Monday, November 26, 2007

Why has the Western Economy Flourished?

There are a lot of opinions about why the West has flourished economically as well as culturally. Some people would take the view that our successful capitalist economy is based upon selfishness, materialism, and a lack of regulation. Others would claim that it is based upon wise planning and regulation. I would maintain that in fact all of these reasons are counterfeits of the real reasons—pale shadows of the real reasons for the success of western economies.

The first real reason for the success of Northern European and American western economies is the Christian view of vocation that came out of the Reformation. Michael P. Schutt points out in his new book, Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession, the Protestant Reformation renounced the Catholic view that only “holy” activities like being a monk or priest were true callings of God, and that everyone else was a spiritual second-class citizen. Instead, the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Turretin recognized that every person has a calling from God to love their neighbor and provide for their neighbor, themselves, and their family through work. The Reformers recognized the dignity of all lawful human work whether it was making shoes, farming, raising livestock, teaching, writing, printing or building. God has structured the universe in such a way that the way in which we are meant to prosper is not by seeking our own good but by seeking the good of others. This is not a generic impossible seeking the good of others, but a practical day-by-day using of our gifts in seeking the good of others. So if a person is a gifted shoemaker, or a gifted painter, or a gifted carpenter, he or she does well to use skills and gifts for the benefit of neighbors by practicing a trade in an honest, generous, and hard-working way. He or she benefits because people will like his or her services and pay for them. He or she can provide for family, both children and the aged or infirm. He or she can then use some money to give to the poor and to the work of the church. Those who provide for others best also tend to prosper the most. It is true that bad things happen to good people, and that because of unpredictable changes in technology, economic problems, or demand, even good, well-meaning, hard-working people can end up out of work or in poverty. But in general those who discover what they do well for others and do that well for others also do well for themselves and their families. If you find out what people need and determine a way to meet that need effectively, the end result will be the best meeting of your own needs. By contrast, if you selfishly seek to try to maximize gain for yourself, you may have gain in the short run by tricking people into paying you for your less than effective goods or services, but in the long run such fraudulent services do not survive or prosper—and should not. The view that selfishness is what drives the economy is a counterfeit of this idea that helping others is what drives the economy. If it really were selfishness, then skillful fraud would be just as valuable as skillful production. But obviously it is not. That actually leads us to the second element in the success of economies: the “rule of law.”

The rule of law is an old idea that can be found in some of the writings of the ancient Sumerians, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine of Hippo, John of Salisbury, Henry De Bracton, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and others. This is not the idea of having “rules,” it is the idea that law reigns. The real notion of the rule of law is that God has provided a divine order to govern the universe. This divine order is reflected in just human laws that partake of that order and mediate it to human societies in a way that does not require all good or punish all evil, but that does provide a practical guidance for just social interaction. Laws should keep people from stealing, murdering, defrauding, cheating, and failing to keep their business-related promises. Divine order is more important than the will of the individual human law makers or individual governments. As a result, they are subject to “the rule of law” rather than the laws being radically subject to their personal temporary will. Under the notion of the rule of law, a just government is not allowed to will things contrary to the divine order or the common good or right reason. While these concepts have not always been followed in the West, they have been followed more here than anywhere else. The result has been that while there is still injustice and crime in our societies, there is far less injustice, corruption and waste here than you have had in most historical societies in most of time. The rule of law cannot function through government alone. It requires people who are basically law abiding and basically committed to living civilly righteous lives. It is for this reason that the West today is beginning to lose some of its historic edge as our people lose their commitment to just laws and to self government. This is also what makes it difficult to impose the rule of law in other countries. Unless the people are willing to be basically law abiding and to respect each other’s lives and property, no reasonable amount of force can make them do so. The kind of oppressive force needed to make them do so also distorts the market, drains resources, and prevents the kind of economic flourishing we have ultimately seen in places like the United States and England. The counterfeit of this view has been the notion that wise economic regulation has saved the West. In truth, Adam Smith was probably right that the choices of individual people are far better guides for economic planning than the decisions of even the wisest and most gifted central planners. Central planning usually results in problems because no mortal human being can foresee exactly what people everywhere will really need or how those needs can best be fulfilled. Instead, central planning tends to overcorrect for market trends. There are reasonable arguments to be made that centralized planning is not what saved America from the Depression, but rather the Second World War. It was actually the change from the relative free market policies pursued by Calvin Coolidge to the centralized planning advocated by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt that not only turned a minor recession into the Great Depression but made the Great Depression last as long as it did. The attempt at economic controls by Richard Nixon is in all probability responsible for the economic problems faced during the Ford and Carter administrations. The return to somewhat lower taxes and somewhat freer markets under Ronald Reagan produced the renewed prosperity that America has seen since. This is not to say that a government should be truly laissez-faire. The rule of law is necessary to keep businessmen honest, to prevent the triumph of fraud and selfishness rather than the triumph of hard work and gifted giving. But preventing crime is not the same thing as centrally planning the economy. Accountability for evil is not the same as deciding for people what goods they must choose.

