Richard Turnbull: The moral challenge of the market

(This is a transcript from a speech given at Exeter University, 2016)

Doing God’s business: The morality of the market: a Christian view of the market economy, government and social justice

Introduction: The moral challenge of the market

Thank you very much indeed for the invitation to lecture this morning on a Christian view on the market economy. I am myself qualified in economics and spent just under 10 years in the City of London as a Chartered Accountant. I am also ordained and have spent most of the last 20 years as a Vicar and then the Principal of a theological college in Oxford before becoming the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics in 2012.

The financial crisis of 2007 onwards was not the first such crisis, or even the first time a bank has collapsed, but the resulting recession and crisis was deep not least because it was seen that some combination of greed, abuse of power and trust as well as the development of increasingly complex financial instruments all contributed to the collapse. The outcome was not just a financial crisis, but a crisis for capitalism itself. How then might Christians respond? What can Christians say about the market economy and what about the role of government and the quest for social justice?

So, Irving Kristol:

‘Capitalism survives because it still satisfies the basic, simple impulses of ordinary men and women. It will not continue to satisfy them however, without the bedrock provided by the Judeo-Christian tradition….It gives certain answers to ultimate questions that modern philosophy or modern thought of any kind cannot provide..’[i]

Michael Novak, in his 1991 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, wrote the following:

‘’Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history, none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life – lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine thinkable, enlarged the range of human choice – as democratic capitalism.’[ii]

He goes on to define democratic capitalism as one essential defined by a market economy and a free society. It is difficult to contest that without the market economy we would have made significantly less progress in the fight against poverty (UN Millennium Goals) and we would be living in societies that were substantially less free. However, there is a problem. Perhaps the problems could be summarised as follows:

  • The problem of greed (eg monopoly)
  • The morality of profit (eg exploitation)
  • Accumulation of wealth and increased inequality
  • Economic growth or sustainability


In the USA, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted the 2013 Economic Values Survey, with the following findings:

Reasons cited as to why capitalism is working:

Encourages Personal Responsibility – 33%

Provides Equal Opportunities – 29%

Promotes Individual Freedom – 24%

Creates Wealth – 11%

Other – 3%


Reasons cited as to why capitalism is not working:

Encourages Greed – 34%

Does not provide Equal Opportunities – 28%

Creates Poverty – 14%

Creates Inequalities – 11%

Other – 13%


So, 48% of Americans cited just two reasons why capitalism was not working, that it generated greed and created poverty. Perhaps it is not surprising then that Pope Benedict, in Caritas in Veritate argued that ‘in terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow.’[iii] This in itself raises all sorts of questions about freedom, taxation, the family and so on.

So, there is the dilemma for us. Does the market economy create wealth or poverty, does it generate opportunity or greed? What I want to show is that for the Christian, wealth creation is actually a spiritual imperative, but that it carries awesome responsibilities and consequences. Only when we have had this discussion can we effectively debate how social justice is to be met, the role of government and so on.


Wealth creation as biblical imperative

The basic reason why wealth creation is a biblical imperative is that it is a creation mandate. What we mean by a creation mandate is something which is set out by God as part of the principles of creation for all people for all time. So let me illustrate and explain.

In Genesis chapter 2 , verse 15, we are told the following; ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.’ This short verse has enormous implications. The command to work precedes the entry into the world of sin and the fall. In other words part of God’s intention for every person is that they work, they harness the resources of the world in producing goods and adding value. This basic requirement also has implications for any government programmes that encourage dependency rather than work.

Reinforcing this verse, there is a remarkable description of what God has provided for those who work the land. In describing the Garden of Eden and its setting in vv8-14 of Genesis 2, we read that God had provided trees and water but that also between the head waters of the rivers which flowed out from Eden God provided three precious materials – gold, aromatic resin and onyx. So, in other words, alongside the command to work is the provision of precious stones, metals and resins all of which can be used in the production of bowls and plates, jewellery and medicines. In the creation narratives God provides the command and the materials. Hence the creation of wealth is a spiritual imperative.


