Christianity, Economics, and Capitalism

A former student of mine from the Genoa Central days, Melissa Hays, asked me for recommendations concerning books on capitalism from a Christian perspective.  This question has stumped me.  I only have about 100 or so books on economics with about half of them being Christian in perspective.  I really know very little about the topic directly.  For the past 20 plus years, I have devoted great amounts of time to various eras of history, many different aspects of literature, certain topics in Christian worldview thinking, and quite a few pastoral and Biblical studies.  But I have read few works on economics.  In part, this is because economic reading always reminds me of some bill I need to pay, or how quickly this month’s salary is disappearing, or how much kids and cars and house and insurance cost, or how stretched my budget is, or how long I will have to work to pay off my debts (probably up through year 2247).  I prefer poetry over economics.  Don’t misunderstand me:  I love money and what money can do for me and the world.  I just prefer to read about life in the old South over investments on Wall Street.  The election of 1948 intrigues me more than the bank bailouts of 2008.  But the field is an important one for Christians to study.

On a political level, I cannot bear to think about economics.  I thought things looked really bleak and dreary back 20 and 30 years ago.  For a time, the economic direction of our country improved slightly.  During the Reagan, Bush I, and even Clinton years, there were infinitesimally small changes that promised some hope.  I harbor no such expectations at the moment except for a hope that I am totally misreading this gigantic hole in the hull of our economic ship of state.

I will make some book recommendations, but will put forth these caveats.

First, don’t test me on the books.  I have many books of which I am only slightly familiar with the contents.  In some cases, I read the books.  In others, I read portions of the books.  In yet other cases, I read other books by the author or things about the book or scanned over the book. This is not my bailiwick.

Second, capitalism is a broad topic.  It has many facets in our economic, social, and political spheres.  Capitalism has been used by good people for good purposes, and it has been used by bad people for bad purposes.  A Christian bookstore and a brothel can both be capitalistic enterprises.  The recommendations will consider the varied hues of capitalism’s uses, abuses, and value.

Third, not all Christians agree on what Biblical principles arise from Scripture.  As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary  consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”  Civil,  social, and economic policies are not, in most cases, directly stated in Scripture.  There are applicable Scriptural principles, such as prohibitions against idolatry and theft.  Governments do have the tendency to assert divinity.  In those cases, the political and economic implications of “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” apply.

Because economics covers so many areas of life and action, there will be differing approaches from Bible-believing and Bible-informed thinkers.  This should not be viewed negatively, but rather as the occasion to study, glean, think, pray, and best apply whatever Biblical principles are apt for the occasion.

Fourth, many fine books on economics have been written by economists and historians who are either not Christian or not specifically writing in light of the Bible.  Assuming as I do that “All truth is God’s truth,” I find much there that is compatible or reflective of Christian principles.

I will name some books below and comment on them briefly.

1.  Biblical Economics in Comics by Vic Lockman.  Yes, this is a book written in comic and cartoon style.  Vic Lockman is an old and dear friend whose gift has always been cartoon drawing.  His views are very conservative and theonomic.  By theonomic, I mean that he derives principles of ethics from Biblical law.  There is much here to amuse while educating the reader.  At the very least, a reader should come away from this fun book realizing that the Bible contains some principles and precepts that we need to think on regarding economics.

2.  Biblical Economics: A Commonsense Guide to Our Daily Bread by R. C. Sproul, Jr.  Mr. Sproul came to Veritas Academy some years ago and taught this book to my students.  There is much that I appreciate about it.  It is, however, more libertarian and more Austrian School than I would adhere to.  (You will have to look up libertarianism, libertarian economics, and Austrian School on your own.)  In terms of economics, this book is priced for $16.  But if anyone wants a copy for $5. plus postage, I would be glad to sell it to them.

3.  Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt.  It has been many years since I read this book.  It is a vigorous defender of free market capitalism.  Hazlitt was not writing as a Christian. This is a free market classic.  The first chapter, titled “The Broken Window,” is worth the price of the book.

           

4.  The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson.  Ferguson, a Scotsman, is an economic historian.  I think that Civilization is one of the best books I have ever read.  His discussion of Christianity’s impact on civilization and capitalism was memorable.  Being a Scot, Ferguson, I assume, has a Presbyterian heritage, but I don’t think he is a believer.  One of the big questions on capitalism and Christianity is in regard to the connection.  A society doesn’t have to be Christian for capitalism to thrive, but it seems like capitalism has been at its best in societies that have more Christian influences.

5.  Follow the Money:  The Money Trail Through History by Ruben Alvarado is a short and useful book on money.  Alvarado is a Christian.  From the website: “The book takes the reader on a journey through history, beginning with ancient Meso­potamia, through Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome, then through medieval and early-modern Europe in its interaction with the Near and Far East, all the way to the modern-day community of nations. It demonstrates in no uncertain terms just how decisive the institution of money has been, and at the same time just how misunderstood – its role, its effects, even the very form it takes.”