A third reason for the productivity of the western economy has been the creativity of the western peoples. The types and varieties of music, pictorial arts, foods, types of clothing, styles of architecture and styles of furniture created by western artisans, entrepreneurs, and inventors and made available in the western economies is nothing short of dazzling. This has made life richer and more interesting here than anywhere else in the world. Counterfeit principle for this creativity is the belief that through advertising people can and should be made to want to buy things that are not of good quality, are not beautiful, and are not actually needed in order to support manufacturing establishments that make such faulty and defective goods. While advertisers do undertake such attempts and while they do occasionally have some success in this way, it is really necessary to produce a good product in order to really sell that product over the years. Some sellers have tried to deal with this by making products that are addictive or by using associations in advertising with addictive activities and their products. But this is really cheating at the way God created the universe to work. It isn’t benefiting anybody to give them an ugly, tasteless product and make them think they want it by associating it with pictures of attractive women. This new tendency to cheat in this way is causing great damage to our society and in the long term will cause damage to our economy. A return to genuine service and wholesome informative advertising is really needed. The difficulty, of course, is that we probably don’t want to give the government the power to limit speech by regulating advertising. In the end, they are likely to end up regulating good speech and allowing the bad. What is really needed is a decisive grass roots movement that if people advertise in improper ways or sell bad products, we won’t buy them. It’s entirely possible to turn off your television and to stop giving in to bad products and bad advertising. There is no reason why people shouldn’t do so. If these strategies stop working, most people will stop pursuing them.


The blog zunguzungu has taken issue with this post by claiming I am giving Max Weber’s theory of the protestant work ethic without giving credit to Max. I certainly do not intend to do so. I agree with Leo Strauss’ critique of Weber that Weber does not seem to understand what Calvinist Protestant Christians actually believe. Calvinists believe the assurance of salvation comes from faith in the teachings of the Bible about Jesus and his person and work, not from our own wealth or poverty. Poor people are often more easily saved than the rich. People can also be blessed by obedience to divine principles without being elect at all. In fact, as Jesus said, the Children of this age often seem cleverer than the Children of God.

What I can say since I wrote this post is that I have started the book "The Victory of Reason" by Rodney Stark. Stark’s arguments have convinced me that the prosperity of the west started well before the reformation, during the so called dark ages. Stark agrees that freedom, inventiveness, science and the western idea of the rule of law all come from Christianity as a reasonable faith.

I still stand by my belief in the principle that God created the world to work in such a way that meeting the needs of others is usually the best way to be blessed. I think this is Biblical and backed by Christian teachings such as the prayer of St. Francis.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sola Scriptura

At the link, a brief but good post by Chris Neiswonger on why the Bible is our authority for evaluating the beliefs of the churches and not the other way round.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Is Jesus Call to a Radical Lifestyle a Call to Pacifism Between Nations?

When I write or speak about what I consider a biblical approach to war, I oftentimes get comments like the one currently submitted with respect to my blog article “Are Christian Ethics Suicidal for Western Civilization” that make several objections to the Christian participation in war. First, they object that Jesus calls us to a radical lifestyle of peacemaking, non-resistance and powerlessness. Second, that those who believe in any kind of just war theory are articulating what they want rather than the biblical message; and third, that peacemaking and non-resistance would be an effective strategy if actually followed by large numbers of people. I reject all of these arguments.

Concerning this truth that Jesus does call us to a radical lifestyle, the advocates of non-resistance are incorrect in their interpretation of what that lifestyle is like. They base their opposition on only a handful of Jesus’ sayings and upon a tenuous interpretation of Jesus’ life and mission at His first coming. It is not based upon the bulk of Jesus’ teaching or upon the overall context of biblical teaching as a whole. In addition, the pacifist argument relies on an interpretation of the early church and its activities that flows from the church’s status and reactions to that status rather than from the church’s actual doctrinal teaching. Jesus did say, “blessed are the peacemakers,” but there is no reason to suppose from biblical models of acceptable statecraft or from the teachings of Scripture or from practical experience that genuine peacemaking comes through powerlessness and non-resistance. Policemen are “peace officers” and “peacemakers.” Their purpose is not to bring war to society, but rather to achieve and maintain the peace. They do so through persuasion, but also through the limited application of force and through the deterring threat of force. Some will say that no country should be a policeman to the world, but as I will discuss herein, I believe that all nations are effectively policemen for their neighbors. Jesus did say that blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, but He did not say that it is appropriate for us to allow innocent victims to be persecuted by oppressors. Likewise, Jesus did say that when someone strikes us on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek, but He never said that if we see someone assaulting someone else, we should allow the assault to continue. Throughout the biblical text a distinction is made between avenging and defending oneself and avenging and defending others. The Bible constantly encourages an attitude of non-resistance and forgiveness rather than revenge-taking on our own behalf as individuals. But it likewise encourages us to band together for the defense and the vindication of others against those who attack or oppress them. David did not defend himself against his detractors, but he did allow his son, Solomon, to bring them to justice. Romans 12 tells us not to take vengeance, but Romans 13 tells us that the state is God’s servant to take vengeance. The biblical account did encourage the ancient Israelites not to build chariots, but it never encouraged them not to have a defense. The kings of Israel who were described as the good kings are also noted for their additions to the defenses of Jerusalem and for the skill and ability of their warriors. The biblical position is personal non-resistance and forgiveness, but corporate defense.

