The Vital Role of Marketplace Theology

(This essay is a reflection on the central thesis of the book Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, © David B. Doty, 2011, available from the author or from Wipf & Stock Publishers.)

In recent decades two strains of theological development have gained a significant amount of attention: the theology of work and the theology of stewardship. Both have proven important in informing us about God’s explosive movement in the marketplace, especially in the last few decades. I spent a fair amount of time investigating both these areas of concern in my own research over the past several years.

But I hit a wall when I came to Deuteronomy 8:18 – “But you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” In this passage, God is reminding Israel that their economic success does not emerge from either their inherent goodness or the diligence of their work. But there is little to nothing in the surrounding text to answer two critical questions: How did God give them the ability to create wealth?, and how does the increase of their wealth fulfill the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Unpacking that verse in an attempt to answer those questions is what ultimately led to me writing Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission. While all this is taken up in detail in the book, I offer the following as a brief on the theological message it articulates: the marketplace is an institution of God, implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 1–2 and vital to God’s mission in the world (the missio Dei).

The first question – How did God give them the ability to create wealth? – is answered by two provisions God made for Israel – land and community. “How is wealth created” as a generic question is answered most simply by three economic components: access to the means of production, the division of labor, and advantageous exchanges between workers, i.e., trade. My quest to understand the interaction of these three, in effect, the functionality of a market economy, as a partial answer to the original question led me to the conclusion that the marketplace, as a means to create wealth (as abundance), is an institution of God. If that is so, I wondered if it was an original intent, that is, in creation or something that came later.

My curiosity led me to re-read Genesis 1–2, which I had read many times before but now from a different perspective. Were those foundational components of the marketplace present in the Garden narrative? Hopefully, the reader has already surmised the conclusion that I finally reached that they are indeed.

In creation, the Garden (the earth), like the land for Israel and now for all, is the foundation of the means of production. Given energy from the sun (and now through materials mined from the ground, gravity, such as tidal and wave energy, environmental energy, such as wind, and ground source, or geothermal, energy), the Garden produced all that the first family needed, not only to survive but to thrive. Adam had only to put forth what must be assumed to be a nominal effort to do well. The land, the eco-creation, is the primary means of production, and remains so even today as buildings, vehicles, electronic devices, clothing, food, and machinery are all constructed or derived from the elements of the earth.

Interesting to note, at least to me, is the realization that God never commanded Adam to work. To work and take care of the Garden, rather, were part of Adam’s reason for being and in particular relationship to his physical context. “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). To work and take on the responsibility of overseeing the Garden were, in effect, written into the DNA of what it means to be human in the sense of the purpose, at least in part, for our having been created. But this was Adam’s work . . . alone. His “calling” to work and to stewardship, if you will, was in isolation.

Then God deemed that Adam was not to be or work alone, that it was not good. God did not simply create a wife for Adam to produce progeny and perpetuate the species. God first identifies Eve as the ‘ezer neged, an appropriate or suitable help mate, in Genesis 2:18. She is not identified as wife until 2:24. Not only the foundational elements of labor and stewardship were established in the Garden but the introduction of Eve introduced the expectation of the division of labor.

The division of labor creates the opportunity for expanding economies. The first step is simply by making labor more efficient, dividing the tasks within a given project, whether as foundational as gathering food or complex as transnational manufacturing and marketing of goods. Efficiency gains are productivity gains, the foundation of creating new wealth as an abundance greater than can be produced alone. The division of labor, through increased efficiencies, allows for the development of specialized skills which further enhance productive efficiency within a community.

Thus far we have seen that God has provided, from creation, two of the three elements critical to the establishment of a market economy – access to the means of production (land, in this case) and the division of labor (to move work beyond work in isolation). The third element – exchange – brings up being made in the image of a Trinitarian God, a self-contained community.

Sadly, the only exchange between Adam and Eve given in the creation narrative is when she shared with him the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is easily understood that this awakened them to the determination of their own sense of morality. It was also the violation of the relationship they had with God.

But other exchanges between them are implied by the introduction of the help mate. A lone actor can be diligent and godly in both the mental and physical tasks of their work. A lone actor can also be diligent in protecting and optimizing whatever means of production, whether land, machinery, or information, is available. Hence, the theologies of work and stewardship can be taken as individual concerns. But Adam, even before the introduction of Eve, was never alone, and nor are we. He walked with God in the Garden and now we abide with a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).

For many of us, to walk with God (or even having an unseen cloud of witnesses) is largely an ethereal experience given that God is spirit and fundamentally intangible, having no body. The introduction of Eve made the idea of relationship tangible, visible, present in a real way. Adam may have been able to distance himself in his relationship with God if the Presence of God was ethereal but Eve was as real as real could be.

Adam was created in the image of God but his rebellion altered that image. His rebellion changed the relationship with God, who put him out of the Presence in the Garden, and it altered his relationship with Eve. At the heart of God’s creation were two people, designed to work together as a reflection of the image of a holy God. They were designed to be holy as God is holy, that the character of righteousness and justice would dictate their relationships with God and with one another.

To move beyond the theologies of work and stewardship, in fact to create the biblical foundation and the fullness of those theologies, we must come to understand the theology of the marketplace, of the interpersonal exchanges between God and humankind, within the human family, and between humankind and the environment created for our sustainability.

The marketplace is the most pervasive institution in human experience. To some degree, every person is affected by economic interactions with others. At the heart of the theology of the marketplace is God’s design for human community, that we live together in mutual support striving toward the re-establishment of God’s reign in the world, that is, moral order directing and fulfilling economic, political, social, and environmental justice (though, given the multitude of directing moral philosophies, even within Christendom, how that justice works out remains somewhat open to interpretation).

In no way does the Bible endorse socialistic or communistic models of governance or economics as they have come to mean in the present day. It is for freedom that we have been made free (Galatians 5:1) . . . free from the penalties of sin and death, free to worship God without encumberance from within or without, free to become as God originally intended us to be. The governmental, social, political, and economic endeavors of God’s children, however, are undertaken in obedience and response to God’s leading and goodness toward righteousness and justice, by choice rather than by the coercive influences of state or sect.

Though the marketplace was established in creation itself, there was no need of profit for sustainability . . . only obedience to God. We now live in a fallen world and sustainability hinges on working with and within the world’s system to a great degree. A re-oriented view of the marketplace, in Kingdom perspective, however, may lead us to pursue restoring godliness in our relationships with God and one another and, seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, allowing God the freedom to bless us anew as we cling to His ways and priorities, even if sometimes He asks us to risk worldly security beyond our understanding.

The marketplace, in God’s original intention, was a means to more than sustain us. It is for us to enjoy Him and His creation in abundance. It is for us to develop holy living in relationships. Economic discipline is vital to our survival and flourishing, all of us, and many in our world are not flourishing. Jeffrey Sachs, in The End of Poverty, points out that we have sufficient wealth to end global poverty but lack the political will. Accumulation in the hands of too few keeps too many from the basic needs of nutrition, health care, education, and economic freedom. That is why understanding God’s design and purposes for the marketplace, in creation and now moving toward redemption, is vitally important for the church and the world: because God cares for the least of these.

2 Comments

Filed under Faith in the Marketplace

2 responses to “The Vital Role of Marketplace Theology

  1. Brian Longwe

    I like the article. Thanks for such detailed explanation of the Marketplace.

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