Theological Reflections on the Nature of Capitalism and Biblical Justice


1. The size of the economic resource pool

How do our beginning assumptions about the nature of markets and labor influence our particular theorization of it? Henry Krabbendam has a very interesting and challenging definition of economics that calls into question some of the classical views of mercantilism and capitalism:

“Economics is stipulated . . . from a biblical perspective as a science that assesses and prioritizes the various human needs and aims at a disciplined, focused mode of administering a potential abundance of resources to meet them.  Admittedly, this definition runs counter to the usual one that calls for economics to concern itself with satisfying unlimited wants by means of limited resources.” 

2. The impact of the Bible on the science of economics

According to Ian Smith, the three main views regarding the relationship between the Bible and descriptive economics include:

1) Disciplinary Autonomy: “[The Bible has] nothing to contribute directly to the understanding of modern economies.  There is a gulf between specialized theory and the biblical witness.[. . .] The implication for the Christian economist in his or her professional capacity is that Christian witness does not manifest itself in the economic analysis but rather in the excellence of personal conduct and moral character.”

2) Disciplinary Interdependence: “[I]f it can be demonstrated that ethical considerations pervade economic analysis, then there is clearly scope for biblical values to shape economic descriptions.”

3) Distinctively Christian Economic Analysis: “Biblically derived institutional norms not only show us how we are meant to live--how institutions such as the state, the family, the corporation, and the financial system should be shaped--but also provide a way of understanding pathological economic outcomes.”

This suggests, then, three broadly differing approaches:

(1)   Minimalism: “The extreme version argues that the biblical revelation is of little (even indirect) relevance for economic life, beyond personal responsibility not to steal from the taxman and to respect private property.[. . .] The more moderate and less privatized position would accept the importance of biblical injunctions in their application to economic life but construe them in rather general terms.”

(2)   Principles: “For those who desire to pay closer attention to the guidelines of the biblical material, an approach based on a systematic formulation of derivative social principles (or middle axioms) commends itself.”

(3)   Law: “The critique of the thematic method forms a starting point for the theonomic approach that turns to the Old Testament law, at least those aspects that deal with social institutions, as a normative socio-political model for contemporary society.”


  1. What do you think about Krabbendam's claim? Is he on to something? Should we begin by assuming an abundance of resources rather than a limited pool of them? Why or why not?
  2. Likewise, how does our view of the relation between biblical authority and modern economic theory shape our willingness to draw on biblical ideas? 
  3. How might a broad biblical pattern of creation-fall-redemption help us to think about capitalism and economic development and justice? Would it suggest one approach more than the other two?


SOURCE: The Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics

1. Creation and Stewardship: “From God and through God and to God are all things.  For its continuing existence creation is dependent on God. [. . .] God has entrusted the earth to human beings to be responsible for it on God’s behalf.  They should work as God’s stewards in the creative, faithful management of the world. [. . .] Non-human creation was not made exclusively for human beings. [. . .] Since human beings are created in the image of God for community and not simply as isolated individuals, they are to exercise dominion in a way that is responsible to the needs of the total human family, including future generations.”

2. Rhythm of Work and Leisure: “The sequence of work and rest that we see in God’s activity is a pattern for human beings. . . . .The Sabbath erects a fence around human productive activity and serves to protect both human and non-human creation.  Human beings have, therefore, both a right and an obligation to rest.”

SOURCE: The U.S. Bishops' Pastoral Letter

3. Nature of Work: “All work has a threefold moral significance.  First, it is a principal way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization.  Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs.  Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community.[. . .] Commitment to the public good and not simply the private good of their firms is at the heart of what it means to call their work a vocation and not simply a career or a job.[. . .] Support of private ownership does not mean that anyone has the right to unlimited accumulation of wealth.[. . .] For this reason it is all the more significant that the teachings of the church insist that government has a moral function: protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all members of the commonwealth.

