How economic profits relate to the creation mandate
[tweetable]Good theology is of little value unless the church is able to speak eternal truths into ever-changing cultures.[/tweetable] This is especially true with respect to the relationship between our faith and the areas of work economics and human flourishing in this age. The population of the earth and the ability to create wealth have exponentially increased since the time of Christ, making it essential to reconsider how to equip ministry workers to apply biblical wisdom to an age of radical change.
This article will first demonstrate how a biblical perspective profoundly affects interpretation of economic data, in particular, how we view the dramatic changes in global population and wealth which have occurred since the Industrial Revolution. Next will be an evaluation of corporate profits through a biblical lens, addressing the more subtle question of how the Creation Mandate applies to believers in a new economic environment. Specifically, the church should consider the ability to earn an “honest profit” as one way to measure obedience to the command to subdue the earth in Genesis 1:28.
World population began with one man and doubled with the creation of Eve. Millennia passed until one billion people walked the planet around 1810, yet population soared by six billion since that time. More than one billion people have been added to the planet in just the last 12 years. Amazingly, the wages for the average worker have increased at more than double this rate, as computed by economist Gregory Clark.1 Though the average person lived more or less at a subsistence level for most of history, economic human flourishing has expanded more than ten-fold over the last two centuries.
Interpreting this unprecedented situation raises questions for the church to address with biblical truth informed by economics. Without an eternal perspective, many fear overpopulation will lead to food shortages and strip the planet of limited resources.2 Environmental and political activist Alexandra Paul succinctly (and chillingly) proposed, “I believe we must work to lower the world population to 2 billion people, which was the human population of this planet only 80 years ago.”3 Toward that end Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, proposed that “Governments should all adopt the slogan ‘patriotic citizens stop at two children’ and adjust tax and other policies to discourage over-reproducers and those unethical elements of society that are pronatalist.”4 China adopted this counsel in 1979 and instituted a brutal one-child policy. This erroneous perspective essentially considers people as problematic mouths to feed rather than creative minds to solve problems.5
For this reason, the church needs to speak with a clear voice that the dramatic growth in world population should be celebrated rather than feared. Children are a blessing from God according to Psalm 127:5, and this blessing has been poured out at an increasing rate. In addition, the economic data unmistakably show that food has never been more abundant than the present.6 In 2013 enough food was produced in the world for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life, though wars and sinful oppression left some in hunger.7 Moreover, this burst of population and income brings wondrous opportunities for the advance of the gospel through evangelism. More pastors need to be trained to serve than ever before in the history of the church.
The spike in income and population illustrates the dramatic new world facing the church and demonstrates the need for renewed theological reflection to interpret biblically the changes of the last two centuries. Economists compile the data tracking such great changes, but ministry workers need to be equipped to understand these developments biblically and to address their spiritual implications. The remainder of this article will present an example of such reflection, including a proposal of “honest profit” as one significant way to measure obedience to the Creation Mandate.
The Creation Mandate: economic profits as a measurement for subduing the earth
When God created the first man and woman, he immediately explained his intentions with five imperatives: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). By extension, the five commands of this creation mandate applied to all human beings who would follow. For believers, these obligations are clarified with greater precision by subsequent biblical revelation.
In his kindness, God also implanted in every human heart a strong desire to obey each of these commands. For example, the imperatives “be fruitful and multiply” correspond to the powerful desire to marry and have children that is present in cultures around the world. The imperative to “fill the earth” resonated in human hearts long before Columbus set sail in 1492. Every child who has begged for a pet goldfish or cuddled a puppy demonstrated a heartfelt desire to obey the imperative to have dominion over fish, animals and birds.
The command to “subdue the earth” is translated from the Hebrew word kabash, which implies that humans should work to make the creation pay tribute and to make the resources of the earth useful for the benefit and enjoyment of people. This includes cultivating the ground to grow vegetables and other good things.
It was much easier to recognize how people were actively subduing the world when 90 percent of the population was engaged in subsistence agriculture. Rocks were moved out of fields and used to build protective walls. Trees and brush were cleared to maximize sunlight. The earth itself was tilled and planted and the steady growth of crops revealed that a particular piece of land had been made useful.
Since the dramatic changes of the Industrial Revolution, only a tiny percentage of people are engaged in agriculture each year. For this reason, the church needs a clearer understanding of how a radically changing workforce should obey this fundamental command. Deeper reflection is required to distinguish whether a person’s work is consistent with the Creation Mandate.
