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Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research

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Judith Dean, currently an international economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission, has a worthwhile exploration of the relationship between Christian faith and economic research (HT). It’s up at the InterVarsity site for the Following Christ conference and is titled, “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research.”

There’s a lot of good, challenging, and insightful stuff here. As always, read it in full. But here’s a bit that’s especially incisive:

Especially for those working in government policy making bodies, there is a role for advocating change where policies are seen as creating results which are intolerable from the Christian standpoint, or where the economic system fails to address problems which a Christian cannot ignore. Large groups of such advocates already exist, quite often centered around specific issues. Though these groups may include economists, they are quite often made up of non-economists who care deeply about a particular problem (e.g. R. Sider, J. Wallis, and T. Campolo, who all have written about poverty issues). Some of these groups zealously advocate particular solutions to what they view as egregious injustices in the economy. Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.

Here the Christian economist’s expertise may be called upon to inform these “advocate groups” about the nature of the problem and the implications of different solutions. Many Christians want to be better informed in order to become better advocates. Yet they do no know where to go to get information. Sound economic reasoning which is made accessible to a non-professional audience is sorely needed. It is odd indeed that most contemporary Christian writing on economic issues for the general public is done by theologians or sociologists.

Note here the vigorous sense of Christian advocacy in the public square, and how it is to be informed by solid economic, social, and historical research. Note too that the advocacy described is generally not that which ought to be pursued by the institutional church, but by Christians organizing themselves organically in civil society.

As a theologian often writing on economic and public policy matters, I heartily endorse Dean’s call for more sustained, careful, and intentional engagement of Christian economists on these matters.

Read “Being a Good Physician: Reflections on Christianity and Economic Research” and leave a comment below.

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.


  • As I pastor I note that there is much Christian teaching and exhortation about personal financial stewardship, but great ignorance regarding basic macroeconomics in the church and little done to correct it.

  • Roger McKinney

    Very interesting article and I agree with Ms. Dean for the most part. But I have a few quibbles:

    Dean: “…good empirical work will be necessary to assess the effectiveness of these different policy proposals, and to work out their implications for different groups in society. …Without any empirical testing, theoretical results are limited in their value.”

    This issue falls under the philosophy heading. I think she confuses theory with opinion. People have all kinds of uninformed opinions arrived at without much thought. That is not theory. Theory is what you do with geometry: you start with undeniable assumptions progress through logic to unassailable truths. It’s what Austrian economists do. Ms. Dean belies an unfortunate absorption of the modern economist’s attitude that all theory is nothing but opinion until empirical research separates the wheat and chaff. But as Hayek pointed out many times, much of the time the data just isn’t available, and when that happens, people start building erroneous theories around the available data. I think a Christian approach to the philosophy of economics would reinstate the value of knowledge achieved through logical processes and not surrender to the positivist, and anti-Christian attitude that truth is found only in empirical tests. Besides, I have rarely seen empirical results solve debates. Usually the debate merely shifts to the quality of the research and the methodology.

    Dean: “It is seen first in our choice of issues to research.”

    That’s an excellent point. Economics is seen as focused on economic growth, and it is, but we need to point out why growth is important: it’s the only certain way to relieve poverty on a large scale. Adam Smith wrote about the “Wealth of Nations”, and the phrasing makes him seem materialistic, but the essence of his book is poverty alleviation. Smith had no interest in making the wealthy wealthier. He was concerned about the poor. All of the theory and research on poverty reduction leads to sound economic theory.

    Dean: “Yet, lacking economic understanding, they fail to see that their proposals themselves are sometimes flawed.”

    Ms. Dean needs to debate people like Wallis. She’ll find that they have nothing but contempt for the field of economics. That’s why the Christians who write about poverty reduction and the environment are theologians and note economists. And they’re definitely not ignorant of all economics; they take Marxism as the true economic science. They are well schooled in Marxism and see economics as nothing but a defense of evil greedy capitalists. So economic research doesn’t impress them at all.

    Christian economics should begin with the work of the Late Scholastics, especially those of the School of Salamanca. It should emphasize the moral superiority of property because God sanctified it and a free market because only it can provide justice in exchange. From those premises, we can logically deduce policies that protect property and freedom and those that don’t. From there, we can then show empirical evidence that property and free markets (or better: free people) reduce poverty and protect the environment better than any other system. We especially need to point out that the great environmental destruction today takes place in poor countries with little respect for property. That’s why radical environmentalists want to restrict trade with those countries. But a better approach would be to preach the efficacy of property rights and free people to protect the environment.

  • John Hunt

    I have a little quibble with the statement: “Christian economics should begin with the work of the Late Scholastics, especially those of the School of Salamanca.”

    I might say: “Christian economics should begin with the work of Deuteronomy.” Where could one find a better start than at the beginning? When the (at least) the moral basis for lending and borrowing is explicitly laid out in His word, why not start a study of capital there. But, I guess, then what would we do with all those doctoral degrees in economics …

  • Readers may be interested in following up on pieces related to questions about economics as practical, moral, or value-free scientific endeavors, including the controversy in the Journal of Markets & Morality 1.2, “Is Economics a Moral Science?”

  • Roger McKinney

    John: “Christian economics should begin with the work of Deuteronomy.”

    Agreed, but that’s where the Scholastics began, too. Then using reason and observation, they built a fantastic cathedral of economic theory on top of that foundation.

  • Robert Couch

    I agree with the comments above, and the article Jordan linked to, and what seems to be the thrust of Jordan’s book (which I’m hoping to read soon), that there is a huge divide between “mainstream” economists, “conservative/Anglo-American” theologians, and “Marxists” (by which I mainly have in mind the branch of theology influenced by Continental philosophy, such as radical orthodoxy and most of the so-called postmodern theologians, which I mean in contrast to “conservative/Anglo-American” theologians…).

    In fact, does anyone have any good reading recommendations for me? I have yet to read anything that seems to seriously engage all three of these general areas of thought. In fact, I found Jordan’s writings as a result of searching for something in this vein.

    (And thanks, by the way, for the blog and other writings — this looks like a good place for me to find the kind of work I’m looking to study and write on!)

  • Roger McKinney

    Robert, you’ll find a lot on this web site about the late Scholastics and their economic thought. A recent article profiles Leonard Lessius, the Dutch scholastic.

    And the site has some good articles on the School of Salamanca. They had their most recent international meeting at the school in Spain.

    Hayek’s “The Counter-Revolution in Science” is about how the natural sciences came to dominate economics, but it has some good history on the origins of socialism and the change in the philosophy of science.

  • Neal Lang

    “Christian economics should begin with the work of Deuteronomy.”

    Actually, “Christian economics should begin with” –

    “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’.”

  • Robert Couch

    Thanks, Roger.