Acton Institute Powerblog

A biblical theology of work, Part 4: Enterprise and entrepreneurship

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The divine economy is an enterprise economy and an entrepreneurial one. We would do well to honor, rather than disparage, those who create wealth and take entrepreneurial risk. They reflect God’s character and God’s purpose. […]

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Why does business matter to God? Well, if business does not matter to God then we render a large part of human existence meaningless. The church, however, seems to be incapable in so many ways of understanding business resulting in words such as “profit” or “incentive” being seen as dirty. The assumption is that the market economy falls short, whereas in fact it is God’s divine provision. Deirdre McCloskey illustrates the point in “The Bourgeois Virtues”:

“In an ideal world capitalist work would be necessary….contrary to a widespread belief among the clergy that good work and capitalist work are inconsistent with each other.”

The consequence of misunderstanding this truth is a disconnect, a tension between the intrinsic value of the divine economy and its practical processes. Alain de Botton describes this tension, reflected in the title of his book, “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”:

“We are now as imaginatively disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of our goods as we are practically in reach of them, a process of alienation which has stripped us of myriad opportunities for wonder, gratitude and guilt.”

Our quest for a theology of enterprise and entrepreneurship is to find a way of expressing the godly value of beauty, innovation, and creativity.

Biblical examples of enterprise and entrepreneurship

There are numerous biblical examples of enterprise and entrepreneurship. Genesis 4 is worth a careful read. In vv1-2 we see the principle of specialization: Abel concentrating on livestock, Cain on arable, simply set out as a normal, no-fuss process of market provision. Then in vv20–22, the family tree of Lamech is illustrated by reference to those who raised livestock, played stringed instruments, and forged iron and bronze tools. Note immediately the emphasis on creativity and innovation, a key characteristic of entrepreneurship. The basic point is that this is a normal part of the biblical narrative.

Two other examples illustrate this point.

First, Exodus 35:30-35. The context for this verse is the people of Israel wandering in the desert prior to entering the promised land. Here, detailed instructions are given for the construction of the tabernacle, which will be the focus of worship during this period. Moses points to one individual, Bazalel, and says:

“Then Moses said to people of Israel: ‘See, the lord has called by name Bezalel . . . he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge and with all craftmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab . . . He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple, and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver – by any sort of workman or skilled designer.”

There are several ideas here central to a biblical theology of entrepreneurship. First, we note that the gifts mentioned are endowed by the Spirit of God. Ideas are foundational to entrepreneurship – and central to our appreciation of entrepreneurial ideas is the recognition that they are divine, endowed by God. Secondly, the endowment is specific, “with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge and with all craftsmanship.” This implies human development, not simply a static range of skills. This, too, is central to entrepreneurship: acquiring new skills. Thirdly, some of the specific materials referred to (gold, silver, and wood) look back to the provision of raw materials in Genesis 2. Fourthly, and crucially, Moses adds, in verse 34, that the Lord had also given him “the ability to teach others” – the idea of human capital and development, placing education at the center of the business enterprise. We see here the coming together of crucial theological and economic concepts all designed to enable the human person to flourish. The divine economy is an enterprise economy and an entrepreneurial one. We would do well to honor, rather than disparage, those who create wealth and take entrepreneurial risk. They reflect God’s character and God’s purpose.

The second biblical example to consider is Joseph, who oversees the preparations for famine in Egypt in Genesis 41:46-57. How many sermons have you heard on Joseph the market economist and entrepreneur? In v46, Joseph planned, a surplus was built up in the plentiful years (vv47-48), and we know from v34 that a tax rate of 20% was used to achieve this (note: flat-rate, no progressive redistribution), and effectively also running a budget surplus. When the famine came, we are told, in vv 56-57, that Joseph opened the storehouses and, “sold to the Egyptians” and that “all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain.” This was not a free giveaway – he sold the grain. At what price? Presumably at a level that ensured the grain would last. Secondly, though, he also traded. This enabled Joseph to build financial reserves to support the nation moving forward. Some great lessons. Note the patience of the entrepreneur. Free giveaways may not be the best policy. The market economy, the system essentially provided by God, ensures the allocation of resources. No overspending, the building up of reserves and savings. Providing for the nation in its time of need. Trading freely with others is not a contradiction but for the benefit of both. Economics matters and careful economic planning was an essential part of Joseph’s leadership. He truly was a great entrepreneur and economist.

A theology of enterprise and entrepreneurship

We now have the building blocks in place for a theology of enterprise and entrepreneurship. There are three elements:

  1. The idea reflects God’s character and purpose. The dynamic, innovative God is an enterprising God – as shown in the very creation process.
  2. A theology of enterprise and entrepreneurship gives weight to innovation and creativity, wealth creation, provision of goods and services, reward and incentive.
  3. The model permits investigation of human capital and development in key areas such as skills, and permits creative engagement with for example, new technology.

A theology of enterprise requires some form of market economy, as that is the setting in which these ideas can best flourish. Entrepreneurship is to be encouraged as the earthly expression of heavenly creativity and innovation. Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical “Populorum Progressio,” summarised the link of wealth creation and entrepreneurship well:

“By dint of intelligent thought and hard work, man gradually uncovers the hidden laws of nature and learns to make better use of natural resources . . . he is stimulated to undertake new investigations and fresh discoveries, to take prudent risks and launch new ventures, to act responsibly and to give of himself unselfishly.”

What lessons might we learn for today?

First, we would want to encourage innovation through incentives. Second, we would wish to ensure the development of skills and education. Third, we will be sceptical about excessive regulation.

A theology of enterprise and entrepreneurship equips us to engage with the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. The fear of artificial intelligence, robots, and so on is that jobs will be destroyed and unemployment increase. A theology of work as enterprise turns this idea on its head. The process of economic development as set out in the Bible directly embraces technological advancement as new skills and abilities are used to make economic progress. Workers and other economic participants in the economy may need to change their skill set, to innovate, and to be creative as they adjust to new economic realities; this is precisely what a theology of work as enterprise would mean.

We also need to be wary of regulation that stifles innovation. Darrel Cosden writes in “A Theology of Work”:

“Nor should we primarily or exclusively seek to moralise the markets through legislation that often times inadvertently stifles human risk and thus creativity and exploration.”

There are proper debates to be had about law, regulation, the restraint of inappropriate behaviour in markets, the protection of workers, and so on. The starting point, however, should not be law and regulation but innovation and creativity, as it is this that represents God’s essential purpose for human work.

Read more here:

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

A biblical theology of work, Part 2: Wealth creation

A biblical theology of work, Part 3: Call and vocation

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.