Resources: Theology

Idolatry and redemption: Economics in biblical perspective

Posted in: Theology
Resource type: Talks, lectures and sermons

A talk given by Professor Tim Gorringe at a theology seminar held by Operation Noah in London in March 2013.

Since we are all beholden to him let’s begin with Adam Smith and understand economics as the study of the way in which human communities obtain ‘the necessities and conveniences of life’. In the course of human history many different forms of economy have been pursued and they can be measured both by their effectiveness in producing the means of life, by their sustainability, and according to the equity of their distribution. If we are talking about justice we are focussed primarily on equity and sustainability, but the question of the promotion of human flourishing cannot be ignored either. Justice, in Scripture, goes beyond equity to the establishment of shalom:

For the palace will be forsaken,
The populous city deserted…
Until a spirit from on high is poured out on us,
And the wilderness becomes a fruitful field.
Then justice (mishpat) will dwell in the wilderness,
And righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of justice (tsedequah) will be peace (shalom),
And the result of justice, quietness and trust for ever.(Is 32 14-17)

Shalom, as we know, is not peace as absence of conflict, but extends to flourishing, or as Deuteronomy puts it, that situation where ‘there will be no poor amongst you’.(Dt 15.4) Social justice, it is usually said, is about the distribution of costs and benefits but the crucial question is how we determine who pays what costs, what we count as benefits, and who gets them. The question of justice, in other words is about the criteria by which we evaluate economic practice. This is not simply an ethical question but also a theological one as we see from the fact that most forms of economy – right up to today – have sought theological legitimation: In God we Trust!

Such claims to legitimacy are usually a sign of strain: you do not need to legitimise what is self evident. The endless braying about freedom and democracy over the past sixty years have largely been a cover for the contradiction between abstract views of equality on the one hand and the actual result of economic systems on the other, which have included the overthrow of democratic regimes, widespread torture and the despoliation of the earth. In the war of ideologies Scripture plays its part but, you can ask, what can we really expect to learn relevant to our present from texts deriving from undeveloped societies without the glories of hedge funds or stock markets, using languages which lack the word ‘capital’? That question, of course, applies to any contemporary ethical issue, and I begin from the presupposition, which it is not the task of this paper to defend, that in Scripture we have words which, as Karl Barth put it in regard to Romans, ‘urgently and finally address the very marrow of human civilisation’, and not a heap of archaeological rubble only of interest to ancient historians.

In regard to no ethical issue – whether in sexuality, politics or economics – do we learn specific prescriptions which the task is simply to follow. What we learn, rather, is the direction we have to look for answers. In Rowland and Roberts’ words scripture gives us ‘something like orientations, models, types, directives, principles, inspirations’, the things needed to give us a hermeneutic competence to make decisions about our present. To say that this is especially true of the economy is deeply ironic given the profound subversion of all that Scripture has to say on the issue over the past three hundred years. The whole of Scripture bears in some way or other on our structuring of life together, for which economics is central, and this means I have had to be drastically selective. I have chosen to focus on just two texts, I Kings 18-20 and Leviticus 25, and on just two themes, idolatry and redemption.

Read the full text here.

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