Thinking Theologically: Marketplace Theology: Holiness, Exchange, and Profit-making

– Dave Doty

As an armchair theologian, I believe any endeavor we undertake in the name of Christ should be thoroughly grounded in theological and biblical study, as well as bathed in a healthy dose of reason. The ideas assembled here are an amalgamation of thoughts spread through other writings, including my book, Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, and blog posts at www.edensbridge.org.

The marketplace is based on one foundational activity: exchange. Whether transactions involve information or material goods, every exchange involves the transfer of some value, though that value may be either positive or negative. Every exchange enhances or detracts from the quality of the lives of all those affected by the exchange. Fortunately, exchange is found deeply nested in the character and nature of God thus the question of humankind, created in the image of God (imago Dei), pursuing exchanges is definable as holy or unholy activity dependent upon the motivations, means, and outcomes of exchanges.

The obvious nature of exchanges requires the involvement of two or more parties. The life within the perfect community of the Trinitarian godhead serves as our example of the execution and potential of perfect exchange(s). A great deal of theological development has been done on the topics of work and stewardship simply due to the surface reading of Genesis 2:15: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate (work) it and keep (steward) it.” I in no way want to undermine the importance of these human activities as foci of biblical and theological consideration, but taking either as the launch point for considering a theology of the marketplace subordinates the centrality of the core activity of a marketplace, the exchange. Work and stewardship are obviously functions that facilitate exchange and are quite closely connected to exchange but they are not, in of themselves, of the same nature of the activity of exchange which, again, requires more than one participant while work and stewardship may be performed in isolation.

So, the vital key to exchange is its communality, as implied in the Trinitarian discussion above. Though God deemed creation good, it was not very good while Adam remained alone. The very good came after a community of equals was created (meeting Eve as the ‘ezer neged, in effect, “an appropriate complement” while also reflecting the image of God in Gen 1:27, both male and female). Hence we can conclude that exchanges among peers are a function of the very good (or, as it could be translated, good in abundance, not of material good but perhaps more in keeping with the “completeness” understanding of shalom) of creation since Adam did already have communion (exchanges) with God before the creation of Eve.

Because God is Creator and humankind is creature, exchanges between the two take on a decidedly one-sided perspective. God is the giver and sustainer of life, which is enormously beneficial to humankind, but God has no need of humankind or even anything we might “return” to God in exchange, even giving our lives sacrificially to him. God is perfectly complete without us.

There are three ways humanity benefited from the community of peers established at Eve’s coming into the Garden. First is progeny for the sake of continuity and proliferation through procreation, perhaps modeling the productive outcome of cooperation and collaboration. But Adam’s material well-being as well as his spiritual well-being was also enhanced. The value of exchanges to advancing material well-being is relatively easy to grasp from our common experiences of the division of labor, cooperation, collaboration, and trade throughout history. The gift of human intellectual capacity – for enhancing productive work through efficiencies gained by the division of labor, innovation, and exchange – coupled with the provision of land (the material resources gifted with the earth itself in creation as the primary means of production) provide the foundation of God’s reminder to Israel that it is he alone who has empowered the ability to create wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18).

That ability might well provide for the material survival and, through increasing abundance, the proliferation of God’s people. But what may not be as obvious are the spiritual implications inherent in the activity of exchange. Since there is no need in God of our sacrifices or work, the only way for us to express holiness in exchange must take place in the context of equal or lesser beings or matter, such as with other members of the human family, and in our interactions with the flora, fauna, and inert resources of creation. [It is appropriate to acknowledge the intimate relationship stewardship and exchange, especially as we work with material resources. But the intersections of the holiness / unholiness of exchanges and stewardship also coincide in how we care for people, institutions, the earth, and its lower creatures, and even time as a manageable commodity.]

Shifting gears just a bit: the abundance of the Garden renders the idea of profit pointless, at least in that context. But profit is a logical result of exchanges as it is the gleaning of value added to a product or service by the worker’s labors and expertise. That there would be profit in creation is also explainable by the very expansive nature of creation, the increase of abundance inherent in the seed of fruit, the prolific reproduction of children, or by the practices of animal husbandry. A single mature oak tree will produce as many as 150,000 acorns in a single season. Through time, the human family has grown from a mere handful in its early generations to now more than seven billion members.

Jesus used the proliferation of seed in his Parable of the Sower when he pronounced that good seed, landing on good ground, would yield returns of thirty, sixty or a hundredfold. Increase (or profit) is a product of the very design of creation itself. However, concerning “funding” our provision, we mustn’t place profit at the forefront of our aims in exchanges. Rather, as Jesus admonishes, if we will seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness (the restoration of God’s moral and natural order), at the very least, our basic needs will be met. Profit is not the goal of Kingdom-oriented business but a byproduct of the amalgamation of work, stewardship, and exchange exercised in righteousness.

There are a couple of illustrations in Scripture that demonstrate the reality of fallen humanity in relationship to the holiness / unholiness of our exchanges. One comes in the juxtaposition of Deuteronomy 15:4 – there shall be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land – and Jesus’ statement concerning his own day in quieting those disturbed by the extravagance of his anointing with expensive perfume when he says, “For the poor you always have with you” – Mark 14:7. God had intended that Israel would live according to his commandments, including the just treatment of the marginalized – the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sojourner. Had that expectation been carried out, the absence of the poor and the reality of God being “near” Israel would result in a just society: “So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”  – Deuteronomy 4:6-7.

The objective of exchange in creation is blessing through the pursuit of righteousness, a central characteristic of the imago Dei reflecting the Giver and Sustainer God. Righteous exchange, achieved consistently, results in shalom, the completeness of society. Shalom, like holiness, is a communal term. Neither can transpire in isolation. While individuals may experience personal fulfillment, true shalom applies to a society, encompassing not only people but inhabiting the spaces between them. That is, the morality of righteousness pervades such a society creating a cultural mandate aligned with the loving Spirit of God. Shalom is the fruit of righteous relationship, or plainly, of holiness, the fruit of the activity of holy – pure, loving, righteous, just – actors.

So the foundational points in a theology of the marketplace are not work nor stewardship per se. The foundations of our theological understanding begin in the character and nature of a holy God and manifest such we see that

1)     Exchange is designed into creation to enhance material and spiritual provision and proliferation;

2)     Just trade reflects the loving kindness and righteousness of God;

3)     And increase (profitability resulting from the productive efficiencies of cooperation, collaboration, and innovation) is a natural outcome of functioning within the originally created, holy order.

If we align ourselves to the righteousness of God in exchange, the resulting shalom illuminates the presence of God among us. Our stewardship of the manifold grace (kindness manifest as blessing) of God, through economic, social, and environmental justice, by our good works carried out in the name of Christ, is our most powerful evangelical witness to the glory of God amidst a lost and dying world.

Dave Doty is the author of Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission and the Founding / Executive Director of Eden’s Bridge, Inc., an information brokerage and marketplace missions networking  ministry based in Norcross, Ga.

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