Justin Thacker

The Poverty of Nations by Grudem / Asmus: A Critical Review – Part 2 Theology


In the previous part of this extended book review, I highlighted what I perceived to be some historical and economic inaccuracies in The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus. In this second part, I want to address their use of scripture and the theological conclusions they reach in light of scripture. I have already indicated that I do not share their neo-liberal economic outlook – that unlimited free trade is the only way to economic prosperity – but I also do not share their theological interpretation of a range of passages they cite. I have posed these in terms of a series of questions:

Theological question #1: Should economic growth trump economic equality as a goal for Christians?

Thoughout the whole of chapters one and two of their book, Grudem and Asmus repeatedly make the claim that the goal to which we should be working is that of economic growth. Indeed, the whole of their argument – that unlimited free trade is the way forward – is dependant on agreeing that continual economic growth is the desired outcome. They write, “If we want to solve poverty, the correct goal is that a nation continually produces more goods and services per person each year.” They specifically advance this goal in contrast to those who would seek equality of economic opportunity or outcome as a purposeful ambition. “Making equality a more important goal that overall economic growth is a mistake for a government, because merely distributing the same amount of wealth in different ways does not change the total amount of wealth a nation produces each year.” Indeed, they go on to describe these two approaches as “opposing goals” citing a series of communist countries as evidence that seeking equality is necessarily wrong.

In light of recent literature on this issue, it would be possible to argue on purely economic grounds that they are mistaken but my interest in this section is the way they use the Bible to justify this claim. The first point to make is that they ignore or downplay many of the biblical texts that suggest the precise opposite, that equality (at least of opportunity, if not outcome) should be our goal. They dismiss the Old Testament Jubilee principle (Leviticus 25) by indicating that it was only meant as a temporary measure, they ignore the early Christian community practice of holding all things in common by pointing out they still retained some possessions (Acts 2:44; Acts 4:32) and they simply ignore Paul’s very clear instruction regarding aid in a time of famine that “the goal is equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14). Given that this verse, and the whole passage in which it sits, is concerned with a redistribution of wealth and stands in direct contradiction to their stated goal, we might have expected them to treat it with some diligence. But that is not the case. Perhaps even more troubling is that when they do cite other relevant passages, they do so only to dismiss them. They write, “When a man who has two shirts gives a shirt worth $13 to a man who has none, this is a good deed that genuinely helps the poor man (see Luke 3:11). But it does nothing to increase the GDP.” I think it would be perfectly possible to make an economic case that they are mistaken in this analysis, for one would could argue that giving gifts builds trust and co-operation, both of which are essential for economic productivity. However, even if we concede that there is no increase in GDP, the fact remains that we are still commanded to do it, that is, give to the poor (Deut 15:11; Prov 19:17; Matthew 5:42; Matthew 25:35-40 etc) We do not just ignore scripture because it fails to support a predetermined goal that we have gleaned from some 19th and 20th Century economists. What this passage in fact demonstrates is that the goal of continually increasing GDP may not be the goal to which Christians should aspire.

Now at this point, Grudem and Asmus might argue that we should separate what we are required to do as individual Christians – that is, give to the poor – from what our governments should do – that is, not pursue any wealth redistribution measures. But if that is the case, then Grudem and Asmus need to tell us why on so many other issues they advocate a biblical model for how governments should behave but on this specific point it is acceptable for national strategy to be at odds with the biblical model. Of course, it is the case that the precise role of governments is not the same as that of individuals. However, on this issue we are talking, not about details, but about the broad direction of travel: is economic prosperity with no attention to equality the correct goal, or is equality the goal? The biblical mandate is clear, that in the words of Paul “equality is the goal”, and while I do not think the Bible tells us which particular tax regime should be enacted to reach that goal, or how we precisely balance equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, it does make it clear that is where we should be headed. Grudem and Asmus would disagree.

Theological question #2 Is private ownership of property a biblical principle?

Perhaps inevitably, private ownership of property becomes, for Grudem and Asmus, a key linchpin of their argument. Moreover, they state time and again that this principle is one that is warranted by Scripture. “The teachings of the Bible clearly support a system of private ownership of property, reflected in the command ‘You shall not steal’ (Ex 20:15).” This verse seems to be the main one that Grudem and Asmus use in support of their notion of private ownership but a brief consideration will show that their interpretation is far from obvious. Firstly, the focus of the command is not property rights but our actions as agents. The emphasis is on what we do, or don’t do – to steal or not to steal – it is not on who owns what, or the nature of such ownership. Consider for a moment a situation in which nothing is owned privately, perhaps because all property is owned collectively. Such a situation could have occurred if the early Christian community had continued their practice of refusing private ownership (Acts 4:32) and extended this to everything they had. In such a situation, would this command still have weight? Of course it would. Someone could still ‘steal’ from the community. Yet, according to Grudem and Asmus, this could not occur as the command only has weight in the context of private ownership of property.

