John D. Mason and Kurt C. Schaefer

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Most Christian economists acknowledge the relevance of Christian faith to the economic framework of society, but this recognition is seldom accompanied by detailed biblical exegesis. In this essay John D. Mason and Kurt C. Schaefer argue for the relevance of "the political economy of pre-monarchical Israel" to the current crisis in economic theory, and support their claim with detailed exegetical and historical discussion of the Pentateuchal legislation as it bears on economic matters. Mr. Schaefer teaches economics at Calvin College; Mr. Mason teaches economics at Gordon College, and at the time when this paper was first written was visiting professor of economics at Calvin.

Reproduced by permission from Christian Scholar's Review

In reaction to the economic consequences of Mercantilism, and a conception of society defined by an aristocratic few, Adam Smith and the classical economists generally laid the foundation for what we have come to call democratic capitalism. An economy with relatively few roles assigned to the state should unleash private initiatives that would escalate levels of employment and income. Greater suffrage should check the potential for harmful, concentrated power and allow the masses to express their preferences more fully and peaceably. Those nations that followed this advice consistently (primarily countries in North America and Western Europe) have, most would concede, realized the portended benefits for the majority of their citizens.

The two centuries since Adam Smith have witnessed the emergence not only of democratic capitalism but also a number of socialist and middle-of-the-road reactions to it-in good part because of unequal distribution of income and bouts of excessive unemployment which are deemed unacceptable. A number of Christian voices have been part of the chorus of reactions. Representative samples of this would include: the Oxford Conference of Church, Community and the State in 1937 (a gathering that foreshadowed the formation of the World Council of Churches);1 the more recent papal encyclicals, especially "Laborem Exercens" in 1981; and Economic Justice for All, the statement on the U.S. economy by the U.S. Catholic Bishops.

There is mounting evidence, however, that a number of the socialist alternatives to democratic capitalism have held little prospect for improving the economic functioning of society, and generally concentrate political power in ways that leave citizens worse off.2 Witness the attempts of numerous citizens to leave a number of socialist nations, as well as the privatization efforts in virtually all nations. In other words, we face a more confused socio-economic reality, with regard to the most ethically appropriate means for achieving given objectives, than many detractors of democratic capitalism thought existed even a few years ago.

If the appropriate economic means are not as clear as they once were for many of the critics of democratic capitalism, what about the quest for the objectives themselves? Has modern democracy offered an adequate specification of what ends or norms society should pursue? Unfortunately moderm democracies tend to be in something of a quandary in this regard as well. That the structures of society should reflect whatever washes out of the pluralistic interchange in the public square is deemed unacceptable to most observers. Are there not certain verities that should constrain society other than the raw results of majoritarian democracy?

John Rawls, one of the most prominent contemporary voices in moral philosophy, contends that the results of majoritarian democracy have been biased by the current assignments of goods and social positions, and thus do not reflect the true "preferences" of the citizenry (the norm in this ethical appeal); agents act to preserve their existing positions and thus do not reveal their ideal preferences for society. To get around this problem Rawls would place citizens behind a "veil of ignorance," a strange voting booth within which citizens lose awareness of their status in society. In such a position citizens would reveal their true preferences. Most interpreters understand this prescription to involve far more state intervention and income redistribution than is known in the United States today.3

Robert Nozick, a prominent competing moral philosopher, finds Rawls’ specification troublesome. He argues that we should reason from an imagined condition in which each citizen is free of the effects of past injustices (slavery, for example), and then ask what type of state these individuals would justify. This exercise leads Nozick to construe a very limited set of state roles within society and the economy-a far more limited role for the state than the U.S. knows today.4 To Nozick, majoritarian democracy justifies too much state intervention; to Rawls it justifies too little.

The popular debate swings between these two poles, whether the issue is allowing abortion or making welfare recipients take "just any job" (as a condition for receiving assistance) or placing a tariff on imported steel. In other words, post-Enlightenment "moral philosophy" (to use that old-fashioned word, linking Adam Smith with John Rawls and Robert Nozick) is at something of a crisis when it comes to discerning the appropriate role for the state within society and the economy.5

It is in this context that we appeal to biblical teaching. More than at any time in the past two centuries, many in the West have realized the need for fresh insight into both forming objectives and selecting the means to achieve them. By searching the roots of a major tradition affecting moral obligation in Western society (the Judeo-Christian ethic) we may be able to shed light on the appropriate role for the state in the modern economy.

