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Whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or orthodox Protestant, the Bible is the basic book of the Christian faith. One may well ask if it has anything to say about how we should live, not only about the fruits of salvation, but about what kind of government we are to have or what kind of economy? There are arguably some broad hints suggesting the Bible affirms limited government and free markets, certainly private proper­ty. To be quite specific, does it contain the principles, implicitly or explicitly, indi­cating we are to have an industrial politi­cal economy or an agrarian one? Or is it completely silent on the matter?

One is certainly tempted to argue for an agrarian society for the following, admittedly abbreviat­ed, reasons. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is filled with favorable references to gardens, parks, land and tilling the ground. Be­fore sin, after sin, and in the promises of the future life, the picture of the good life is always agrarian. Every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree (1 Kings 4:25), a symbol of peace and prosperi­ty to be sure but not to be dismissed as mere meta­phor. The histor­ical experience of the Israelites and their blessing and promises were agrarian. (Cf. Isa. 2:4) Also, the analogies and para­bles in the New Testa­ment are over­whelmingly agrari­an. Is all this to be ignored or dismissed as mere inessential matter?

Many would indeed dismiss these points as immaterial. Just as we don’t insist today the good life requires us to wear sandals and long robes, so why should we expect these agrarian themes to be other than historical and accidental? More bluntly, skeptics mean that such references were simply the historically conditioned circumstances of the time and even if essential to that time are not essential today and we are not to try to imitate that life-style even in some more distant sense of apply­ing its “agrarian” principles.

Yet while it’s true the Bible is a book of eternal salvation, not of political economy, that doesn’t mean the other statements it makes are to be dismissed as immaterial. Christian philosopher Nor­man Geis­ler (Biblical Errancy, p.13) speaks to the issue on the matter of sci­ence when he writes: “Now certainly it is one thing to read modern scientific theory into ancient poetry, but it is anoth­er to exclude space-time affir­ma­tions from the book authored by the Creator of the physical universe.” One may say the same thing with regard to political econo­my. The Bible does make affirmative state­ments about ways of living, including political economy, just as it does about the natural world which are true and positive and have implica­tions for Christian faith and practice.

The argument from historical relativism misses the point. Can we rightly separate the agrarian aspects from the spiritual ones? This can be answered in a way similar to Geisler’s argument (p. 21) about nature: “[Christians] cannot look at historical and scientific affirmations in Scripture as purely symbolical or mythical. In short we cannot separate science and Scripture…The scientific cannot be separated from the spiritual without doing violence to the spiritual.” In a parallel manner, we cannot take seriously thoughtless platitudes that dismiss anything we don’t like as “pre-modern,” “pre-scientific,” or “pre-capitalistic” and in this way pretend to separate the important spiritual from the outdated accidental material. That the Author of the Book knew all things in advance and still choose to write it this way should tell us something. Frankly, the agrarian references, illusions, parables, and promises are so intricate a part of Scripture, as essential to it as a book as they are themselves to human nature, that they cannot be dismissed as incidental, historical trivia.

The same Author of our being understands how our human nature is to be fulfilled: we need the proper balances between privacy and fellowship, town and country, the individual and the community. With the 200-year history of industrializa­tion and urbaniza­tion, with agricultural, employment and health care difficulties along with tremendous social decay and collapse, we are justified in wondering whether these enduring human needs are not best met in an agrarian political economy after all. This is especially poignant when we compare our present economic system with the successful present-day agrarian societies like the highly profitable Amish farmers. A sound economy, of course, doesn’t have to have the detailed form of Israelite or Amish communi­ties but it should retain the basic principles which include among other things that closeness to land, nature and creation necessary for a healthy relationship with Deity and a humane life. For nearly all of human history man has lived a primarily agrarian life. All civilizations are agrarian. No evidence exists that industrialization could produce a civilized society, though evidence from our recent experience indicates it can destroy one.

The issue is fundamental and general and not particular and idiosyncratic. It is not a matter of requiring people to wear sandals and robes but more like getting them to recognize the need for clothing or like recognizing that people are meant to live on land rather than at the bottom of the sea. Our political economy is rather like a form of “social clothing,” and should be a modest material adornment becoming a civilized, Christian people. An agrarian economy, which still has plenty of room for universities, banks, and small cities, would seem more suitable than the out-landish styles of an overly urbanized and commercial­ized society.

The Bible thus has been consistent with the basic pattern of historically-received political economy – until relatively recently. It is as if we had partaken of the forbidden fruit of modernism but our eyes still fail to see the spiritual and economic nakedness of our over-industrialized condi­tion. Nor do we apparently have the decency to feel ashamed. Surely, it’s high time we reconsidered what a real Christian political economy should be.

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This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil. Copyright held by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute and reprinted by permission.


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3 replies to this post
  1. My heart is moved by Ancil's sentiments, but, as usual, the devil is in the details–or the lack of them. How does one foster a society, even a Christian-agrarian society, in which everyone agrees on the limitations? For example, who gets to decide the size of a small city? What might be the common understanding of "overly urbanized" or "commercialized"? By extension, who is too rich or too materialistic? Would Ancil's agrarian society discredit Mitt Romney because of his wealth? Shakespeare's King Henry V famously concludes in Act 3 that "every subject's soul is his own." That's the point of Christianity: No form of government, no set of laws, no aesthetic principle will save you. The answer lies in the conversion of the heart.

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