Acton Institute Powerblog

Defining an Ethical Economy

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Longtime Acton friend John H. Armstrong notes the recent discussion of Rowan Williams’ pronouncements on ethics and the economy here at the PowerBlog, commenting that “The archbishop of Canterbury is an extremely likable Christian gentleman, a first-class Christian scholar. He is also a leader who often fails to address some of the more difficult issues in our time with a straight, clear answer.”

Armstrong’s description of Williams coheres well with the overall picture of theologians engaging economics presented by Susan Lee, who says, “The habit of picking and choosing means that many theological discussions of economics take place under a cloud of incoherence, or at least to economists, ignorance.”

In this brief piece from APM’s Marketplace, “Bridging the theology-economy gap.” Susan Lee, “an economist and a theologian based in New York City,” passes along her experience at a public appearance that included Rowan Williams. She gets of some real substantive observations, including the following:

…ethics are the common ground for theology and economics…

Both theologians and economists are interested in improving the lives of all humans. Both groups agree on policy goals like low unemployment and sustainable growth. In fact, these goals are in harmony with a definition offered by the archbishop. He said: “An ethical economy is one where we care for our neighbor by creating conditions so the most vulnerable aren’t abandoned.” Well, this is a description of capitalism in the U.S….

Economists are interested in how to make the pie larger. Theologians are interested in how to divide the pie. And so many theologians treat capitalism like a Chinese menu. They pick the wealth-distribution parts and discard the wealth-creation parts….

Her commentary is brief, but worth reading or listening to in full. Jeff Walton at the IRD also provides some background for the Trinity Institute event, and includes fuller observations from Lee (HT).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    As I mentioned before, I have spent a lot of time on the Sojourner web site listening to the “progressive” approach and arguing with them. The level of economic knowledge is terrible. Almost everything comes from a theologican with no knowledge of economics. In fact, they take pride in trashing economics. But occassionally they will bring in an economist to give them some sort of cover who is also socialist.

    I don’t think theologians pick and choose over economics. They know of and approve of a few socialists, and mainstream economists who lean toward socialism, such as Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman, and that’s all. They have no interest in economics beyond those socialists who will rubber stamp their ideology.

    The general attitude is that everything they need to know about economics is in the Bible. Anything not in the Bible is not worthy of discussion. I often ask them if they take the same attitude toward medicine, but get no response.

  • While it’s comforting to know that Rowan Williams is a nice man. No doubt Pol Pot’s family thought him to a fine fellow, too. Frankly, I am unsympathic to the Archbishop’s nebulous statements on the intersection of theology and economics and finance.

    There are some important issues, like private property, equal justice under the law, freedom of association and unions, that theologians should have in mind. Considering Mr. Bradley’s article on Human Dignity and Dark Skin, I think that the good Reverend would have founded himself in economics as well as politics and history in order to make his or God’s message meaningful to his contemporaries. Many of the parables deal with economics, trade and service (employees).