We must issue an early warning. The topic of the "state within the economy," in all possible implications of that relationship, represents far too broad an undertaking for a single paper. What we set forth is a hermeneutical and ethical framework for addressing this. In the process of developing our framework we offer some suggestive applications to indicate the type of subsequent work that should be done.

The foundation of our argument is a more detailed consideration of the biblical record than generally is used in ethical appeals, examining especially the political economy of pre-monarchic Israel. We argue that in the Mosaic provisions designed for early Israel lie intentions the God of creation holds for all peoples and nations. Our position faces at least two counter-arguments: (1) that what we find in the Pentateuch is primitive stuff (and, for the skeptic, the creation of man and not God) and hardly informative to contemporary societies; (2) that the pentateuchal materials, though Yahwistic and faithful, are intended to inform a theocratic society only, and therefore are of consequence today (if at all) for the Church and not applicable to contemporary societies. We demur in both cases.

That the biblical provisions are developed amidst primitive economic conditions quite unlike those facing contemporary, economically developed societies is obvious. That these provisions are primitive ethically does not follow, however. We do not call for application of the specific political and economic institutions of the Pentateuch in contemporary societies, but for discerning the moral emphases or norms which the institutions promoted. Even in a purely natural sense, modern societies can learn from this very early society--especially given the widely conceded high moral character of many of its ways.6 Acknowledging early Israel’s many commendable moral attributes, our theory of the state rests on a different premise: God did indeed speak through Moses to this people, and intended this instruction to serve a broader normative purpose beyond this people.

We reserve a full discussion of the second counter-argument to our position for section III, but we note here that a biblical ethic may indeed find different application within the covenant people than to those outside the covenant relationship. There are at least two directions to the counter-argument we face. One sees the majority of the Mosaic provisions as having contemporary validity only within the Church and not to the wider society. The other position acknowledges very little contemporary normative content because Christ came to bring an end to the Law (Rms. 10:4); we now are guided by an ethic of grace (love of God and love of neighbor). In either case the ceremonial (or sacrificial) laws would be fulfilled by worship of Christ, and there is some sense of broad continuing validity to the Decalogue as an early expression of ethical sensitivities common to all peoples.7

But the foundations of Scripture’s social, political, and economic ethics all are laid in the Pentateuch, and are intended to inform all peoples (Gn. 18:18). The ethical urgings (the "spirit") of these provisions are attested to throughout the Bible, running from the Pentateuch through the prophetic and wisdom literature to the New Testament (e.g., Lk. 16:19-31). The so-called "love ethic" of the New Testament does not replace the Mosaic provisions but gives further expression to the ethical sensitivities embedded within the earlier provisions (Lev. 19:18), just as the earlier provisions help give specific expression to the meaning of "love" in any particular situation.8

We hope that our hermeneutical approach will lend emphasis to one practical point for Christian scholars: the Mosaic provisions deserve a much more careful exploration than we typically read among social commentators. Moreover, this is a task for the social sciences along with the biblical scholars and ethicists who traditionally have undertaken such efforts, in that our grasp of the ethical nuances for contemporary policy dilemmas will benefit from the training of scholars who traffic daily in the study of natural revelation.

We are not arguing a unique hermeneutical position. Several biblical scholars and ethicists argue approaches with which our position comports:

It is the Law of God that love brings to completeness. Love is a commitment to the good of the other, but it does not in itself specify what that good is. The implementation of love must depend upon a theory of human needs and of values and of how they are interrelated. In appealing to love one also must specify with what understanding of morality one loves. The morality that directs the way in which one loves in the Bible is the Law of God, articulated in the Old Testament and clarified in the New.9

In my view, however, it seems in principle entirely appropriate to investigate Yahweh’s ways with Israel and to ask at various points whether his word or his acts are what he might say to or do with any nation. Even if law is covenant-law, this does not exclude its being at the same time the expression of universal principle. Indeed, the OT’s understanding of the relationship between Israel and the nations perhaps directly suggests that Yahweh’s way with Israel models his way (or what could be his way) with the nations (cf. Gn. 12:1-3; Jonah).10

