Dr. Millard Erickson – Can Theology Learn From Economics?

C. Edwin Gheens Lecture Series 2008: Theology Needs Help – Lecture Three

Through the generosity of the family of the late C. Edwin Gheens, a series of special lectures is given each year in the several fields of theological studies and related areas.

Today’s lecture on what theology can learn from economics concludes a three day-four lecture (counting yesterday’s luncheon) series by Dr. Millard Erickson. I pray that I have been faithful to his lectures in my attempt at “live-blogging” them for those who were not able to be in attendance. Now, on to the message.

I wonder why God created us such that economics is so important. I would understand if biology or chemistry was as important as economics, but I often wonder why it is so important. If you are involved in ministry of any sort, then I am sure you have heard the following remark: “If we just had more money…” It is no wonder that Jesus spoke so frequently about money.

Before we get any further in our discussion today, I want to reemphasize that our theology must at all times be based on the Bible. However, we are finite humans trying to understand God. Thus, I think we can pull from these other disciplines in order to make our theology as biblical as possible. With that in mind, I think there are several things we can learn looking at economics. I would like to share six areas where I think our knowledge of economics can help our theology.

First, economics helps us to understand the reality of globalization. Two hundred years ago a community was mostly defined as being within earshot of the church bell. You would eat the food grown in that community, buy and sell within that community, and more than likely marry someone in that community. That all changed with the advent of the railroad system. As travel became more and more easier, our trading began to expand as did our sense of community. Suddenly, one could travel much further distances in the same time span as they once were able.

The 1920’s and 30’s saw the breakdown of isolationism. We wanted to stay out of everyone else’s business. In a sense, we thought we were protected by our two moats: the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. That all changed after Pearl Harbor. What changed however was not just our political or military mindset, but our economic and theologic mindset as well.

Theologically, we were forced to deal with the fact that there were other ideas that were just as biblical as ours. For example, in Zimbabwe, they have a different understanding of church in that the first person who leaves after the service will shake the hands of the pastor and then form a line behind him. Everyone then shakes everyone else’s hand and once the last person has gone through, they gather in a circle and sing a hymn and then they leave. Talk about expressing one’s theology! We have much to learn from a globalized church and should seek correction from others’ practices.

Second, economics can help us to understand that we too easily overemphasize our own time; i.e., the present day. We like to thin that we are in a new era and that the “old rules” no longer apply to now. If you can remember back to the late 90’s and the sudden popularity and wealth brought on by the .com stocks and how everyone thought this was the “new era” of stocks, you will have an idea of what I mean about overemphasizing our own time. You see, back in the 20’s there was this “new era” of stocks that was extremely popular and made some people a lot of wealth. Had the experts remembered their history, the bottom falling out in the first couple of years of the 21st century would not have been as bad as they were.

The idea that our age is different is not unique to our age–it is a problem that goes back to the early church fathers (and beyond). Take for example, the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge. Many like to believe that Christians are just now battling over this doctrine; that is, until they look back into the history of the church and see that this battle has been going on for two thousand years. Likewise, post-modernism comes from a long history of “new thoughts.”j

Third, economics can help us to better understand the effects of mass psychology. We can look into economics and see the influence of popular developments whereby people are swayed to join the “new wave.” In economics this is called momentum investing where you buy high and sell higher.

We see this theologically whenever we buy into a “new wave” of doing theology or a “new way” of doing church. We get swept up in the enthusiasm of the latest craze only to discover a short time later that we are left with nothing. Our problem is that we all want to have fresh and novel ideas when it comes to theology.

The conservatives are at a disadvantage. How many ways can you say the same old thing? You can come up with some new stuff and say that Jesus was married or that He had children with Mary Magdalene. That will sell books, but we can never sacrifice truth for creativity. “Dinosaur thinking” is mocked by the modern thinker. We are in trouble when we suspend our rational, critical thinking.

Fourth, economics can keep us from a tendency toward short-sightedness. In the 1800’s the latest craze for investors were plank roads. These were supposed to make travel much easier than the “current” system of dirt roads. However, critical questions were not asked. The investors were told that the roads would not need any maintenance work for 10 or 15 years. However, they needed work after only four. Another problem that was overlooked was the horses’ hooves getting stuck between the planks thus breaking their leg.

Theology can learn from this in that we ought to be more careful to look for any possible difficulties with one’s theology. For example, in the early 20th century, liberal theology was taking hold of Christianity. However, by October of 1929, the Great Depression began and then World War II began. Liberal theology had no answer for either of these two devastating occurrences. Suddenly, the goodness of mankind espoused by the liberals was unable to explain the forces involved in both events.

Fifth, economics can help theology from failing to distinguish the business from the product. Companies who thought their business was making buggies were unable to adjust when carriages became the new mode of transportation. On the other hand, those who knew there business was transportation had no problem adjusting with the changing times.

In theology, we sometimes think of our business as the style of worship or the form of our ministry rather than the gospel message. We must be careful to never let our styles be our business. Our business is always about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are we sufficiently sensitive enough to realize that some ministries are designed to carry on with the business of the gospel regardless of the changing styles?

Finally, economics can help those who are ridiculed for challenging the consensus. In 1929, there were some cautioning that the stock market was due to crash soon. They were ridiculed because they were not swept along in the enthusiasm. Similarly, those who stand against the latest fads of theology, because they are not rooted in the Bible, receive much the same ridicule.

It is not easy being a contrarian. By that I mean going against the latest fads of theology. I believe in the validity of the statement that “when all are thinking the same, no one is thinking.” If you are going to stand alone against popular theology changes then I would suggest having a stronger relation with the Lord. This is necessary if you are to discern truths from fads.

I would like to conclude my series with the following: something must change. The discoveries in these disciplines we have discussed the past few days are always changing. The Bible does not change. Be sure to never change what is unchangeable. Thank you for your hospitality. God bless.

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3 Responses to Dr. Millard Erickson – Can Theology Learn From Economics?

  1. Seems to me that’s one of those latter day trends – reducing the ideas of others to straw man sound bites.

    I’m not aware of any progressives – they may exist, but I haven’t happened to read or meet any – who think humanity is simply “good” and whose faith resides in humanity and not God.

  2. I think there are plenty of liberals today who would claim faith in “God” but when you press them far enough, they prove to be very man-centered. I would argue that UCC in general is a “christian” denomination that is very much in this way of thinking.

    Terry Delaney’s last blog post..A Rebellious Teen Already?

  3. “We must be careful to never let our styles be our business. Our business is always about the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    I enjoyed this article and loved this quote! The threat from preaching the gospel of a ‘stylized Jesus’ is great. The danger is that we do not introduce people to the Jesus of the Bible. However, as point 5 was made, being a contrarian and refusing adaptation can be traditionally arrogant when change does not oppose or offend scripture. The challenge is learning to preach ‘this same Jesus’ to people who do not have a world-view identical to that of the folk in Acts.

    Brandon Burley’s last blog post..Overcoming: The Craving

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