Thursday, February 10, 2011

Christian Economics: The Image of God 

Economics means literally "rule of the house".  It addresses the distribution of wealth, goods and services.  The name is more appropriate than you might think at first, since the study analyzes the behavior of fundamental economic unit, the household.  Economic choices are typically made at the household level.

Economics is often neglected by Christians because of, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of what we as humans are.  We are not spiritual beings who happen to inhabit a physical body for a time.  That is a gnostic error with roots in the ancient church, and led to the frequent abandonment of the economic world in favor of living in caves, hermitages or monasteries by those who desired to be more spiritual.  The truth is that God created us to be both physical and spiritual beings.  He put Adam in the Garden of Eden and gave him fundamentally material tasks.  He was to tend the garden, be fruitful and multiply the earth, and name the animals.

In fact, Adam was said to be "in the image and likeness of God."  God's creative acts, beyond the initial ex nihilo creation, involved separating and distinguishing one thing from another- light from dark, sea from dry land- as well as filling these forms with content- stars in the sky, fish in the sea, plants and animals on the land, and so forth.  And then He created man, in the image and likeness of God, as the pinnacle of creation.  He gave man tasks to do that reflected this image and likeness, in that Adam's acts were small reflections of God's own creative acts.  He was to bring order out of chaos in the creation by tending the garden, naming the animals and filling creation with human beings.  Man was to be a scientist.  Naming the animals meant understanding them.  Man was to be an industrialist.  Tending the garden meant hard work and industry to take the raw materials of creation and improve on them.  And man was to be a father, a family man.  All of these things defined man's relationship with creation and with other men, and ultimately with the God that made him.  Of course when Adam fell into sin, all of this was brought into ruin and corruption.  Man's labor is specifically mentioned in the curse- the creation would rebel against his rule by bringing forth "thorns and thistles", and man's work would now be by the "sweat of his brow."

Salvation involves restoring what was lost.  Man was to be a faithful servant of God, but failed.  Jesus came to be what Adam failed to be.  And He succeeded- He was the faithful servant.  In salvation, we are conformed to His image, which means that in salvation we are being restored to our status as faithful imagebearers of God.  And that means that our relationship with God's creation will be one of the principal things being restored in us.  The implication of this is that economics is a proper and important study for every Christian.

I believe that if economics were better understood, a great deal of foolishness that passes for policy could be avoided.  But my concerns here are not primarily political.  My concern is that we as Christians understand that being a Christian does not mean retreating from the world.  This world is cursed and fallen and will be destroyed by fire.  But creation itself will be restored.  Eternal life will not be spent sitting on a cloud playing a harp.  A "new heavens and new earth" are coming, and our life will be a physical life spent in a physical place.  Preparing for that eternal life then means that right now, just as we are learning what it means to treat one another with love, so it also means learning to relate properly to God's creation.  We are to take dominion over the creation we are presently in.  This means being good stewards (caretakers) of our own bodies in sexual purity.  It means being hard at work with what God has given us to do, and doing that work in integrity and thankfulness.  It means helping those who are in need.  It means using all of the things of God's creation with moderation, joy and thankfulness, and not being drunken or gluttonous.  It means not stealing from others.

Unfortunately, the gnostic error persists.  It is seen in the fact that when we are called to serve God with our lives, to many that means quitting their jobs and engaging in full-time "church" work, or at least giving most of their money to ministry.  It is seen in the fact that it is viewed as somehow inherently immoral to make money, or at least to make very much.  But we see here that when I interact with God's creation in dominion, improving on that creation and bringing order out of chaos, I reflect God's own image and begin to fulfill man's original reason for existence.  I must do so in a way that glorifies God, of course, and is therefore in accordance with His word; meaning that I do not exploit creation for the satisfaction of my selfish lusts; I do not steal or defraud from others in my labor; and that I always remember to be generous to the poor.  But in this way, the Christian sees that so-called "secular" work can be highly glorifying to God.  This is the foundation of Christian economics, the understanding that man was created by God as a physical and spiritual being, and is called upon to reflect God's own nature in his physical being and in the physical creation which God has made.


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