Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review (#28 of 2014) Business for the Glory of God by Wayne Grudem

Business for the Glory of God: The Bible's Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business This is one of a series of books I am reading related to the theology of work. However, Grudem's work would tend to fall more into economics than it would work/labor or even business. This book is more an extended essay, but Grudem calls it a book and sells it as such, so it's a book. I teach economics to undergraduates and non-traditional college students on Christian campuses and would gladly use this book in my classes as a devotional or weekly discussion material. I'm sad to think back to the number of times I've taught about the importance of money as eliminating the double coincidence of wants without reasoning that that is a gift of God.

Grudem argues that the basic components of market economics-- private property, entrepreneurship, trade, competition, employment, profit, money, inequality, lending, even a fractional reserve banking system are not "neutral" as we often assume, but rather inherently God-instituted and God-glorifying (while also containing the potential for misuse and sin). We should therefore "be thankful" for them.

"When people ask how their lives can 'glorify God,' they aren't usually told, 'Go into business.' When students ask, 'How can I serve God with my life?' they don't often hear the answer, 'God into business...But that is exactly what this book is going to claim.'"

On private property: 
"(W)hen we care for our possessions, it gives us opportunity to imitate many other attributes of God."  It is a way in which we are given by God to exercise dominion to help "subdue" (Gen. 1:28) the earth. Ownership allows us to save resources for others (1 Tim 5:8).

The temptation for misuse: Hoarding, polluting and destroying the earth, pride.

Our production from the earth is also part of the process of cultivating the earth, subduing it, and multiplying what comes from it (Gen 1:28). "God did not have to create us with a need for material things or a need for the services of other people (think of the angels, who apparently do not have such needs), but in his wisdom he chose to do so. It may be that God created us with such needs because he knew that in the process of productive work we would have many opportunities to glorify him." 

We glorify God by using our talents and creativity to solve problems, invent, and create-- just as He invents, and creates. That gives us an opportunity to shine (Matt. 5:16). By creating a product that others have need of, we serve them.

"Work in itself is also something that is fundamentally good and God-given, for it was something that God commanded Adam and Eve to do before there was sin in the world." 

Temptation for misuse: Focus on material things for their own sake, pride, selfishness, greed, "to produce goods that bring monetary reward but that are harmful and destructive and evil (such as pornography and addictive drugs)."

Gains from trade apply from employment-- you provide something I need, I provide something you need; hence, we become interdependent and are able to obtain more than we could in the absence of trade-- both parties benefit. We are also able to gain from efficiencies through specialization of labor, producing more than what could be done as independent entities.

Temptation for misuse: Owner reaping 99% of the benefit to the 1% of the worker. Owner's pride, withholding wages, being unfair (James 5:4). Employee temptation to sin through carelessness (Prov. 18:9), laziness, jealousy, bitterness, rebelliousness, dishonesty, and theft (Titus 2:9-10).

Commercial transactions (trade):
"Several passages of Scripture assume that buying and selling are morally right." (Lev. 25:14 among others).  We "manifest interdependence and thus reflect the interdependence and interpersonal love among the members of the Trinity."

"Commercial transactions are in themselves good because through them we do good to other people...because of the amazing truth that, in most cases, voluntary commercial transactions benefit both parties...we can honestly see buying and selling as one means of loving our neighbor as ourself...every business transaction is an opportunity for us to be fair and truthful and thus to obey Jesus' teaching."  (Matt. 7:12). 

Temptation for misuse: Being dishonest in business dealings. Breaking contracts. One party gaining 99% of the benefit to the 1% of the other. Selfishness.

"Profit is an indication that I am making good and efficient use of the earth's resources, thus obeying God's original 'creation mandate' to 'subdue' the earth" (Gen. 1:28).

In Jesus' parables, servants who made profit were praised while those who chose not to work towards profit to honor their master were rebuked. The Proverbs 31 woman is praised for profitable merchandise (Prov 31:18).

Temptations for misuse: Rent-seeking behavior to protect a monopoly, and exploitation of market power.

