Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Are Markets An Example of Providence?

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These past eight weeks we’ve looked at the eight most popular myths about wealth, poverty, and free enterprise.

If anything has been conveyed in tackling these myths, hopefully it’s the oft-neglected truth that the creation of wealth and the alleviation of poverty has as much to do with the spirit as with matter. Christians should be the first to understand this, since we know human beings are a unique hybrid of the spiritual and the material.

Most aspects of wealth creation and poverty negation are not material assets. You can’t find economic freedom or cultural mores on a map or put them in a safe. They’re intangible and immaterial. They involve beliefs, social conventions, institutions, commitments, virtues, and creativity. 

If so much of the mystery of the market is intangible, how are we to understand it? It is helpful to think about the market in terms of theological categories such as providence.

Providence & Theology

In Christian theology, providence refers to God’s preservation and guidance of all things. God governs all events for a purpose, even if we can’t discern that purpose.

Providence is more than simply God’s knowledge of everything that will come to pass, but providence doesn’t require that God determine or directly cause every event. Providence makes room for “secondary causes.” These include the basic properties of physical objects, such as those described natural “laws” governing nature.

God can act directly within nature, of course, but he is also free to work his will through secondary causes. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas remarked that God has given “even to creatures…the dignity of causality.” God grants that dignity especially to human beings.

We are free even to contradict God’s perfect will, to resist and even turn against him. In choosing to create free creatures, God accepted an enormous trade-off. But that doesn’t mean he is powerless in the face of human sin.

Rather, through his providence, God can weave together even the evil, free actions of human beings into a wider, if sometimes indiscernible, greater good. The story of Joseph is a good example.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. His brothers assumed they would be rid of Joseph forever. Most of them wished him dead. Contrary to their intentions, however, God used the event to send Joseph to Egypt. There he was given a prominent position by Pharaoh, and used it to save many people from famine.

Genesis 50:20 records that after the brothers meet Joseph again in Egypt, he tells them:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 

Those brothers eventually became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Providence & Economics

Just as God could work his will through the sinful choices of Joseph’s brothers, so, too, can he work his will through the free market, which involves countless trillions of individual choices, whether they be good, bad, or indifferent.

Rather than be afraid or skeptical of the market order, Christians can see it as God’s way of providentially governing the actions of billions of free agents in a fallen world.

We see the hand of God in sunrises, in pictures of Earth taken by astronauts, in mountainous landscapes, and the crashing waves of the sea. We discern his fingerprints in the fine-tuning of the laws of physics and the nanotechnology inside cells. But do we see economic truths in this same light?

Many terrible things happen in our fallen world. But none of them erase the fact that, as the apostle Paul said in Romans 1:20,

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature…have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

Many bad things happen in the market as well, since every market exists in a fallen world. But the market order is one of the things God has made or that emerges when we, his image-bearers, act in a certain way. It is, as nobel-prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, “probably the most complex structure in the universe.”

Few Christians understand the market. Fewer still have thought about it as an example of God’s providence over a fallen world. As the answers to the eight myths we’ve covered indicate, the market order is far beyond the knowledge of man. No mere human being or committee could have ever designed it. No one anticipated or predicted it.

It is just what we might expect of a God, who, even in a fallen world, can still work all things together for good.

This post was adapted from the book Money, Greed, and God.

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