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Christian Theology and Market Economics

Author(s):Harper, Ian R.
Gregg, Samuel
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.NET (October 2009)

Ian R. Harper and Samuel Gregg, editors, Christian Theology and Market Economics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2008. ix + 225 pp. $110 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84720-377-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

This volume consists of ten chapters, each written by a different author, or in two cases pairs of co-authors. The chapters are grouped into three parts: Christianity and the history of economic thought; Christianity and economic theory; and Christianity and modern business.

Part I is four chapters on the history of economics: Ricardo Crespo on Aristotle?s economics; Stephen Grabill on pre-Enlightenment Christianity?s contribution to the development of economic thought, principally from Scholastic moral theologians; Samuel Gregg on Scottish natural law philosophers? case for economic freedom; and Paul Oslington?s exploration of the role of natural theology in eighteenth and nineteenth century economics.

The latter three chapters in this part of the book provide a chronological account of the relationship between Christianity and economic ideas from the thirteenth century to the present. It is regrettable that Crespo?s opening chapter on Aristotle was not tied explicitly to Grabill?s chapter on the Scholastics, as Scholastic theology drew heavily on Aristotle?s philosophy. Crespo?s analysis of Aristotle seems to sit apart from the rest of the book, though it need not.

The two chapters of part II concern the compatibility between contemporary economics and theology. Geoffrey Brennan and Anthony Waterman carefully parse the methodological principles of economics and theology to find points of consilience and conflict between the disciplines. Gordon Menzies uses an imaginary conversation between an economic man and theological woman for the same purpose.

In part III the economic subject of the essays switches from economic theory to business. Two of the chapters, by Michael Miller and Phillip Booth, concern the ethics of business. Miller uses the writings of Pope John Paul II to argue that business is essentially a moral enterprise. His argument is an alternative view and critique of the popular notion of ?corporate social responsibility.? Booth also bases his chapter on Catholic social teaching and examines specific ethical questions about the conduct of business, such as the agency role of managers, the profit motive, and unjustly high or low wages. Like Miller, Booth is critical of the corporate social responsibility movement, concluding that there is no substitute for people in business having well-formed consciences. Ian Harper and Eric Jones examine the harmful effects of materialism under the pop culture rubric of ?affluenza.? Peter Heslam argues against the widespread presumption that solutions to poverty are to be found in government transfers and private charity. Heslam contends that business is essential to economic prosperity, and that if businessmen and women live their Christian calling, business can be transformative.

The authors in this book are mostly professors of economics and business. Three contributors, including co-editor Gregg, are on the staff of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Harper, the other co-editor, is on the faculty of the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne. In light of the credentials of the authors, it is not surprising that they bring to their essays more expertise in economics and business than in theology. So far as I have been able to tell, only three, Stephen Grabill, Paul Oslington, and Anthony Waterman have scholarly background in theology.

I mention the balance of expertise in economics and business because there is more to be learned from the book about economics and business than about theology. At times as I read through the chapters I wondered, where is the theology? There is plenty discussion of Christianity, but not very much that qualifies as theology, strictly speaking. I am thinking here along the lines of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of theology: ?the study or science which treats of God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with man and the universe; ?the science of things divine?.? Even in their very nice essay on convergence and clashes between theology and economics, Brennan and Waterman deal more with Christian anthropology, i.e., Christian doctrine of man, than with Christian doctrine of God. It may be that the paucity of actual theology in the book, despite the book?s title, is a symptom of the widespread decline of theology in the academy. University course offerings in departments of religion and departments of religious studies are heavily weighted to history and social science, with few if any courses in theology. A more descriptive title might have been Christianity and Market Economics.

But there is also a bit of an issue with the second part of the title, market economics. The essays in parts I and II deal with economics as a social science, i.e., as an intellectual discipline. The essays in part III deal with business as a set of social institutions and activities. Since understanding human action in the markets in which businessmen and women buy and sell is at the core of economics, this is not necessarily a problem. Yet economics as an intellectual discipline and the practice of business are quite different things. As with the case of theology being in the title but largely missing from the book?s contents, the mix of economic theorizing and business practices under the heading of ?market economics? makes for an odd sort of packaging for the volume.

With a couple exceptions, I found the essays informative, well-crafted, and interesting. Several are appropriately provocative for readers who hold conventional ideas, for instance, that economics has little if any historical connection with Christianity, or that people in business are presumptively beset with more ethical challenges than people in the professions or in ?public service.?

J. Daniel Hammond is Hultquist Family Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University. He is author of ?Early Drafts of Friedman?s Methodology Essay,? in Uskali M?ki, editor, The Methodology of Positive Economics: Reflections on the Milton Friedman Legacy, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative