Any meaningful discussion of economics from a Christian perspective must be grounded in the epic narrative that God is unfolding in history. That narrative begins with the first two chapters of Genesis. There are at least six aspects of the creation stories that have great importance as we begin to think about economics.
God created all that is and all that is belongs to God. The opening words of Genesis tell us that God created “the heavens and the earth.” This is a euphemism for everything that is. God hovered over the face of the desolate planet and brought it to life. God and the material world are not one in the same but neither is God absent from the created order.
God created an orderly world. One of the most striking features of the Genesis stories, particularly Genesis 1, is the matter-of-fact sequential presentation of events that lead up to the creation of humanity. The Hebrew bara, indicating special creation, is used only in conjunction with the creation of matter, the creation of animals (nephesh) and the creation of humanity. All other mentions of “creation” or “made” have the connotation of someone “superintending the formation of” or “making out of existing materials.” God is a God of order and God loves to create. By studying the order of the created world we come closer to the mind of God.
God created humanity in God's image. Genesis 1:26-27 says,
26 Then God said “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (NRSV)
Verse 26 introduces a peculiar conversation. If God is just about to create humanity, then with whom is God having a conversation? Most scholars I have read believe this is a “conversation” within the trinity. This “conversation” is a way to highlight the fact that something of profound importance requiring great contemplation is about to occur. It punctuates the moment.
The important occurrence is the creation of humanity in God’s image. In what sense is humanity created in God’s image? I believe the verse 26 answers this for us. Human beings share bodies, minds, and emotions with a variety of other species on the planet. What is unique is our ability to reason and be creative using abstract thinking. We have the ability to know the mind of God. Ancient Near East kings erected carved images of themselves throughout their kingdoms as symbols of their authority. (1) God distributes us as images (eikons in Greek) of himself throughout the earth. (2) The eikons are to rule over creation, care for it, and bring it to its full potential just as the king would.
God ordained both individuality and community. God created Adam first and entered into relationship with him as an individual. Individuals are of profound importance to God. But God created Adam out of the community of the trinity and declared that it was not good for man to be alone. God created woman and united the two. Thus, while individuals are important as eikons of God, they are incomplete eikons apart from community. Any theology that embraces individuality to the destruction of community or elevates community to the point of devaluing individuals violates God’s “both and” valuation of humanity.
God placed humanity over creation to be stewards and to be eikons of God's authority. I have already noted that God placed humanity in dominion over creation. Yet, as singer Don Henley once noted, “They don’t make hearses with luggage racks.” God ultimately owns all that is. When it comes to possessing material goods we can have only one of two relationships. We can forgo possessions or we can be stewards of them for God. Any sense of ultimate human ownership is a delusion.
But stewardship isn’t just a default option. It is the mission of humanity. It is the universal call God has given us.
28 God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." 29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. (NRSV)
Just like the eikons of the ancient kings, God desires to have his image spread across the planet, marking his domain. But God’s eikons are not lifeless images. They are animate eikons participating in God’s work of creation and care. The call to creation stewardship did not end with the fall of humanity nor has it been revoked at any later date. Bringing the created order to fruition, including human culture, is still our mission.
God established the ideas of linear time and progress. It is hard for us to fully appreciate how radical the Genesis story is compared to ancient cultures. While other cultures had creation myths, they believed the material world was eternal. Time moved in cycles (e.g. day/night, full moons, seasons, years, saeculum, etc.) The goal was to conform individual and corporate behavior to cycles ordained by the gods. Failure to do so would often bring the wrath of the gods. The modern idea of human events progressing toward ever greater achievement was foreign to ancient thinking.
When the Jews appeared on the scene they introduced the idea of linear time. There was a beginning to time and matter. There was a progression from a formless earth to a bountiful earth with Adam and Eve. The mission given to Adam and Eve was to grow in dominion and fill the earth with eikons of God. This is the genesis of the modern notion of history and progress. Events are moving from a starting point and progressing toward a conclusion.
1. Hans W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, translated by Margaret Kohl, London: SCM Press, 1974, p.160
2. Thanks to Scot McKnight for putting me on to this eikon lingo.