Lyndon Drake: The Task of Modern Economic Ethics

As I suggested in my previous article, my preferred way to read the biblical texts is to identify in them a particular kind of method, rather than precise prescriptions. In this article, I will suggest some specific aspects of method in modern, theologically-informed economic ethics.

Above all, I suggest that we give attention to human persons and to the institutions they construct, not just to systems. If it is at all legitimate to identify a common thread in scriptural texts, it seems to me that there is an idea of human dignity that has been compelling to readers of the scriptures down the ages. We see this reflected in a valuing of human life, and in a preference for certain kinds of freedom of choice — especially freedoms that include opportunity and risk while moderating harm. It is also reflected in an ideal of a modest egalitarianism of outcomes and a tendency to see baseline equality as a worthwhile ideal rather than a radical flattening of all distinctives. I also see an appreciation for humans as creative agents in the world. There is a common idealisation of being able to do new things and to grow beyond what already exists.

An example of this is the portrayal in Gen 4.17–22 of family groups developing new areas of industry. Cain is described as the first builder of a city, Adah of the developer of nomadic life, Jubal the inventor of musical instruments, and Tubal-Cain the inventor of metal tools. In the narrative, this is an ascription of creativity to human beings, and an idealisation of the development and growth of human endeavour. This view of humans as creative agents, who bring about growth in the world, is a particular kind of anthropology. It is also, though, a particular kind of economic view that does not envisage the existing state of the world as the sum total of all that can be. The economic world in which biblical humans exist is not a zero sum game.

Along similar lines, there is an attentiveness to human dignity that we can detect in the theological motivations that biblical texts present for prescriptions around poverty and its relief. The dignity of humanity is what can be damaged by economic hardship and it is often this attentiveness to dignity that has seemed distinctively interesting to modern readers.

An example of this is the characteristic use of the familial term ‘brother’ (ach) in Deuteronomy’s laws. This word is used in the motivation provided for generous lending practices: ‘If there is among you anyone in need, a brother in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy brother.’ (Modern translations often translate the word as ‘Israelite,’ ‘member of the community,’ or ‘neighbour,’ no doubt from a praiseworthy desire to avoid gendered language.)

Some commentators have incorrectly seen this as a reference to a household economy, in which people only lend money to direct family members. In some cases, this has even led interpreters to draw the quite incorrect conclusion that Deut 15 is advocating for a ‘relational’ economy in which people only transact with those they are kin or at least friends with. (Note that the word is a kin word, not a word for a friend or a neighbour.)

The law is, of course, not intended to prescribe lending practices between biological siblings. In fact, throughout Deuteronomy, ‘brother’ is used to refer to people who are not biologically related, to encourage a different way of engaging. It is quite normal for human beings in our less-inspiring moments to treat people they do not know and are not related to less well than we treat our close friends and our family members. Throughout Deuteronomy, even the king is encouraged to see ordinary citizens as ‘brothers’ — that is, to consider people in the ancient Near East who would normally be viewed as socially and legally inferior as people of equal status.

The same is true in Deut 15. It is entirely common for wealthy people to see in our wealth a confirmation of our own excellence and superiority, and to look down on people in less-fortunate economic situations. In recent years, Western society has developed a new attentiveness to these kinds of dynamics around ideas of power distance and ‘other’-ing of groups and individuals. That this attentiveness has developed in the West is a testament to the enduring power of the idealisation of some kind of equality of dignity and personhood in Deuteronomy.

In biblical scholarship, this idealisation is often referred to as ‘fictive kinship,’ which is the idea that we should treat people as if they were our biological relations — even though they are actually not. The idealisation is so productive because in our better — I would say, in our more human — moments, this call to treat others with the kind of dignity we ascribe to those we know and love most seems persuasive to many people, including the wealthy.

In fact, I would suggest that a truly ‘biblical’ economic ethics is not particularly prescriptive around specific economic practices. I do not think we have much to learn from the details of ancient Near Eastern loans in order to reform modern lending. Nor do I think the various practices of land redemption attested to in the scriptures offer us a useful template for modern land tenure. Instead, an attentiveness to the human elements of the story is more productive, and I would argue, a more robust reading of these ancient texts. Ancient readers, I am certain, read in those texts other distinctives than modern readers have tended to, and we can attempt to follow their patterns of reading by noticing the aspects of the texts to which they gave priority.

This suggests that a biblical economic ethic will be creative and constructive. It will recognise the enduring power of the ideas about humanity, dignity, and creativity that have meant that the scriptures continue to captivate modern readers. From those ideas, and from studying carefully the ways in which biblical texts present distinctive aspects of common ancient Near Eastern economic practices, we have the opportunity to develop entirely new economic systems and practices which reflect the same kinds of modifications of modern economic systems and practices.

Biblical economics were not static, in the sense that we cannot reduce the study of economic aspects of biblical texts to a timeless prescription of an economic system. The biblical texts present a range of idealised economic practices, but in those texts there is never enough detail for a systemic economic prescription, nor have the texts endured because of a compelling handbook for national social and economic structures.

Instead, there are common threads, of virtues that tend to produce dignified human societies and beneficial outcomes for human persons. These threads are moral in type, not technical. The technical prescriptions that we can encounter are interesting not because of their specific technical aspects, but because of the moral and ethical tendencies they display, and because of the creativity they reflect.

In fact, biblical economic rules participate in the general optimism of the Bible about growth and the likelihood of surplus and improvement in the human condition. They are worked examples of the ways in which human creativity can build not only material artefacts, but a better society. The Bible’s economic aspects offers us a window into a point in time in a story which is still being written — and still ought to be written, with optimism and creativity.



Dr Lyndon Drake has recently completed a DPhil at Oxford on theology and economic capital in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He also has degrees in science and commerce (Auckland), a PhD in computer science (York), and two prior degrees in theology (Oxford), along with a number of peer-reviewed academic publications in science and theology. From the Ngāi Tahu Māori tribal group, he currently serves as Archdeacon of Tāmaki Makaurau in the Māori Anglican bishopric of Te Tai Tokerau. Lyndon has written Capital Markets for the Common Good: A Christian Perspective (Oxford: 2017, Oxford Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics). He is married to Miriam with three children. Until 2010, Lyndon was a Vice President at Barclays Capital in London.