Economics & Theology: A Conversation with Wayne Grudem

Unbelievable?Recently I had the privilege of taking part in a an episode of the UK podcast ‘Unbelievable?’, hosted by Justin Brierley, in which I discussed theologian Wayne Grudem’s new book on solutions to global poverty with Wayne Grudem himself. (Thanks to Justin for having me on the show). The podcast is now online, here. A special welcome to anyone visiting my blog for the first time, having heard the podcast – be aware that my blogging is both sporadic and diverse, but I hope you find something worthwhile!

The conversation with Professor Grudem gave me an opportunity to explore the intersection of theology and economics – a particular interest of mine – in a way that I haven’t for a while, and so I thought some follow-up blog posts might be in order. In my review of Professor Grudem’s book for the Bible Society I was only able to scratch the surface of these issues; in addition, some of Professor Grudem’s responses to my criticisms on the podcast were, I think, insufficient.

Continue reading “Economics & Theology: A Conversation with Wayne Grudem”

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When Economics & Theology Don’t Mix: A Review of ‘The Poverty of Nations’

This piece was originally published by the Bible Society of Australia‘s Eternity Newspaper. You can read the original post here.

A 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.

The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable SolutionTheologian 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.

Continue reading “When Economics & Theology Don’t Mix: A Review of ‘The Poverty of Nations’”

Development and the Church Part II

Know Hope

Know Hope

In an earlier post (Development and the Church Part I) I talked about my experience building houses in a village in rural Cambodia as part of a church ‘mission trip’, and posed the question: as a Christian, was it worth it?

My answer is a pretty simple ‘yes’. The reason is the particular shape of Christian hope.

Christian hope is based on Jesus’ resurrection: a real, physical resurrection to a new kind of life. The resurrection means that the new creation Christians are looking forward to has already begun in the present. As such, our hope is not simply for the future; it is a hope which makes a difference in the present. Tom Wright explores this idea and its implications much more eloquently than I:

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it. And precisely because the resurrection was and is bodily, albeit with a transformed body, the power of Easter to transform and heal the present world must be put into effect both at the macro-level, in applying the gospel to the major problems of the world.”

Because of this truth, the Church is called to get to work in the present, to give signs of this hope to the world:

“It [Easter] is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory, and that inaugurated new world, into practice.”

-Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope

Building in a Cambodian village

Building in a Cambodian village

Don’t misunderstand what Wright is saying: the new creation that Christians hope for will not come in fullness until Jesus returns. Nevertheless, in and through Jesus, Christians have overcome the powers of darkness, and so have the freedom to work for the good of the world. This isn’t an option for some Christians who are interested in development, social renewal, medical aid; it’s part of the calling of the Church. Wright goes on to say that the Church should pursue justice, beauty and evangelism as an anticipation of the future we wait for; tangible signs of what is to come as we wait for it. They are part of our proclamation, so that the world might know hope, as found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is also, I think, worth pointing out that the works of hope we undertake in the present aren’t simply a sketch of something for the future. Rather, as with Jesus’ resurrection, what we do in the present will last into the new creation. Revelation 21, speaking about the city of the new creation, announces that “The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. They will bring the glory and honour of the nations into it” (21.24-26). What happens in this world is not nothing. Christians know what future is in store, and it guides our actions in the present, while we wait. On Christan hope, theologian Jürgen Moltmann says this:

“In its eyes the world is full of all kinds of possibilities, namely all the possibilities of the God of hope. It sees reality and mankind in the hand of him whose voice calls into history from its end, saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new’, and from hearing this word of promise it acquires the freedom to renew life here and to change the face of the world.”

-Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope

What precisely will last into the new creation from this one, I do not know. I’m open to suggestions! But one thing seems clear: the mission of the Church is to bring hope to the world, doing so always in the name of Jesus Christ.

Development and the Church Part I

“The very hardest part of economic development is getting the first foothold on the ladder.”

