Many people who have studied the Bible have observed that God often refers to economic topics and concepts such as money, interest rates (usury), profit and loss, wages, entrepreneurship, and contractual obligations. These topics are often used by God to make spiritual points in various parables and passages in the Bible. Other scriptures deal with economic problems most 20th century individuals are still confronting: the idea of private property, unemployment and high taxes. The Bible of course is not an economics textbook. God has not developed economic principles as one would expect to find today in a text on economic principles. However, it is clear that some of the world’s most well-known economic thinkers, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Adam Smith, were influenced by God and the Bible. Where Christian economics differs from modern day economics is that is not just driven by data and analytics, but it looks at economic principles and theories from a perspective considering human morals and motives. “A sound morality must take account of our own interests equally with those of others.”
Focusing on the morality of people was very important among early Greek philosophers like Democritus, Plato and Aristotle. Christianity was born into a world immersed in Greek thinking and therefore, one must first look at Greek philosophers when discussing Christian economics. Although not a literal source of Christian belief, Greek philosophy provided the systems with which Christians teach, discuss, and understand biblical passages. Early Teachings of Democritus and Aristotle
Democritus contributed two important thoughts to the development of economics. First, he was the founder of subjective value theory. In his opinion, moral values and ethics, were absolute, but economic values were necessarily subjective. Unlike Democritus, God sees the two go hand in hand and we can see that in various scriptures in the Bible. Democritus’ teachings touched on the theory of supply and demand and how it relates to property and the value and worth of labor. In terms of economics, Democritus focused on the importance of liberty and mutual aid as a method to bring society together. “When the powerful champion the poor and render them service and kindness, then men are not left desolate but become fellows and defend one another.” Democritus saw the effects of the private property economy of Athens and concluded that private property offers a superior form of economic organization, because unlike a communally owned property, private property provides an incentive for work. “Income from communally held property gives less pleasure and the expenditure less pain.” Although Democritus stressed the concept of private property, he did not ignore that it would be beneficial to a society if people were kind to their neighbors and shared the fruits of their labor. We can see similar ideas within several passages of the Bible. “He who has a slack hand becomes poor, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.”
In a communal property, there is the possibility that everyone will not work their hardest to better themselves because all goods will be shared. Under a private economy system those that work the hardest often see the best results. However, Christian teaching does not just say that all people should be left to their own devices and forced to survive on their own. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Sharing goods and providing charity is a fundamental part of Christianity. Just as Democritus believed, Christians also believe that charity is a method that can bring a society together. Aristotle built on many of Democritus’ teachings that focused on private property. He believed that a private property economy would be more productive because he believed that people would work hard to try to better their lives and move up higher in society. This notion differed from Plato’s model of the ideal city-state. Plato believed in a strict rigid class system based on birth and that did not allow for any movement for betterment of one’s position in society. However, Aristotle concluded that “the family, the village community, and the state are all natural in the sense that they are indispensable in enabling man to lead the full and rich life that puts all his capacities to use.” According to Aristotle, private property enables people to practice philanthropy which in turn provides “them with training in the practical virtues of temperance and liberty”. This belief follows the same purpose of the church. The Bible believes that people are all inherently bad and that Christianity provides an opportunity for moral goodness to develop among the citizens. “For it will be like a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted to him his property.” Every person’s responsibility as a steward of God is to maximize the owner’s return on his investment by using it to serve others. We can use our property to serve others only in a society that permits private ownership.
The Fall of the Roman Empire and the Rise of the Church
In 449 B.C., the Roman government passed the Law of the Twelve tables in order to regulate most of commercial, social and family life. Although reasonable in some instances, the Law of the Twelve tables eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by huge economic disorders. Wars and invasions took place and destroyed states and property and barbarian tribes moved in to claim the new territory. It took the teachings and messages of the Bible to civilize the invaders and to conform them into a new society; one dominated by the Church. It did not take long for Christianity to catch on in what was once the Roman Empire. Christianity shared many of the same “features with the cynic, stoic and Epicurean philosophies that were to become so prominent in Rome.”
All the features all found a place in Christian teachings. However, what was most important about Christian teachings that separated it from that of Greek Philosophers, was the promise of an afterlife or a “spot in heaven”. During this period, the teachings of Apostle Paul were taken very seriously. According to Paul, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” This idea was very important in making sure the medieval economic system ran smoothly. With the rise of the medieval economic system came the shrinking of the importance of private property. The Fathers of the Church taught that wealth and property were gifts from God and that they must be used to promote human welfare. Therefore, if people followed these teachings and worked towards bettering their society they would be gifted a place in heaven. “If they obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasures.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas and Private Property
During the medieval period, private property was not as important as during the Roman Empire. The Fathers of the Church stressed that God made the poor and the rich from the same earth and that the notion of property was something created by the state and not the result of a divine right. According to the Fathers of the Church, private ownership of property is contrary to human nature. “The earth is the Lord’s” and therefore humans have no right to own anything. However, Saint Thomas Aquinas challenged this belief and provided a strong argument for private property. Aquinas cited Genesis 1:26 as his foundation for his argument. “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth.”’ God made humans unique and intended for them to utilize natural resources for personal benefit. Aquinas understood that during his time the ultimate purpose in life was to worship God and to follow the messages of the Bible. However, he knew that work would be better allocated and done more efficiently if peoples were given clear and distinct rules. If everyone in a society had to look after one thing there would be confusion and little opportunity for success. This argument by Aquinas was important because people could feel a sense of individualism while at the same time working towards bettering their community on order to please God and achieve salvation. Along with creating order in society, private property and ownership also helps maintain peace in communities according to Saint Thomas Aquinas. This claim is similar to that of Aristotle’s argument against Plato’s model of the ideal city state. In a perfect world, one in which people are morally good everyone will be content with what they own. Ephesians 2:8-10 however, reminds us that in Christianity people are inherently sinners it is important to do the work that God prepared for us to do. “For it is by the grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from the gift of God…For we are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Aquinas understood that private ownership would not undermine the church, rather both the Church and the community would most likely benefit from the effects. His claim was that we can and should own things, but we should only be holding them as stewards. “What we own is held in trust for God, so we can use our resources for his glory.” With the practice of private property people will be better off and therefore will have greater opportunities to be generous. Focusing on producing goods and services through cooperation benefits society as a whole.
The greatest argument against Aquinas’ claims is that which comes from Luke 12:16-21, the rich man with the big barns. In this parable, the rich man thought to himself that he could build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods and would have a supply for years and therefore he would have time to be lazy. However, Aquinas didn’t believe the man was acting lazy because he was rich, rather because he held his wealth only for his own gain and was “not rich toward God.” This is indeed a sin, but it does preclude private ownership and most likely would not happen because people followed the Church’s teachings closely.
Christianity teaches not only the glories of man, but also their sins, weaknesses and evil tendencies. While Christianity is far from utopian, it tries to understand people as they are; as God sees them both in their sins and in the graces that He grants them. Early on, economic thinkers were able to rationalize their theories and claims based on Christian teachings. Heaven and the idea of an afterlife provided people with the incentive to work hard, but at the same time people understood that having a healthy society was just as important. The idea of Christian economics is that competition through private property reinforces our worth in dignity in the sense that our work and diligence will contribute to the welfare of society. This idea is in harmony with the Christian world view which sees people as image bearers of God.