James K.A. Smith has written extensively on how our hearts are—often unintentionally—formed by our habits. What investing habits are we participating in that may be subtly shaping our view of money?
Most Christian investing today is shaped more by the culture than by the Bible. That’s a problem. Still, it’s not as surprising as it might seem. After all, how is it even possible for the Bible to inform contemporary investing, given that it was written millennia before the advent of our modern financial markets?
That may seem like a simple question – if we think the only contribution the Bible makes to our decision-making is to lay down a few broad ethical boundaries we have to stay within. But if we want the Bible to guide us in a deeper and more profound way, we have to ask how the Bible can play that role in an area like investing, where our social world is so vastly different from the one in which the Bible was written.
Indeed, the only reason modern financial markets are even possible is because we figured out that some of the most clear and direct statements the Bible makes about investing (i.e., lending in the expectation of profit) simply don’t apply to the kind of investments we typically make now. As modern economic structures like corporations , banks, and insurance firms began to form in the late medieval and early modern period, theological scholars (especially of the Salamanca School) showed that we could draw a clear distinction between the kind of loans that were empowering these new structures – loans to businesses, which can afford to take prudent risks – and the kind of loans forbidden in the Old Testament – loans to people in need, whose distress should not be exploited for gain.
But if modern financial markets only came into existence by drawing this distinction between the biblical world and ours, where does that leave us when it comes to applying the Bible to our investing? Fortunately, recent theological thinking points us in a helpful direction.
One common answer to the problem of how the Bible can apply to our modern world is that we should draw general ‘principles’ from the Bible to guide us. This involves abstracting our way upward (so to speak) from the highly specific, tangible realities of the biblical world to a sort of 30,000-foot level of generalization. At that high level of abstraction, we find broad ethical principles. Then we contextualize our way back downward, to apply those principles to our own highly specific, tangible world.
For example, in the Old Testament, when owners of fields and vineyards harvested the fruits from their land, they were required to leave the edges of the land unharvested. People who neither owned land nor had a secure place in a landowning household could then make their living by “gleaning” – harvesting the edges of someone else’s land, and also pick up whatever the owner’s workers had dropped. We don’t have to make this biblical practice normative today, but we can see a general principle in it that we can adopt: Those in need should always have the opportunity to work with their own hands to support themselves, and those who have wealth should be prepared to sacrifice some of what they have to make this opportunity available.
Clearly there is one level on which this approach works just fine. There were no cars in biblical times, but because it is a biblical principle that we should respect human life, it’s obvious we shouldn’t drive our cars with reckless disregard for safety. Similarly, the Bible says not to steal, and to be generous to those in need, and lots of other principles that apply to how we use money. Those principles don’t change with the invention of modern financial markets.
However, as theologians are increasingly pointing out, this common process of ‘principlizing’ the Bible involves hazards that can be easily overlooked if we’re not careful. Perhaps the biggest one is that it tends to leave most of the actual content of the Bible out of the picture!
The vast majority of what we find in the Bible is not clearly and straightforwardly ‘principlizable.’ How would we apply Psalm 23 to modern decision-making by this method? Or most of the other psalms, for that matter? Or the history books that recount the events of the reigns of the Israelite kings? What is the ‘principlized’ application of Moses seeing God’s back, or Saul consulting the witch of Endor, or bears mauling the youths who mocked Elisha’s baldness, or Jephthah killing his daughter? Paul says “all scripture” is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness; can we really leave this much of it on the ethical cutting-room floor?
A related problem is that this approach tends to limit what we get out of the Bible to very broad, simple rules. Is there nothing else to get out of the gleaning laws besides making sure gainful employment is widely available? For example, were these laws also summoning land owners and the poor into a relational and community solidarity with one another that is not adequately substituted for by bureaucratized jobs programs? If the Bible gives us only very basic rules, it won’t be deeply formative.
