I took my first college economics course 25 years ago during a summer session. The material was boring and the professor was dreadful. The university was situated on a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota, and during the lectures it was easy to envision people swimming and fishing a few yards away on the beach. It was a long summer term.
Two years ago I inherited a course on American Economic History at Liberty University. I knew that the course could be interesting. Unlike a formal study of economics, the “dismal science” which is heavy with wearying graphs and formulas, economic history could involve studying the fun stuff. Tax issues and monetary policy, business and entrepreneurial history, domestic and international trade, philanthropy and charity, insider politics and wild conspiracies — all were fair game. Most of all, I wanted to make the course interesting and relevant, faithful to Biblical principles and to the university’s commitment to a free market.
It’s All about Liberty
Liberty University is unique, one of the few institutions of higher education officially committed to free market principles from a Biblical framework. As department chairman, for instance, in showing how we meet university and departmental goals, I have to certify that our history and geography courses show the importance of “free market processes” and the “free enterprise system.” “You’ll have to be a socialist on your own time,” I tell the students, “here you’ll get a good dose of American market capitalism and economic freedom!” In a sense, it’s all about liberty.
And Liberty University, built on the old farm of Carter Glass, is a perfect place to study economic history. The venerable Glass had a distinguished forty-three year career in Washington, serving as a Congressman, the Secretary of the Treasury (under Wilson), and a U.S. Senator. (Jerry Falwell’s Office of the Chancellor is located in the Carter Glass mansion.) In 1913, Glass was a key supporter of the Federal Reserve System, and Wilson, upon signing the legislation, gave him the first honorary pen. (I like to think that Glass, for better or worse, strolled across what would eventually become the campus of Liberty University dreaming about the Fed.)
But Glass disliked big government and he was deeply suspicious of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Though a Democrat, Glass complained that, “ Roosevelt is driving this country to destruction faster than it has ever moved before. Congress is giving this inexperienced man greater powers than that possessed by Mussolini and Hitler put together.” Considering much New Deal legislation to be unconstitutional, Glass called FDR’s National Recovery Act “Hitlerism.”1 Good for Carter Glass! No doubt he strolled about the farm grumbling about Roosevelt. He may have been short sighted on the Fed, but he nailed the New Deal.
Biblical Principles for Economics
My first concern in the new course was to outline Biblical principles that students can use as an interpretive paradigm to understand economic history. What does the Bible say about economics? How do we use Biblical principles to assess history? Liberty students are very responsive to that approach, and they often pull out Bibles to check my Scripture references. If that’s what the Bible says, they are ready to go with it. What follows are a dozen principles with which I begin the course.
First, the Bible establishes a principle of stewardship (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8). Man is created to rule over creation and to have dominion; we are stewards and managers of God’s creation. We are to cultivate, govern, and develop the earth. But unlike modern environmentalists, we neither worship the creation nor see man as a parasite on the earth.
Second, Scripture emphasizes human fecundity (Gen. 1:28). We are commanded to be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the earth. This is one commandment, I like to tell the students, where I feel like I am doing okay (I have nine children). Other Scriptures (Ps. 127 and 128) emphasize that a full quiver is a unique blessing of God. We now live in an anti-growth age. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus warned about the dangers of over-population and hunger, and today neo-Malthusians abound. I urge students to read Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), a best-selling screed on over-population with draconian suggestions for limiting growth, and they are fascinated with the apocalyptic nature of his pronouncements.2
Third, the Bible emphasizes hard-money and honest measures. God tells Adam about the gold in Havilah, for instance, and pronounces it to be good (Gen. 2:12). With an endorsement like that, Adam was sure to collect some and use it. The Bible condemns the practice of using different standards of measure (Dt. 25:13-16) and of debasing coins or bullion (Is. 1:25), forms of theft and inflation. Most American students don’t remember the devastating inflation of the late 1970s and are unaware of the potential for economic disaster in a debased currency. But two students this semester who grew up in missionary families abroad were quick to comment on what has recently happened to money in the Philippines.3
Fourth, the Bible emphasizes the fact of post-fall scarcity (Gen. 3:17-18). We do not live in a world of unlimited resources. Nor would it be desirable, in a fallen world, for people to have unlimited time and resources at their disposal. Scarcity forces us to cooperate with one another, to depend more upon God, and to work hard — which keeps us out of mischief.
