When I began my freshman year of college, I didn’t care much about economics. Having been raised in a conservative Christian home, I had adopted a generically pro-capitalism shtick, but it wasn’t much to stand on. As I arrived at my left-leaning Christian college, that lack of foundation soon became clear.
I found myself swirling amid campus debates about “economic justice,” infused with lofty religious language. Progressive economic policies were championed with social-gospel gusto and the Acts-2 arguments for socialism were aplenty. None of it added up, but my own defenses of capitalism were also woefully inadequate—heavy on “facts,” but lacking any sort of transcendent vision.
Unsatisfied, I began to read, but it was hard to find resources. I wanted a basic Christian understanding of the economic order and all that it might imply—one that didn’t rely on policy-centric debates. Unfortunately, most of what I found was either too heavy on economics, too shallow on the connections to faith, or too intellectually convoluted to properly parse. It was hard to connect the dots.
In his new book, Economics: A Student’s Guide, Greg Forster gives a gift to those in this position. Weaving together scripture, theology, history, and philosophy, Forster offers a clear, deep, and yet remarkably concise view of economics through the lens of the Christian tradition. Avoiding “issues-based” arguments, Forster focuses instead on telling the larger spiritual story—interpreting and examining economics as a critical component of a Christian worldview and cultural imagination.
“It’s no wonder economists joke that their field is ‘the dismal science,’” Forster writes, noting the range of economic challenges we currently face. “But it is possible to see these things from another perspective. The Christian intellectual tradition, building on the revelation of God in Christ by the Spirit in the word, has spent two thousand years helping people lift their eyes to a higher reality that lies behind these troubling experiences.”
Unlike many primers, Forster’s doesn’t proceed with a stale, tailored outline of relevant scriptures and church history with bland commentary. Instead, he continually points to a more provocative premise—that, for Christians, the economic life is a “major strategic front” in a cosmic spiritual battle and we’d do well to treat it as such:
What if our daily struggles to keep a job and make ends meet, our organizational struggles to make payroll and keep the lights on, and our societal struggles to manage public economic concerns are really battles in a cosmic civil war between God and Satan?
What if every time we allow our economic actions to pursue greed, sloth, pride, envy, gluttony, lust, and wrath, we are surrendering a hill, abridge, or an airstrip to the armies of our eternal enemy? What if every time we manage our economic affairs—from the personal to the public—with the justice and mercy of our gracious and powerful God, we are striking back against our ghostly foe and reclaiming a little piece of the world for the holy love of God? How can Christians develop ways of thinking about and participating in the economy that take it seriously as a major strategic front in the holy war between God and Satan for the fate of the universe?
To answer those questions, Forster uses a mix of ground-level stage-setting, rich storytelling across church history, and—to end it all—a bit of artful idol-tipping.
In the first two chapters, he gives a broad scriptural, theological and philosophical basis for how Christians ought to think of economics as a science and sphere, as well as how we ought to approach and embody our stewardship more generally. Forster affirms what many Acton readers will already know: anthropology changes everything.
He then moves to a deeper, wider retelling of how Jesus’ radical witness and sacrifice altered the economic order and is still transforming hearts and systems to this day. Beginning with Jesus’ upside-down Gospel of grace, Forster walks us through the evolution of the church’s subsequent influence on the world, from the ancient (“from natural to supernatural economics”) to the medieval (“from conventional to reforming economics”) to the modern (“from static to dynamic economics”).
The result is compelling and brings its own mix of unique insights, even for those well-versed in the topic, covering a mix of natural/spiritual events and social/economic transformations. Forster manages to weave together a coherent Christian vision across a range of cultural contexts and economic ages, while also showing the implications for how it might apply more practically in policy and society.
Having done so, he shifts to our present situation, challenging our cultural assumptions and commitments when it comes to economics. Pressing us to move “from ideological captivity to theological transformation,” Forster invites us back to that age-old cosmic battle. Critiquing idolatries of market and state alike, we see a different path, toward fuller and truer Christian freedom.
The answer, Forster concludes, is not found in an ideology, but an economic wisdom and spiritual wherewithal to overcome the competing idolatries of our age—both as individuals who live distinctively Christian economic lives and as a community of believers who bring a distinctively Christian witness to other layers of society (economic, political, and otherwise):
Over time, such approaches would develop into a “Christian economics” in a different sense—one that brings life to the world rather than bringing it yet another battle in the culture war. Christ continues the holy war to reclaim God’s creation order by redeeming us through his Spirit to live as good stewards of that creation order. His brave new world of holy love in the kingdom of God challenged, and ultimately helped to destroy, the cowardly old world of the limited-access order. Today, Christ’s authentic brave new world challenges the phony brave new worlds of materialistic worldliness that have risen to power in the open-access order—the economic idolatries of autonomous markets and states.
By faith, we know that Christ’s is the real brave new world, the traumatic inauguration of a radical new reality. Its full coming, when it arrives, will usher in an eternity of justice, peace, mercy, and flourishing, with a beauty and joy that will surpass all our present dim glimpses of it as dramatically as the summer sunshine surpasses a pinprick of light in a dark room. Our job is to make that pinprick a little bit wider every day. By God’s grace, millions of Christians are already doing just that. It is a high and holy calling that we receive afresh each Sunday and carry into every domain of work and economic exchange on the other six days of the week.
Looking back at myself as a young college student, I now realize how stuck I really was in trying to weigh the economic issues of my day. I was scratching at the surface, and in turn, I struggled to find the bigger story, which was the one thing that could actually make sense of all the rest.
The specific issues and debates are incredibly important, of course. But without a deeper revelation of Christ’s transformative work and power across all of society, the host of our intellectual battles and moral debates will struggle to properly resolve. Without an outlook of true and embodied economic wisdom, we will far too easily opt for the materialistic alternatives.
As Forster reminds us, a far better reality already awaits.