Moreover, their strong affirmation of private property rights is directly contradicted by the clear statements from Acts that “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). Grudem and Asmus dismiss this by pointing to the way in which individuals in the community continue apparently to own some possessions – they went to their own houses for instances. However, this is to misunderstand the interrelation of stewardship and ownership. The general thrust of scripture is not that we are owners, but rather stewards of that which God has given us (Psalm 24:1). At times, the authors acknowledge this but then conflate stewardship with ownership. “According to the Bible, everything on earth ultimately belongs to God…(Ps 24:1). We own what God has entrusted to us as ‘stewards’ of that which is ultimately his.” This is to miss the point that stewardship is a fundamentally different concept to ownership. Both have a responsibility towards their possessions, but while an owner’s responsibility is only to themselves, a steward’s responsibility is towards their master’s wishes in regard to their possessions. Perhaps this distinction is brought out most clearly in regard to the author’s attitude to the planet. They clearly believe that property “belongs” to us as individuals and this would seem to extend to our natural resources as well. Having emphasized that our relationship to the planet is to be one of subjugation and dominion, they write “Recently, in more developed countries such as the United States, national and state governments have placed increasingly harsh restrictions on the use of some resources. For example, vast amounts of oil are available…but they cannot be tapped because of government laws that bar access to them.” In saying this, they repeatedly state that the purpose of the earth is to bring “benefit” and “well-being” to humans. Such an approach is in stark contrast to the biblical motif that the purpose of the earth is to bring glory to God (Ps 19; Job 38-39; Romans 1:20).

If your primary framework is one of ‘ownership’ then it is no wonder the earth’s resources become something you own and which you manipulate for your advantage. But if your framework is one of stewardship then the question you ask is how does my use of this resource please my master. That surely is the approach we all need to take. The Bible then does not affirm private property in the absolute sense which Grudem and Asmus advocate. It does affirm that we are stewards of our possessions, but such stewardship confers on us a responsibility to use those possessions in whatever way pleases God, rather than to treat them as our belongings which we can use however we may choose.

Theological question #3: Is wealth creation really a biblical principle?

Repeatedly, Grudem and Asmus inform us that wealth creation and a desire to create wealth are biblical principles that we should follow. They have to say this because their whole argument is contingent on continual economic growth being the right and proper goal of all nation states. Speaking of contemporary consumer goods they write that “it is right for us to pursue them, with gratitude to our wise creator for making such an excellent, resourceful earth and giving us the wisdom to develop its resources and flourish as we live on it.” Noting the Bible’s numerous warnings about the pursuit of wealth, they go on to say, “Here we must distinguish between, on the one hand, ‘the desire to be rich’ and the ‘love of money’ that Paul is talking about, and on the other hand, a desire to work hard, do well, and better one’s economic situation, which the Bible never condemns.”

What makes this comment on scripture particularly odd is that it comes almost straight after a section where they quote Proverbs 23:4 “Do not wear yourself out to become rich; be wise enough to restrain yourself.” It would seem from this that Grudem and Asmus would draw a distinction between ‘doing well and bettering one’s economic situation’ which is OK and ‘becoming rich’ which is not. In their footnote to this passage they indicate that the distinction lies in “working hard to the point of great weariness”. In other words, it is OK to work hard to become wealthier as long as you don’t work so hard you exhaust yourself. The problem with this interpretation is that there are just so many passages where the Bible does condemn the unhealthy acquisition of wealth.

Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you….You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. (James 5:1-5)

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income (Eccl 5:10)

Grudem and Asmus acknowledge many of these passages but they seem to miss their import. Money and wealth are such dangerous, indeed tempting, goods that as Christians we should only seek them if our goal is clearly for the benefit of others. It is for precisely this reason that when Grudem and Asmus tie a desire for wealth creation to a strong notion of individual property rights and an overall goal of increasing prosperity that they propose a thoroughly unbiblical cocktail that justifies acquisitive greed. That may not be their intention, but it is the result. Wealth creation can be good, but only if it is for the sake of some wider purpose beyond the luxurious living of the person who created it. It is for precisely this reason why we need a system of checks and balances and yes, redistribution of our wealth, to ensure that it does not become the snare that it has for so many. So, while I can agree with Grudem and Asmus that wealth creation in and of itself is not a bad thing, I fundamentally disagree that creating it for my own benefit is a noble and Godly calling. It’s value lies in the benefit it brings to others, in particular, the global poor and that is why in the absence of such a purpose these authors have effectively argued for a biblical justification of greed.

I will conclude by returning to something the authors say right at the start of their book. “To anyone in a leadership role in a poor country, the message of our book is this: there is a solution to poverty that really works. It has been proven again and again in world history. And it is supported by the moral teachings of the Bible. If this solution is put into place, we are confident it will lift entire nations out of poverty…We are asking you to consider this solution for your own nation.”

I am not a leader in a poor country. I am one of the wealthiest individuals in the world as are Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus. That is not because I own a large house or have a large income (by Western standards), it is because I am sitting right now at a desk, on a chair, with a laptop in front of me, clothes on my back, food in my stomach and water in my veins. And that is the problem with this kind of recommendation. When one is sitting comfortably, when a daily struggle for survival is not our lived experience, then it becomes very easy to imagine that poverty is the result of the poor and that if only they worked hard like us and believed the same things as us then they too would be rich. I suspect many Christian leaders in poor countries would be outraged by the hubris of two wealthy Western individuals telling them how to lead their country, and in light of that, I conclude with something Samuel Escobar said in 1974 to the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation. It seems to me that his message has not quite got through:

“Christians, evangelicals in particular, oppose the violence of revolution but not the violence of war; condemn the totalitarianism of the left but not that of the right; speak openly in favour of Israel, but very seldom speak or do anything about the Palestinian refugees; they condemn all the sins that well-behaved middle class people condemn but say nothing about exploitation, intrigue, and dirty political manoeuvring done by great multinational corporations around the world.”

Note: If you are interested in these issues then Cliff College is likely to be running a new masters unit in mission and globalisation taught by Ruth Valerio, Marijke Hoek and myself. The unit will be available as part of our masters course, but also as a stand alone week of teaching for those who would simply like to hear the teaching. For more details contact j.thacker(@)cliffcollege.ac.uk

04/11/2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment