Posted by: Kenn Hermann | January 25, 2006

Alternative Christian Views of Economics

Central to my stance within the neo-Kuyperian (reformational) tradition is seeing the Lord’s world from a different slant. (My counsel to Christian students has always been to read the thinkers in their fields who are on the margins, who are challenging the reigning paradigms, whatever their ideological commitments.) I have felt the need, even the urge, as a Christian historian, to dig through the historical record for glimpses of alternative ways of thinking and living in light of the Gospel. (In fact, now that I think of it that way, that is why I became an historian in the first place.) Historical study is a wonderful way to liberate us from the dead-hand of the present where everyone blindly adopts the current patterns of thinking, doing, and living. “That’s the way things are” is death to faithfully following Christ. History can show us that Christians, as well as many others, have thought differently in the past. Perhaps, just perhaps, there are ideas that are worthy of being resurrected and critically examined for the light they can throw on faithfully following Christ in our modern society.

One of the areas where Christians desperately need that light from the past is in the realm of economics. They need to know that capitalism, especially the brand known as ‘free market capitalism,’ is not written into the DNA of God’s people; it is not the fourth article of the creed. At this point I am not interested in an apologetics fight on the virtues of capitalism, ala Robert Novak. I am only interested in letting others know about the history of Christian thought on economics that runs counter to what many contemporary Christians believe is ‘just economics.’ There are more alternatives than socialism and communism. This is not a systematic bibliography. It is more a series of soundings that hopefully will encourage others to go digging for themselves.Historians, even evangelical historans, have done a poor job of telling the story of Christian ways of thinking about economics that run counter to the growth of the market economy. That story needs to be told. I will open just three chapters in this post.

  • The best place to start in the post-Reformation era is with John Calvin himself. Read Andre Bieler, The Social Humanism of Calvin. Then critically compare Bieler’s analysis of the ‘spirit’ of Calvin’s economics with that of Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Who has sketched the most authemtic portrait of Calvin?
  • Move on to the American Puritans. Who can challenge the orthodoxy of the Puritans? Yet Puritan economic thought was decidedly pre-capitalist. In fact, they were very much at home in the economic and social world of John Calvin. Boston was not all that different from Geneva. Many of their laments for the woeful decline of their world from the ways of the Lord were rooted in the horror of the coming of grasping commercialism. For a vivid portrait read John Cotton’s stern rebuke of Robert Keayne’s business practices. We see Keayne’s actions as simply the way business is done. Not John Cotton. How many of Keayne’s ‘false principles’ have we enshrined as sound business practice?
  • We are beginning to learn more and more about the development of what has been called ‘craft republicanism,’ the economic and social views of artsans and skilled craftsmen in the 18th and early 19th centuries along the eastern seaboard who challenged the coming of industrialization to their work. Much of this protest, we are now learning, was driven by the fervent evangelical faith of those workers. William R. Sutton’s Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore paints a vivid portrait of this group. His bibliography will take you to other prominent work in this tradition, including Sean Wilentz, Bruce Laurie, Ronald Schultz, and others. You will learn that they, too, had a starkly different understanding of the normativity of work, one shaped by their methodist faith tradition, than did the incoming industrial model.
  • More ‘chapters’ to come.

The Church is composed of a great cloud of witnesses, even in socioeconomic matters. May their voices be heard and heeded. You don’t agree with them? Fine. Just be sure that your critique is governed more by a biblically-shaped understanding of the economic norms to which the Lord calls us than by the false gods of modern economics. Perhaps, just perhaps, in your wrestling with these ancestors you will unlock new insights that will breathe life into our modern societies.



  1. as-94783-sa

    Love what you have to say

  2. […] republicanism vainly resisted the disintegrative forces of the new models of industrial production. See an earlier blog on this theme. Posted by Kenn Hermann Filed in General, Technology and Society Tags: ellul, guilds, […]

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