Jeffrey Sachs

PART I of II: Development

I’ve been interested in development and foreign aid issues since my penultimate year in high school. When I first travelled to Cambodia in 2006, my interest was shaped very tightly around justice (it still is); however, I had very little knowledge of the ins-and-outs of development. I knew that the disparity in wealth and social capital between rich West and poor Global South was terribly injust, and I was convinced that good global citizens (or just human beings; and especially Christians!) needed to act politically for change. However, I didn’t really know how the change I was involved in agitating for was being made.

By 2009, I have significantly deepened my knowledge of development issues. It is with these new eyes that I was able to observe the work of NGOs and churches in Cambodia over the last two weeks.

In The End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that extreme poverty (usually defined as living on US$1.25/day) results from the ‘poverty trap’. It’s not that people in this situation are incapable of improving their lives; rather, outside factors prevent them from doing so. These may include health, geography, and climate, as well as structural and social injustices, such as trade barriers, political oppression, and access to energy resources and markets. These factors mean that those facing them cannot get their feet on the ‘bottom rung’ of the ‘development ladder’; they can’t take the first steps necessary to improve their economic situation.

When these factors are mitigated, however, economic development can take place, and often does so rapidly.

“The very hardest part of economic development is getting the first foothold on the ladder.”

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 24.

As such even the depths of poverty are not without hope.

The houses in the village we built in.

The houses in the village we built in.

The houses we built to replace them.

The houses we built to replace them.

Standard practice for Tabitha, the NGO we were working with, is to leave the villages they work in to their own devices for a full year after building. This avoids the impression that the NGO is telling the villagers what to do, when the whole idea is that the resources given are owned by the families, to do with as they please. It is also simple good developmental practice. The houses we spent two days building are the ‘first rung’ which enable poor, rural Cambodian families to get a start up the ladder of economic development.

I got to see this up-close in Cambodia. Last time I was over there, we went into a village, built houses, and left. This time, we travelled directly from the village we built in to see another which building had taken place in the previous year. The contrast was incredible. Because the families were able to stay healthier in a house that was larger and elevated out of the water during the wet season, they had been able to work more consistently and put more of their earnings into diversifying and expanding their crops. They had installed large ponds which collect water to be used during the dry season, begun harvesting enough rice to sell (rather than simply feed themselves), and had even built extensions on their new houses!

Houses built a year ago

Houses built a year ago

Pools for holding water

Pools for holding water

Rice is left standing for about three weeks.

Rice is left standing for about three weeks.

Thus the great excitement for me on my second visit to Cambodia was to see that development works. It is possible (indeed, it is relatively easy) to vastly improve the lives of those living in extreme poverty simply by working with them to give them a ‘leg-up’.

For Christians trying to live Christianly in the world, though, these questions remain: Was it worthwhile for a group of Christians to assist in this work as an expression of mission? Development works to alleviate the present suffering of the poor, and to improve their standard of living; is this a valid concern for Christians? Almost everyone would agree that such work is ‘good’; but should it simply be a concern for individual Christians with a particular interest, or a part of the mission of the Church as a body?

These are the questions I will consider in Part II.

God at work in Cambodia

No deep reflections here; just an update with some things to praise and petition God for!

1. Visited the urban slums of Phnom Penh with TASK, a partner of TEAR NSW. Their work teaching Cambodian parents to care for children with disabilities has been challenging the karma-inspired attitude that sees many Cambodian disabled children killed or abandoned. Some families have become Christians through learning that there is a better way; a way if hope and love for their kids.

2. Three members of our party found out yesterday that our tour guide in Siem Reap has been attending a Christian church for the last year. He is attracted to Christianity because Christians bring schools and sanitation to Cambodia. He has been given a bible, and is reading it to learn new ideas. Pray that Sameth will meet Jesus in those pages and in those he meets at church!

3. Great stories about Jesus appearing in miraculous ways and leading people to faith. A woman and her two daughters in Phnom Penh became Christians, but were scared of what their husband/father would think. He returned from military duty early, saying he had seen a man in a dream who had said ‘Don’t go out on patrol today; go home to your family’. His colleagues were killed by a landmine that day. He returned home, and while watching the Jesus Film pointed to Jesus and said ‘That was the man in my dream!’ The whole family are now professing Christians.

God the Father, Son and Spirit. Perfect unity in distinction. A real joy to see him at work!!!