Acton Institute Powerblog

A biblical theology of work, Part 2: Wealth creation

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In Part 1 of our “theology of work” series, we examined why we work, concluding that following our calling, whatever that may be, provides us with meaning and purpose, and represents a command of God in creation. Part 2 examines the virtues of work, earning a living and using that wealth honorably. […]

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Wealth creation is a divine imperative, though one that generates significant responsibilities. The church fails on business and economics when leaders think only about the responsibilities of wealth and nothing at all about how that wealth is created – both are divine imperatives. Money can empower believers to provide for others, to invest in the church, and to do good works. If we believe wealth creation is a divine imperative than that implies a market economy for the creation of wealth as part of the divine dispensation.

We must not overlook the transforming power of wealth creation in God’s world. Michael Novak, in his 1991 book, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” wrote:

Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history, none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life – lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine thinkable, enlarged the range of human choice – as democratic capitalism.

He goes on to define democratic capitalism as a system essentially defined by a market economy and a free society. It is difficult to contest that without the market economy, society would have made significantly less progress in the fight against poverty and people would be much less free. Indeed, the United Nations, in its 2015 report on the achievement of its Millennial Goals, reported that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty ($1.25 per day) had dropped, between 1990 and 2015, to 14% from 47%, a reduction of nearly 70%. The middle classes had tripled.

Wealth creation as biblical imperative

The basic reason why wealth creation is a biblical imperative is that it is a mandate to create. This takes us back to the theological principles around creation and the divine mandate to work. Indeed, if there as a divine mandate to work, there must be some form of mandate to create wealth or else the mandate to work would be utterly meaningless. What we mean by a creation mandate is something which is set out by God as part of the principles of creation for all people for all time.

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). This short verse has enormous implications. In fact, it is an economic command from God. This mandate does not mean we should work for no purpose, but should instead harness the resources of God’s created world in producing goods and adding value. This command precedes the entry into the world of sin and the fall. In other words, not only work per se, but economic productivity and wealth creation are part of God’s intention for every person. This basic requirement also has implications for any government programmes that encourage dependency rather than work.

Reinforcing Genesis 2:15, there is a remarkable description of what God has provided for those who work the land. In describing the Garden of Eden and its setting in vv8-14 of Genesis 2, we read that God had provided trees and water, but that also between the head waters of the rivers which flowed out from Eden God provided three precious materials: gold, aromatic resin and onyx. In v12, we are told that the gold found in the land of Havilah is good. Divine endorsement of a crucial precious metal makes absolute sense when the command to work follows. When the command to work and the combining of raw materials are put together then it makes absolute sense when the Bible described in Genesis 4 the principle of specialisation and in Ex 35:30 the principle of human development through the endowment of skills. The Bible articulates the development of commerce. In the creation narratives, God provides the command and the materials. Hence the creation of wealth is a spiritual imperative.

In the New Testament, we see the same emphasis set out for us in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Each person was equipped with an amount of money related to his abilities and they invested the capital and obtained a return (well, two of them did). Their diligence was rewarded with more. The unfaithful servant was berated for failing even to put the money on deposit. In essence, this parable is about our spiritual responsibility to use our gifts and talents to obtain economic returns though effective stewardship and investment, and a warning against an over-obsession with equality.

Wealth creation and spiritual responsibility

Having established that wealth creation is a biblical and spiritual imperative, there remains an important further aspect to examine. If we have this wealth, what do we do with it? What is the responsibility of the individual with wealth? We are not called to simply give it away and become poor (the monastic error) or to think that all responsibility for dealing with issues of poverty lies with government (the socialist error). There is no special morality attached to a government pound. Rather, the key to understanding the response to wealth lies in recognizing the variety of ways in which the New Testament deals with Luke 14:33 – So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

What does “renounce” mean? Well, it doesn’t mean don’t make a profit – for some 20 years Jesus himself worked in his earthly father’s carpentry business which presumably made profits in order to be sustainable over that time. We know Simon and Andrew actually ran a fishing business with employees (Mark 2:20). We know that the apostles left behind their homes and livelihoods, but there is no evidence that they sold off all their possessions (Luke 5:11, 27; 18:28-30). The Rich Young Ruler, by contrast, is told to liquidate his assets and distribute them to the poor his was clearly a blockage (Luke 18:19-27), whereas Zacchaeus only promises half his goods plus restitution (Luke 19:1-10). The women disciples of Luke 8:1-3 never divest themselves of wealth, but instead use their resources to support Jesus and the Twelve on an ongoing basis. Paul works as a craftsman in order to support himself and provide for the needs of his companions and those in need (Acts 20:33-35). There is also Lydia (Acts 16), a wealthy merchant who gave hospitality in her house to the believers.

Jesus demands our all. Precisely what that means spiritually for each one of us is not laid down in economic terms precisely because of the economic creation mandate to create wealth. We are then called to act in a responsible manner with that wealth.

Wealth creation then is a divine imperative which carries with it awesome responsibility. John Wesley in his sermon on money said, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Work in the divine economy and receive blessing, indeed monetary blessing. Discharge your responsibilities well.”

A biblical theology of work, Part 1: Why work?

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.