God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political EconomyGod the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy by M. Douglas Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989. 272 pp.)

Currently the Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies and Theology at Vanderbilt University, M. Douglas Meeks is a renowned researcher on the relation of Christian doctrine to economic, social, and political theory. Dr. Meeks earned both his B.D. and Ph.D. from Duke University and studied as a Fulbright Fellow at Tübingen University. In his previous appointment, he served as the dean and professor of systematic theology at Wesley Theological Seminary. Dr. Meeks has authored 16 books and numerous scholarly articles. He is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church serving as the Director of Wesleyan Studies and the United Methodist Programs.

A Global Community

With the world flattening as Thomas Friedman so famously noted, it is becoming increasingly easy to make relational connections with the worldwide community. Where in the past, the culture of foreign lands seemed distant and, well, foreign, current urban centers amalgamate a myriad of cultures. In other words, the modern age illustrates the ease in which citizens throughout the world can consider the globe as a community.
Yet, business often operates under individualistic principles. Functioning under the theory of self-interest, many companies seek to further their interests only. Is there a theological case to be made for or against these current business practices? In his book, God the Economist, M. Douglas Meeks argues against the current marketplace practices and proposes a dramatic redefinition of “economy.”

Economist Etymology

The premise behind God the Economist is an etymological study of the word “economy.” Current conceptions of the economy conjure visions of a global marketplace and transnational transactions. But, where does the word “economy” come from? Citing the etymology of the word, M. Douglas Meeks suggests that “economy” should be understood through its Greek roots, oikos and nomos or “household” and “rule or law”.
In other words, the source of the term “economy” comes from the word for the household manager. In Greco-Roman times, commerce functioned between households, not companies; the family managed the business, and the marketplace existed as a portion of familial life.
In contrast, current cultural norms bifurcate work life and home life. Given the ancient term defining the economist as household manager, Meeks offers God the Economist as a new metaphor for God. He writes,

“Many of the biblical traditions represent God as engaged in creating, sustaining, and recreating households. Household can refer to the people Israel of the church of Jesus Christ, to families to a royal court or dynasty, to a place of God’s abode, or, in the most comprehensive sense, to the whole creation. God has made Godself responsible for the households of Israel and the church, the households of nations, and the household of everything God has brought into being. The oikonomia tou theo (economy of God) applies to the life of the Christian community (Col. 1:25; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 3:2; 1 Tim. 1:4) as well as to God’s work of creating salvation for the household of the creation (Eph. 1:9-10; 3:9-10). Because of the peculiar promises made by this God, the life of God is inextricably connected with the livelihood and future of these households” (4).

Stated differently, although the modern conception of economy functions remarkably well, it neglects the comprehensive and communal meaning behind the economy – managing the household. This metaphor for God argues for the importance of human livelihood, the significance of a household community above profit.

 The Household Economy as Community

Considering the household community ethic with God understood as an economist, Meeks asserts that the economy ought to perform a transformative task writing,

“it can be said that a theological correlation of the God of Jesus Christ and economy should take place in the midst of and for the sake of those who have been denied access to the household in our society and to the global household” (42-43).

The economy ought not function as a means to ascertain personal needs; it exists as a global household where economics functions as a way in which we relate to each other and serve the poor in order to transform all of society.

The Importance of Service

As the etymology of “economist” suggests, the term defined the household servant in antiquity. The ancient economist served the interests of the household community and entered the marketplace with the household in mind.
Since Scripture frequently mentions the servant-nature of God (see 1 Cor. 1:20-32 and Matt. 6:33 among many others), it is natural to view God as the household economist who acts for the common good of the household.

Arguments Against a Self-Interested Marketplace

What does it mean, however, for businesses to elevate community above profit? Meeks contends that a dramatic shifting of the marketplace must occur.
Currently, markets function under the capitalist assumptions of Adam Smith. With an ethical system based in egoistic consequentialism, business practitioners versed in Adam Smith’s theories trade under the principles of self-interest. In other words, self-interest moderates the marketplace and increases efficiency as everyone produces goods and services at a comparative advantage.
This theory, however, is exceedingly individualistic. By nature, the person in the marketplace looks after her interests and expects everyone else to do the same. In this rubric, it is quite easy for individuals to receive the proverbial short end of the stick.

Growth for Self or Growth for Others

Stated differently, current business practices function on the principle of exchange. With scarce resources, people in the marketplace seek to exchange goods and services in order to maximize individual gain. Under this assumption, modern economists believe that exchange will foster growth for citizens worldwide.
From the perspective of a household economy, unlimited growth is not the ultimate goal. Meeks writes,

“Growth should not be based on infinite needs and acquisition leading to an ever-widening appropriation of nature for the sake of accumulation of wealth as power. Rather growth should be a deepening of human capacities for the service of human development within community” (57).

Again, the critical argument Meeks presents is grounded in the value of the household community in the market place. By inference, the individual exists for the purpose of community, not individuality.

Reconstructing Business as a Household

While God the Economist discusses the Christian principles for rethinking the definition of economy and critiques the modern conception of the marketplace, it does very little reconstruction. However, the principles in the book offer a foundation for Christian-based business operations in the current market.
First, Christians in business must reconsider the classical view of Capitalism presented by Adam Smith. Despite the success of the self-interest system in the marketplace, its individualistic outlook on life makes the creation of community problematic.
Second, the metaphor of God as an economist presents God as a servant leader. Just as the ancient household manager performed business operations with the household in mind, so too does God serve the needs of the global household.
As a Christian in the marketplace, the principle of service is necessary in order to maximize the usefulness of profits for others. The marketplace ought to function for the good of everyone. Thus, as it becomes increasingly easy to connect with the globe, the notion of serving the worldwide community will become more important. For these reasons, I recommend this book!



4 Comments Leave a comment
  • debd

    Very interesting idea! We use the word “oikonomia” in my tradition a lot…but it always refers to how the rules (or laws) are lessened for the needs of others (i.e. fasting is prohibited for someone who is sick or pregnant). However, I would have never thought to join it with the modern word “economy” and the way it is understood in the world today. Fascinating!

  • Donovan Richards

    Thanks for the comment Deb! What is your church tradition? I certainly think there is much that could be influence by linking the economy to its etymological root!

  • debd

    I'm eastern orthodox. I've often wondered why most Orthodox countries embraced socialist style economics. Now you've got me wondering if the word's etymology has something to do with it?

  • Donovan Richards

    Hi Deb! I apologize for my tardy reply. I've been finishing finals. I am not sure if the etymology of economy is linked to a socialist view of economics. It is possible but it might be hard to make a direct link. However, correct me if I am wrong but my understanding of the Orthodox tradition is that it values the divinity of the Holy Spirit more than the Western Church. While both traditions proclaim a Triune God, the Western Church places Father and Son on a pedestal and the Holy Spirit takes a back seat. Orthodox, on the other hand, places all Three Persons on an equal plain. For this reason, Orthodox traditions have a better sense of community between persons because the Triune God relates to God's self equally.

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