Theology and the Last of the Economists

Department of Economics
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (March 1991): 29-35

Economics as an intellectual discipline has set out to establish a value-free enquiry into relevant aspects of human affairs. To the extent that it has been methodologically self-conscious it has drawn what this paper argues is an unsustainable and irrelevant distinction between normative and positive arguments. The "Theology" in the title of the paper addresses the relevance to economic enquiry of the being, knowledge, and covenantal purpose of God. The "Last" of the economists refers to the essential structure of the economist's thought system, as seen in its current posture and its historical development.   

The question is addressed as to whether economic thought should exclude all consideration of theological orientation and the relevance of externally provided, notably biblical, norms. The realities of sin and the fallenness of society, together with the ignorance in which finitude bounds the human condition, throw their light on the scope of economic thought and the potential for economic policy.

The logical structure of our intellectual disciplines, the questions we ask, the forms of analysis we adopt, and the empirical relevance we achieve demand, for an understanding of their significance and mutual relationships, an awareness of what establishes their methodological integrity. In addressing what I have referred to as "Theology and the Last of the Economists" my observations will fall under that general heading of methodology.

But in the intellectual discipline of economics "methodology" is not an especially popular term. Economists do not generally take time to be, or to think as, methodologists. Practitioners in economics generally get on with doing what they are doing and don't argue over much about the methodological justification of it. They are not, in general, the kind of scholars to whom I would refer as being methodologically self-conscious. To the extent that economists do speak of their method, they fall to arguing whether there exists an epistemological or methodological parity between the natural and the social sciences. In that, they most usually argue for some kind of positivist methodology, imagining thereby that they are being "scientific," when, as we know, the scientific community has by this time recognized the death of positivism and has moved to other justifications of its enterprise.           

On another level economists, even some "Christian" economists, speak of the distinction between so-called normative and positive economics. The positive, it is said, has to do with what is, and the normative with what ought to be. I shall argue that such a distinction is confusing at best, and is grossly dangerous at worst, for those scholars who wish to make their work captive to the Word of God. 

For the burden of my argument will be that it is not possible for the Christian thinker to proceed, as his unregenerate counterpart might do, as though the "what is" is a structure of brute or uninterpreted facts that are somehow there to be observed and corralled and interpreted by the autonomous scientific mind.

I shall suggest that there do not exist, in the arena of the potentially knowable, any uninterpreted facts. Let me put that by saying that the facts are what they are because they have the meaning they have. We have a perfect illustration of that on a profoundly theological level. The Scriptures present us, for example, not only with the act of the atonement, but also with an explanation or the meaning of the atonement. The fact cannot be separated from its meaning. The fact is what it is because it has the meaning it has. It is not necessary to pursue that at length. But the same conclusion and proposition need to inform our entire intellectual enterprise. All of the facts are what they are because God has already thought all the facts, and has ordered them in their various constellations because of the place they occupy in His plan and purpose for created reality. 

Issues in the Development of Economic Thought

Against that proposition, and in justification of my dissent from what it is that economists frequently confess or imagine themselves to be about, let me recall the two halves of my title. By the first half of that title I mean to refer to theology proper. I shall not comment extensively on the several loci of the theological disciplines that properly bear on our subject. I mean to speak of theology proper, that is, of the doctrine of God. By that I mean the doctrine, and the relevance of the doctrine, of the being and the knowledge and the covenantal purpose of God.   
In the second half of my title, "the Last of the Economists," I refer to what it is that forms the principal thought structures or thought forms of the economists as they go about doing economics or practicing their craft. When I speak of the "Last" of the economists, I shall ask whether there is a "Last" to which, like the proverbial shoemaker, the economists should stick, and whether they should leave the theological import of their discipline alone and proceed as though Scriptural, Christian thought forms had no relevance to what they think and do. If it carries conviction to say that all the facts are God's facts, that they are what they are because God has already thought them, and that they cohere as they do because God has established them in their constellations, then it must follow that there can be no such thing as a satisfying discipline of economics that is not informed by corresponding, cognate, and consistent biblical thought forms. 

We can address that conclusion a little more fully. The propositions I have just advanced regarding the necessity of a biblically informed economics have not been accorded significant hospitality in the history of economic thought. During the last two hundred years of the progress of systematic economics, economists have not in general taken conscious account of the ways and purpose of God in and for the world that He has made and that He preserves. 