The advocates of pacifism look to Jesus’ own lifestyle as an argument for their position. They note that Jesus did not resist the Romans and did not resist His crucifixion. In response to this I would say first that you must look at the context of Jesus’ mission at His first coming and second, that you must look at the whole of biblical teaching. Jesus’ mission was to live a perfect life on our behalf, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise again from the dead, and to commission the early church and tell them to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. It was not His mission to establish a political kingdom or to destroy the Roman Empire. Jesus’ specific mission at His first coming required a passive response. Despite the talk about how oppressive the Romans were, the truth is that the government of Rome was not particularly oppressive or particularly unjust compared to the majority of governments in the history of the world. There was really no particular reason for justice to require Jesus to lead a revolt against Rome. There is no question but that the ancient Israelites resented Rome’s presence for ethnocentric reasons, but those reasons do not provide an adequate basis in justice or necessitate an armed revolt against an established government. The real determining factor was God’s purpose and mission for Jesus’ life on earth, not the political, economic context into which Jesus came. Whenever we lose sight of this, we distort the Scripture and what God is trying to communicate to us through it. Second, we have to look at the whole of the biblical account. A quick look at the passages prophesying the Second Coming of the Messiah clearly shows that Jesus is no pacifist. When He returns, He will make war upon His enemies who have gathered together and made war against His people. Some choose to allegorize or spiritualize these texts, but there is no compelling reason to do so. In addition, God not only describes Himself as a man of war throughout the Bible, but acts as one on many occasions. It must be remembered that genuine Christian ethics are based upon the nature of God Himself. We call things good because they are like God and in accord with His plan and order. We call things bad because they are a deviation or twisting from God’s order or plan and divine nature. If God Himself acts as a warrior and a vindicator of the oppressed, then it cannot be evil to do so. If we are to be imitators of Christ, we would need to be imitators of His fullness rather than merely of His actions in one context. Some will respond to this that God’s perfect knowledge allows Him to do this justly, while for us such justice is impossible. It is true that due to our human failings and imperfection we often make mistakes when seeking to live up to God’s moral rules. But that does not mean that we are not to follow God’s moral law or to seek to conform to His plan, order, and nature as best we can with the power of the Holy Spirit and with fervent prayer. God has put us in life as a moral adventure. He does not wish us to bury our talents in the earth and to do as little as possible so that we can avoid the risk of wrongdoing. Rather, He seeks for us to go out and engage the world. When we do so, we will make mistakes but by the grace of God we will be attempting both to will and to do His good pleasure.

From the structure of ethics in connection with the nature, order and design of God, it does seem to be the case that, as Aristotle thought, vices generally come in pairs rather than singly. While bloodthirsty war-likeness is indeed a vice, it must be recognized that there is a vice at the opposite extreme of virtue—the vice of not using force, resistance, or action when it is godly and appropriate to do so to rescue or vindicate those who are in distress. True virtue is to use force for the genuine benefit of others and for the working of justice, but not to use it to vindicate ourselves as individuals or to seek injustice. The main reason we do not seek to vindicate ourselves is that, as John Locke pointed out, we are singularly poor judges of justice where our own case is concerned. No just man acts as a judge of his own cause or an executioner of his own cause. It is for this reason that God ordained the existence of human governments and for which they are brought into existence. To then deny this function to governments is to break the divine order rather than to vindicate it.

