What does Wall Street have to do with the Gospel? An Acton University reflection on economics in the New Testament

Cover of "Rediscovering the Natural Law i...

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Greetings from Acton University 2011. The Acton Institute is an ecumenical think-tank dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes. This is my second summer attending their “Acton University” seminars in Grand Rapids, MI.

One of my favorite presenters last year was Dr. Stephen Grabill, director of programs and research scholar in theology at the Acton Institute. A careful scholar with a Reformed background and a unique knowledge of both economics and theology, Grabill edited the NIV Stewardship Study Bible (2009) and authored Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics and edited the Sourcebook of Late Scholastic Monetary Theory. Here are my notes on his excellent, if basic, presentation on the social and economic context of the New Testament:

Tertullian famously asked “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Meaning, what does the thought world of the Greek philosophers have to do with the Gospel? Why should Christians bother with the culture of the empire when they should be living according to their Scriptures?

We could ask: What does Wall Street have to do with Jerusalem; or economic practice with the seemingly unrelated world of the New Testament?

Grabill not a New Testament scholar but a theologian. He has relied heavily on Engaging Economics anthology and Tight Fists or Open Hands, both Eerdmans titles. Highly recommended.

Gaps in our knowledge: first in interp of New Testament texts themselves and second in study of how those texts received in early Christian community.

Transformation of value in kingdom of god, which affected economic relations in the early church.


Some interesting economic questions that arise from the Good Samaritan story. Left money for innkeeper for care of injured Jewish traveler. How long would that have covered the cost of caring for that man? Valid question. Was it enough to make the innkeeper look after the man with special care? How much buying power did 2 denarii have? Substantial sacrifice or loose change?

Another instance; Luke 6:20: Blessed are you who are poor. How to take that? Peasant context of Galilee? Or Greco-Roman urban context of Luke? Or hybrid?

Too easy for modern economists to do a fact/value split, seeing economics as unengaged in the rest of life (e.g. religion, ethics). Isolating economics from religion in search of objective, standalone analysis. As Michael Polanyi writes in Trade and Market in Early Empires, all ancient economies were embedded economies. Financial decisions seldom made for simply financial decisions alone. The understanding of economics thus differs a great deal between ancient and modern analysts, especially re: choice, scarcity, incentives.

David Cowan, Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ (Paternoster, 2006). Must listen carefully to what understanding of economics the text is working with; and what the text is really trying to say (vs. “party line” thinking: Acts 2 and 4 teaches Christian socialism, or parable of talents teaches laissez-faire economics. (No! says Grabill).

See Oakes’s chapter in Engaging Economics. He discusses pros and cons of links between economics and biblical interpretation:

  1. Economics can provide framework overall. Liberation theologians use neo-Marxist heuristic whether or not the text deals with those issues overtly. Overlay on the text. Not good
  2. Realize aim of interp is to use the text as a source for gathering economic evidence. E.g. in the People’s History of Christianity project. Not to interpret texts, but to recover the history of ordinary people from source documents in that time, evidence of whose lives you can glean from the text.
  3. Economic evidence drawn from archeology, extra-biblical and comparative texts, etc. used as a source in hermeneutics. Most complex, organic option. He’ll use this one.

So, how did early Christian movement transform values in the economy of the kingdom of God, which restructured economic (expectations) in society.

Now using Stephen Barton from Engaging Economics. Acknowledges his debt to large literature.

Key reference points in 10 commandments as reference points for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

  1. Property in Torah

    Most important scholar on this: Patrick Miller. Moral space opened by 10 comms a trajectory with wisdom on property and possessions. The stipulations governing life with God and neighbor are delineated more re wealth and property than any other issue. A critical area where 10 comms are radicalized and internalized. Shows just how critical economic goods signs practices are for creating and sustaining life-giving culture, blessed by God, of Israel . . .

    Second table of law: what threatens the fabric of personal, communal flourishing? Murder unjust taking of neighbors life. Changes productivity, viability of household, which was a social institution aiming to preserve the positive commandments of honoring father and mother. Adultery, taking of neighbor’s sexual property, also deeply impacts family. Stealing: taking of persons to sell into slavery or a neighbor’s material property. Destroys the other’s (neighbor’s) economic viability. Bearing false witness—often to gain material advantage: destroys material/social capital and reputation of neighbor. Coveting: misdirected desire to augment one’s own life and wealth vs neighbor’s, also undermines trust which is basic to social order. This item discussed at greatest length! Orientation of heart toward possessing what is not one’s own, and which contributes then to every other false taking: murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. Overall the Torah’s delineation of life with God and neighbor takes many overlapping and intersecting forms.