"Money enables all of mankind to be productive and enjoy the fruits of that productivity thousands of times more extensively than we could if no human being had money, or we just had to barter with each other."

"If money were evil in itself, then God would not have any. But he says, 'The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts'" (Hag. 2:8).

Temptations for misuse: Accumulating and hoarding too much, serving money as an idol.

Inequality of possessions: 
The Bible teaches us that there are varying degrees of reward in heaven, and that some people--even angels--are given authority while others are not. God has endowed people differently in terms of backgrounds, talents, access to resources, etc. and these "will be part of our life in heaven forever." Therefore "the idea of inequality of stewardship in itself is given by God and must be good."

"In the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), agricultural land returned to its previous owner and debts were canceled, but there was no equalizing of money or jewels or cattle or sheep." Grudem also rejects any suggestions that the New Testament espouses or exemplifies equality of possessions. While in Acts people gave voluntarily and held things in common, they still owned homes and other property (several passages cited).

It's worth noting that Greek and Pauline scholar Rodney Reeves argues that the great famine and poverty that befell the Jerusalem church was a consequence of their attempt to sell their properties and share it amongst themselves. Ie: there was less productivity and saving that would have occurred otherwise, leading to the church's poverty.

Nonetheless, we should work to combat poverty. The definition of "poverty" varies among societies, for some it's a standard of living, others it's a gini coefficient-- inequality.

Temptation for misuse: Living extravagantly. What about redistribution?

"There is no corresponding command in the New Testament to take some wealth away from the very rich, and there is no teaching that a large amount of wealth is wrong in itself. But there are strong warnings against spending too much on ones self and living in self-indulgent luxury" (James 5).

"Competition seems to be the system God intended when he gave people greater talents in one area and gave other people greater talents in another area, and when he established a world where justice and fairness would require giving greater reward for better work."

Competition results from incentives. Competition makes us better, causes us to strive to produce more from what we're given (part of the process of subduing the earth), and to be the best we can be. "God has created us with a desire to do well, and to improve what we are able to do." By us doing better, we help our neighbors.

Temptations for misuse: Envy, jealousy, cutting corners to get ahead.

Borrowing and Lending: 

"When you make your neighbor a loan..." (Deut. 24:10) presupposes that Israelites would make loans to one another. Psalms 112 and 37 seem to commend lending. Romans 13:8 ("owe no one anything") more accurately means to pay what is owed, when it is owed. Don't be overdue on your debts, pay on time.

Lending is the temporary transfer of the control of property, but not the ownership. "The great value of borrowing and lending is that they multiply the usefulness of all the wealth of society." Think of a library book, the process of borrowing and lending multiplies the use of it and benefits more people than if it were not loaned. Grudem anticipates borrowing and lending in heaven to the glory of God.

The fractional reserve banking system is seen by Grudem to be a God-given invention that allows us to multiply the amount of money that's available for all to use and borrow. I know some Christians who firmly believe Austrian economics is Christian economics-- and therefore denounce the fractional reserve system as creating the illusion of creating wealth. When a bank loans money that it doesn't actually have, it's seen as dishonest by the Austrian Christians. Grudem seems unaware of this criticism or dismissive.  Operating on a cash basis would lower our standard of living.

Temptations for misuse: Moral hazard, to borrow and not repay. To not lend due to adverse selection issue.

Grudem's last couple chapters deal with attitudes of the heart and world poverty. The best solution to poverty is enterprise-- which requires property rights and incentives. Businesspeople should not feel guilty about business, since it's God-glorifying, and we should therefore see more businesses opened, preferably in locations of poverty where those are needed.

Criticisms of this book I anticipate relate to the environment and how educated people can be about where their resources are going in our current market system. For example, while creating an iPhone may be God-glorifying, the elements that make up the microprocessor come from places like Congo where brutal wars are fought over the resources. Likewise with some of the food we eat-- the disconnect between what's on our plate and where it came from and how it was created, whether that's on-net positive or negative, should give us pause. 

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's short, and very useful. It would fit more into economics and does little to nothing to advance a theology of work.

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