Similarly, the early church did not seek to violently overthrow the Roman government, but sought rather to live peacefully within the Roman Empire. Some of the early church fathers encouraged Christians not to serve in the Roman military. But these teachings have to be interpreted in the overall context. There was no compelling reason for the early Christians to violently resist Rome. They were not commanded in any special revelation to do so and as a matter of practical wisdom, it would have been a failing effort. It would not have been possible or desirable for them to defeat the Roman Empire. As mentioned above, the Roman Empire was relatively just compared to other political orders. In limited times and places the empire did persecute Christians. That persecution did work for the spread of the Gospel in a way that unsuccessful armed resistance would not have done. However, had there been a large Republican faction within Rome that had wanted to defend and protect Christians; it would have been reasonable, had they had the effective means, to seize control of the Roman government in order to protect the Christians, as well as the religious freedom of all, and to make Rome’s order even more just. As for the instructions on membership in the military, the reason given for these was always to avoid the necessity of Roman soldiery to worship the emperor as a deity. Despite these warnings, we have every reason to believe that there were actually many Christians in the Roman military. The quick spread of the Gospel to far-flung Roman colonies like Britain was in all likelihood possible because of Roman legionnaires who were Christians bringing the Gospel to the farthest-flung military outposts of the empire.

As for the second major criticism, that the reason advocates of just war theory believe in Just War theory is because of their own internal desires and wishes, this is not really a strong argument. Such arguments are very popular today, but do not refute the underlying proposition when they attempt a deconstruction of the people who hold a position. C. S. Lewis has a wonderful critique of similar arguments in an article in God in the Dock entitled “Bulverism.” But then, besides being a bad argument, the charge is also not true either. All human beings inherently tend to desire peace and prosperity rather than the pain, suffering, risk, and threat that come from war. While there may be some people who think temporarily that they would desire the glory or adventure of war, they soon learn otherwise once they are provided with a taste of that terrible draught. I advocate the position I do because I believe it is biblical, not because it fits it with my personal desires or wishes. Indeed, I think extreme positions such as complete pacifism or complete “realism” are much more easy and comfortable for practical purposes than what I consider the biblical principled position that there are times when force is necessary and times when it is inappropriate. Decisions requiring judgment, wisdom, and discretion are rarely personally desirable, but they are the way the world usually is set up to work.

As for the effectiveness of peacemaking and non-resistance, I see none exemplified in the Bible or in history. It is true that martyrdom is sometimes effective though it is sometimes ineffective. The martyrdom of thousands of Christians in Tokugawa era Japan did not cause an explosion of Christianity in Japan, nor did the martyrdom of thousands of Christians in North Africa, Arabia, or Persia cause an explosion of Christians after the cataclysmic expansion of radical Islam after 600 A.D. Where are the Christians that Marco Polo met along the Silk Road through central Asia? Where is the explosion of the church caused by the persecution of Christians in Burma/Myanmar? Sometimes God uses our martyrdom to bring others to Christ. Sometimes it is merely a testimony against our enemies. Nowhere in the Scripture is it taught that states should become martyrs in the face of unjust attacks or that our state should allow unjust attacks against other states. This is sometimes an effective strategy against a principled dominantly Christian adversary. The United States was influenced by the non-resistance of Martin Luther King because it was a predominantly Christian country. Britain was influenced by the non-resistance of Gandhi because it still had the afterglow of centuries of Christian dominance (although the violence of Indian extremists didn’t hurt in convincing the British to leave either). By contrast, non-resistance if offered would be completely ineffective against Hitler, Stalin, or fascist Japan. Indeed, in the limited cases in which it was offered, it was infective. To say that if everyone was non-resistant there would be no war is merely to say that if we were all slaves, there would be no war because we would have one master. The problem is that that master would not necessarily be God. Just as God works through our words to spread the Gospel, so too He sometimes works through the acts of states and governments to bring justice both on an individual level and on an international level. While there have been cruel and terrible wars and bad results from wars, in many instances right has indeed made might and victories have occurred for physically weaker belligerents who have been spiritually stronger. Modern secularist historians comfort themselves in claims about the military prowess and economic power of the victors in such battles, but at the time the battles occurred it certainly did not seem like victory was such a foregone conclusion.

No, while God calls us to pacifism as individuals dealing with our individual interest, and while general pacifists no doubt mean well and are noble in their intentions, pacifism in just war is not a wise or biblical option.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Great Bioethics Article

At this link to the weekly Standard on line is a great article by Wesley Smith on the growing number of cases of people who have recovered or were discovered to be very much able to think after being diagnosed as as almost brain dead. Such people are regularly killed through withholding normal care like food and water. These examples show why that might not be as ethical a practice as commonly supposed. See

Some Good News on Iraq Christians

For his 11-1-07 post Cranmer has some very good news about Iraq concerning an improvement in the circumstances of Christians in Iraq, who have suffered much of late. Here is a general link to the site. You need to scroll to the date in question.

In the article are some excerpts from an interview with Christian and former Iraq Air Vice Marshal Georges Sada who reports: "If the Allies leave now, it will be a catastrophe. You must realise that Iraq is a democracy now for the first time ever. Seventy-one percent of the people voted. Eighty-eight women were elected. There are 275 seats in the assembly. This is better than the Congress or the Parliament in London."