Foundations of Economics: A Christian View

Clive Beed (Australian Catholic University, Australia)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 30 August 2011



Beed, C. (2011), "Foundations of Economics: A Christian View", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 38 No. 10, pp. 884-885.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Shawn Ritenour has set himself a formidable task in applying a Christian perspective to a wide range of economic issues. He canvasses 16 topics commonly regarded as the foundations of economics, ranging from general principles of human action, through production, capital and income maximization, money and its purchasing power, to voluntary exchange and regulation.

The methodology adopted is to provide a first chapter reviewing the Biblical foundations of economics, and then proceed to an examination of each of the economic issues above. One constraint Ritenour sets himself is to depend heavily on the Misesian tradition of Austrian economics in explicating the economic issues he reviews. Within this tradition, the economics' questions are very well handled. A thorough review is made of major topics in economics from this perspective. The Christian input is said to come from Protestant Reformed theology, but this dimension of the project is not so compelling.

Chapter 1 on the Biblical foundations of economics does not establish a set of economic principles that can be related to the subsequent chapters on specific economic issues. Well over half, Chapter 1 is devoted to topics without mentioning the Bible. These include a definition of science (that seems unaware of the debate within the philosophy of science of what are science's constituent elements), of truth (for which something more than a dictionary definition is required), epistemology, skepticism, relativism, empiricism, and apriorism. This leaves just over five pages to establish the Biblical foundations of economics.

“What truths has God communicated to us in the Bible?” asks Ritenour in Chapter 1 (p. 8). “For the purposes of the subject of economics, it is sufficient to stress only a few characteristics of God as revealed in the Bible. One is that God thinks” (p. 10). He is also rational and omniscient. The rational thought of humans has been harmed by the Fall, but people are still able to undertake purposeful behavior. The upshot of Ritenour's Biblical analysis is that “we arrive at a number of conclusions relevant for economics. One is that we can discover natural and social regularities” (p. 12). “Economic laws concerning human action” (p. 13) can be unravelled:

The truths of economics “are to be believed because God has created us in his image with the ability to know and believe truth, ”including that, like God, “we act with a purpose” (p. 13).

To make this discussion more pertinent, continuing debates within the philosophy of social science concerning the scientific status of economics, the meaning of truth, rationality, and of laws of socio‐economic behavior required treatment.

Protestant Reformed theology would want to progress further than the conclusion that only a few characteristics of God need be stressed (such as His rationality and omniscience) to derive Biblical principles relevant to economics. It usually adopts a different path in establishing Biblical foundations for economics, and stresses many characteristics of God as relevant to economic activity. One example is Austin Hill and Scott Rae's (2010), The Virtues of Capitalism, who expose seven elements of the Bible's teachings on economic life, such as God's requirement for humankind to help the poor (p. 27). They reach this conclusion from examining a range of Biblical texts, including the Old Testament law, “profitable today in its general principles which are just as important but applicable in different ways that correspond to economic life today” (p. 29). Concluding with the main elements of the Bible's normative teaching on economic life, they proceed to discuss how they might relate to today.

Not a great deal of Biblical input occurs in Ritenour's chapters on the foundations of economics. Perhaps, this is because the biblical economic principles derived in Chapter 1 are so parsimonious. At the same time, Biblical/Christian input is not completely absent. The subjective nature of value is argued to be consistent with Biblical understanding in Chapter 2 on general principles of human action. An interesting section occurs on a Christian view of property in Chapter 4 on exchange, the division of labor, and property rights. Biblical foundations for the sins of greed and fraud are raised in Chapter 17 on voluntary exchange and regulation. Liberation theology is criticized in Chapter 18 for its alleged support of socialism. In other chapters, like nine, on interest and profit, a good opportunity existed to discuss the interest laws of the Mosaic Law, but this does not occur. Again opportunity occurred in Chapter 10 on competition and the number of sellers, to discuss to what extent God favors competition, but this does not come up. The last chapter, fulfilling the cultural mandate, starts promisingly with Biblical illustration, but its links to the subsequent discussion are not strongly enough maintained.

One can see what Ritenour was aiming at. There is no question that his exposition of an Austrian economics framework in relation to a range of economics' topics is masterful. There are more questions about how much his Biblical input adds to this analysis. Austrian economics it is, with some generalizations added about how Christian belief comports with this viewpoint. One can agree that “exercising dominion over the earth requires economic progress” (p. 507), that the division of labor accords with Biblical description (p. 510), and that “the Christian worldview […] provides the best philosophical basis for rapid and long‐term economic expansion and development” (p. 526). But none of these assertions were established as Biblical foundations for economics at the outset.

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