For the main part, the economic enterprise has been of the kind that William Letwin described in his The Origins of Scientific Economics (London: Methuen, 1963), in an argument that strikes at the root of economic epistemology. "There can be no doubt," Letwin concludes, "that economic theory owes its present development to the fact that some men, in thinking of economic phenomena, forcefully suspended all judgments of theology, morality, and justice, [and] were willing to consider the economy as nothing more than an intricate mechanism, refraining for the while from asking whether the mechanism worked for good or evil" (p. 147-48). Admittedly, "it was exceedingly difficult to treat economics in a scientific fashion, since every economic act, being the action of a human being, is necessarily also a moral act" (p. 148). But that was the task, according to Letwin, that had to be accomplished in order that the subject as an academic and scientific discipline could develop. There needed to be a separation, it was claimed, of "positive from normative knowledge," a distinction drawn "between moral and technical knowledge."

 I shall ask whether economists should leave the theological import 
of their discipline alone and proceed as though scriptural, 
Christian thought forms had no relevance to what they think and do.

Of the clear and widening breach between economics and Christian thought there can be no doubt. One of the great systematizing architects of what became known as the neoclassical system in economics that characterizes the contemporary intellectual mainstream was a man named Alfred Marshall. He published the eighth and final edition of his Principles of Economics at Cambridge University in England in the 1920s. In his own lifetime he made an explicit and conscientious break with the church and its influence. 

Joseph Schumpeter, perhaps the greatest, or at least the most thorough and comprehensive historian of economic thought in modern times, has referred to "the process, as observed in the Cambridge (England) milieu by which Christian belief, gently and without acerbities, was dropped by the English intelligentsia during Alfred Marshall's lifetime" (1842-1924) (History of Economic Analysis, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 772). Terence Hutchison has referred in his scholarly Review of Economic Doctrines 1870-1929 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953) to the achievement of academic economics at Cambridge in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as due to the fact that the great architects of the theoretical system "conceived their task as belonging not in the realm of theology and metaphysics, but in clearing a site, and providing an agreed foundation for `scientific' enquiry, and here ... they drew no specially significant or dramatic distinction between the two broad groups of sciences included under the very rough headings of `natural' and `social' (or `moral') sciences" (p. 50).

During this important formative period in the history of economics, the hold that Christian thought might once have enjoyed in the universities and the scholarly professions was fairly completely shaken. The philosophic milieu, as it closed in on the economists in this important stage in the development of academic economics in the last half of the nineteenth century, can probably not be more perceptively summarized than in a paragraph from Keynes' biographical essay on Marshall. I refer here to John Maynard Keynes, who must be regarded as the most influential of twentieth century economists. The nature of the revolution in economic thought that he accomplished is not our concern at this point. That it was a revolution there should be no doubt. And equally, the general flavor of contemporary economic thought is what it is because attempts are being made to turn back the clock and embrace again certain postulates and procedures that characterized the earlier classical and neoclassical economics that flourished before Keynes wrote. But that is not our present concern. The John Maynard Keynes to whom I refer was the son of a certain John Neville Keynes, also a Cambridge economist, who wrote what was held for a long time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to be the standard work on economic methodology, The Scope and Method of Political Economy (1891).

Of the clear and widening breach between economics 
and Christian thought there can be no doubt.

At any rate, Maynard Keynes comments as follows on the intellectual developments in economics at the turn of the century: "Marshall's Cambridge career came just at that date which will, I think, be regarded by historians of opinion as the critical moment at which Christian dogma fell away from the serious philosophical world of England, or at any rate at Cambridge. In 1863 Henry Sidgwick, aged twenty-four, had subscribed to the Thirty Nine Articles [of the Church of England] as a condition of tenure of his Fellowship, and was occupied in reading Deuteronomy in Hebrew and preparing lectures on the Acts of the Apostles. Mill, the greatest intellectual influence on the youth of the age, had written nothing which clearly indicated any divergence from received religious opinion up to his Examination of Hamilton in 1865. At about this time Leslie Stephen was an Anglican clergyman, James Ward a nonconformist minister, Alfred Marshall a candidate for holy orders, W. K. Clifford a High Churchman. In 1869 Sidgwick resigned his Trinity Fellowship, `to free myself from dogmatic obligations.' A little later none of these could be called Christians. Nevertheless, Marshall, like Sidgwick, was as far as possible from adopting an `anti-religious' attitude. He sympathized with Christian morals and Christian ideals and Christian incentives. There is nothing in his writings depreciating religion in any form; few of his pupils could have spoken definitely about his religious opinions. At the end of his life he said, `Religion seems to me an attitude,' and that, though he had given up Theology, he believed more and more in religion. The great change-over of the later sixties was an intellectual change, not the ethical or emotional change which belongs to a later generation, and it was a wholly intellectual debate which brought it about ..." (Essays and Sketches in Biography, New York: Meridian, 1956, p. 44f).

