The Biblical Foundations of Economics

Chapter 1 of Shawn Ritenour’s Foundations of Economics differs greatly from the opening chapter of nearly every other economic text I’ve ever seen, not just because it approaches the discipline from an explicitly Christian perspective, but also because it’s devoted to the epistemological and methodological foundations of the discipline. In the Mises University lecture I discussed in an earlier post, Guido Hülsmann pointed out that a shortcoming of mainstream economics is its unwillingness to confront these issues. For example, mainstream economists often insist on a strict empirical approach to the examination of economic phenomena while overlooking the obvious problem that human choices, the basis of all economic activity, cannot be apprehended by the senses.

Ritenour confronts the epistemological question directly by discussing four different theories of knowledge:

  1. Skepticism: knowledge is impossible
  2. Relativism: different people/groups/cultures have different truths, all of which are true
  3. Empiricism: knowledge comes only through the senses
  4. (Biblical) apriorism: divine revelation as found in the Bible provides the basis of knowledge

After pointing out problems with each of the first three theories (the first two can easily end up in self-contradiction, whereas the third makes a universal claim without sufficient data), Ritenour argues that Biblical apriorism is the only theory of knowledge that avoids these pitfalls while also forging a necessary connection between the real world and the mental categories which the human mind uses to think.

As I was reading through this section, I kept on thinking, “This discussion could be a lot more nuanced.” After finishing the chapter, though, I finally remembered that this text is intended for college freshmen studying economics, not a philosophy text. I finally decided that this chapter would be a decent way to address the issue of epistemology the first week of class to give students a reason for accepting the truth of economic laws that would come later in the semester.

An acceptance of Biblical apriorism gives us the following ideas:

  1. God is rational.
  2. God is omniscient.
  3. God acts purposefully.
  4. Human beings are made in God’s image.
  5. Thus, human beings can be rational, know things, and act purposefully.

The last proposition above is essential for the study of economics. Also, the Biblical doctrine of God as an orderly being implies the orderliness of creation, and for economics to work we must have confidence that we can in fact discover natural and social regularities.

No doubt, non-Christians won’t be persuaded by any of this. But in this situation, as with Anselm, faith is seeking understanding, not the other way around.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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5 Responses to The Biblical Foundations of Economics

  1. I am curious–does Ritenour treat biblical revelation as something unmediated by human reason? ISTM that even if one accepts the idea that the Bible is God’s revelation this does not solve the epistemological problem if we admit that interpretation is intrinsic to our engagement with the biblical text. The epistemological question, “How do I know?” simply becomes a hermeneutical one, “How do I properly discern divine revelation amid the disparate voices I encounter in the biblical text?”

    • Mr. McCracken,

      What I write in the book on epistemology is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, specifically, his chapter on epistemology in A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF MEN AND THINGS. He adopts a form of apriorism but rejects Kant because, while Kant asserts we can know because we all have mental categories we use to order, classify, and make sense of our sense experience, at bottom each of us have our own personal, individual subjective categories, so while each person forms a perception of reality, no one can perceive things the way the really are. We are led back to skepticism.

      Clark’s solution is to embrace Christian theism. Kant’s epistemological subjectivism problem goes away if the mental categories we possess were given to us by our Creator who also made the rest of the universe in a way that it harmonizes with our mental categories. In other words, only if we accept the existence of the God of the Bible and the Christian doctrine of creation generally and the creation of man specifically, can we be morally certain that truth exists and knowledge is possible. In this regard, Clark is similar to Augustine. That is, I trust, a faithful summary of Clark’s position and I have found it persuasive.

  2. Dr. J says:

    That’s a fair question, Vic, and I don’t know the answer. The chapter in question was just 13 pages, I think, and he may have thought that a discussion of hermeneutics would have been out of place there. He is Orthodox Presbyterian, if that helps any. Maybe he’ll comment here and answer your question.

  3. Tony Gill says:

    You were a great guest last time on Locke. You think you would have enough material for a podcast interview on this topic?

    • Dr. J says:

      Thanks, Tony. I could probably do it with a little time to prep and guidance from you on where you’d like to focus. Or you could get the argument straight from the horse’s mouth and interview Shawn. He’s a good conversationalist and quick on his feet.

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