    David Baker in Tight Fist (see above) does great analysis of several Old Testament facets. In Torah, there are positive and negative commands. The kinds of actions covered are fascinating, sophisticated: lying against neighbor, stripping fields/vineyards and leaving them destitute for gleaners. Also Seventh-year release from debt, jubilee. Also ritual actions such as giving the firstborn sheep and oxen to the lord. Also internal dispositions (e.g. coveting what belongs to neighbor). As liberated slaves, they will not seek to enslave others. As people of covenant, will display the goodness, justice that God has bestowed on them. SO God provides warrants for good neighborliness. Remidning them that God hears the cries of the poor. And “You shall remember you were slaves in Egypt.” Conveyed through legislation, narratives, prophecy, and song.”

  2. Wealth and the moral life in the gospel of Matthew

    Matt 6:24: You cannot serve God and mammon. Fundamental Old Testament-New Testament Continuity on wealth as marker of what it means to be the people called by God from slavery to freedom, death to life. The extent to which themoral life/biblical righteousness is displayed in economic terms in gospel of Matthew is worth noting. Matt emphasizing right ordering of heart’s desires: love of God, neighbor. Also Matt’s emphasis on right practice . . . (see handout)

    Mutually reinforcing relationship between xology and new way of ordering community life. New eschatological economy (way of doing everything), so to his people a new people governed by new principles.

    Now Matt 6: 19-34

    1. 19-24: Warning about becoming slave of money

i.     Do not lay out treasures on earth, but in heaven: heavenly vs earthly capital. One’s heart will follow what one treasures the most. Anthropological reflection. The reflections about the heart lead to

ii.     Reflections on the eye, the body. Barton: The eye for ancients didn’t let light in, but lets out what’s going on in the heart. Hence when Matt writes “the eye is the lamp of the body,” the body full of life will be reflected in bright eyes, body full of darkness in dull eyes. So “If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness?” That makes sense! Point: a righteous person predisposed toward generosity, but an evil one toward greed. Again: the focus is on one’s inner affections, motivations. Moral concern: integrity, unity of inner and outer life, in unity with God’s will. By contrast: the divided person, the subject of the third section in this first part of our passage

iii.     New economy: serving god, not mammon. V. 24: “Mammon” not quite money, but indeed suggesting the name of an idol: attachment to material things threaten one’s spiritual vitality, so warrants “beware! Idolatry!” warning. Col 3:5: “Put to death what belongs to your earthly nature” including “greed, which is idolatry.” Wow.

  1. Assurance of father’s providential care of his people

i.     Curbing anxiety re: basic needs.

ii.     Jesus develops rhetorically powerful argument to show God’s providential care for all of creation.

Stark contrast: Pharisees: pride, greed. God’s people: new way of using stuff. New kind of people. A new ethic, leading to life. Pharisees’ way leading to death. See 7:13-14 in Matt. He uses the broad/narrow gates analogy re the two peoples. Church/synagogue split in AD 70. True covenant fidelity belongs with those who with poverty of spirit (beatitudes) follow Jesus and deploy their wealth in accord with Christ’s greater righteousness.

Three points of reflection:

  1. Economic practices are at heart of early Christian self-development, moral formation, social life: revelatory of the change that occurred in the lives and hearts . . . the way we treat others points to this
  2. Early Christianity provides a sort of retelling of what counts in life and how to attain it. The dominant cultural notions of what really counts in life get redefined.
  3. What it means for 1st and 21st-c economic relations: Jesus’ movement in people will recognize both continuities and discontinuities in life with other economies and scales of value and exchange. The household codes were xnized. Almsgiving, charitable practices . . .

Which one are we working out of: the one that works out of life or out of death.

7 responses to “What does Wall Street have to do with the Gospel? An Acton University reflection on economics in the New Testament

  1. Hi Chris,

    Clarification of the point about my book made by Dr Grabill in his lecture, I have obtained the lecture text from Acton, and he says:

    “The two points I want to impress upon you is that, first, we need to be careful to avoid superimposing a modern understanding of economics on biblical passages that address economic topics. We should shun party lines like “Acts 2 and 4 teach Christian socialism” and “the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 teaches laissez-faire economics.” And, second, we must actively resist eisegesis in the interpretation of economic passages, particularly those embedded within parables, which, in many instances, are more related to the dawning of a new eschatological age in Christ than to any specific teaching about economic principles per se. Let me recommend an interesting book that keeps the Messianic context in view along with the economic content of the parables: David Cowan’s Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ (Paternoster, 2007). We need to listen carefully not only to what message the biblical text is attempting to convey, but also to what understanding of economics the text is working with, which, of course, will require us to do some independent first-century historical research.”I
    I hope this helps!

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