This post is the first in a series about ethics, theology, and critiques of economic methodology. Each post is a portion of an early draft of a paper that is forthcoming in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Here is a table of contents, of sorts, for the full series:

A PDF of an early draft of the full essay is available here.

Thirty years ago, the dialogue between economists and theologians centered on questions of poverty, wealth distribution, and the economic systems debates of the Cold War.  A key critical text was Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1997 [1977]), which advocated a more generous social welfare system, simple living, and individual generosity to help the poor. More recently, the conversation has shifted, so the pivotal questions now surround economic relationships, the formation of virtue, and the consumer lifestyle.  If Sider was the critical prophet of the old debate, the new critics of the economy are D. Stephen Long (2000; 2007) and Daniel Bell Jr. (2001, 2012). These theologians have criticized capitalism, and they have also been persistent critics of economics as a discipline.

The critique that these authors offer stems not just from a suspicion of capitalism, but from a broad suspicion of modern social-scientific methods. At issue is whether it is possible for social scientists to leave behind ethical/theological concerns when we engage in our work. This entire conversation is one part of a fault line that runs between the humanities and social sciences. Moreover, these theologians are most concerned with the effects of economic reasoning on modern culture and public debate. In this sense, critics work backward from an economy that seems dominated by an empty cost-benefit language to the work of economists, who offer the most potent academic source for this kind of language and reasoning.

Recently there has been a considerable dialogue between economists and theologians in this new camp of critics. Smith (2010) and Richardson (2010) engaged in dialogue about globalization, Lunn (2011) and Van Til (2012) considered theological critiques of markets, McMullen (2014) broadly summarized the economic thought of some of these authors, and a recent symposium on economics and theology focused on similar issues (Claar, 2012; Husbands, 2012; Long, 2012).  Unfortunately, these conversations are difficult and have rarely produced any kind of consensus between the participants. In their work, theologians frequently confront some patterns of economic thinking that have long been the subject of debate, criticism, and misunderstanding: the positive-normative distinction, and the rational choice paradigm. I will address each of these areas in turn, describing common criticisms and defenses of these practices, and argue that the critique offered by a cluster of recent theological works is not easily dismissed. The standard scientific approach of economists, while often useful, does substantially limit the kind of ethical and theological arguments that can be entertained regarding economic life and action.

I will argue that modern economic methods must be understood as a way to achieve methodological consensus in an arena where many important normative concerns are hotly contested. The result, however, is that economic logic can become the dominant language in spheres where it might not be well suited. Nevertheless, economic methods and assumptions serve an important function in understanding a complex social environment. Economic problems might be intractable if all normative and positive concerns were simultaneously considered. At stake, then is the reductionist project of modern social science.  Is this project a path to enlightenment?  Or is it a recipe for “flattening” our view of the world and stifling moral imagination? I will conclude by arguing that Christians can faithfully use standard economic methods in many cases, while still addressing many of the concerns raised here.

Economics as heresy: the theological critique of economic methods

In recent years there has been a significant shift in the Christian dialogue about capitalism and economics.  First, the failure of communist governments and the worldwide acceptance of markets as appropriate mechanisms for the allocation of resources has shifted the debate away from the economic systems debates of the cold war.  Second, following Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (2007 [1981]), concern in the social ethics literature has shifted somewhat from questions of justice to questions of virtue. This theme can be seen in the work of Long (2001), Bell (2012), Cavanaugh (2008), Husbands (2012), and Smith (2009).  Each of these authors is concerned that our economic system sacrifices some essential element of human community or character in the pursuit of efficient production and consumption. Their critique is not just a critique of modern market economies, however.  They also level their criticism at the methods of economics, as the academic and theoretical grounding for market behavior. It is this second element of the critique – the methodological component – that I focus on in this essay.

The larger context for this methodological critique of economics, which draws heavily from MacIntyre and Milbank (2006 [1990]), rests on three elements:

  • The conviction that theology provides the only appropriate meta-narrative for social sciences.
  • The concern that the reliance on self-interest as a primary motivation runs contrary to a theological anthropology.
  • The belief that economists’ assumptions about scarcity and competition reinforce an underlying assumption of necessary conflict in the social world.

As noted in other research (McMullen, 2014), these arguments are not unique or new, but are worth attending. To economists, this literature often sounds ill-informed and over-wrought, especially when theologians end up giving “heterodox” economic theories a kind of confessional status (Ballor, 2010; Lunn, 2011). In endorsing particular schools of thought, theologians may be doing little more than lobbing fuel into longstanding debates that they are not equipped to contribute to. Economists meanwhile, are not accustomed to giving intellectual authority to anyone in the humanities and will recoil from what appears to be a charge of heresy (Tiemstra, 2010). Nevertheless, the conversation is too important to abandon.


Ballor, J. J. (2010). Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press.

Bell, D. (2001). Liberation Theology after the End of History: The refusal to cease suffering (1st ed.). London: Routledge.

Bell, D. (2012). The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Cavanaugh, W. T. (2008). Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Claar, V. V. (2012). What I Wish Theologians Understood About Markets and the Economists Who Study Them. Faith & Economics, 60, 32–39.

Husbands, M. (2012). A Reconsideration of “Fact” and “Value” and the Moral Space within which Theologians and Economists may share Common Objects of Love. Faith & Economics, 60, 24–31.

Long, D. S. (2000). Divine Economy: Theology and the Market. New York: Routledge.

Long, D. S. (2001). The Goodness of God: Theology, Church, and the Social Order. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Long, D. S. (2012). History, Theological Literature, and Contested Relations. Faith & Economics, 60, 18–23.

Long, D. S., Fox, N. R., & York, T. (2007). Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics and Economics. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Lunn, J. (2011). Capitalism as Heresy: On Why Theologians Criticize Markets. Faith & Economics, 57, 1–24.

MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition (3rd ed.). University of Notre Dame Press.

McMullen, S. (2014). Radical Orthodox Economics. Christian Scholar’s Review, 43(4), 343–364.

Milbank, J. (2006). Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (2nd ed.). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Richardson, J. D. (2010). Globalization and the Common Good: An Economist’s Account for Skeptical Scholars. Faith & Economics, 56, 21–45.

Sider, R. J. (1997). Rich Christians in an age of hunger: Moving from affluence to generosity. [Nashville, Tenn.]: W Publishing Group.

Smith, J. K. A. (2009). Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Smith, J. K. A. (2010). The “Ecclesial” Critique of Globalization: Rethinking the Questions. Faith & Economics, 56, 5–19.

Tiemstra, J. P. (2010). Theologians and Economists in Dialogue. Perspectives.

Van Til, K. (2012). A Theologian’s Response to Lunn. Faith & Economics, 59, 59–61.

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