Chris Sugden, 24 January 2019


‘Left’ and ‘right’ political and economic categories cannot be applied to the bible’s economic understanding, and are of little use in addressing society.  So concluded a seminar in Campion Hall Oxford on January 16th where biblical scholars and professionals in law and business examined “The Social and Economic Teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures”.

It was convened by the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Economics, set up after the 2008 financial crisis by Lord Brian Griffiths, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Director Dr Richard Turnbull, former chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council said that the Centre sought to bring intellectual thinking from the Judaeo Christian tradition and support Christian business people that ethics matter and make a difference to the world of business which is part of God’s provision for society.

Oxford Professor John Barton showed that the view of Old Testament as full of bloodshed, violence and futurist predictions had been replaced by the prophetic demands for God’s justice in the political sphere. These could not be equated to left wing political demands for they envisaged an order that God provided. To disregard that order, answerable to God, was sin.

Rev Dr Ben Cooper from Christ Church, Fulwood, Sheffield argued that no economics was value free: for example neo-classical economics promotes libertarianism and most people are not libertarian. The Old Testament is not neutral on capitalism. The restoration of good order, for example by remitting debts, was not to take advantage of the poor and leave them trapped in poverty but to help them back to productive activity with a stake in the land. The seventh year restoration showed that accumulation of wealth is not what human life is about. Helping the needy without despising wealth generation spans the ‘liberal-conservative’ divide and exposes the capacity of modern capitalism to manipulate.  Since the law cannot deal with lack of love in the human heart, full restoration of God’s good order can only take place in Jesus Christ.

Zero interest loans and the need for credit

Rabbi Norman Solomon tackled balancing zero interest loans to the poor as an extreme and kind measure in a close knit community, with the need for commercial rates for credit without which money supply dries up. Scripture does not distinguish them, thinking of lending in a small community but not saying so. Scripture’s principle is not that interest is wrong but to help people in need. It is easier to attract funds to help the poor if interest is charged.

Wisdom literature and Business Schools

Business schools seem to have lost their way, claimed Professor Paul Fiddes, former Principal of Regent’s Park College since they do not foster skills of judgement based on wisdom, experience and the relational way of knowing. Wisdom literature offers advice on taking prudent decisions with actions appropriate to the situation. Wisdom ignores the social and economic upheavals in Israel and speaks of everyday life for everyone despite the changing fortunes of society. Comparing order in the Hebrew literature with the rigid order of Egyptian society, he showed how God establishes, watches over and can be encountered within the order. But the order cannot be understood completely. It needs to be approached with the fear of the Lord, openness to God encountered in the world and humility in the midst of calculations. Humility in the face of the unknown can defend against conservatism. Engaging in the rhythms of love and justice causes participants to flourish in their social life, respect the elderly and learn from the past.

Current applications

Bristol Professor Jonathan Burnside drew current applications for politics and economics: balance liberty with a just distribution of assets, observe intergenerational justice, and combine environmental concern with economic growth. The economic and the social come together in the land which is not just capital but involves relationships; property is not a thing but the relationship one has with a thing, and subject to limits on what is to done with it because of the effects on relationships. Parties need to share risk and profit in contrast to relational distance in modern society. This challenges both left and right.

CEME plans to publish the seminar’s papers.