Sunday, 25 May 2008

A Christian approach to economics

This is something I have become increasingly interested in. I do not have an extensive economic background but have read many articles over recent years. I have become increasingly capitalistic in my approach, though there are several issues that I have yet to resolve biblically.

I think a good economic policy can be formulated from the Bible but it needs to start from fundamental principles rather than taking a more pragmatic approach and learning from economies around the world. Not that there is anything wrong from learning from the events we see, the 20th century is pretty damning on communism as an economic solution (and any other solution it proposes), we do well to note it. The problem is that the preferred outcome of economic policies may not coincide with that of God. A reasonable goal of economics is maximising material prosperity for all citizens (though not necessarily equality of outcome) and maximising productivity while minimising labour. However God is more concerned with our response to Christ. And righteousness and justice are more important principles than profit. Of course an industry needs to make some profit (or break even) over time else it will fail; and people debate over the meaning of "justice" as it applies to economics.

I have not found a discussion of biblical economics that reviews all the relevant passages of Scripture and attempts a coherent and Christ honouring view. It may exist, I just don't know of any. I recently found this paper by an Australian Andrew Kulikovsky whom I am more familiar with as an author of creationist articles. It is titled "A Biblical View of Economics and
Industrial Relations" and it is very much worth a read (I have a slightly different take on some ideas).
Clearly some people are poor because they are oppressed by others (Isa 10:1-2, Zech 7:10), but the Evangelical Alliance and other Christian socialists tend to view poverty as almost entirely a result of oppression, either directly (in the case of workers being oppressed by their employers), or indirectly (in the case of systemic denial of equality). They rarely acknowledge that many people—especially those who live in wealthy western societies—have brought poverty upon themselves through laziness, foolishness, impulsiveness and the like.
This is insightful in that it shows that so called "poverty" in the West is inappropriately labelled and cannot be equated to poverty of third world countries, not just in terms of wealth comparisons but in the causative factors of the lack of wealth. Now self-induced poverty may be due to bad behaviours that have been learned, or due to lack of appropriate behaviour because it has not been taught, but even so, the solution is different. It is the deficit behaviour that needs to be remedied rather than the deficit income.

Another complaint against capitalism is that it leads to inequalities in wealth outcomes. Though there is a range of incomes in a capitalist society it is still likely that wealth is more evenly distributed compared to other systems. For example, although Bill Gates is exceedingly wealthy, his income as a percentage of global wealth (or even US wealth) is much lower than in times past: compare Rockefellar. Kulikovsky gives further insightful analysis to this complaint,
Yet a common objection to capitalism among socialists is that 10% of the population owns 90% percent [sic] of the wealth. But even if this claim is accurate, there would in fact be nothing wrong with such a situation provided that the 10% acquired their wealth through legal, just and fair means. In essence, the situation is indicative of the fact that some people have contributed more to production than others, because they introduced major improvements and innovations. Therefore, the 90% of the wealth that is not only owned but also created and earned by that 10% (or by their parents or grandparents), ends up serving the rest of the population that did not contribute as much to production. Furthermore, if the rest of the population (or the government) attempt to force a transfer of wealth from that 10% to the most disadvantaged—as the Evangelical Alliance proposes—they will ultimately destroy the creation of the wealth that serves the least disadvantaged and destroy any hope they have of escaping their disadvantaged state. This is because the Christian socialists in the Evangelical Alliance have no concept of the production of wealth and how it is accumulated, but instead begin with the myth of the ‘distribution fairy’: that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world and that it is meant to be evenly distributed among everyone. These views come not from the Bible but from Karl Marx, and would naturally lead to the implementation of coercive policies that legally sanction theft and lead to a world that is physically empty of the production and accumulation of wealth. Instead of evenly distributing wealth, such policies end up evenly distributing poverty! As Reisman put it, the “thieves” end up as “starving wretches.” The truth of the above principles in born out in the actual history of all those societies that have adopted communism and other forms of socialism, and Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of Africa, is a current example of the poverty and economic ruin that comes from such policies.
Viewing wealth and produce as fixed implies that if anyone gains then someone must lose. But if wealth can be created then offense at the wealthy who created their own wealth is just envy. If every man grows 10 bushels of wheat a year and one man devises a method to grow 100 without preventing others from growing theirs, where is the injustice in that? If someone becomes wealthy at the expense of the work of the poor and refuses to pay them what he agreed in order to become rich, that is an offense. If a man creates work for others and in the process creates significant wealth for them as he creates wealth for himself, that is a good thing, even if he becomes richer than all his workers.

