Review of Mark Valeri’s “The Economic Thought of Jonathan Edwards” – John Boruff

Jonathan Edwards (d. 1758)What a great journal article! Its available on JSTOR and was featured in the academic journal Church History in March of 1991. It’s an honest summary of the theology of Jonathan Edwards on a number of economic issues. You couldn’t ask for a more evangelical source on a proper Biblical view of business and money. Although it skips over some important subjects: namely, how to work, save, and invest–evangelicals can make those ideas become more concrete by drawing inferences from Edwards’ observations. I’d also recommend looking at Richard Steele’s The Religious Tradesman (1684). The article is based on Edwards’ study of the Bible and his application to his social surroundings in Northampton, Massachusetts. The time period in question: 1730 to 1750. What people don’t know is that this Hellfire and brimstone preacher was also quite a theologian about other subjects: he preached several sermons against financial sins; and it is these unpublished sermons that Valeri analyzes in this article. When it came to economic matters, Edwards preoccupied himself with preaching against financial sins: he didn’t really venture out into the more concrete theories of economic growth. His primary concern was the salvation of souls; and by extension, that meant avoiding damnable sins related to money. I am going to highlight what I felt were the 12 most important subjects that Valeri brings up in this article:

1. Being Frugal Isn’t a Virtue If You Are Materialistic. Frugality (or being a penny-pinching, conservative miser with shrewd financial management skills) is not a virtue if you are still consumed with materialism (putting a higher priority on physical things than spiritual things). In fact, Edwards felt that when Christians defended their pursuit of wealth with the virtues of hard work and frugality, that it was just a cover-up for their selfish, materialistic attitudes. These same people had a tendency to exalt themselves over their neighbors through political ambition and strife; and by purchasing luxury items, creating a competition mentality (keeping up with the Joneses). This is destructive to Christian fellowship, said Edwards, because it generates jealousy, and puts people into the categories of winners and losers, instead of leveling out everyone as Christian brothers and sisters.

2. Greed Causes Fighting. Wealth, or at least the ostentatious display of it, causes social division and distraction from the Gospel: “a greedy man stirs up strife” (Prov. 28:25). Greedy people tend to have enemies; their attitudes are anti-friendship and not conducive to the very happiness they hope to attain. Happiness eludes them, because they misplace it in money rather than in the Gospel and in people.

3. Credit Scores and Trustworthy Lenders. Easy credit is a bad thing, because it can lead to being taken advantage of by loan sharks, repo men, or usurers (people who offer high interest loans). By inference, you might say that the modern practice of requiring credit scores for mortgages and car loans are good things, because it helps people to filter out more trustworthy, merciful lenders. Credit scores can also help to prevent spendthrifts from buying unnecessary luxury items with credit cards: they help people to exercise self-control: both moneylenders and borrowers.

4. Honesty Is Better Than Swindling. Honesty is the best policy for any business: whether it applies to research and development, sales, payroll, or customer service. Conversely: lying, cheating, and swindling for profit is a sin.

5. The Deceitfulness of Riches. When Edwards was a highly paid pastor, he held the view that godly rich people have the capacity to use their money and influence properly: but in 1750, when many of these men backslid, and fired him, he took a much more pessimistic view of capital accumulation.

6. Giving to the Poor Is More Important Than Having Private Property. Giving to the poor is a Biblical law; and is more important than private property. Edwards had moments when he preached against having private property as over against the care of the poor, but I will quote that it is a Biblical blessing: “everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). Sounds like private property to me. I think though, to his point, that if people have acres to spare, then they could give some property to care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). This is what George Whitefield did; he built an orphanage in Georgia.