Entrepreneurship as call and gift

The second area to explore is that of recognising that economic creativity and innovation (or entrepreneurship) is in fact both a gift and a call from God. We see this illustrated first of all in Exodus, especially, chapter 35. After the people of Israel had escaped from Egypt, Moses received instructions for the construction of a tabernacle to provide the focal point of worship. In Exodus 35:30, he points to one individual, Bezalel, and asserts that God has filled him, ‘with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts,’ referring to his ability of working with gold, silver and wood in order to prepare the tabernacle. It is interesting that the materials mentioned are so similar to those referred to earlier in Genesis. Moses adds, in verse 34, that the Lord had also given him ‘the ability to teach others’.

We see here the coming together of crucial theological and economic concepts. Notice the centrality of the flourishing of the human person, who has been endowed with skill, but note also two other crucial economic concepts, growth (that is, adding value through the combined use of resources and skill), and human capital, that is education and the training for the acquisition of such skills.

The divine economy is an enterprise economy and an entrepreneurial one. We would do well to honour, rather than disparage, those that create wealth and take entrepreneurial risk. Not only is the divine economy an entrepreneurial economy, it is also a place of call. In other words Christian men and women do not work in this part of the Lord’s vineyard either by accident or simply as a means to an end. Rather they are called by God to work in commerce, law, banking, manufacturing, service industries, IT and so on. It is a basic, but fundamental concept. If we understand that our business and commercial life is part of our call from God to work in his economy for the common good of all then we at once begin to deal with the ethical issues which arise. Recognising that our call is from God will help us make good business decisions, good ethical decisions, and act responsibly and well. This of course goes right back to Luther, but also note this from the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

‘The vocation of the businessperson is a genuine human and Christian calling. Its importance in the life of the Church and in the world economy can hardly be overstated. Business leaders are called to conceive of and develop goods and services for customers and communities through a form of market economy. For such economies to achieve their goal, that is, the promotion of the common good, they should be structured on ideas based on truth, fidelity to commitments, freedom, and creativity.’[iv]


The market and its morality

So, we have seen that wealth creation is a spiritual imperative but that it carries spiritual responsibility. Let me now turn to the market itself, its strengths and weaknesses from a Christian perspective.

A market is essentially a place where buyers and sellers come together to exchange. The market through its pricing mechanism allocates resources. The origins of the understanding of the modern market economy lie with Adam Smith and his publication of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. Smith viewed the market as the best place to achieve the allocation of scarce resources mainly through the division and specialisation of labour. Importantly, Smith built upon a prior work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). He assumed a natural propensity to barter together with an essential selfishness in humanity. Crucially the effect of the economic mechanism is to bring about, not only the satisfaction of others, but indeed the welfare of all, by each serving their own interests. In this way a greater public good is achieved. This was the essence of the ‘invisible hand.’ The question was, if the hand existed, to whom did it belong?

The paradox in the classical model between the pursuit of self-interest on the part of individuals and the overall achievement of the public good could only be explained by the providential design of those laws of economics which brought this about.

Historically, evangelicals have, generally, held a positive view of wealth creation and enterprise and then adopted the voluntary principle, which we will come to, in how they have sought to deal with poverty and disadvantage. Market principles and virtuous compassion have defined this approach. Indeed because the market is part of God’s provision, behaviour, compassion and responsibility are crucial components of a Christian vision for society. The evangelical thus views the market not simply as a system of resource allocation, but also as a place where discipleship is exercised or even learned.  From this comes ethics and behaviour. When the creativity, innovation and dynamism of the market are combined with the voluntary principle the result is a radical conservative approach to the challenges of poverty.

So, the leading evangelical, Thomas Chalmers, in the second volume of his Natural Theology, said that the market ‘strongly bespeaks a higher agent, by whose transcendental wisdom it is that all is made to conspire so harmoniously and to terminate so beneficially.’[v]

Two particular problems arose from this model, namely, the impact of sin and the possibility of inequality. Sin, as we have noted, distorted the market, through the sinful acts of the market’s participants – unethical behaviour. In economic terms this led to disequilibrium; in Christian terms to poverty and suffering.