In its misguided attempt to establish a value-free enquiry, 
economics partook of the developing strands of individualist-humanist 
thought that had mounted an increasing pressure on 
educated opinion since the Enlightenment era.

It is unfortunate, of course, not only that the stage for the development of economics was thus set in the way it was, but that Keynes himself should have fallen prey to such a shallow misunderstanding. For we find him here imagining that Marshall in particular, and economics in general, could retain a productive sense of what he called "Christian morals and Christian ideals and Christian incentives" when the Christian doctrine had been so definitively jettisoned. 

We might judge that it is in this way and for this reason that we have now arrived at the situation in Western society in which we are drawing more heavily than is acknowledged on the residue of moral capital inherited from Christianity. But we might agree that the linkages provided by that inheritance have now become tenuous, and the structure of the social fabric has become, as a result, seriously insecure and dangerously short-lived. 

The divorce of economics and ethics was substantially, 
if not universally, acknowledged to be both necessary and complete.

In its misguided attempt to establish a value-free enquiry, economics partook in these ways of the developing strands of individualist-humanist thought and philosophic foundations that had mounted an increasing pressure on educated opinion since the Enlightenment era. In the latter days of Victorian optimism, abetted by the capture of the social sciences by the thought forms of Darwinian evolutionary theory, economics confirmed its rootage in classical utilitarianism, substantially succumbed to the influences of methodological positivism, and thrust forward to the twentieth century the insistence that its integrity as a discipline turned on a distinctively amoral stance in the world of affairs.  

The economic system creaked, of course, with the stresses that advanced industrialism imposed upon it. But in the Old World the niceties and stabilities of the international gold standard calmed the mounting rumblings of concern, and in the New World economic expansion and the rolling back of frontiers kept the drive of development alive. In both worlds the divorce of economics and ethics was substantially, if not universally, acknowledged to be both necessary and complete.

Of course there were voices of dissent. But the position that had by this time been reached had fairly completely separated economic argument from any meaningful relation to externally determined norms. The scientific humanism had triumphed. It is only now, so far as technical economics is concerned, in what is a cultural atmosphere of widening disenchantment, that stirrings of dissent are reaching insistent proportions. In the meantime, and as continues to be the case to a large extent at the present time, such external norms of economic conduct as might be expected to derive from an older, and notably Christian, ethical absolutism were surrendered to the pressures of a crassly materialistic self-interest and an economic relativism.

Knowledge and Ignorance in Economic Thought

I do not wish at this time to follow out the manner in which those notions of self-interest have been incorporated into the foundational assumptions of economic analysis. Nor do I want to stay with the related assumption, implicit and pervasive in much of historic and contemporary economic theorizing, that as a result of the working of self-interested market activity an automatic harmony, or the maximization of welfare and benefits, results for economic society as a whole. I am interested, rather, in the proposition I have just reached, that economic thought has in general been addressed to what was, and what is, imagined to be a closed system, a closed causal system and therefore a system of what I call a closed intellectual construction. In other words, economic thought has not in general accommodated any meaningful relation to externally determined norms. It is this, the admission to our thought systems of externally provided norms, that marks off the Christian thinker from his otherwise professional colleagues.      

Now it will be clear that those norms of economic thought, and the implied norms of economic conduct and policy, come to expression in what, for the Christian thinker, is the inscripturated Word of God. Because that is so, it is necessary in addressing the subject I have proposed, to give attention to two main points of interest. First, what then is the relevance to economic thought of what I have called theology proper, the issue and the doctrine of the being and knowledge and purpose of God? And second, what is the manner in which the true task of the economist is to be understood? We may put the last mentioned point by asking what is a proper understanding of the "Last" of the economist. I take the first of these questions first. 