All in all an interesting read.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Global warming sceptics get it

Blair D at Avoca Valley Life alerted me to an article in the Christian Post: Christians Launch Campaign against Global Warming Hype.
While it may seem like everyone believes in global warming and the impending catastrophe it will bring, a group of conservative Christians countered that message Thursday by launching a national campaign to gather one million signatures for a statement that says Christians must not believe in all the hype about global warming.
They helpfully note a significant reason to be opposed to global warming political action (other than the fundamental reason: the theory is false):
Opponents of the popular global warming view say that until all scientists can agree that global warming is as severe as some claim and that it is mainly human-induced, they are against any policies that would raise energy costs because they would put the lives of millions in jeopardy based on uncertain or debatable scientific evidence.
The campaign is an American national endeavour called We Get It. They seek to get a million signatures to their declaration. While not open to myself due to location reasons, it is reasonable and there is nothing specifically I would oppose.
The We Get It! Declaration:

God Said It
God created everything. He made us in His own image, and commanded us to be fruitful and multiply and watch over His creation. Although separated from God by our sin, we are lovingly restored through Jesus Christ, and take responsibility for being good stewards.

We Get It
Our stewardship of creation must be based on Biblical principles and factual evidence. We face important environmental challenges, but must be cautious of claims that our planet is in peril from speculative dangers like man-made global warming.

They Need It
With billions suffering in poverty, environmental policies must not further oppress the world’s poor by denying them basic needs. Instead, we must help people fulfill their God-given potential as producers and stewards.

Let’s Do It
We will follow our Lord Jesus Christ and honor God as we use and share the principles of His Word to care for the poor and tend His creation.
While one may not necessarily subscribe to all their suggestions for individual action, the declaration is probably acceptable to most who are Christian and sceptical of the climate change polemic. So if any Christian citizens of the US read here from time to time you may wish to pay a visit, or even consider signing.

(Only do so of your own conviction, I would not sign something popular if I was dubious of it, and even some things I moderately approve of I am cautious to add my name to; but if you do so, could you note it in the comments, even anonymously?)

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Jesus and the use of metaphor

Now we have dispensed with the flat earth claim I would like to address Jesus' ability to understand symbolism. The relevant part of Tilling's post was,
Had you asked [Jesus] if there was a literal Adam or Eve and serpent, I think he would have been puzzled by the 'literal' tag, but I suspect that if you had pressed him he would have said that he believes in a literal Adam and Eve (though I cannot prove these statements. I am making historical judgments, and I see no reason why he would not have believe these things – modern science did not develop for centuries. Though as noted, the whole metaphorical / scientific categorisation would have probably puzzled him).
This is not an issue of scientific knowledge, it is one of literal versus allegorical.

Jesus was familiar with the Old Testament besides Genesis. He frequently quoted Deuteronomy and mentions the prophets. The Old Testament had plenty of material that was understood to be figurative. In the book of Judges we read of Gideon's son Jotham telling his half brother Abimelech a story of the trees having a council:
The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us.' But the olive tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?' And the trees said to the fig tree, 'You come and reign over us.' But the fig tree said to them, 'Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?' And the trees said to the vine, 'You come and reign over us.' But the vine said to them, 'Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?' Then all the trees said to the bramble, 'You come and reign over us.' And the bramble said to the trees, 'If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.' (Judges 9)
This is more than a thousand years before Jesus yet these people understood fable. In fact trees seem to be a recurrent theme in the Old Testament with Joash sending a message to Amaziah concerning a cedar and a thistle (2 Kings 14, 2 Chronicles 25), and God informing Ezekiel about an eagle removing the upper twigs of a cedar to a different land (Ezekiel 17). Jesus certainly would have been familiar with these passages.

Moreover, Jesus frequently spoke in parables himself. He didn't just inform people of theological truths but made use of stories to illustrate these truths. Matthew adds,
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. (Matthew 13)
The parable of the sower is a good example. This parable uses symbols thru-out: sower, soil, birds, rocks, thorns, birds—all symbols of some other thing.

The clincher that Jesus both understood and affirmed the literalness of Adam and Eve is seen in his description of John the Baptist. The Old Testament closes with a prediction of God's visitation and his forerunner Elijah:
"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me." (Malachi 3)
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes." (Malachi 4)
Now this could be interpreted as either Elijah returning (as he ascended to heaven in a whirlwind) or as a person coming in the ministry of Elijah. We are told it is the latter in the gospel of Luke; the fulfilment in the person of John the Baptist:
And [John] will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, (Luke 1)
Jesus affirms this,
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
" 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face,/
who will prepare your way before you.'
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11)
Jesus applies Malachi 3 to John and Jesus specifies that John is Elijah. From this we can note that Jesus is perfectly able to understand that a passage can have figurative aspects to it. Jesus does not think that John is literally Elijah or that Malachi meant that Elijah would literally return. And Jesus thought this is even though several of his contemporaries thought that Elijah would literally return.

