At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Is The Image of God An Engine of Economic Progress?

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On Tuesday, Dr. Anne Bradley outlined four essential elements to economic progress. Human beings are the engines of this economic progress, and it turns out that the Bible has a lot to say about this role we’ve been given. Where does our ability to create economic progress come from?

Engines Made In the Image of God

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” read the Bible’s opening verses. Genesis 1 goes on to describe God creating everything over the course of a workweek. At the end of each day, Genesis says, “God saw that it was good.”

The sixth day starts like the previous ones, with God saying, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind.” But then there is an encore.

Rather than simply saying, “Let there be,” Genesis records God saying,

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. 

Then God blesses the man and the woman, giving them what theologians refer to as the cultural mandate:

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over it…and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. 

Where Genesis 1 gives the cosmic overview, the second chapter zooms in tight. God fashions man from the ground, breathes into him the breath of life, and puts him in the garden “to till it and keep it.”

We aren’t ghosts trapped in bodies. We’re made of dirt, we’re made to work with dirt – and yet we have in us the very breath of God. Work itself is part of God’s original blessing, not his curse after the fall. We are a unique mixture of heaven and earth, so the way we work should reflect the fact that we are a unity of matter and spirit, neither pack animals nor angels.

The idea of the image of God – the imago dei – has given theologians gainful employment for two thousand years. In the text, God is acting as the sovereign King over the heavens and the earth. This Divine King, in turn, appoints us to have dominion as kings and queens over the tiny parts of creation we can affect. All our creativity comes from God. As Creator, God has made us creators.

We learn more about the image of God in the first chapter of John, which parallels Genesis 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him…

Before everything else, there was mind, reason, Logos. It was through this Logos that God created everything.

Though these biblical texts are not drawn from an economic textbook, they cast light on the most important truth of economics. With our hands and our minds, we can create wealth, and in the right circumstances, that human-generated wealth becomes the basis of more wealth. We are made in the image of the Creator God, so we should expect this of ourselves.

The History of Our Role In Economic Progress

Humans were created and first roamed the earth as hunters and gatherers. Then they began to domesticate sheep and cattle. They cultivated plants such as wheat and barley. These farmers started with what God had provided – seeds, land, rain, animals – and enriched it.

Today, economists list the three factors of production as land, labor, and capital. After man developed ways to store food and irrigate land, cities appeared with growing populations not directly tied to agriculture.

As recently as 1900, eighty percent of the world’s population was still on farms. That number had dropped to 50 percent by the 1970s. With solid private property laws and high technology, less than two percent of the American population now lives on farms, and yet they produce enough to feed the American population and export food abroad. Most of history was marked by scarcity. We now live amid both great scarcity and great abundance.

What’s more, most of the vast new wealth created in our economy derives not from land, however, but from intellectual capital, information, and technology. This hints at a startling trend. Over time, we can create more and more wealth with less and less matter.

We don’t know if these growth rates will continue indefinitely. But we have no reason to think that our ability to create new wealth will come to a halt tomorrow. New wealth comes not from matter alone, but from how we represent, inform, and transform matter – from the mind.

This most profound truth of economics is just what Christians should expect, since we know that each of us is created in the image of God.

This post was adapted from the book Indivisible.

What do you think the Bible says about humanity’s role as the engine of economic progress? Where does that ability come from? Leave your comments here

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