IFES Cross Current Economics: Introduction

By Donald Hay

The purpose of the group was to explore how Biblical materials might be used to address contemporary economic analysis and issues. The group met six times in 2012-14, and produced a number of documents that are now being made available, especially for participants in the Biblenomics network and annual conference. This introduction outlines the methodology applied to the task, the organisation of the material into subject areas, and the names of those involved in the group over the three years. 


The critical question is how to move from the Biblical materials of both the Old and New Testaments to principles for economic life [which we termed Derivative Social Principles or DSPs] that can be utilised in current economic analysis and issues. The immediate problem is that the economies of Biblical times bear very little relation to the advanced economies of the world that we observe now. Thus the economy of Ancient Israel was characterised by a largely agrarian economy with subsistence agriculture: there were craft industries and some trade, but these do not feature strongly in the OT. The economic context of the New Testament, while more advanced economically than Ancient Israel, is similarly characterised by an economy which lacks many of the features of a modern economy such as a developed financial sector, large scale manufacturing activities, and a trained labour force. 

To address this problem we begin with a helpful framework developed by Christopher Wright(2004), which he illustrates with the following diagram:

 According to Wright, the theological context for DSPs arises out of the Biblical understanding of the relationships between God, the natural (created) order, and humanity. God created the natural order and sustains it. He also created humanity (man and woman) in his own image and likeness, for relationship with him. Humanity is given ‘dominion’ or rule over the natural order, to work with it and to care for it, and so provide for human flourishing (food, clothing, shelter, social interaction).  These three relationships are illustrated in the diagram, where the arrows indicate relationships. In addition, human beings are also created social beings in relationship with each other within ‘humanity’. The ideal for human life has all these relationships in harmony: the purpose of human life has its origin in God’s purposes in creating the universe. 

This theological structure gives rise to three ‘high level’ Biblical principles to govern these relationships. First, humanity is required to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind’. Second, humanity is required to work with the natural order and to care for it. Third, human beings are required to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. All DSPs can be traced back to these requirements. 

In some areas of economic life, detailed DSPs can be derived straightforwardly from the Biblical text: these are rules for economic activities based directly on the economic and social context of the people of God, both in the Old and New Testaments.  The task in these cases is to identify the underlying principles that underlie these rules, to see how they might be generalised to other places, times and cultures. In other areas, there are simply no analogues in the Biblical material for the economic institutions and issues that arise in a modern economy, such as the financial sector, the corporation, or globalisation.  In these cases we need to return to the three high level principles to see how they might be applied in these cases. However, the exercise of deriving specific DSPs from the Biblical text does help, as it indicates how those DSPs can be traced back to the three general principles, and thus gives some guidance as to how we may develop ethical thinking to deal with ‘modern’ problems. 

Before turning to the elucidation of a set of DSPs developed from the Biblical text, it is as well to remind ourselves of what we have in mind in this exercise. Following the methodology outlined by C J H Wright, the claim is that the people of God in the Old Testament ‘were to be a model of what a redeemed community should be like, living in obedience to God’s will’. Israel was intended to be God’s paradigm society: so in Exodus 19: 4-6, Israel is required to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ in the context of all nations and the whole earth. Wright comments: ‘.. [these scriptures] render to us a paradigm in one single culture and slice of history, of the social values that God looks for in human life generally.’ A paradigm combines a matrix of fundamental values with specific examples of how those values work out in practice. Our task in applying the paradigm is to distinguish principles and concrete examples. This has to be done with great care, so that the principles we derive do not go beyond the values actually implicit in the examples.  In deriving the principles we have the advantage of being able to compare principles implicit in very different cultural settings in the history of Israel. Furthermore we can consider the additional material relating to God’s people in the New Testament in another quite different culture and period. The assumption is that God’s principles for social and economic life are consistent over time, even if the instantiation differs greatly depending on the historical context.  

Finally we must note the complication that the Biblical materials generally apply in the context of fallen humanity.  This does not reduce the stringency of the Biblical principles, but in interpreting the material we need to consider to what extent the detailed instantiations are influenced by the need to make allowance for ‘hardness of heart’.  

Subject areas

The group identified three broad categories of relevance: economic activities, economic institutions, and conceptual themes. These are listed below. Economic activities are generally microeconomic interactions relating to production, consumption and trade. Conventionally there are three main economic institutions/ actors who are involved in these activities – households, firms and the government. Two conceptual themes are addressed relating to economic justice and the understanding of risk in economic life. 

[In each area, the hope was to deliver both analysis of DSPs, and a Bible study outline that could be used with, for example, a group of students or professionals with some training in economics. In the end, it proved not possible to deliver a Bible study outline for all the areas: those areas which have an outline are marked with a * in the listing below. In the absence of an outline, it should be possible for users to develop a study from the analysis of DSPs.

Please note that not all the analyses are fully developed. The process in the Cross Current group involved the development of drafts by one or more members of the group, which was then subject to critical scrutiny by others. This process was not completed for all areas by the time the group had run its course. Hence some of the drafts remain unfinished, in the sense that they have not been critically reviewed to produce final versions. 

The aim of developing DSPs is to provide tools for Christian reflection on real economic issues (referred to as R). One element of this reflection is to identify R where the DSPs need further development and refinement. Ideally the process should be interactive, with the need for refinement stimulating further Biblical analysis and/or reconsideration of the DSPs. The group did a good deal of such reflection together, and in particular there was a focus on financial markets which were identified by the group as a key issue. A number of draft documents were produced, but none reached a final stage of revision. These are not therefore included here.] 

A. Economic activities

  1. The use of natural resources*

  2. Transactions in markets for goods and services*

  3. Work and wages

  4. Lending and borrowing*

  5. Wealth, poverty, sharing and giving*

  6. Higher level DSPs: classification and summary of DSPs across all activities

B. Economic institutions

  1. Households: earning a living, spending, saving, giving*

  2. Productive enterprises*

  3. The political authorities*

C. Conceptual themes 

  1. Economic justice*

  2. Risk and the future*

Please note that the lead author(s) for each analysis and study outline is identified at the end of each document. But all should be seen as the result of discussions that involved other members of the group.

Membership of the Cross Current Economics group

The following were members of the group, who attended most if not all the meetings over three years: 

Ben Beranek (USA and Turkey), Alyona Bondar (Ukraine), Peter Eckley (UK), Michael Gonin (Switzerland), Ranjit Guptara (Switzerland, India and UK), Donald Hay (UK), Andrew Hood (UK), Arrtu Makipaa (Finland and Belgium), Milan Pavlovic (Serbia), Rodica Rosoriu (Moldova), Katya Shaton (Belarus and Norway), Raphael Tanner (Switzerland), Tim Vickers (IFES Europe).

A number of others attended for one or two meetings.