This post was written for, and originally posted on, the Christian Scholar’s Review Blog, available here.

Since most faculty are trained in thoroughly secular universities and disciplines, it can take some work to figure out what difference Christian faith can have in the practice of your discipline. I have noticed that there is a particular difficulty of this kind for economists. In this blog post, I describe the background for that difficulty and try to describe what I believe are the three broad approaches for working as a Christian economist.

Background

In some disciplines, pursuing Christ-animated learning or integrating faith and learning is somewhat difficult. Mathematics and engineering come to mind. It is not hard to be a Christian engineer, but it will require a bit of thought and work to imagine a Christian engineering. In other disciplines, where the Christian tradition has so much to offer, it seems easier. Philosophy and literature might be good examples here. In this regard economics stands somewhere in the middle. There is a huge literature by theologians and Biblical scholars about economic issues and economic justice. Economists, moreover, have written many books that start from an explicitly Christian framework. Catholic Christians can even point to official church teaching on a number of economic subjects. And yet, most economists consider any partnership between economics and Christian faith to be, at best, an awkward match. Many would bristle at the idea that their faith would have any impact on the way that they practice economics.

At the heart of the difficulty is that economists have a very strong internal conception of the discipline as a method as much, or more, than as a subject. So you train to be an economist by learning to use the tools of economics: rational-choice theory and econometrics. Economic history, macroeconomic data, and the institutional details of modern economies are often picked up along the way, but they don’t show up in the graduate curriculum. Moreover, the method of economics is thoroughly positivist — we work hard to make all economic research transparently impersonal and empirical. Unlike many other disciplines, economists still embrace the positive-normative distinction, and for economists, our role is to stay on the positive side. 

In normal terms, what this means is that economists imagine our job to be that of a neutral technician. We try to objectively describe the world as best we can without making any judgments about what should be. This is the background framework in which just about all economists are trained to operate. This approach creates a natural tension between the practice of economics and some approaches to faith integration. If you add too much theology or ethics to your research, by some accounts you are not even doing economics anymore.

Framework

Against this backdrop, I have seen something like three broad strategies within the economics discipline for working out how to practice economics as a Christian. There are basically two questions that, if answered, differentiate these three approaches:

  1. Do you practice conventional economic methodology?
  2. Do you think economics should remain value-neutral?

Based on how one answers these two questions, then, Christian economists seem to break into three approaches:

  1. Practice conventional economics, entirely separate from theology. (yes, yes)
  2. Pair Christian ethics with conventional economic methodology. (yes, no)
  3. Develop a distinctive Christian economics. (no, no)

There is, of course, a fourth option (no, yes) which is certainly represented at the margins of the economics discipline, but I have not seen anyone make an argument that Christians should land in that spot. Let me describe each of these other three approaches in turn.

1. Conventional economics, separate from theology

Given the training of economists that I have described, the first option is the path of least resistance. If you believe that the job of the economist is to be a neutral technician, then the best thing you can do, as a Christian, is to be excellent in carrying out that role. When asked what Christian economists should do, David Richardson once responded, simply, “Economics.”There is no reason, Richardson argued, to imagine that Christains would do a different kind of economics. Economist Paul Heyne articulated a similar way of thinking, arguing the practice of economics should operate, even for Christians, largely independent of theology. He argues that there is no distinctively Christian approach to the discipline, and even that there is no distinctive Christian economic ethic. Both Richardson and Heyne’s essays from a 1994 symposium are available here.

Many scholars will find themselves heavily influenced by their Christian faith, but the influence is on the topics that they choose to research, rather than the kind of analysis they do. Perhaps for this kind of reason, I have noticed an unusually high number of Christians in the discipline working in the areas of international development and the history of economic thought.

2. Christian ethics paired with conventional economic methodology

The second approach is to reject the strict separation between positive and normative domains in economics, and embrace a kind of normative vision for the economy. Theology can paint a vision for economic justice and discern the goals that the economy should work toward. Economists, then, have the job of figuring out how to bring this vision about. This has been my own approach, for reasons I outline here.

This style is probably the best way to describe the approach used by those working in the tradition of Catholic Social Thought. Papal encyclicals and church teaching offer a vision of economics that values solidarity with the poor and individual dignity. Economists can use the guidance of this church teaching to pursue an economic research agenda or to motivate particular policy proposals. Notable practitioners of this approach include Albino Barerra, Daniel Finn, and Andrew Yuengert.

3. Develop a Christian economics

The final approach critiques and re-envisions the methods of economics on theological grounds. This was most famously attempted by the Kuyperian or “Neo-Calvinist” economists operating out of Calvin College, the Institute for Christian Studies, and a couple of places in Europe. Roland Hoksbergen articulated this vision in a CSR article in 1994, as did a group of scholars working collaboratively on this book. While many of us still claim the title “Kuyperian,” little additional work has been done in this vein of scholarship in the last 20 years. Clive and Cara Beed have also been long practitioners of this approach.

Some scholars who want to rethink the discipline along theological lines end up adopting a “heterodox” approach to economics that is already established at the margins of the discipline. My friend John Tiemstra found the New Institutional Economics to be the best home for his work. You can think of liberation theology as a version of this approach, as scholars adopt a Marxist economic framework for theological reasons. Many theologians who offer the deepest criticisms of economic theory also fall into this camp. The theologians in the Radical Orthodoxy camp have taken issue with the underlying methodology of both economics and political science. (See my work on this here). 

The hardest interdisciplinary work is in this third category. Developing an economic approach based on Christian principles would require that both theologians and economists be willing to think in totally different categories and try to come to a unified account of economic life. It is partly because of this difficulty that relatively few scholars have attempted this kind of project.

A Personal Note

It is worth noting that I have a stake in this conversation. I fall pretty firmly in the second category, though my work has probably spanned all three. It is not yet clear to me that, in most cases, a new economic methodology is required, but it seems quite important to allow our vision of humanity and the common good to be shaped heavily by the Christian tradition. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit here, I believe, that would result in considerable progress, particularly in a careful engagement with academic work in theology and ethics.

For more on the topic of Christianity and Economics in CSR see https://christianscholars.com/the-oxford-handbook-of-christianity-and-economics/

2 Comments

  • Tim Essenburg says:

    I did extensive reading on this from 1990 — mid-2000’s and moved on with my own thoughts.

    1.What is “conventional economic methodology”? That is, do you think it is more than positivism?

    2. I’ve never thought that Economics is “value-neutral.” Please explain.

    • Steven McMullen says:

      Tim,

      I have a bit of my own shorthand here that I should have translated for economists.

      When I say “conventional methodology” I mean the standard neoclassical theory and econometrics. I suppose I could use the term “mainstream” vs heterodox, but I jave never loved that language.

      As for value-neutrality, I am referring to the standard positive-normative distinction that is still standard in textbooks and I believe it is dominant in the self-identity of the profession. I have also never been convinced that economics is value neutral, but many economists are.

      There is a lot more here, but I wanted to distinguish the debate about methodology from the debate about ethics.

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