The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics

Paul Oslington, ed.
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Steven McMullen, Economics, Management and Accounting, Hope College

There are a cluster of interesting questions at the intersection of Christianity and economics, some of which go to the core of the disciplines of economics and theology. What is economic justice? How should Christians approach poverty? What is the role of the Church in economic development? How have Christians historically approached economic dilemmas? How can economic thinking help us understand religious behavior today? All of these questions, and many others, are addressed carefully and concisely in The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics. Paul Oslington has brought together important economists, theologians, and sociologists to explore a wide range of scholarship at the intersection of economics and the Christian tradition. The result is exemplary. For students and scholars working in this area, this will be the essential reference volume. The consistent high quality of the contributions is a testament to excellent work by the editor, and to the development of this scholarship in recent years.

The book is organized in five sections, each with five to eight chapters. The different parts each focus on a different area of intersection between Christianity and economics. The first section is primarily historical, the second theological, the third focuses on economic systems, the fourth on economic studies of religion, and the fifth section includes some interdisciplinary exchanges on important questions. Because of these varied areas of focus, within and between sections of the book, the reader gains a wide perspective on the interplay between the topics of interest. In an attempt to introduce this extensive body of work, I will briefly describe each section of the book before discussing the themes that emerge.

Part I of the book focuses on the historical relationship between religious and economic thinking. M. Douglas Meeks begins the section with an extraordinary survey of economic themes in the Bible, and is followed by examinations of the interplay between religious thinking and economics among the Church fathers, the scholastics, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italy, France, and Britain. There is a chapter on the development of Catholic social thought, and a concluding essay on the historical split between the disciplines of economics and theology. This historical overview is necessarily piecemeal and only provides snapshots of the history of theological/economic thought. Given the historical focus on Italy, France, and Britain, the reader is left wondering what kind of developments occurred outside of Western Europe and during the 300-year period between chapters three and four.

Part II switches frames and instead collects summaries of approaches to the integration of theological traditions with economics. While the book cannot cover all corners of the Christian tradition, the span of perspectives in the volume is quite good. The first chapter covers Catholic thought, complementing nicely the chapter on the development of Catholic social thought in the first section. This is followed by essays on Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Theonomist, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal approaches to economics. J. David Richardson finishes the section with a thoughtful essay evaluating different approaches to faith integration in the discipline.

Part III covers large questions about economic systems and development. Max Weber looms large in this section, starting with Max Stackhouse’s chapter which focuses on Weber’s famous thesis regarding religion and economic activity, and continuing through Robert Nelson’s chapter on environmental religion and Peter Heslam’s chapter on development. The essays in this section highlight the important role that religion and theological ideas play in economic life. Paul Williams finishes this section with a chapter arguing that theological concepts are, implicitly, at the center of our global economic system.

Part IV focuses on the growing field of the economics of religion. The chapters do an excellent job of surveying a wide range of literature. Economic models of church behavior, how people and churches associate with each other, spiritual capital, and religious regulation are all covered in detail. The authors manage to survey the important work done in this area while also pointing toward new avenues of exploration and adding to the literature. While much of this volume will be interesting primarily to those with religious commitments, this section, more than the others, adopts the language and methods of the economics discipline, and will be interesting to a broader set of scholars of religious behavior.

The last section of the book is perhaps the most interesting. Oslington gathered together a variety of authors to write about some of the important interdisciplinary questions that animate discussions about economics in the Christian tradition. Included are analyses of economic justice, happiness, usury, anthropology, gender, and poverty. These chapters demonstrate the importance of the thinking that happens at the intersection of economics and religion by illuminating each of these topics with fresh insights.

Across many of the essays there emerges a consensus that this particular area of interdisciplinary inquiry is especially important, and worthy of additional work. It is probably inevitable that an intersection as difficult as this one would receive too little academic attention. Even this excellent text, written primarily by economists, is unlikely to have a large impact among economists because of the substantial barriers that the text attempts to bridge. The volume documents well the history of the split between theology and economics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contemporary economists distrust scholarship that lacks technical precision, and are loathe to write about social phenomena that cannot be quantified. At the same time, religion scholars too often disregard the approach, methods, and priorities of economists.

To overcome this barrier, these authors demonstrate that this kind of interdisciplinary work is necessary for both disciplines. The essays in part I integrate well the history of economic thought with theological movements. The chapters by Meeks and Carrie Miles show how economic knowledge and biblical exegesis are complementary. Andrew Yuengert, Paul Williams, Albino Barrera, Ben Cooper, and others show that knowledge of theology can help economists think about the ethical implications of economic behavior. The chapters in section IV demonstrate that religious behavior can sometimes be understood better when examined through the lens of economic theory. Finally, many of the chapters demonstrate the ways in which specific theological commitments, not just generic religious belief, are economically important.

One place where this volume stands out is in its treatment of contemporary Christianity and economics outside of the industrialized West. Shane Clifton’s chapter on Pentecostal economics, as well as Peter Heslam and Katherine Marshall’s chapters on development all give focused attention to the church in the developing world. We now know something about the importance of religious movements in development, and the cultural and economic differences between religious movements across the globe. These chapters begin to rectify a common blind spot in this kind of academic work.

In a volume that aims to cover material this wide, it is inevitable that there will be gaps in the material that is covered. The section on the history of economics and theology is one such place, where there are notable figures and periods that get no attention. To his credit, Oslington laments some of these omissions in his introduction. Perhaps more noticeable is the fact that the volume has little to contribute to the work that most economists do. While the big questions, historical context, and theological perspectives are important background for the practice of many economists, there are few scholars actively doing work in these areas. Moreover, while formal theory and empirical work make up the vast majority of economic thinking, they are given serious attention only in the section about the economics of religion. It may be that this absence reflects a consensus that the Christian tradition does not have anything substantial to contribute to the technical modeling of business cycles or game theory. It is more likely, however, that this absence reflects a difficult area where scholars still have much work to do.

As might be expected of a volume that aims to serve as a reference, the language and approach used by the authors in this volume will be accessible to scholars across disciplines and to advanced students. While the collection as a whole will be most useful to those working in one of the inter-disciplinary areas covered by the text, many of the chapters will find broad interest among economists and religion scholars. Some parts of the book, moreover, would make excellent contributions to undergraduate or graduate classes. Laypeople who are interested in learning about economics and Christian perspectives would probably be better served by a less-scholarly single-author volume. However, for academics who are new to scholarship about economics and Christianity, there is no better place to start than his volume for a balanced, thorough, and thoughtful introduction to the big questions.

Cite this article
Steven McMullen, “The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:2 , 178-180

Steven McMullen

Hope College