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When economics and theology don’t mix: review of Poverty of Nations

REVIEW | Richard Glover

Friday 8th November 2013

The Poverty of Nations book coverA review of The Poverty of Nations: a Sustainable Solution by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus. Published by Crossway.

All Christians can strongly affirm the premise of this book: God cares deeply for the plight of the poor, and the church must seek out ways to alleviate such suffering. Unfortunately, The Poverty of Nations represents an unpersuasively narrow engagement with economics instead of the robust economic and theological engagement that we need.

Theologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus seek to present ‘a sustainable solution’ for the poverty of majority-world nations. Their solution, in short, is a particular brand of free-market capitalism, characterized by continuously creating more goods and services in order to enter ‘a path of ever-increasing prosperity’ (p. 25). The authors seek to persuade their readers by comparing alternative economic systems with free-market capitalism and proposing a series of policies nations can adopt to move from poverty to prosperity. In addition, they seek to show how the Christian scriptures affirm the economic policies they propose.

The book is unpersuasive on both counts. Firstly, the authors only engage with a narrow range of economic thinkers from one wing of economic theory. While the information is presented as almost universally agreed upon by economists of repute, the issues and policies the authors raise are in fact still debated fiercely in the pages of such magazines as The Financial Times and The Economist. It is a major weakness of the book that instead of engaging with alternative economic theories and policies the authors simply dismiss those who fall outside their own views.

One such economist is Jeff Sachs, a highly influential development economist who has spend much of the last two decades advising the World Bank and the United Nations on poverty alleviation. His best-known book, The End of Poverty, is a detailed 400-page analysis of the causes of poverty in several majority-world nations and his own policy prescriptions to alleviate their policy – all of which is based on his successful interventions in those countries. Grudem & Asmus simply dismiss Sachs’ work as ‘a simple approach’ (p. 29).

Such an attitude to the work of other economists means the authors don’t engage with important and influential thinkers like Ha-Joon Chang, whose book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism shows historically how the wealthy nations of the world became wealthy precisely by employing policies that Grudem & Asmus dismiss as harmful and destructive – only employing free-market principles once their wealth was already established. Grudem & Asmus do the reader a great disservice by presenting a one-sided case that fails to engage with the significant number of economists with whom they disagree. More sustained engagement with economists like Sachs and Chang would have made their case much more persuasive.

This criticism applies even more tellingly to the authors’ use of biblical texts. The book’s use of the bible is characterized by poor, unpersuasive proof-texting. The authors need to give greater support for their use of several passages, since many world-class theologians would disagree with the way they are used here. For example, God’s command to ‘subdue’ the earth (Genesis 1:28) is frequently cited as an obvious biblical mandate for ‘mak[ing] the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment’ (p. 217). This may be part of what ‘subduing’ entails; but the authors simply state it as fact. Other interpretations are possible, including ‘subduing’ is to work for the flourishing of the whole creation, not just exploiting it for our own benefit (see, for example, Richard Bauckham’s Bible and Ecology).

At the same time, biblical texts that many would think crucial for any discussion of wealth, poverty and economics are absent entirely. For example, while asserting that equality is not a wise goal for poor nations, they fail to engage with a passage like 2 Corinthians chapters 8 & 9, in which the Apostle Paul, urging the Corinthians to give money to the struggling saints in Jerusalem, states simply: ‘Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality’ (8:13). For passages such as this to be absent from the authors’ discussion – along with the Wisdom Literature, most of the New Testament epistles and Jesus’ teaching in the gospels – is disappointing. The absence of the Old Testament prophets, with their emphasis on social and economic justice, is startling. Instead, the weight of the texts discussed fall on passages from the Old Testament law. Again, these are used uncritically as proof-texts, without the authors doing the necessary work of showing how God’s new covenant people are to relate to the Law. The authors’ use of scripture therefore leaves much to be desired.

There are far more rewarding theological engagement with economics available. Books like Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches, William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire and M. Douglas’ Meeks’ (more technical) God the Economist engage critically with economic theory on the basis of the Christian scriptures. Instead of employing the scriptures after the fact, they explore what God’s intentions are for his people and his creation in his Word before asking what an economy based on those principles might look like – and comparing it to our own.

Grudem & Asmus are right to bring the issue of poverty to the attention of Christians. Sadly, they do not present a good model of how this should be done. If you want to read on this issue, start with one of the other books mentioned above.

Richard is married to Alison and works for the Evangelical Union on Sydney University campus. He has degrees in History and Political Economy, blogs sporadically at richardrglover.wordpress.com, and tweets at @richardrglover

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