What Bearing, If Any, Does the Christian Doctrine of Providence Have upon the Operation of the Market Economy?

Article excerpt


Christian economists Robin Klay and John Lunn have come up with an original and provocative argument that divine providence guides and directs the spontaneous orders of modern market economies. (1) Jewish and Christian scriptures seem to offer "little guidance about how such markets should be regarded" (542); therefore, Klay and Lunn decided to turn their attention toward the traditional doctrine of providence and have proposed that the contemporary market economy may be understood as one way through which God provides for the world.

In response to their article, two questions arise. First, have the authors fully understood the traditional Christian doctrine of divine providence? Second, have their attempts to apply this doctrine to modern economic theory and practice been successful? In addressing both of these questions, I contend that although Klay and Lunn provide a fresh look at a traditional doctrine, their arguments, from a theological perspective, are seriously flawed.

The most immediate problem is that Christian talk about God's providence cannot be based upon nor identified with a human theory, construct, or ideology. (2) According to Karl Barth, if the language we use about God is not grounded in the revelation of God in the Incarnation and Trinity, then it is merely human talk about God. As such, it probably says more about human thoughts, wishes, and projections than it does about God. For Barth, the theological foundation for divine providence must be grounded in God's being in himself (in se), as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the immanent trinity), and God's activity (ad extra) for others (the economic trinity). (3) Because God, in God's own being, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and because God freely chooses to be not only for himself but also for us (pro nobis) in Jesus Christ, we cannot identify divine economy with a human model based on self-interest and competition. God, after all, does not create, preserve, nor govern the world in order to gain something in return. Moreover, God's being and activity is not dependent upon creatures, nor can God's creatures give to God anything that God does not already possess. On the contrary, God is perfectly complete in and of God's own being and yet freely and unconditionally chooses not to be simply for himself but for others in order to share the abundance of God's trinitarian life. Hence, for Barth, at the very core of Christian theology (and indeed of any Christian understanding of both the social and natural sciences) is the notion of free and unconditional divine self-giving--a notion that provides a normative foundation for all human action and relationships. (4)

The Doctrine of Providence in the Christian Theological Tradition

In introducing the Greek word, oikonomia, Klay and Lunn rightly point out that the patristic understanding of God's relationship to the world can be seen as the regulation of God's household (economy), which controls, arranges, and disposes of all things according to God's designs and purposes. Although Aristotle had used this same term to describe the "overseeing of a large farm or household," in the early church, the term referred to God's administration and management of God's household, especially with respect to the distribution of grace or of alms to the poor. Unfortunately, Klay and Lunn fail to develop this specific interpretation, one that is at the very heart of patristic teaching. (5) Instead, they focus on the general arrangement of God's household, as though grace and the care of the poor were but peripheral to the traditional doctrine. For the tradition, however, it is precisely God's concern for the needy (the poor, the sick, and the sinner) to which God's providence and the work of human beings are primarily to be directed.

Klay and Lunn rely heavily on Barth's theology of providence, yet they seem to be unaware that he places the ethical concern for "the other" at the center of his treatise and, precisely for this reason, vehemently opposes any general view of providence. …