7. Charity Funds and Banks at Church. While Edwards felt it was good to give directly to the poor (Luke 16), he felt that financial aid was most effectively carried out by churches. He argued that churches should have charity funds, or banks, specifically for deacons to withdraw money to give to the poor. But he encountered at least four excuses for why church people did not give to charity funds or directly to the poor: 1. The belief that a worker is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his labor. 2. The old “get a job ya bum” view: its the poor person’s responsibility to take care of himself. 3. Charity begins at home: taking care of my children is more important than giving to a homeless street beggar. 4. They have government aid programs and places like the Salvation Army they can go to. These four excuses were well entrenched in Jonathan Edwards’ church in 1733. Whenever Christians saw a beggar, and decided not to give him any extra money, they usually relied on these excuses. But will any of these excuses stand up to Luke 16? No, they won’t. From my point of view, these types of excuses are only pat answers, and widen the gap that already exists between the rich and the poor. It does not help poor people to learn good economic habits through dialogue, nor does it help the rich to understand the reasons or causes of poverty, through dialogue. When the Gospel and Christian love are absent, all that is left are competition, and the destruction of the weak. The problem of poverty never gets fixed, not even on an individual basis. The information necessary to lift up the poor isn’t given, nor is the compassion necessary to save the rich ever acquired. When all that is thought to give is a little coin, and no loving guidance; all that can remain is a widening chasm that perpetuates economic inequality, and lack of understanding between people who have been forced into the different “social classes” of the rich and the poor.

8. The Pastor’s Salary: A Weakness for Any Preacher. In 1748, Edwards ran into financial problems during a time of inflation. He began to beg his church for a higher salary, which they gave him; but he continued to beg for more. This angered the people in his church: people to whom he had preached against financial sins for years; and now that he was financially desperate, they found cause to criticize his spending habits. Things soured to the point that they fired him in 1750. It makes me think of Frank Viola’s criticism of pastor’s salaries in Pagan Christianity; and makes me think that a pastor is more financially stable when he is self-employed.

9. Extortion Is a Sin. Inflation is caused by greedy business owners who jack up prices in order to extort their customers. This keeps everyone in distress, especially the poor. In modern times, rising gas prices are an example of this. Edwards, especially in the 1740, when he was personally affected by this, had much to say against these unjust price fluctuations of the “free market.”

10. Fair Market Value: It Should Be Enforced by the Government. Although there is a degree of sense in the idea of “buy low, sell high,” which helps the seller to turn a profit, Edwards believed that without fixed prices, this leads to a kind of lawlessness where anything goes with prices. People were then encouraged, that after they bought something they wanted to sell, they should research the fair market value before they put a price tag on it. Boston newspapers, for example, carried exchange rates (from English pounds, etc), but Edwards had hoped that fixed prices might be made universal, and also monitored by a Christian government. Edwards, at least in the mid 1740s, would not have been what Gary North has called a “free market” capitalist. He was by then a “guided market” capitalist, more akin to the view of William Diehl in Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views of Economics. He believed business needed to be held accountable to the government, at least in the area of fixing absolutely concrete prices, so that fair and just prices would be regulated by the law. The only loophole to this view, he said, is that it could be sabotaged by godless rich businessmen, who end up bribing government officials, to fix prices according to their preferences. But Edwards’ idea of government involvement in business never even came close to promoting communism. He said, “‘Tis not agreeable to the design of the world that all men should be on a level.” Whether he just preferred more economic equality in pricing, or was just making the observation that New England would never accept a Christian communism like the Pilgrims had tried (Acts 2:44), it’s clear he felt that certain highly priced goods, when so priced, made it harder on everyone except for the rich to live comfortably. Edwards was all about fair market value; and he believed it should fall to the government to enforce it.

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11. Rationalists and the “Greed Is Good” Idea. According to Valeri’s study, rationalistic Enlightenment philosophies like  those in Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1729), argued that the desire for luxury items motivated people to work hard and stimulate the economy. This idea was later reflected in a godless 1987 movie called Wall Street, where a main character said, “Greed is good.” Edwards saw these people as rebelling against Scripture. They were rationalists, deists, atheists, and liberal Christians, and were to blame for the rejection of the former Puritan economic views that existed in 17th century New England; these men, godless false Christians and freethinkers, were anti-evangelical, anti-revival, and anti-Jonathan Edwards. They were the fathers of modern day capitalism. They were the society that the Founding Fathers largely took part in: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc. Not really God-fearing men: freemasons, freethinkers, deistic, agnostic, and rationalistic liberals who rejected the preaching and phenomena of the Great Awakening, and opened the door to a post-Puritan, watered-down Christian, secular Corporate America. “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5). Rationalism and secularism were the philosophical underpinnings of modern capitalism…not the Bible. Now we call it social Darwinism. Survival of the fittest as it applies to business. That is the reason for the dog-eat-dog business culture that we live in today. Thanks a lot rationalists! Thanks a whole freakin’ lot for ruining our once Puritan settlement! But that’s the way its always been. Revivals come and go; and when they are over with, people go back to business as usual: chasing the dollar bill, keeping up with the Joneses, setting apart the haves and the have-nots, the winners and the losers, competition between companies and employees within companies, political debates, and gratifying the sinful nature but calling it by some harmless name, like a strong work ethic.