That is, we assume that if God gave Israel certain specific institutions and laws, they were based on principles which have universal validity. That does not mean that Christians will try to impose by law in a secular state provisions lifted directly from the laws of Moses. It does mean that they will work to bring their society nearer to conformity with the principles underlying the concrete laws of Old Testament society, because they perceive the same God to be both Redeemer and lawgiver of Israel, and also Creator and Ruler of contemporary mankind.11

Torah is, first, the legislation delivered to Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai. But if we look at it more closely, we get a dear impression that this is not simply a matter of potentially arbitrary commandments which God gave simply because he chose to. Rather the law affords an insight into the contours of God’s own ideal will for his people and for all mankind. This was sometimes expressed in later Judaism by saying that this same law which Moses received existed already before the creation of the world, and served as the pattern or even as the tool which God used when he made the world. As the pattern of God’s mind, the guiding principle of his own conduct as well as the conduct of Israel, it is rather more like what we might call ‘natural law’ in many ways. God has made the world in such a way that it exhibits a moral order; and this has the corollary, which was drawn explicitly in late Judaism, but which is already essentially present in the Old Testament, that God himself is in some sense bound by his own laws ... Thus ‘natural’ and ‘revealed’ law are regarded as one and the same thing; but this is not a matter of mere theory or of definition, it is a conclusion won through a hard struggle with the facts of the nation’s experience, a struggle which is duly recorded by the Old Testament writers.

To do good, on such a view, is to imitate God, to do the things he would do, if he were a human being; and what these things are can be read off in some measure from the things he has done, especially his acts of love and faithfulness towards Israel in the crucial early years of her existence-in the Exodus, the giving of the promised land, the establishment of the temple and the other sacred institutions. It is just for this reason that it is essential to record these events. The rules which God requires Israel to observe can be seen to be congruent with his own character only if the events which show what that character is are also recounted. His purposes for the future, in which that character will continue to be consistently manifested, also need to be included in any full account of the basis of Torah; and so the historical books run off without a break into prophetic books which confirm for the reader that God will continue to be in the future as he has been in the past, true to the sorts of moral principle that he lays upon men. It might be said, then, that for the Old Testament as we have it ethics is a matter of imitating the pattern of God’s own actions, in salvation and in creation, because these spring from a pattern which always exists in his own mind and by which he governs the world with justice and mercy. Torah-in one aspect simply the law of Moses is in another aspect the design according to which the world was created, and which makes sense of it; and by adhering to it human beings form part of God’s plan, and enjoy a kind of fellowship with him.12

We recognize the danger of reading contemporary social reality or debates into the biblical record. Economics has its own version of this problem in the "Methodenstreit" of the late 1800s: a debate that continues to the present in the dialogue between the mainstream and institutional methodologies for doing economics. Such a danger should not tie our hands however. One counters this danger by: (1) reading extensively in the era of the biblical materials; (2) recognizing the potential for bias, and (3) seeking to be empathetic.13


Section I developed our hermeneutical orientation, emphasizing a careful consideration of the Pentateuch as the foundation of ethical insight for the economy. Section II develops some ethical emphases that characterize this setting and God’s teachings through Israel (as a ‘light to the nations"). Section III refines the hermeneutical approach, followed by a contemporary application in Section IV.

We begin by considering Israel’s geographic location (in the midst of the nations), the nature of the surrounding nations, and God’s choice to locate Israel in such a setting. Canaan-land at the time of Israel’s settlement and occupation was at the cross-roads of a number of trade routes from Egypt to Mesopotamia (and, to a lesser extent, Asia Minor). God chose to locate Israel smack in the midst of the major early civilizations (and not out of the way in northern Africa or Europe). Although the eastern part of the land knows a very hilly topography, ideal for protected settlement (though difficult for farming purposes),14 the western region was very accessible militarily. In terms of cultural and military influence and incursion from without, God placed Israel in a vulnerable position.

