“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… [and] God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:1, 31, emphasis mine). Encapsulated within these two verses is the whole of the creation account, and God’s evaluation of it. We find that no less than seven times does the text communicate to us that God’s assessment of what He had made was definitively “good.” (see v. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The term “good” (Hebrew: tob) is primarily used in Scripture to communicate the moral value of a specific person(s), object(s), or idea(s) being examined (i.e. the tree of the knowledge of good and evil– there is a moral contrast between the two). In this sense, morality is objective, absolute, and determined by God.

There are also instances in Scripture where the term “good” is used to express the rationale of an individual or idea, without specifically representing God’s standard of objective moral goodness. This can be likened to how a professor may make certain discretionary remarks before having his students read the opinions expressed by an extracurricular author. They usually read something along the lines of, “These articles present the opinions of the article’s author and are not included here as fact, but instead to stimulate critical thinking on important issues.” These statements are meant to convey the idea that what you are about to read does not necessarily line up with the philosophies, ideologies, or teachings of this particular institution. Unfortunately, when we come to various accounts in Scripture we are not greeted with such discretionary remarks. Instead, we are to recall the objective nature of God and the absolute standard of truth/morality (as revealed elsewhere in Scripture) and compare individual accounts, interactions, and decisions expressed in the Bible with those foundational standards. The Bible is authoritative and true in all that it presents to us, but that does not mean that it will not, at times, place the errors of individuals on display. To put it another way, the account itself is entirely factual within its historical setting, yet the views and opinions expressed by the characters do not necessarily express the views and opinions of the Author.  

Take for example the account of Abraham and Hagar, the servant of Sarah, in Genesis 16. Here we find that certain doubts have crept into the patriarchal family (specifically Sarah), and they are considering ways to “help” God fulfill His promise to them. We all know the story, Sarah pitches the idea to her husband, Abraham heeds the words of his wife, and the result is a new line of descendants in the Abrahamic lineage through Ishmael.[1] As a further result, this creates tension between Sarah and Hagar, as Sarah becomes filled with jealousy toward Hagar. In counseling his wife, Abraham makes the following statement. “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” What follows is an example of Sarah doing what was “good” in her sight, and she treated Hagar with cruelty. Now we must ask, was what Sarah considered “good” inevitably what God considered good? The answer is an astounding “no.” Yet, this account is included, not to express God’s standard of objective goodness, but to show how God’s standard and man’s standard can stand a world apart from one another. Nevertheless, there is only ONE absolute standard.

Now, after having explored that rabbit trail, you may be asking, “how does all of this tie into the question of economics as a moral science?” On the surface, it may seem to be irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Yet, I would like to argue that it is entirely relevant. I say this for three primary reasons (yet further implications could be derived).

  1. The creation account brought into being every product and byproduct of reality. For example, God created the product of trees. From this, we have obtained access to numerous byproducts (i.e. houses, tables, bookshelves, paper, etc.). While these byproducts were not necessarily included within the original creation (i.e. God did not specifically manufacture houses), they are implied and, I believe, intended within the creation of the product. In like manner, God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:27). As such, man is a rational, moral, and creative being. One of the implications of this is that with the creation of man (product), there is also the inevitable (and intended) forthcoming of political systems, governments, creative processes (i.e. manufacturing), and economic decisions (byproducts).[2] All of these institutions are the outworkings of the image of God being expressed through the faculty of man.
  2. Also important to note is God’s definitive assessment of all that He had made. “Behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31, emphasis mine). Thus, a moral assessment is made on the product of God’s handiwork, and I would argue that this assessment included the byproducts that would come from this original creation as well. Also to be noted, with man being created in the image of God, it was implied that man would create (just as God created). This too is good. In this creative process (of taking from God’s good creation and cultivating it into something new), the image of God shines through man brightly! With God’s positive assessment of his creation, we have a foundation for objectively understanding the nature of man’s work—and behold, it is good!  
  3. After God created man in His image, He gave to man the dominion mandate. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…” (Gen. 1:28). This, like the Great Commission of the New Testament, becomes man’s “marching orders” as he ventures off into God’s new creation. It is a mandate to cultivate the good products that God has made and use them to further display God’s glory in the world around him.[3]

Having established these three implications, we can begin to develop ties between things like economics and morality. Let me explain. As implied earlier, when man cultivates a tree (or a group of trees) he can make a house. The tree, the house, and the work of cultivation are, in and of themselves, good, as they display the glory of God in the creative process. That being the case, what happens when man seeks to cultivate himself? (Bear with me here). He certainly does not get a house. Man is not a product that can be broken down and manufactured into something else. That is simply not the way that we were designed. So while the cultivation of man will not produce a home, it may instead produce a homeowner’s association. The homeowner’s association is a byproduct of man’s moral, rational, and creative faculties. It is a means by which the glory of God is displayed.

