“If it is to be governed essentially by the ground motive of the Christian religion, a scientific practice of economics should not be limited to the field of so-called economic policy. It needs to start with a reformation of the foundations of economic theory itself.”[1] So said Herman Dooyeweerd in addressing the Association for Calvinistic philosophy in 1946. In calling for a “reformation” of economic theory, he intentionally evoked the reformation of the Western church that began in the 16th century. But what would count as a reformation of economics, and should we wish for such a development? That is the focus of a new FiSch working group meeting this week.

There is a widespread sense that all is not well in economics, from corporate finance to everyday shopping. The concentration of wealth in the pockets of a shrinking minority has mostly been growing for the last 200 years or more,[2] the small decrease of the last 30 years now giving way to a renewed upward trend,[3] freshly globalised by such events as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. And while inflation is a perennial hardship for many, the current cost-of-living crisis brings renewed frustration. Many people think something needs to change in the teaching of economic theory itself.

There is, in fact, a growing set of initiatives to diversify economics curricula. In 2011, students walked out of a lecture at Harvard protesting that their neoclassical economics course perpetuated unfairness and instability in the outside world, and in 2012, students at the University of Manchester founded the Post-Crash Economics Society. These and other groups formed the Rethinking Economics network to bring ‘economic pluralism’ into economics teaching. And there is no shortage of alternative paradigms to set alongside the neoclassical school, including Marxian, Feminist, Behavioural, Ecological, Evolutionary and Institutional schools  – each with its own starting point, some more reformist than others.[4]

How about throwing a Christian economic paradigm into the ring? Here, the economics student might be forgiven for looking blank. But there is actually a rich legacy.  Contemporary economics – both the mainstream and the heterodox – owes much to Christian influences, although awareness of this is hampered because the neoclassical school takes an ahistorical approach, pushing courses in ‘history of economic thought’ out of university curricula. The prohibition on charging interest was not only a Mosaic commandment but persisted in Europe among Christians until the 16th century. Various labour reforms and regulations were led by Christian campaigners.  And the successful Jubilee Debt Campaign at the turn of this millennium, with its Old Testament imagery, was founded by the Christian academic Martin Dent and strongly supported by Christian groups.  But contemporary demands for curriculum reform seek big paradigms.  And the demand for ‘decolonisation’ of curricula is crucial in the case of economics, where international financial arrangements work to maintain the balance of power established by Western colonialism.  Could fresh Christian thinking contribute to spiritual reformation?

Attempts have been made in recent decades.  In the Kuyperian tradition, there are books such as Douglas Vickers’ A Christian Approach to Economics and the Cultural Condition (1982) and Alan Storkey’s Transforming Economics (1986).[5] Douglas Hay wrote Economics Today: A Christian Critique (1989), while Anthony Annett’s Cathonomics (2022) provides rich insights from Catholic social thought. But a successful Christian approach will need broad collaboration, and would point to new research and policy programmes, eventually bearing fruit in public life. 

The Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Economic Principles (FiSWEP) is being convened with this goal in view, and supported by the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology’s Economics Hub. Dr Robert Tatum, who convenes the latter and is professor of economics at North Carolina University, joins me in hosting a small group of Christian writers on economics to discuss their starting points and principles for the theory and teaching of economics. We are inspired by another writer on this subject, the late Bob Goudzwaard, whose books such as Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society (1979) have stimulated hope, scholarship and activism towards more just institutional economics.

The foundational reformation that Dooyeweerd envisaged calls for a deep understanding of created reality that grasps economic processes, relationships and norms within a Christian worldview and places their scientific understanding within a comprehensive philosophy. Besides such considerations as justice, charity and faith – perennial features of Christian approaches – we must pay close attention to aesthetic, social, linguistic and historical analyses. Far from seeking to deduce economic principles from the Bible, the call for Bible-reading economists is to broaden their engagement and open up their practice empirically. Perhaps new ‘Christian’ paradigms might emerge from this. Or existing paradigms might be built upon, following the “affirm–critique–enrich” approach advocated by Andrew Basden. The aim is not mere diversity but to enrich curricula and hence economic practices and social life in all its fullness. Surely this is the kind of reformation for which God calls us to work?

When scholars seek theoretical inspiration, God’s Spirit may move them in unexpected directions. I hope that we’ll have encouraging progress to report soon. Meanwhile, do join me in praying that theoretical progress will be to the glory of God and for the inheritance of Jesus Christ.

A longer version of this article appears in The Big Picture, Issue 10 (Trinity 2024), pp. 42-43

[1] Herman Dooyeweerd, “The Concept of Law in Economics.” Mededelingen van de Vereniging voor Calvinistische Wijsbegeerte (Association for Calvinistic Philosophy, 1946, tr. David Hanson).

[2] International Monetary Fund, “Introduction to Inequality” (2022). Accessed 2 Apr 2024, www.imf.org/en/Topics/Inequality/introduction-to-inequality.

[3] R. Riddell et al., “Inequality Inc.: How corporate power divides our world and the need for a new era of public action” (Oxfam International, 2024). DOI: 10.21201/2024.000007.

[4] See www.exploring-economics.org/en/orientation/#compare for a helpful comparison.

[5] A bibliography is available at https://allofliferedeemed.co.uk/economics/.

Header image: Logo for the Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Economic Principles, designed by Jordan Pickering.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]


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