It is important to recall the nature of the surrounding societies: feudalistic and totalitarian settings, built up from the labors of slaves and serfs, and very hierarchical. The religions and religious overseers of these societies typically were used to legitimize the ruling economic and political powers.15 Though there are a number of commonalities among the region’s law-codes, there also are crucial distinctions that show the unique nature of Israel.16

Why did God locate Israel in such a setting? The inescapable reason, indicated by Scripture’s own commentary, is that Israel was intended to be a ‘light to the nations" (11 Chron. 6:32-33; Ps. 15; Is. 2:2-4; 42:1-4; 49:6; 51:4-5; 60:1-3; Jer. 3:17; Joel 3:12; Micah 4:1ff; Rev. 15:3).17 The Law was given initially to Israel, but was to be a light to the nations. Similarly, the Gospel was given initially to Israel but was commended to all the peoples of the world-as a "light to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 17:31).

If Israel, and more particularly the Mosaic law-code, was to be a "light to the nations," how was this light to be made known? A crucial starting point is to understand how God intended the law to be implemented, and the ethical implications of this. Pre-monarchic Israel represents a type of social, political, and economic norm, to which the remainder of Scripture refers back. Seen in the context of the surrounding nations of the time, as well as the later monarchic history of Israel, this clearly is so. Note Judges 8 and 9, 1 Sam. 8 and 10, Hosea 8:4, where God’s concern for a society without concentrated power and with more egalitarian relations is made clear. Most studies in the more recent sociological analysis of early Israel make this point clearly.18 Our hermeneutical leap is to suggest that this era can offer insight to contemporary societies as well.

Our argument is that Israel’s history under the monarchs offers little normative guidance. God did allow a monarchy, and David as monarch is an important figure in Judeo-Christian tradition (as much for his abuse of the centralized powers of the state, as for his desire to use the state to serve God). But the monarchy clearly was not normative. God did not desire the kingdoms ruled over by Saul, David, and the others. He did however accommodate them by His grace, and then sought to constrain their harmful potentials.

Pre-monarchic Israel was: a "segmentary society, with the anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical tendencies characteristic of such societies";19 a "radical departure from the city-states of Canaan and mesopotamia of the Late Bronze Age."20 There was no conventional central government and no standing army of professionals or aristocracy of land-owners.21

In terms of socio-economic structure pre-monarchic Israel was largely a subsistence, agrarian economy built around small isolated communities and extended families.22 The trade routes through Israel brought it into contact with the goods and ideas of the entire Near East, and facilitated the greater specialization and economic growth that was achieved by the eighth century B.C. In terms of the political order, Gottwald refers to this setting as one with diffused leadership (elders and priests, occasional military leaders, prophets). Mendenhall at one point refers to the setting as a community without a state (cf. note 20 above), and at another point says, "the political structure exists for the well-being of those who live under its control, not the opposite."23

The conventional wisdom among scholars is to see a very limited if not nonexistent state. But there was a state. A legal corpus existedGhpY2Fsw of Yahweh, mediated through Moses. There were those who would enforce this law/covenant/constitution.24 There were sanctions (Nbs. 35:12; Josh. 20:6-9). In the small communities in which most Israelites lived, administrative oversight and justice were carried out by the elders of the extended families ("the elders at the gate"), using the Law of Yahweh as their primary guide.25 26

The broad norm constraining the state and characterizing any judicial proceedings was "justice and righteousness" (I Kgs. 10:9; Ps. 72:2).27 But this is a broad norm and would need far more concrete specification in actual practice through appeal to a number of subsidiary norms. In the paragraphs to follow we explore several applications of these subsidiary norms, recognizing that far more work needs to be done in each case in order to gain the desired contemporary insight. A just and righteous society would be marked by:

(1) A special concern for those who are in need because of circumstances beyond their control-the ‘ani and the ‘ebyon in the Old Testament record.28 But by what means is this objective to be achieved? We argue for several subsidiary norms: the level of assistance should be sufficient for need; a work obligation for those receiving community assistance is appropriate (with a mutual obligation upon the community overseers to assure that sufficient work exists); there should be no shaming of these poor citizens in providing assistance; prevention of impoverishment clearly is preferred to assistance once one becomes poor.

(2) Protecting the freedom and preserving the economic viability of the extended family, whether from economic adversity or social and political arbitrariness. The assignment of property rights primarily to private hands (cf. the 8th commandment) testifies to this. Private assignment, particularly in widely dispersed hands (each extended family), provides good grounds for individual creativity and dignity,29 and lessens the potential dangers of excessive concentrations of political power. The image used by Micah specifies this norm: "And each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken."30 The jubilee institution (Lev. 25) also functions to preserve the dignity and economic viability of the extended family, with its concern to maintain an independent and adequate economic base for each extended family.

