Biblical Anthropology and Economics
The Bible is clear that human beings are unique and remarkable in many ways.
Made a little lower than the angels, we have been given dominion over the animals (Psalm 8:5–8). Humans are the only part of creation made in the very image of God, endowed, as America’s Founding Fathers stated so eloquently, with certain inalienable rights—chiefly, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Tragically, in their pursuit of happiness, humans have never been content to simply be who we are. Though we are finite, we aspire to be infinite and damage ourselves in the process.
And yet, even when we behave like animals, giving in to our base instincts, we remain superior to the animals, if for no other reason than we sin knowingly and willingly. We are not the victims of fate or slaves to natural impulses. We remain responsible in our sin. Though we are hopelessly lost, we are never reduced to nothing.
Zen Buddhism suggests that people enter the water and cause no ripples. Christianity insists that we cause ripples that never end. We may lose our reference point when we sever our relationship with our Creator, but we are never nothing. In fact, this is precisely why lostness is so terrible.
It is this tension that creates many of our most difficult predicaments. We possess an innate dignity but have an inherited depravity. We are magnificent and miserable simultaneously.
We possess an innate dignity but have an inherited depravity. We are magnificent and miserable simultaneously.
Theologically speaking, this is nothing new. Christian scholars have discussed this for centuries. Countless sermons, books and articles have been written dissecting the nature of human beings, the problem of original sin and the remedy of amazing grace.
Yet few have thought to consider the implications this has on every facet of life—particularly in the realm of economics in a free-market society.
Implications for Economics
Consider, for example, the words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Supposing those words are true, what might that say about the nature of desire? And how might that distorted and deceitful desire be manipulated by, say, marketing and advertising specialists to entice people into buying things they do not need with money they do not have?
This is something that must be considered and dealt with honestly if we are to form a biblically informed theory of economics.
Take also the self-deprecating words of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:15, 21–24)
Supposing those words are true, what might that say about the need for accountability and responsible oversight and regulation in the realm of economics?
Finally, consider the words of James, when he suggests that those who doubt are “double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:8). Is there anyone who is willing to say that they never doubt? Of course not! Everyone doubts.
Could this mean that, left to our own devices, we are all double-minded and unstable? Moreover, how might that double-mindedness and instability manifest itself? One theory that seems plausible is humanity’s polar fluctuation between irrational optimism and irrational pessimism. One thing is certain: we are prone to both under- and over-value many things.
We are prone to both under- and over-value many things.
On a micro level, this explains why some (day-traders, for example) so often make gains only to lose them immediately. Double-mindedness and instability make the tasks of long-term planning, strategic thinking, patience, and self-control difficult, if not impossible. On a macro level, this explains why markets can become over- and under-valued, why we are often caught in the cycle of economic booms and busts. On the societal level, we vacillate between greed and fear, pride and despair, naïveté and cynicism.
It is not overstating our case to suggest that the biblical view of human nature is confirmed in the volatility of markets.
The biblical view of human nature is confirmed in the volatility of markets.
The book of Proverbs gives us wisdom to navigate these troublesome waters when it says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (15:22). We do best to not rely on one single source of input when making financial decisions, because that source may be biased or distorted in its thought process. Rather, it’s best to take into consideration a host of advice, sifting through and asking God for the discernment needed to chose the best available option.
This article was written in conjunction with Ron Blue & Company.
Biblical Anthropology and Economics
Originally written in 2002. My father always hoped that one day, his “ship would come in.” Although he was a bus driver, he spent a lot of time and effort on the side, going from one venture to another in quest of the elusive cash cow. He never nabbed one, but I was able to […]