So when Jesus claims that Adam was a real person he is fully able to comprehend the difference between this and the concept that Adam fictitious person representative of humankind. He is able to understand whether the creation story is historical or mythological. This is not surprising as Genesis clearly historical narrative and Joash's story is clearly allegorical. Malachi may be more subtle but that is often the case with prophecy; that Jesus is aware of this subtlety demonstrates our thesis more strongly.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Did Jesus believe in a flat earth?

When responding to Tilling earlier, I indicated that as well as discussing the characterisation of knowledge I wanted to correct other false statements in his post. The 2 errors were the flat earth claim and the idea that metaphors would puzzle Jesus. Here I address the flat earth.

The flat earth claim probably is unfounded. That Christianity promoted a flat earth was in large a lie propagated by the likes of Andrew Dickson White in his anti-Christian polemics. Jeffery Burton Russell has discussed this in detail (summary here) and even an atheist site has acknowledged the false claims against the church. The latter's view of Christianity remains somewhat hostile.

The knowledge of the sphericity of the earth can be currently dated at least as early as ~500–600 BC in Greece. Pythagoras (~500 BC) and Aristotle (~350 BC) believed the earth was a sphere; though spherical claims may have easily predated this, especially in other regions. I am not aware of extant documents that inform us what other empires before Greece which include Persia, Babylon, and Egypt, thought of the earth's shape. I do dispute the claim that much of Hebrew theology and cosmology derives from Babylon; these ideas are partially based on (what I would consider) false synchronisms. Reviewing knowledge earlier than Egypt, we have Josephus claiming that Abraham introduced astronomy to the Egyptians. I doubt we have enough information to adequately judge Josephus' claim but the assumption of ignorance of the ancients is tired and likely reflects modernist arrogance. Even the events at Babel suggests that astronomy was a significant feature there.

Given that the Greeks knew the earth was a ball centuries before the Roman empire existed it is highly likely that the Roman world at the time of Christ believed in a spherical earth. The occasional theologian in the centuries after Jesus suggested a flat earth but this was the exception. Perhaps more commonly, opposition arose at times against the idea of the antipodes. One must be careful not to view this as evidence that the person was arguing for a flat earth. There were (false) reasons for arguing against men living on the other side of the earth unrelated to the shape of the earth. Men could hold to a spherical earth and disbelieve in either antipodean lands and/ or inhabitants.

The Bible makes very little comment of the shape and structure of the earth. Most of the passages referenced are poetical. Poetry frequently talks about real events and uses literal wording at times. However features of poetry include the frequent use of symbolism and metaphor. When reading poetry it is important to understand the point being illustrated, not insist on the literal meaning of the underlying wording. If a poem uses a phrase that is intended to be literal or does indeed coincide with reality then it is not unreasonable to use the passage as support that the author understood this particular concept. It is not valid, however, to force literalism on a poetical passage. This is also true with the use of metaphor in prose, though this is generally more obvious.

In summary we have documentary evidence for the knowledge of a spherical earth for more the last 2500 years and it was common knowledge at the time of Christ. The idea of a flat earth has never been seriously held by the majority of people
since before the time of Christ and the medieval flat earth myth was invented by infidels in their attempt to discredit the church.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Giving up claim to your life

Churches frequently ask that people offer up their whole selves for Jesus. Jesus should get all of us and we should not hold back any part of our lives; Jesus is Lord over all.

I agree with this. My view of Christianity is one of an exchange of lives: my life for Jesus' life. He died for my sins, I live his life at his direction; it is no longer mine to own, including all my decisions. I do have mixed feelings about this approach however. In reality this is a very difficult thing to do. And to make a promise to God you think you are likely to fail on does not seem wise. So while this is what God wants of us, I am probably more likely to ask that God changes me that this may be my desire, or that as I grow I may give more and more to him. It is not that I necessarily want to hold back aspects (though at times perhaps), rather that I do.

I also am aware that others who have offered their whole selves to God, and meant it, and acted on it, have seen God work powerfully in their lives. I believe Charles Finney went through a process of giving all to God before his ministry. And I suspect Rhys Howells was in a similar position though I have not read his biography. Others have given God something important that represents all, or at least a lot, of themselves. Keith Green offered God his music knowing he may not get it back. So a quick comment about giving Jesus all in a music break does not do justice to the magnitude of this decision.

While I would not have married my wife without God giving me the go ahead and his approval, I do think I put her on the altar prior to that point: yet God still asks more of me than I give.

Perhaps it is an event for some people, perhaps it is process where we hand over more and more, perhaps it is both.

My pastor once said that he did not think the Christian walk got easier in terms of our faith in God, that we always can grow and God will give us ever more opportunities to trust him in ways that we have not done so before.

Which introduces the lyrics to a song that focuses on this aspect of faith:

Take my life and let it be

Fran­ces R. Ha­ver­gal (1836–1879)

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Random quote

No sciences are better attested than the religion of the Bible.

Isaac Newton (1643–1727)

(Note that by the word "sciences" Newton may have meant what we mean by "knowledge")

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