(3) Stressing the importance of work. This theme is implicit in the so-called "creation mandate" to subdue and conquer, and is specifically addressed in the Decalogue ("six days shalt thou labor"). New Testament commentary also affirms the importance of work--extending it to warn employers about fair and just treatment of their employees (Col. 3:22ff).31 This norm implies commitment by the larger society to a policy of full employment, as well as a commitment to human capital provision (which we suggest the jubilee institution addresses).32

(4) The honoring of contracts and commitments. Israelites were not to bear false witness. Commercial dealings were to know true weights and measures. Property markers were not to be moved. Damage done by straying cattle due to the negligence of the owner was to be compensated for by higher fines than where negligence was not involved. This is not to say that all contracts should be honored by those responsible for overseeing justice. Contracts that violate other norms should be abrogated (for example, contracts which take a worker’s millstone or cloak, or contracts which oppress the poor or deny the livelihood of an extended family).

(5) The creation of wealth-interpreted as economic conditions which generate more jobs and higher incomes. The most potent means of lessening the amount of poverty within societies over the centuries has been greater economic growth. Stable and privately assigned property rights, along with respect for contracts generally, have been the most effective means for achieving economic growth. Properly overseen work settings and high levels of worker productivity ("work as if you were working for the Lord") also serve the end of strong economic growth. Israel’s geographic placement allowed it to benefit from the potential for specialization, and thus to realize greater economic growth than otherwise would be possible (a result we assume was God’s intention). Clearly the achievement of economic well-being is a commended norm in the biblical ethic.33

Pre-monarchic Israel and the Mosaic law-code are the foundation for normative biblical insight. This contention is reinforced by considering the history of Israel under the several monarchs. As the pre-monarchic era was subject to the temptation towards an uncaring individualism which would fail to achieve God’s concern for justice and righteousness, so the monarchic era was subject to the temptation to concentrate power and use it improperly.34 The Law of Yahweh was to serve as a norm in both eras (Dt. 17:14ff).

It would be easy to exaggerate the power of the monarchs; it is likely, for example, that David did not have that much power beyond Jerusalem.35 For the majority of the Israelites, life would have gone on under the monarchies much as it had before. Ideally, were the monarch to resist the temptation to abuse whatever power he had, a more centralized state allowed the potential for more efficient provision of public goods-such as fortress cities near likely points of invasion. The Temple may be another example, though the danger of the monarch’s capture of the religious establishment to gain religious sanction for questionable undertakings clearly attended this project.

Nonetheless, biblical warnings about the dangers of the monarchy abound. Scripture clearly teaches a wariness of concentrated power: an extrapolation, it would appear, of the implications of the fall.36 If individuals are prone to sin, better to prevent them from gaining too much economic and/or political power whereby the effects of their sin can affect numerous others. Though there are a number of state functions legislated in the Mosaic laws, and thus a clear legitimacy for a state (Dt. 16:18-20; 17:8-13), there is no provision for a king.37 The provision of a king in I Sam. 9:16 is preceded in I Sam. 8 and followed in I Sam. 10:19 and 12:12 by clear indications that this was not God’s preference for Israel. If the people insisted on having one, God preferred to choose him. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 explicitly warns that if and when Israel chose a king, he was not to concentrate his military and economic power, and was to read Yahweh’s laws daily in order to prevent abuse of his power.38 The sabbatical and jubilee institutions (Ex. 21:1-3; 23:10,11; Lev. 25; Dt. 15:1-18) would, if practiced faithfully, prevent concentrations of economic power. Finally, the repeated cries of the prophets against the abuses of concentrated power (e.g., I Sam. 16:2; II Sam. 11; I Kgs. 12:14; 21:1-16; II Chr. 16:10; 26:16) stand as telling testimony.

Both in the positive instructions of the Mosaic law-code, intended for a society with a limited though essential role for the state, and in the experience under the monarchs of the dangers of excessive concentrations of economic and political power, we are able to discern ethical emphases or norms that offer guidance to contemporary societies.

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