SOURCE: A Theology of the Corporation (Michael Novak)

4. The Character of Economic Activity:

  • Creativity: “The Creator locked great riches in nature, riches to be discovered only gradually through human effort.”

  • Liberty: “The corporation mirrors God’s presence also in its liberty, by which I mean independence from the state. “

  • Birth and Mortality: “As products of human liberty, corporations rise and fall, live and die.  One does not have in them a lasting home—or even an immortal enemy.”

  • Social Motive: “Corporations, as the very word suggests, are not individualistic in their conception, or in their purposes. [. . .] The fundamental intention of the system from the beginning has been the wealth of all humanity.”

  • Social Character: “The corporation is inherently and in its essence corporate.  The very word suggests communal non-individual, many acting together.[. . .] Corporations depend on the emergence of an infrastructure in intellectual life that makes possible new forms of communal collaboration.”

  • Insight: “Constantly teams of persons meet to brainstorm and world out common strategies. Insight is the chief resource of any corporation, and there cannot be too much of it. Its scarcity is called and stupidity.”

  • The Risk of Liberty and Election: “A corporation faces liberty and election; it is part of its romance to do so.”


SOURCE: The Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics

5. Sin and Productivity: The thoughtlessness, greed, and violence of sinful human beings have damaged God’s good creation and produced a variety of ecological problems and conflicts.[. . .] Humanity has constantly been confronted by the two challenges of selfish individualism, which neglects human community, and rigid collectivism, which stifles human freedom.  Christians and others have often pointed out both danger.[. . .] Economic production results from the stewardship of the earth which God assigned to humanity.  While materialism, injustice, and greed are in fundamental conflict with the teaching of the whole scripture, there is nothing in Christian faith that suggests that the production of new goods and services is undesirable.

6. Technology's Need for an Ethical End: “Technology mirrors the basic paradox of the sinfulness and goodness of human nature.[. . . ] What is technologically possible is not necessarily morally permissible.  We must not allow technological development to follow its own inner logic, but must direct it to serve moral ends.”


SOURCE: The U.S. Bishops' Pastoral Letter

7. Love and Solidarity: The commandments to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself are the heart and soul of Christian morality.

  • Commutative justice calls for fundamental fairness in all agreements and exchanges between individuals or private social groups.

  • Distributive justice requires that the allocation of income, wealth and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet.

  • Social justice implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way.

“Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.[. . .] The common good demands justice for all, the protection of the human rights of all.”

“The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation. [. . .] The "option for the poor," therefore, is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another.”

  • The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority.

  •  Increasing active participation in economic life by those who are presently excluded or vulnerable is a high social priority.

  • The investment of wealth, talent and human energy should be specially directed to benefit those who are poor or economically insecure.

  • Economic and social policies as well as the organization of the work world should be continually evaluated in light of their impact on the strength and stability of family life.

Application--Balancing Profit and Justice

  • We should be concerned with human needs rather than wants, though not all wants are necessarily dangerous. Do the products by which the company earns a living promote and answer true needs and healthy wants in its buyers?

  • At the same time, we need economic realism. We should recognize what motivates the average person in a fallen world.

  • Does the company’s pursuit of profit impact the environment in a hazardous manner? (Recognize the need for some social trade-off.)

  • Does profit pursuit respect workers’ rights to a fair wage, safe working conditions, a fulfilling, engaged environment, periods of rest, etc?

  • Recognize that pursuit of profit if couched within the above concerns can be an expression of God-given creativity, liberty, insight, etc.

  • At the same time, recognize the ways that profit pursuit and company life can violate God’s standards for social life and community.

  • There must be some concern for justice and care for the poor. This ought to be more than simple welfare, but should be educational and restorative in its intents, enabling people to be productive and creative.


Smith, Ian. "God and Economics." God and Culture. Eds. D.A. Carson and John D. Wobridge, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. 162-179.

ed. Stackhouse, Max, et al. On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding