Cost of living crisis: A Biblical Theology of economics and poverty

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I’ve been writing a few articles to get us thinking about the cost of living crisis and how we respond as Christians.  Today I want to step back and look at the big picture of how the Bible approaches questions concerning economics and poverty. 

Our starting point is this diagram from Christopher Wright which picks up on the big themes of Biblical Theology.[1]                                                  

Adapted from Wright, Christopher JH, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP, Nottingham: 2004), 19.

The story of the Bible is the story of a God’s people living in God’s presence, in the place (land) given to them experiencing God’s provision and blessing.  This begins with God’s creation of the world in Genesis 1-2 and forming human beings from the earth who are commissioned to fill and subdue the earth.  Sin brings the penalty of death on people and leads to the land being subject to death and decay, as humans fill the world with evil, God responds with an act of judgement and de-creation through the flood. God’s place is narrowed into the ark.  Later, God calls Abraham and promises to bless him with land (Canaan) and people (descendants). The people of Israel are called and chosen as God’s people. They experience hardship, exile and slavery in Egypt, are rescued by God and brought into the land. There they are given a choice between life/blessing and death/curse. Sadly the choose the latter leading to exile again.

By the Gospels we find the people back in the land but living under Roman occupation. Jesus the Messiah is identified with God’s people as “Son of God” but is also Emmanuel, God with us.  Frequently, the position of God’s people is described as “In Christ” and Jesus uses temple imagery to describe his own atoning work suggesting that we may consider him as the focus and fulfilment of all three themes, God, People and Land.

It is the “land” theme that helps us to think about economics but we should also pay attention to the social responsibilities that come with being God’s people.[2]

Adapted from Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 183.

Land points us to God’s goodness and provision this is seen in the following ways:

  • God evaluates his creation as very good.[3]
  • In blessing and commissioning humanity, we see God’s expectation that the land will be sufficient to sustain humanity.[4]
  • God provides richly for Adam and Eve with every fruit bearing tree in the Garden of Eden. [5]
  • After the Flood God provides food, both meat and vegetable.[6]

Provision is also dependent upon responsibilities which God gives to humanity too. As well as the general responsibility for ruling over creation in Genesis 1:26-28, God specifically appoints Adam to tend and care for the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:15.

God’s intention for creation is that it will provide sufficiently, richly and abundantly for all people.  The good creation is more than sufficient to meet our needs. It is fair to say that even after The Fall, it is still more than capable of doing so. There should be no shortages. However, the result of the Fall and the curse experienced does bring challenges and limits.  The ground is cursed, it produces weeds and thorns, the work involved in cultivating it and producing crops is now a hard sweat filled struggle.[7]

When God calls the people of Israel and gives them a land, we get a bit of a glimpse again of what God’s whole creation is intended to be for all people.  The land that the people enter into is one described in luxurious terms and “flowing with milk and honey.”  Just as Adam and Eve are placed into an already cultivated garden, the Israelites possess a land where cities are already built and fields already planted.

Along with God’s gracious provision, we again see human responsibility required too.  There is an expectation that “there shall be no poor among you.”[8]  This arises not just from rich provision but also because of a number of laws including:

  • A requirement to leave the corners of the fields unharvested for gleaners[9]
  • Kinsmen redeemer laws providing for widows.[10]
  • Expectation that all share in the harvest together at the great festivals.[11]
  • Sabbath and Jubilee laws meaning that debts were cancelled, slaves set free and property returned at 7 year and 50 year intervals.[12]

Now, we need to be careful in our application of such themes to today.   Two errors in particular have arisen in modern times. First there’s Theo-nomism which seeks to apply Israel’s laws directly and literally to modern secular states like Britain and the US. Second, Prosperity teaching picks up on the promise of blessing and warning against curse for Israel and applies that individualistically to Israel. 

There are three problems here:

  • The promises applied individualistically were in fact made corporately.
  • Israel fulfils a unique role as God’s people  rather than as a secular state.
  • The application of the OT to God’s people now is to the church through and in Christ. The New Testament’s immediate emphasis is on spiritual and eternal blessings rather than material and temporal ones.

However, we should also remember that there is the promise one day of physical resurrection and new creation.  God’s people can look forward to the joy of Eternity. The problem with Prosperity Gospel isn’t that it sees physical blessings where there are none but that it prioritises these and because of impatient selfishness offers a limited version to a few people to enjoy on their own now. God’s purpose rather is that we will enjoy greater blessings, together, in eternity.

Additionally, we see examples in the New Testament of how the church does give its attention to meeting physical and immediate needs. In Acts 2:44 we see God’s people willingly selling their possessions and holding their finances in common.  In Acts 6, deacons are appointed to ensure those in need are provided for. In 1 Timothy 5:1-16, instructions are given for the care of widows.

These arrangements arise from two things rooted in the church’s identity as the family of God. First, our love for God and part in his family is meant to be evidenced by our love for one another.  Second, I would also argue that this evidence also acts as a foretaste or pointer to the life to come in glory.

Therefore, a concern for the well-being of others and  a desire to see the vulnerable and needy protected and provided for arises naturally out of Biblical Theology and an understanding of the Gospel. 

[1] Adapted from Wright, Christopher JH, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP, Nottingham: 2004), 19.

[2] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 183.

[3] Genesis 1:31.

[4] Genesis 1:26-28.

[5] Genesis 2:16.

[6] Genesis 9:3.

[7] Genesis 3:17-19.

[8] Deuteronomy 15:4.

[9] Leviticus 19:9-10.

[10] See Ruth 4:1-10.

[11] E.g. Deuteronomy 16:9-11. 

[12] Leviticus 25.

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