In like manner, economics is a good and intended byproduct of the creation of man. The fundamental questions that economics seeks to answer (WHAT to produce, HOW to produce, and FOR WHOM to produce) are all questions derived from the moral, rational, and creative faculties of man (which, in turn, originate from God). Such a system can only exist because man exists. It is that simple. Furthermore, as a system that relies on the faculties of man for its very existence, economics MUST be at its core a moral science. Given man’s moral nature, any system that exists as a product of man’s existence will inevitably deal with morality. It is wired into the fabric of our reality.

Here is where we run into a dilemma. As we have already established, creation is good, the byproducts of creation are good, man (as a product of God’s creation) is good, and the work that man does in cultivating God’s creation is good. Yet, from the moment that Adam sinned and was deported from the presence of God, a new reality began to set in for mankind. On that day, something that was not good entered into God’s good world, and the ramifications of this have spread worldwide. The fall has greatly shattered the image of God within man[4] and, as a result, our moral, rational, and creative functions have been tainted with sin. So while man can be said to be “good” in the sense that he is a creation of God, it cannot be said that man is “good” as a moral, rational, creative, or spiritual being. Sin has corrupted every aspect of our moral framework and we are now filled with self-interest, idolatry, selfishness, favoritism, and pride. In turn, the systems that stem from man’s moral, rational, and creative faculties will likewise reflect the stain of our sinful nature as well.

It is because of the fall that we can have accounts like that of Sarah and Hagar (see above). Sarah may have done what was “good in her own eyes” when dealing with Hagar, but that does not reflect the objective standard of goodness as God has defined it (and it is to that standard that God will hold each one of us). Sarah inevitably dealt with issues of morality in this account, yet her assessment of what was objectively good and what was merely good for her were two different things. The same can be said when we are dealing with economics. Does man manipulate the economic system to his own advantage and do harm to other image-bearers? Absolutely! Yet he never does so without grappling with basic forms of morality in the process.

I will conclude with a thought from Romans chapter two. Here the Apostle argues that even the Gentiles who do not have the Law of God are held accountable to the Law’s objective standard. Why is this? Because God has specifically wired man in such a way that His Law interacts with our moral framework (conscience). This is the reason that we are often put into positions of choosing one thing over another. In this choosing process, we are ultimately declaring that the choice made is better than the choice foregone. Subconsciously, we are doing this constantly! And in many (if not all) of those instances, we are choosing between two (or more) things of varying moral degrees. This is true even of those who deny the reality of God’s standard of morality. We simply cannot help weighing one thing against the other and making a judgment call on its worth, value, morality, or goodness. When we do this, we are borrowing from God’s standard whether we know it or not! Thus, even the unsaved who operate in the economic system are constantly basing decisions on some form of morality or another. They may come to the wrong objective conclusions, yet they still seek to use the same formula!

[1] (The following is NOT meant to be an interpretation of the passage, but rather an observation that demonstrates basic principles of economics).

As a brief side note, this whole account demonstrates basic economic principles. The lack of an heir in the Abrahamic lineage creates a sort-of scarcity, contributed, in part, by the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. In order to reconcile this scarcity, Sarah, who is, according to God, supposed to bring forth an heir for Abraham, is substituted for Hagar. Thus, Sarah becomes our opportunity cost in this equation. In the eyes of the patriarchal family, this seemingly increases production possibilities in that the promise of God can move forward without complication. The problem is that rather than introducing an efficient means of production, this decision actually detracts from the promise of God and causes Abraham and Sarah to produce less than their potential. As Abraham and Sarah theorized the possible outcomes of their decision, they did so with the assumption that the only changing factor would be the means of producing the heir (Ceteris Paribus). In reality, this decision set in motion a whole world of changes and new possibilities that they did not account for.

[2] I would readily agree with the statements of Beisner when he asserts that, “The center of economics’ root system consists of our understanding of the nature of man and of sin, justice, and grace.” This is a fundamentally true statement given that the science of economics is a byproduct of man’s moral, rational, and creative faculties as a creature made in the image of God. (See, E. Calvin Beisner, “Recovering the Moral Foundations of Economics.’

[3] Contrary to the views of some, “subduing the earth” or “taking dominion” does not imply careless/reckless ownership. We do not have the right to trash the planet in the name of “dominion.” Instead, God has given us stewardship over His creation, and we are to cultivate its resources responsibly and utilize them with care.

[4] Note that I say “shattered,” rather than destroyed. There are some who assert that the image of God has been completely lost in man, but I would strongly disagree with this assessment. Scripture certainly does not warrant it. While the fall did distort man in every way, it did not entirely rid man of the image of God. Thus, in salvation the image of God begins to be fully restored in man through the process of sanctification, and will be fully restored when Christ returns, and we are glorified.