Providentially, the field of financial accounting provides a helpful guide to measure obedience to this imperative. For example, the people who work together at Ford Motor Company utilize iron ore from deep in the ground to make steel and petroleum to form plastics. Thousands of such parts are assembled into a pickup truck. Such trucks are sold in a free market through a voluntary transaction with a willing buyer. The fact that a buyer is willing to pay money for the vehicle is evidence that the world has been subdued and the resources of the earth have been made useful for his or her purposes. Though it is not as clear as a farmer harvesting crops from a field, purchasing a truck indicates the buyer perceives it as a more useful form of creation. Therefore every productive worker who has a part in this complex operation is participating in subduing creation.
By extension, within a relatively free market, the revenue that a company reports on its annual income statement is a broad, quantitative summary of how useful the customers perceived the output of the company to be that year. Higher revenues would generally be associated with more useful products and declining revenues serve as an indication that the creation was not transformed into products of value.
In addition, accountants calculate another extremely useful metric called “cost of goods sold” on an income statement. This includes the costs of all the materials required to manufacture a specific product and represents numerically how much of creation was required in the production. Higher costs mean that more materials were used or wasted. Lower costs are correlated with efficiently using fewer or more common resources. Cost of goods sold also includes the wages paid to workers who directly transformed creation. This measures how much precious human life was dedicated to pleasing customers with a good or service.
On an income statement, accountants subtract costs from revenues to determine the profit of a company. Viewing this through biblical categories, revenue is one measure of how useful the creation has been made and the cost of goods sold measures how much of creation and human life was required for the transformation. If the business is also conducted within the general moral framework revealed in Scripture, the difference between revenue and expenses is an “honest profit.” In this case, earning an honest profit can be viewed as a measure of obedience to the command to subdue the earth.
It must be emphasized that only an “honest” profit is helpful for discerning obedience, not simply the acquisition of money. Any pickpocket or common thief can acquire money. In the same way, a deceptive salesman who inflates his revenue or a merchant who hides shoddy quality to minimize costs cannot be considered to be subduing the earth according to God’s plan. Rather, an honest profit is earned over time by satisfying a voluntary customer who is willing and able to pay for a moral good or service perceived as valuable.
Also, earning an honest profit is only one indication of obedience to the command to subdue the earth. Mowing the grass and maintaining well-trimmed shrubbery is another. For other people, subduing creation means keeping a dorm room tidy, clearing the back seat of a car of accumulated junk or putting toys back in a toy box at the end of the day.
Consistent with the other four imperatives examined above, God kindly instills in the human heart a desire to obey this command to subdue the earth. The feeling of accomplishment of a small business owner at seeing a profit at the end of the year flows from this desire. In the same way, the satisfied feelings of any worker who has earned an honest paycheck at the end of the week is also consistent with this desire.
Applications and conclusions
This leads to three points of application. First, an individual or company earning an honest profit should not necessarily be viewed with suspicion, but rather celebrated as one indication of obedience to the Creation Mandate. Along these lines, larger profits are better than smaller profits as this suggests that more people were served and less creation was utilized to accomplish the task. Since the economy has many specialized jobs, as opposed to being 90 percent agrarian, this view of profit is a new understanding with which pastors need to be equipped to serve a local church.
A second application is obvious: more biblical scholarship needs to be directed toward understanding these important issues at the intersection of faith, work and economics. Economists are now providing helpful tools to measure and describe the boggling complexity of human trade since the Industrial Revolution, but the Bible must provide the categories that frame the discussion. Capitalism is not fundamentally an abstract system but rather the aggregation of many concrete individual agreements and transactions between people. Each of these exchanges represents a moral choice observed by God. Pastors need to be equipped to counsel believers about how wisely to make moral economic decisions in a fallen world.
A third application would be to contribute to the dialogue sponsored by the Commonweal Project which will address more key topics at the juncture of theology and economics. These include the goodness of work, the stewardship of life and possessions and the care for the poor with gospel-centered generosity, the effect of sin on economic relationships and the church’s appropriate response to global trade at the outset of a new millennium.
1Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2008).
2Weisman, “We Don’t Need Another Billion People.”
3James Eng, “Seven Big Problems for 7 Billion People,” Msnbc.com, Par. 18, accessed January 13, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/44990504/ns/us_news-life/t/seven-big-problems-billion-people/.
4Ibid., Par. 12.
5Ma Jian, “China’s Brutal One-Child Policy,” The New York Times, May 21, 2013, sec. Opinion, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/opinion/chinas-brutal-one-child-policy.html.
6Mark W. Rosegrant et al., 2020 Global Food Outlook: Trends, Alternatives, and Choices (Intl Food Policy Res Inst, 2001).
7“World Food Programme: Definitions of Hunger,” accessed January 14, 2014, http://quiz.wfp.org/wfp_quiz_widget/136?nophotos=1&widget_style=small&noborder=0.
*Editors Note: This article was originally featured in the April 2014 issue of Towers.
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