Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded

From the Preface of Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded by Samuel Gregg

Every year, many individuals pursuing theological studies, as well as numerous Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic seminarians undertake courses in social ethics at divinity schools, seminaries, and schools of theology across the world. Although the content of these courses varies, each class is invariably confronted with questions arising from the reality of phenomena such as poverty and unemployment, not to mention complex issues such as just-wage levels and industrial disputes. It is appropriate that seminarians study such subjects. Though it is ultimately transcendental in its inspiration and fulfillment, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ has profound implications for temporal affairs. The demands of the Gospel are, of course, of a profoundly moral nature, but the Christian life is not limited to the proper ordering of personal moral life. As Germain Grisez comments, it has a social dimension, not least because social life presents us with dilemmas to which we must respond by freely acting in ways that meet the Gospel’s demands. 1 The proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord does not mean that Christ’s demands can somehow be confined to one’s private life. For, while the Gospel contains important directives about how we should order our personal lives, the same moral commandments have implications for how we try to order the social and political world. Thus, whatever is meant by the widely used expression “separation of church and state,” it does not mean, as George Weigel observes, that Christians believe in or accept “the separation of religion from public life, or the proscription of religiously grounded argument from public life.” 2

Despite the attention given in seminaries and schools of theology to public policy issues, it is curious that few seminarians are currently exposed to one subject that is especially relevant to matters such as poverty: economics. As an intellectual discipline, economics has a potentially important role to play in the development of Christian social thought. Christian clergy, theologians, and philosophers engaged in the study of what is often described as “the social question” risk failing to grasp much of the complexity of social issues if they lack a basic understanding of the insights offered by economics. There are few Christian moral philosophers today who, in articulating their ideas about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, have not explored science’s growing insights into the development of the human person in the womb. Hence, when it comes to questions involving matters such as political economy or business, it seems reasonable to expect Christian clergy to have a general familiarity with foundational economic principles. While a life of prayer, study of Scripture, and pursuit of virtue are integral to the formation of Christians, those who wish to be of genuine assistance to the economically disadvantaged and marginalized surely need some understanding of the workings of a modern economy. Unfortunately, many theological schools and seminaries do not offer courses that provide their students with such knowledge.

It is true that most seminaries seek to alert their students to the realities of the poor and marginalized by requiring them, for example, to spend some time working with the homeless. But while these activities often bring seminarians face-to-face with the underside of modern economic life, it is rare for them to engage in a systematic and philosophical discussion of economic principles. Yet how can the morality of the act of dismissing employees be properly discerned if there is no appreciation of how the process of supply and demand affects businesses? Right thought (orthodoxy) must surely and necessarily precede right action (orthopraxis).

To make this point is not to claim that everyone working or training for ministry requires a sophisticated grasp of economics. Nor should courses in economics be given the same importance as the study of Scripture or moral theology. Indeed, we sometimes need to be reminded that the priority of Christian social ethics is not effectiveness per se. Stanley Hauerwas contends that, instead of “attempting to make the world more peaceable and just,” the “first social ethical task of the church is to be the church.” 3 This primarily means that the church should tell its story and witness to the truth about God. Hence, while Christians should care for the needy and the poor (who are not confined to the materially poor), we should do so according to the church’s distinctive priorities rather than to those of the “world.”

Making sense of the modern world can be a challenging and frustrating exercise. The sheer number of issues that confront us–unemployment, worker exploitation, the encroaching culture of death–sometimes seems overwhelming. Yet, for all the word’s complexity, Christians cannot ignore it, not least because they have some important messages to impart to its inhabitants. Christ’s final charge to us was to “go make disciples of all the nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you!” (Mt 28:19—20). 4 This is not a directive to remain passive: We are commanded to be evangelical–to win the world for Christ. To this end, the theologian Carl Henry encourages Christians not to retreat into a ghetto, but, instead to assume responsibility to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth:

While the Christian movement needs to challenge the dogma that political means will solve all the problems of mankind, it may not neglect to use these means for the achieving of proper and legitimate objectives. The Church must expound the revealed will of God for the political order no less than for the other spheres of life, for all are answerable and subject to divine judgment. 5

If, then, Christians are to speak in the public square, it is appropriate for them to be exposed to some of the fundamental premises of economics. It is for this reason that this brief primer on economics was composed. While this text does not attempt to provide detailed insights into the technical aspects of economic theory, it does seek to introduce readers to basic economic principles. Although the Lord’s commandment to love and help the poor is ultimately an encounter between individuals, Christians cannot afford to neglect the insights that economists can offer into these problems. Indeed, one hopes that one day there will be a more sophisticated integration of basic economic principles into the social justice component that is a common feature of contemporary seminary curriculum.

The first part of this book provides an introduction to what economist Paul Heyne has called the “economic way of thinking.” 6 This involves explaining some of the critical concepts and foundational assumptions employed in economics. To communicate these ideas effectively to those engaged in theological education, this book avoids unnecessary technical terminology. These concepts and assumptions are then subject to analysis from the standpoint of Christian ethics, with emphasis placed upon illustrating the often-unsuspected degree of agreement between economics and Christian belief about the nature of the human person.

The second part consists of a collection of selections from classic economic texts, representing a range of authors from a variety of schools of thought. These selections have been arranged around ten key concepts, each of which attempts to deepen understanding of various ideas presented in the first part of the book. A short introduction accompanies each selection, explaining its context and primary significance.

As readers make their way through both parts, however, they should remain conscious of the following caveat: Economics provides us with only a limited insight into the nature of the human condition. Those who believe that it can explain everything about the human person and society have fallen into the trap of absolutizing these insights. This common error of mistaking a truth for the whole truth on the part of some professional economists should not, however, deter Christians from seeking to understand what the discipline of economics can tell us about the world. Christians have no reason to be afraid of truth because, ultimately, we believe that all truth is grounded in the One who described himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). It is ultimately from this standpoint that this book attempts to provide an introduction to economics for the theologically minded, not least because economics–unlike so many other contemporary humanistic disciplines–unashamedly affirms that there is truth for man to discover.

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1. See Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan Press, 1993), 261—62.

2. George Weigel, “Towards the Third Millennium” (speech delivered at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Conference on Secularism and Religious Liberty, Rome, 7 December 1995), 6. See also Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984).

3. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 99.

4. Jerusalem Bible (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966).

5. Carl Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 76.

6. See Paul Heyne, The Economic Way of Thinking, 8th ed. (Englewood, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).