There’s also the question of how we know we’re drawing the right principles from scripture? What if we’re just reading into the Bible the principles we want to find there? Can we articulate a standard that would control our use of the text?
These issues help explain why ethical engagement with the Bible tends to be anemic among modern Christians. We can appropriate the Bible’s clear, didactic teaching and some other kinds of simple rules – don’t steal! – but that leaves most of the big questions in life still on the table. What is the proper purpose of the things I do? How do I interpret the meaning of the things I encounter in my world? How do I set priorities when two things I want to do, or two things I feel responsible for, or two rules I have to obey, are in tension or conflict?
Anyone familiar with the broad landscape of entities whose goal is to help Christians understand investment biblically will recognize these patterns of principlization. Typically, the parable of the talents is invoked to establish that investing is good, and that its goal is to maximize returns. Proverbs is invoked to establish that we should invest with long time horizons, seek wise counsel, etc. Ecclesiastes may be invoked to establish that we should diversify our portfolios. And so on, and so on, until a sizable collection of principles to guide our investing has been assembled.
It isn’t hard to see how this approach is vulnerable to the problems outlined above. It leaves most of scripture on the cutting-room floor, dwelling at length on a few selected passages while leaving the majority of the Bible out of the picture. It reduces the biblical witness to a set of very broad, simple rules that aren’t deeply formative and don’t challenge us at the level of meaning and purpose. And it is all too clear that with this method there is no controlling standard — one that would prevent the interpreter from reading a philosophy of investing into the Bible rather than having our approach be truly formed by the Bible.
This is not to say that Christian investment entities are any worse than the general Christian population when it comes to how they use the Bible. On the contrary, the point is precisely that they tend to use the Bible in exactly the same casual way that Christians in general tend to use it.
Given the problems of this principlization, it also shouldn’t be surprising that Christian investing is one of the arenas deeply affected by the anemic biblical engagement of the church today. Most Christians invest according to the dominant cultural paradigm, in which investors are supposed to care only about earning returns for themselves, and the business activities empowered by the investment are of no concern to them. It’s true that broad, abstract ethical rules – such as avoiding specific investments that tie the investor too closely to activities that are clearly wrong – are sometimes brought to bear on this activity (although even this low level of ethical engagement is more unusual than it ought to be). But is this all we can do to connect investing to the Bible?
To overcome these pitfalls, a growing number of theologians are developing different models for how we can apply the Bible to decision-making in the modern world. One of the most influential of these models centers on receiving the Bible as a window into an “implied world.” Every text in the Bible has implications for understanding what kind of world we live in. Of each text, we can ask: “If this account is true, what does it imply about who God is, about the history and nature of things in the world he made, about what God has done and is doing, and about what God wants me to do?” As we ask this of all the texts in scripture, it adds up to a coherent “implied world.”
The God implied by the Bible is the real God. The history and nature of things in God’s world implied in the Bible is the actual history and nature of things. And what the Bible implies God wants me to do is what God in fact wants me to do. Which means our job is to act as if the “implied world” of the Bible is the actual world that we are living in right now.
Within this framework, we can bridge the gap between the social structures of the world the Bible was written in and the social structures of our world by placing both these structures within a shared history. The Bible tells us the story of the universe from beginning to end, and because its story is the true story of the real world, our social structures are part of that same story – they just happen to be a part of the story that isn’t written down in the Bible. We can place ourselves and our world within the Bible’s story, and then ask ourselves: “If the story of the world according to the Bible is the true story of the real world, what should my part of the story be?” Our job is then to enact that role through our decisions.
This allows us to ‘principlize’ the Bible responsibly, under controlling guidance. It also lets us do much more with the Bible than just ‘principlize’ it. The Bible can now speak more deeply to our purpose in life, how we understand the meaning of things in our world, and how we can set priorities among competing needs and principles.
In part two of this two-part series, we’ll look specifically at stock investing, to explore some of the ways our investment decisions can be shaped by the Bible’s “implied world” and the ongoing biblical story in which we play our part.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.