6.  Those Enterprising Americans and The Roots of Capitalism by John Chamberlain.  It was many decades ago when I read these books.  I don’t know why they are not as noticed, read, or reprinted in our day.  My memories of them are favorable.  America is not the only capitalistic country in the world, but it is certainly a key one.  In spite of abuses of economic systems, the very opportunity to be enterprising, to think outside the box, to innovate and experiment, has resulted in many great economic benefits for Americans, and through America, for the world.

7.  The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek.  This book was originally written in the 1930s and was read by a few conservatives here and there for years.  Then it was rediscovered and has been a best seller.  It is a free market classic.  Hayek was not a Christian, but many Christians appreciate this book.  I was especially pleased about a year ago when I picked up my son Nicholas at the airport and he greeted me saying, “I read The Road to Serfdom on the plane ride.”

8.  Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society by Bob Goudzwaard.  Many of my acquaintances, including Dr. Roy Clouser and Dr. Henk Geertsema, have recommended this book, along with Goudzwaard’s other writings.  I have it and need to read it.  Goudzwaard is professor emeritus at the Free University of Amsterdam.  Being Dutch and Christian, he connects his thinking with the foundations of Christian thought as promoted by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd.  More about and by Dr. Goudzwaard can be found at All of Life Redeemed.

9.  The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Society by Rodney Stark.  I read, enjoyed, and profited from several of Professor Rodney Stark’s fine books.  I especially enjoyed the emphasis in this book on how Christianity impacted freedom and capitalism.  Often, much–maybe too much—credit goes to Protestantism in opening the doors to capital expansion, but Stark gives lots of credit to the Catholic city states in Italy.

10.  Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies, edited by David Hall and Matthew Burton.  Of course, I have to mention some book that gives Calvinism the credit for all that is good in Western Civilization.  This book is part of the P & R Calvin500 series that came out in 2009.  There are other sources that also credit (or blame) Calvinism and Protestantism for capitalism’s impact on Western Civilization.  The works of Tawney and Weber are well known and questionable at points, but most of the serious studies of Calvinism include some references to the growth of economic freedom.  (Time will not allow me to discuss Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.)  

11.  The Good of Affluence: Serving God in a Culture of Wealth by John Schneider.  This is a great book that I read a few years back.  I especially enjoyed his treatment of the parables and teachings from the Gospel of Luke that related to economics.  Both Andrew Sandlin and David Bahnsen think it is among the best books on the topic of capitalism and Christianity. In part, it is an answer to an older and questionable book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by the left-leaning Ron Sider.

Here are some further recommendations from friends:

Gregory Baus recommends the writings of John Robbins that can be found on the website for The Trinity Foundation and Robbins’ book Freedom and Capitalism.  I also liked the late Dr. Robbins’ book and had a small part in saving Robbins from a biographical mistake concerning Hilaire Belloc.

Freedom and Capitalism

Gregory Baus, who is quite well read in economics from the Austrian School perspective, and I both wonder why E. H. L. Hebden Taylor’s book Economics, Money, and Banking: Christian Principles is not still in print.  Gregory also recommends the works of Wilhelm Roepke.

Ruben Alvarado, author of Follow the Money and the publisher at Wordbridge Publishing, recommends Joseph Schumpeter’s writings, particularly Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy and History of Economic Analysis.  I don’t have these books, but will work on remedying that problem.

P. Andrew Sandlin recommends Jay Richards’ books,  but adds that Schneider’s book, listed above, is the best.  There goes a few more books on my wish list.

David Bahnsen recommends Wayne Grudem’s recent book, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution, and Michael Novak’s books.  I will have to get the new Grudem book, and I will have to comb through my study to find what books by Novak that I have.  He also recommends John Sirico’s Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.

There are many more books to think through.  Although I don’t agree with him at all or many points, I have fond memories of Gary North’s many writings on economic issues.  North’s economic commentaries on the Bible, which were mainly confined to the first five books of the Bible, were wonderful.  I used Russell Kirk’s Economics: Work and Prosperity in a few classes some years back.  The writings of Thomas Sowell were outstanding.  Ludwig Von Mises was beyond me, but profitable at points.  Milton Friedman’s works, defining of the Chicago School of Economics, still have merit.  The Incredible Bread Machine, a fun paperback book of yesteryear, was a eye-opening delight. Finally, Leonard Read’s delightful essay “I, Pencil” is unsurpassed.

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5 thoughts on “Christianity, Economics, and Capitalism

  1. If you want to learn how big ‘the hole in the hull of the economic ship of state’ has grown, as well as the troubling perils swamping the political, legal, and civility barks read Niall Ferguson’s latest: The Great Degeneration.

  2. I must say that you truly went above and beyond what I expected – but you always did in school and I have no reason to think that would change. As I said before, I have a lot of reading to do on the subject, but at least I know better of where to start. You never stop teaching and all of your students are blessed by it. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: New Books on the Horizon | The Heavy Laden Bookshelf

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