The Christian idea of the market is built on:

  • Positive mandate to create wealth
  • Private property
  • The family as the basic economic unit
  • The elimination of poverty
  • Accountability and judgement as part of economic life
  • Moral behaviour is essential to the functioning of the market and to economic justice


The quest for social justice

How then did these early evangelicals respond to poverty?

The answer lies in the acceptance of the classic economic model alongside the voluntary principle, which involved both the rejection of state intervention and the development of voluntary organisations, which in turn provided an appropriate setting for the exercise of philanthropy – the market plus the voluntary principle.

For Chalmers government intervention was not only unnecessary but also arrogant as it sought to usurp the Creator from his rightful position. In addition any extensive role for the state had the effect of taking over those things which truly belonged in the heart – the moral sentiments. As he put it, ‘we cannot translate beneficence into the statute-book of law, without expunging it from the statute-book of the heart.’[vi] Compulsion would lead to the ‘extinction of goodwill in the hearts of the affluent and of gratitude in the hearts of the poor.’[vii] Chalmers shows great Christian insight at this point. He understood that the nature of the human person not as a depository of ‘rights’ but as an individual with a will, a conscience, indeed, a moral personality. The intervention of the state had led to duties being replaced by rights, to dependency rather than freedom.

In the changing industrial landscape of nineteenth-century Britain a wide spectrum of voluntary societies developed, ranging from visiting societies, savings clubs, loan societies (an early example of micro-finance) and poor relief societies to schools and both social and evangelistic missionary societies. The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury was one of the great pioneers of the voluntary society. These organisations were neither new nor exclusive to the nineteenth century but there was then a significant expansion. They were characterised by local control and independence from state aid. The attraction of the voluntary society for the advocates of political economy (‘the market’) was that it enabled the proper provision of social welfare to be kept separate from state intervention. It also allowed a distinction to be drawn between deserving and undeserving poverty. The voluntary visitor operating in a local area was quickly able to ascertain the degree to which applicants themselves were at fault. This more easily enabled relief to be temporary rather than becoming enshrined as a legal right; state aid depersonalised poverty relief.



The market economy is not perfect. All Christians will share a concern about the reduction of poverty. The evangelical response to poverty depends upon a dynamic understanding of God’s providential provision of the market together with the practical application of the moral sentiments to compassion implanted in the heart. The need for compassion and care is a result of sin which leads to behaviour which distorts the market. So evangelicalism’s embrace of the ‘invisible hand’ is neither an unthinking nor an unlimited adoption of the free market. Rather it is an acceptance of the nature of divine provision with the application of Christian moral values. The voluntary principle lies at the heart of the thesis because without it government becomes all powerful, the opportunity for Christian morality and discipleship in the market place is lost and, hence, God’s good and gracious provision is denied. What is more, government fails on account of locality and relationships, both of which evangelicals have viewed as essential. Indeed government may induce poverty and increase dependency rather than reduce it; hence self-help is also an evangelical principle. In addition to that, government, or perhaps we should say, excessive government and centralisation are in fact dangerous not only to economic freedom but also to the very Christian voluntary societies which lie at the heart of the response to poverty. This has been well articulated by Professor Roger Scruton:

‘The first act of totalitarian governments is to abolish the charities through which people help themselves, and which are the main obstacle to creating the total dependence of the citizen on the State.’[viii]

Thus, the threat is not only to economic and religious freedom, but in essence to freedom itself. So, for the evangelical, there will be a real emphasis on the market, on self-help, and on incentives to work; but alongside that lies compassion on the ground through the voluntary principle. In this way innovation flourishes, philanthropy is encouraged, compassion is exercised and the gospel maintained.


[i] Irving Kristol, in ‘The Disaffection from Capitalism and Socialism,’ quoted in Griffiths, Morality and the Market Place.’

[ii] M. Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, p13

[iii] Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, p49

[iv] Vocation of the Business Leader, Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, paragraph 6

[v] Ibid., page 137

[vi] Chalmers, Natural Theology, volume, in Works, page 128

[vii] Ibid., page 130

[viii] Professor Roger Scruton, Charity, Conservative Home Thinkers Corner, 11th February 2012

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Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.