Is capitalism immoral? Answering this question from a Christian perspective requires returning to the Bible, taking its economic principles that we know by definition are moral, and comparing them to the underlying principles of free enterprise.
We do not believe that the Bible explicitly endorses capitalism or any other economic system. Yet the Bible has much to say about economic principles, and as Christians, we should embrace its wisdom as we make economic choices in our everyday lives. Our study of scripture should also lead us to embrace systems that are more closely in alignment with biblical principles.
In our search for economic principles in the Bible, we need to begin with the story of Creation found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Here we see God’s normative intentions for life. We see life as “the way it ought to be.” Man is free from sin, living out his high calling as God’s vice regent in a creation that is “very good.”
There are three major economic principles laid out in Creation:
Creativity and Freedom
Genesis 1:26 tells us humanity is made in God’s image. God’s creativity is one of his central attributes revealed in the Creation story. God created everything we see around us out of nothing. As Pastor Tim Keller writes,
God was an entrepreneur. He brought something out of nothing. He brought order out of chaos. Why did he do it? He did it not because he had to; he did it because he wanted to. He did it for the joy of doing it.
While we can’t create something out of nothing, being created in God’s image still means that men and women are free to imaginatively use their unique talents and abilities and the raw materials of creation to make things that glorify God, serve our needs, and provide for the needs of our neighbors.
This is why J.R.R. Tolkien called man a subcreator. Tolkien would also rightly state that one of the ways man glorifies God is through the subcreation of works that echo the true creations of God.
Stewardship and Ownership
God gave humanity dominion over the earth to steward with authority, responsibility, and care. In Genesis 1:28, we are told that one of the things we are created to do is to subdue the earth. The Hebrew word, translated “subdue” in verse 28 (Hebrew kabash) in that context, means to make the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment.
Stewardship implies an expectation of human achievement. If God entrusts me with something, then he expects me to do something with it, something worthwhile, something that he finds valuable. God has entrusted us with certain resources, gifts, and abilities. Our responsibility, as Dr. Ken Boa, president of Reflections Ministries, writes, “is to live by that trust by managing these things well, according to his design and desire.”
As God’s stewards, we do not own anything outright—everything belongs to God. Yet as his image-bearers, we possess subordinate ownership. These property rights are subject to the requirements of stewardship. God gives us real responsibilities and real decision-making capabilities. We are therefore accountable to God for how we use everything entrusted to our care.
Look at the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” It implies personal property rights. It should not surprise us that there has never been a culture in the history of the world that prospered over time without strong property rights. It is also important to recognize that it is not society that has “ownership” of goods, but rather individuals.
We read in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Man was created to work. Work is a pre-fall ordinance, a part of God’s good creation. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, work was intended to be “the gracious expression of creative energy in the service of others…”, and “not primarily a thing one does to live but the thing one lives to do.”
Cleric John Stott described work as “the expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfillment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God.”
Creation and Economics
Dr. Amy L. Sherman and Dr. James W. Skillen suggest,
Careful thinking about economics begins with the focus on the Bible’s big story. A biblical perspective on economic life doesn’t come from random proof-texting. Rather, it is rooted in queries about God’s intentions for his people and all he has made.
Economic decisions are responses to God’s call to stewardship. They should be made in the light of the moral principles laid out in scripture.
The free market, more than any other system, not only embraces these three biblical principles, but also requires them if the system is to work at all. A free market encourages men and women to create to their fullest potential, giving them the opportunity to glorify God in the process.
The character traits that are valued in the Bible—honest labor, creativity, investment and thrift—are those valued and rewarded under a free market system. The Bible approves of wealth gained through industriousness and self-control, traits that are important for success under free enterprise.
Christians down through the centuries who understood these economic principles laid out in the Creation story have shaped, changed, and created flourishing by the work of their hands. It is not what they believed but what they did that transformed our institutions, communities, and families. We need to do likewise.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in The Washington Times’ special report, “Faith at Work: Economic Flourishing, Freedom to Create and Innovate” on Oct. 6, 2016.
Is capitalism immoral? IFWE will explore common criticisms of capitalism with a host of respected Christian economists and theologians in its upcoming book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, Art Lindsley and Anne R. Bradley, eds. (August 8, 2017, Abilene Christian University Press).
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