, and sea creatures, and land creatures! And He gave order to everything, instructing all the living creatures to multiply and fill their various niches in the world.

So, if you were just starting out reading the Bible, what would you think God’s image was? Chiefly, creativity. And in God Himself, it is creativity beyond our wildest dreams. After all, what did God start with in Creation? Nothing. And what did He wind up with? Everything. And what did it cost Him? Absolutely nothing! (Anyone wondering, by the way, whether there is theological justification for profit need look no further.)

Man is made in this image. And if we pay attention to the context of Genesis 1:26, the predominant thought we should have about man is that he, too, should be creative. Now, because man is finite, not infinite, he will never match God’s performance of making something literally out of nothing (despite the idolatrous attempts by government to make wealth merely by printing money). But the better man gets at making more out of less and doing so with less cost–less pollution–the better he expresses this aspect of the image of God. When, therefore, man moves from burning dung and wood and peat moss to using coal and petroleum for heat and energy, and when he moves from those relatively scarce and dirty fuels to uranium and solar energy, he is actually maturing in this expression of the image of God.

When he progresses from communicating by ship and horse-carried mail to communicating by telegraphic cable, and then by telephone, and then by radio and television, he is expressing the image of God by getting more return out of fewer resources. When he replaces a copper cable capable of carrying forty-eight messages simultaneously with a fiber-optic cable capable of carrying 80,000 conversations simultaneously today and a projected 10 million by the turn of the century, and when he transmits as many messages with just seventy pounds of optic fiber as he can with a ton of copper wire, and makes the fiber with just 5 percent of the energy required to make the wire, he is expressing more clearly this aspect of the image of God.

But there is another element to consider. God’s creative action was not arbitrary. It had purpose, plan, and structure. It had order. And that order reflected another aspect of God’s image. Look again at Genesis 1:1-26. What are the first words of each segment of the story of Creation? Look at verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, and 26. The first words in each instance are “Then God said.“ Whenever God got ready to make something new, He spoke. He uttered the Word. And when He spoke, something came out of nothing, order came out of chaos, light out of darkness, life out of death, abundance out of scarcity. The psalmist declares, in Psalm 33:6, ”By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.“

What is really important in production? Logos. The word. Knowledge. Reason. As the pope put it, “In our time, in particular, there exists another form of ownership which is becoming no less important than land: the possession of know-how, technology and skill.“ That’s what separates us from our forebears, who as recently as 1800 had an average life expectancy of under thirty years, compared with the worldwide average of sixty-five today.

Knowledge makes the difference between an economy of hunting and gathering–which, even in the best natural habitats, can support not more than one or two people per square mile–and the diverse economy of the modern world, which supports approximately one hundred people per square mile worldwide, and the even more productive economies of the future, which have the potential to support many times more people per square mile. Knowledge makes the difference between subsistence farming and a weathered old sign along the interstate saying, “One Kansas farmer feeds himself and 59 other people–plus YOU!”

Knowledge makes the difference between walking and riding a horse; between riding a horse and riding in a buggy; between riding in a buggy and riding on a rail; between riding on a rail and riding in a car; between riding in a car and riding in a plane; between riding in a plane and flying on the “Orient Express,” the scramjet hypersonic plane that will routinely speed people and cargo from New York to Tokyo in twenty minutes about a decade from now.

Knowledge makes the difference between a penny’s worth of raw materials (sand and petroleum) and a blank floppy disk that wholesales at twenty-nine cents or, with a copy of WordPerfect 5.1 or Quattro Pro 3.0 written on it, that retails at $450. In that case, the contribution solely of the human mind, made in the image of God to be creative and orderly and intelligent, makes up 99.998 percent of the retail price of the product; raw materials, only .002 percent.

So when man replaces an abacus with an adding machine, and an adding machine with a calculator, and a calculator with a computer whose central processing unit, by the year 2000, will be a single chip capable of performing 130 million calculations per second, produced for under one hundred dollars out of nothing but silicon, the main ingredient of sand, and made in an essentially pollution-free process, he is reflecting more clearly the creativity and knowledge of God.

We have gone through the Stone age, the Iron age, the age of sailing, the steam age, the industrial age, and the space age. Some say we have just opened the door on the information age–the knowledge age, the logos age. In reality, we have always been in the knowledge age; it’s just that the importance and rapid growth of information weren’t so readily recognizable before. But knowledge has always been one of the chief distinctions between men and animals. Knowledge, expressed in creativity, is an element of the image of God in man (Colossians 3:10). It has enabled men to change and improve their environments rather than merely adapt to them. And because the interaction of persons and ideas with each other multiplies knowledge, knowledge grows geometrically–far faster than human population–and its growth is spurred by human population growth, since more people mean more minds, and more minds generate more knowledge. So, as I have written elsewhere,

“[a] Biblical understanding of reality points not to a law of diminishing returns from resources but to a law of increasing returns. Why? Because the growth of knowledge so outstrips the depletion of physical resources as to make each new resource or method yield higher output per unit of labor and capital than the one it replaces. . . . The old Malthusian and Ricardian views of the relationship between resources and population [that population grows geometrically while resources grow only arithmetically, so that demand inevitably exceeds supply] ultimately rest on the mistaken notion that there is no qualitative difference between men and animals. Animals are dependent on what they find in their natural environment. . . . But men, by applying their minds, can change their environment, making it support thousands of times more people (and animals) than it naturally could, at many times higher standards of living.”1

It is this message that will enable us to respond adequately to the greatest threat to human freedom and prosperity in the coming century, the anti-population growth movement. First generating and then feeding on people’s fears of resource depletion and environmental catastrophe because of growing population, this movement threatens to restore all the destructive controls of socialism through the back door of population control and environmental protection. Those who understand rightly the nature of man as revealed in Scripture and reiterated in Centesimus Annus will know how to respond. Population growth does not cause resource depletion or environmental degradation; instead, it multiplies resources and minimizes pollution, if it takes place in a polity that protects man’s freedom to express the image of God in knowledgeable creativity.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am predicting great material wealth for the vast majority of mankind everywhere. I am not predicting utopia. The world of the future will almost certainly be vastly wealthy–it may very well also be vastly evil. Whether it is depends on the fruitfulness of the Church’s work in evangelizing and discipling the nations. There is a difference between technology and righteousness; I speak here only of the former.

But Scripture does consider knowledge morally better than ignorance, wisdom than foolishness, understanding than stupidity. Technical knowledge does not necessarily bear fruit in knowing God; but, rightly understood, knowing God should bear fruit in technical knowledge. Listen to Wisdom in Proverbs 8:12-21:

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, And find out knowledge and discretion.
The fear of the Lord is to hate evil;
Pride and arrogance and the evil way
And the perverse mouth I hate. Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom;
I am understanding, I have strength.
By me kings reign,
And rulers decree justice.
By me princes rule, and nobles, All the judges of the earth.
I love those who love me,
And those who seek me diligently will find me.
Riches and honor are with me, Enduring riches and righteousness.
My fruit is better than gold, yes, than fine gold,
And my revenue than choice silver.
I traverse the way of righteousness,
In the midst of the paths of justice, That I may cause those who love me to inherit wealth,
That I may fill their treasuries.

The crucial message of Centesimus Annus is not simply that capitalism works and socialism doesn’t. It is not even the message of human freedom–a message declared also by secular libertarians. It is the message that human creativity and knowledge, reflecting divine creativity and knowledge, is the real wellspring of human wealth, and that only free markets can release and encourage that creativity adequately.


  1. E. Calvin Beisner, Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), pp.110-111.