We do well to bear in mind that only what God 
has already thought is knowable and exists in 
the arena of the knowledge potential.

It follows from my introductory remarks that we do well to bear in mind that only what God has already thought is knowable and exists in the arena of the knowledge potential. That, we admit, is extremely difficult to apprehend. For in a more expansive address to the epistemological significance of the statement, we need to grasp carefully the differences and distinctions between God's knowledge and our knowledge. Much ink has been spilt in the arguments of the philosophic theologians, and of those who have an earnest concern for theological apologetics, on the question of whether the difference between God's knowledge and our knowledge is primarily and essentially quantitative or qualitative. Without entering that discussion at length we can insist on a qualitative and not merely a quantitative distinction. For God knows in a different way from that in which we know. There are not, and there cannot be, any sequential moments in the knowledge of God. If there were, there would be sequential realizations in the being of God. God did not have to wait to discover anything about His own being. He knows Himself, as has been said, in one eternal act of knowing. Similarly, God does not, and cannot, wait to discover anything about the eventuation of the history of the created reality that He has structured. Again there can be for Him no waiting to discover. He knows all things, all things internal to the Godhead and all things external to the Godhead, by one eternal act of knowing.  

There are not, and there cannot be, 
any sequential moments in the knowledge of God.

What we are saying is simply that God exists and He knows outside of time. He created time. Our knowledge, on the other hand, is temporally structured. We know sequentially. God too, of course, knows sequences; but He does not know sequences sequentially. All sequences that occur in the life histories of created reality and entities are what they are precisely because God already knows them and has thought them. It is for this reason that in our approach to the scope and content of our professional disciplines we do well to remember that knowledge within them, and the scope for new awarenesses and discoveries within them, exist only because of what God has already structured in His thought regarding His entire creation and its history. Another way of cognizing the importance of the point is to refer to the possibility of probability. What is possible, we can say, is possible only because God has already thought it and ordained it.

In the realm of economics we see precisely a direct statement of this fact in the book of James. In the thirteenth verse of his fourth chapter James refers to certain merchants who, in the interest of economic profit, said "today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain." James replied to them with a blunt and arresting corrective: "ye know not what shall be on the morrow." The problem in economic affairs and analysis is that, as Maynard Keynes to whom I referred previously put it, "We simply do not know" ("General Theory of Employment," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1937). Our economic affairs and calculations are necessarily bounded in ignorance. It is another question, of serious concern to serious thinkers in our discipline, how meaningful decisions can be made in the conditions of ignorance in which we are bound. But again I must leave those fascinating questions of decision criteria aside for the moment. 

The problem in economic affairs and analysis is that, 
"We simply do not know." Our economic affairs and calculations 
are necessarily bounded in ignorance.

These considerations imply, however, that for the economic intellectual enterprise, we should consider what it is that God has revealed about the economic structures of reality that He has brought into existence, and what, under captivity to His Word, we can understand to be His will in the economic scheme of things and the principles of conduct and behavior He has given to us.

It would be possible to expand our argument at this point to take fuller account of issues that I have raised in other places regarding the relevance of the Scriptural data to economic thought and conduct (Economics and Man, Craig Press, 1976; "Economics in Christian Theological Perspective," in John H. Skilton, ed., The New Testament Student and His Field, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1982). But I leave the detail substantially aside. If we were to enter it we should have to say that the economic dimension of reality exists and is what it is because it is a part of the initially and divinely ordained structure of reality. That can be readily exhibited from the early chapters of Genesis. We should draw a vital distinction between the act of the economic dimension of things and the orm in which, in this time, the economic problem comes to expression. In other words, the act of the economic dimension of reality is due to our created finitude. But the form of the economic problem is due substantially to our sin. Our thought is conditioned by the reality of the fact and the implications of Adam's Fall. In the understanding of economics, as on so many levels of thought, we should avoid the danger of confusion between finitude and sin. 