Fifth, the eighth commandment prohibits theft (Ex. 20:15). Biblical case laws give a fuller idea of what the commandment entails. Exodus 22, for instance, points to principles of restitution, usury, and rights for widows, orphans and the poor. The implications of the eighth commandment are more fully spelled out in a rich section of the Westminster Larger Catechism (140-142). I challenge students to think about the economic implications of each of the commandments, especially in the second table of the law: the fifth (honoring parents — see 1 Tim. 5:4 and Mark 7:10ff.), the sixth (consider the economic implications of 40 million abortions), the seventh (the quickest way into poverty is via broken families and female-headed households), the eighth (theft), the ninth (cheating and fraud), and the tenth (how much advertising is geared toward human covetousness). Students enjoy this exercise and are usually eager to talk about the economic implications of the first table of the law as well.
Sixth, the Bible talks about God’s blessings toward nations and individuals (Dt. 28:1-11). We do not live in a “closed system,” where there is a fixed “pie,” where the wealth of one correspondingly necessitates poverty for another. (God can produce a “bigger pie.”) He governs all things through His good providence, and has the power to grant wealth and blessing.
Seventh, the Bible warns about debt (Dt. 28:12-13). Americans have high levels of consumer debt, and indebtedness among students is particularly frightening. I point out that the “borrower becomes the lender’s slave” (Pr. 22:7), and then survey the classroom to see who is avoiding eye contact. Afraid that even Christian students are being trapped with debt, I offer a practical exhortation: “Stay out of debt — and burn the cards!”
Eighth, Scripture requires a tithe to God. Tithing is a fundamental Christian commitment, showing the sovereignty of God, His dominion over us, and our dependence on Him. Malachi argues that failure to tithe is stealing from God and promises that God will abundantly bless those who honor Him with their first-fruits (Mal. 3:8-10).4
Ninth, Scripture gives clear commands and guidelines for mercy ministries. Marvin Olasky (The Tragedy of American Compassion) and George Grant (Bringing in the Sheaves) have excellent works on the topic, giving the Biblical parameters for charity. Their approach is quite different from the baptized socialism of Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. And David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, the definitive refutation of Sider, is an excellent overall manual on Biblical economics.
Tenth, the Bible has much to say about political economy. Scripture warns against the avarice of rulers — specifically prohibiting kings from accumulating gold and silver (Dt. 17:14-20). Scripture warns about the economic implications of a monarchy (and a centralized government) — including eminent domain, nationalized service and high taxation (1 Sam. 8). And Scripture gives examples of predatory kings who subvert the law to seize the property of their citizens (1 Kings 21).
Eleventh, the Bible emphasizes work and calling. We are called to pursue a vocation, to work hard, to provide a testimony of the gospel in our labor, and through our labor to provide for others and glorify God (Eph. 6:5-9; Titus 2:9-10; 2 Thes. 3:10-12).
Finally, there is a principle of providence. We have confidence that God will provide everything necessary for us (Mt. 6:25-34; Ps. 37:23-26). Paul reaffirms the promise of God’s blessing in his reaffirmation of the fifth commandment (Eph. 6:1-3). And we always acknowledge that everything we have comes from God’s hand, and not our own strength (Dt. 8:17-18).
I could say more, but these introductory lectures on Biblical principles of economics already consume a week of classes. My main concern is that students will be able to think Biblically about economic issues. And as they stroll across the Liberty campus, I hope that they will be able to apply those principles to economic issues of American history — be it the Federal Reserve System, the New Deal, or even the Honorable Carter Glass.
1. Darrell Laurant, A City Unto Itself: Lynchburg, Virginia, in the 20th Century (n.p.: The News and Advance, 1997), 34-38.
2 For more positive views of growth I steer them to Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource, for a secular viewpoint, or Cal Beisner, Prospects for Growth, for a Christian one.
3. Excellent resources are available from a Christian perspective, including the early issue of The Journal of Christian Reconstruction dedicated to Christian Economics and Rushdoony’s The Roots of Inflation.
4. During my first year at Liberty, I was surprised when a troubled student asked about tithing at the beginning of class. Falwell had just preached on the topic and the young man was under conviction. It was easy to give a hearty amen to the sermon. At how many other universities in America, I wonder, would a student be challenged about tithing?