12. Oftentimes, Ungodly Companies Are the Majority Rule. After being fired from his pastorate in 1750, Edwards held the view that, “God oftentimes gives those men that He hates great outward prosperity.” This so that they may be blinded from the saving truths and experiences that come from the Gospel; and later on, go to Hell to meet their just desserts. But after critiquing the 18th century economic system left and right throughout the article, I didn’t find a glint of economic hope coming from Edwards; and this is where his economic thought, if completely represented by Valeri, falls short. There needs to be an answer given to the Christian man who would ask, “Well, what should I do for a job? For saving? For investing? How can I, while siding with Edwards against economic vices, still find a way to care for my family?” My view of that would be as follows: 90% of the economic system that we have here in America is acquired through ill-gotten gain. Most employment situations at companies, in one way or another, are sinning in their business practices. Whether its deceptive sales tactics, job sabotaging competition between employees, a culture of profanity and sexual harassment, or pride being labeled as “confidence,” and then considered a virtue to imitate. Proverbs 1:17-19: “How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it! These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves! Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it.” Whether we’re talking about some lowlife joining a gang to steal and rob only to be turned on by his fellow gang members and killed; or if we’re talking about a person that works for any old company and finds himself working with a bunch of dirt bags–sooner or later, if they find out that he doesn’t cuss, doesn’t harass women, and fears God, they will gang up on him and end his career in that company.

The Christian’s Pursuit of Well-Gotten Gain.Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers” (Psalm 1:1). Fitting how the word “company” is used that verse. The devout Christian breadwinner should seek well-gotten gain, where the vices that Scripture warns against will not be thrust upon him every day. Then he will be truly blessed; and not led into temptation. This is a way of escape. So far as I can see, a truly godly Christian capitalism is possible under three possible conditions: 1. Self-employment (e.g., work-at-home/WAH jobs for customer service or sales on FlexJobs.com or ZipRecruiter.com, telemarketing for products like life, health, or P&C insurance, etc). 2. Working for those 10% of American businesses that consider themselves to be Christian companies (e.g., Chick-fil-A, Interstate Batteries, Christian business associations like FCCI and CBN, etc). 3. Being upfront with interviewers at secular companies that you are a Christian and you don’t cuss: although this is strained, I have heard it is possible; and may help to filter out very bad companies during a job search. But the Christian can’t really fit into the “real world,” because he’s not supposed to. John 15:19: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Consider it a sign that you are genuinely saved, and filled with the Holy Spirit, if people in secular companies do not receive you as one of their own!

Self-Employment Is Ideal for the Christian. Self-employment is absolutely necessary for the devout Christian; or at least strongly recommended in my view. To seek employment at most companies on Indeed.com or through temp agencies, is “oftentimes” the domain of godless rationalists and ill-gotten gain that ignite the wrath of God. Ephesians 5:11: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” But you can’t reprove them if you are one with them. Hateful attitudes, authoritarian ideas, and really bad tempers are all over secular companies. They ruin the economic and emotional health of the Christian. Only widespread faith in the Gospel (lordship salvation) can heal the faltering economy. That only comes through evangelists and revivals. These things come and go. The last revival like that was the Brownsville Revival in Pensacola, Florida, from 1995 to 2000. In their absence, all that most companies have to offer is an environment of competition, one-upmanship, backbiting, social Darwinism, arrogance, deceptive sales tactics, verbal abuse, insults, cussing, sexual harassment, and a nearly atheistic, godless capitalism that leaves millions of people running to psychiatrists for antidepressants. It’s not healthy! Since these companies are such cesspools of sin, I with the late Jonathan Edwards, will always remain skeptical of “successful” Christians who hold staid positions and decades of longevity at secular, non-Christian companies. What kind of testimony is that? One that implies crypto-Christianity at the least; and a liberal, antinomian Christianity at the worst. Either is way too much tolerance of sin!

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is a husband, father, blogger, and insurance agent.
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