Economics Not a Value-Free Enquiry

It follows, then, that the Christian economist cannot in any sense subscribe to the canons of the discipline that would establish, or would argue for the establishment of, a value-free enquiry. Our thought, captive again to the Word of God, must see the economic, as all other dimensions of reality, from the perspective of the purpose of God, the objectives of His covenantal administration, the mandates of His law, and the principles of conduct He has set down for us. In economics, as in all other disciplines, we set out not to prescribe a body of knowable knowledge, as though, in a completely unregenerate fashion, we could arrogate to ourselves an autonomous competence in understanding. That, of course, is the original sin, the arrogation to man of the assumption of not only metaphysical, but also of epistemological and ethical autonomy. I need not expand the point.

Economic thought comes to its truest and fullest 
self-realization and expression when it bows before 
the mystery and majesty, the precepts and the will 
and the covenantal purpose of the triune, creating, 
and redeeming God.

But these considerations bring us back to where I began. We want to say something about the proper understanding of the "Last" of the economists. What we advance, then, is not only the negative statement that economics cannot be a value-free enquiry. We say positively that economic thought comes to its truest and fullest self-realization and expression when it bows before the mystery and majesty, the precepts and the will and the covenantal purpose of the triune, creating, and redeeming God. We must, I suggest, avoid all the traps of an a-theistic positivism. We remember that there are no brute facts that constitute ultimate epistemological data. We hold in view the realization that all of the facts are what they are because God has thought them and ordained them and placed them in what I have called their various constellations.

We reject the insistence of our professional colleagues
that our discipline is, or can be, value-free.

What this means for the practice of economics can be expressed, finally, on three dimensions or levels. First, we reject the insistence of our professional colleagues that our discipline is, or can be, value-free. Second, the values, or the preconceptions or presuppositions that we consciously bring to our subject are those we find in the inscripturated Word of God as we bow in submission to it. And third, endeavoring in all things to think God's thoughts after Him, we work out the details of our subject in such a way as to see the socio-economic questions and issues and concerns and priorities as they are illumined by the precepts of God's perspicuous revelation. Our economic perceptions, our analysis of economic issues and conditions, and our prescriptions for economic policy are what they are because we see them, in their various and ordered arrays, from the perspective of that revelation.

With this in view, it might be helpful if I conclude these comments with just three examples of what I have in mind. First, if we understand the meaning of the disruptions and the disharmonies that sin has introduced into the world, we might be hesitant to construct a system of economic thought on the assumptions of automatic market harmonies, such as have characterized the mainstream of development in our subject. We might prefer to be alert to the disjunctions, disequilibria, and disharmonies that abound in the world of economic and social affairs. Our analysis will then be addressed to issues that comport with such a perspective.

Second, if we are sensitive to the mandates and injunctions of the Word of God we might be careful as to how we evaluate the obvious distress and poverty and unemployment and economic anxieties we see around us. We might be alerted by a Scriptural concern for the poor. We might look out on the world and be as much concerned, for example, with the 5 or 6 or 10 percent of the work force that is unemployed as with the 95 or 94 or 90 percent that is employed. We might realize that 90 percent employment may be quite good and comfortable for the 90 percent who are employed. But it is conceivably wretched for the 10 percent that are unemployed.

Third, it may be agreed, as I have suggested in other places, that one of the most pointed results of the entrance of sin into the world and its pervasive poisoning of societal structures is, on the economic level, the emergence of excessive concentrations of economic power. Moreover, those excessive concentrations of power, observable at different times in the hands of industrial corporations, trade unions and the suppliers of labor, and the government, have led to the exploitation of that power to the disruption of more stable and equitable economic relations. If such a conclusion carries conviction, then it may well be agreed that a sensibly structured regulatory apparatus that can correct such exploitations can be countenanced as part of our overall economic scheme of things. That, it might be thought, then emerges as a legitimate part of the responsibility of the state, as that has been ordained by God for the correction and prevention of evil.

We might look out on the world and be as much concerned,
for example, with the 5 or 6 or 10 percent of the work force
that is unemployed as with the 95 or 94 or 90 percent that is employed.

We might look closely at many more examples. But that is not our present concern. If the entry point and the methodological structures, and the purposes and potential results of economic thought as I have raised them warrant concurrence, it is sufficient at this point to say that in the discipline of economics we must, as in all things, be sure that our thought constructions are captive to the Word of God. The working out of the details can be a lifetime occupation.