April 17: Buswell on Economic Liberty

Some years ago, while compiling the series of articles on presuppositionalism which appeared in THE BIBLE TODAY, I noticed the following article in the April 1949 issue which might have some contemporary interest. This particular article is a transcript of a radio message, the third in a series of five messages on the general theme “The Biblical Basis of Liberty.” These messages were delivered over the ABC Network in the spring of 1949, under the auspices of the American Council of Christian Churches.

What the Bible Teaches About Economic Liberty


THE Biblical doctrine of economic liberty begins in the book of Genesis in the Garden of Eden before any sin had entered into the good world which God had made. Moses tells us, “And the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it,” Genesis 2:15. Here we have the elements of harmonious economic activity. It is in the spirit of the Scripture for us to expand the sentence in its setting, to include the tilling of the soil and the entire range of the cultivation of natural resources, as a normal activity for man.

The next step in the economic doctrine of the Bible is found in the third chapter of Genesis after man’s fall, after sin had entered into the world, after man had corrupted the holy character which God had given him. As a part of the disciplinary punishment for sin we read that God said, “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Genesis 3:17-19.

Reflecting upon the symbolism which Moses here gives, it appears that one of the best disciplines God has given to a sinful race is the economic necessity of earning a livelihood. We need not look far to see many illustrations of the fact that hard work, the necessity of providing food, shelter, education and development for our children, is a stabilizing, integrating factor in human life.

The economic implications of the Mosaic law are too vast to examine in detail in a brief message of this kind. Suffice it to say that the principles of thrift, industry, provision for one’s family, and care of the unfortunate are all implied, or expressly taught. Much attention has been focused upon the law of the year of jubilee. Some have falsely supposed that a sort of communistic economic principle was implied. But nothing could be further from the facts. The import of the law of the year of jubilee was to keep the agricultural lands distributed among the families of the nation. Monopoly of natural resources was prevented. Fair opportunity for all was the end in view.

The prevention of monopoly of natural resources is a constant theme in the Bible from the time of Moses through to the end of the New Testament. Isaiah says, for example, “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no room . . .” Isaiah 5:8. The clear implications of Isaiah’s teaching are in accordance with the principle of modern reform legislation keeping the natural resources of the land available for all.

The central text of the New Testament in the realm of economic doctrine is, I believe, Ephesians 4:28, in which St. Paul places before the church the Christian ideal of economic activity, namely, “Let him that stole steal no more; but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Here we have liberty, thrift, industry, saving, private property, and care for the weak and unfortunate all clearly implied as economic principles.

Some have taken their chief text for New Testament economic doctrine from the experiment in communism recorded in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. It is true that under the spiritual impulse of Pentecost, the Christian community in Jerusalem practiced economic communism. All who have carefully read the record have observed, however, that the community of goods was purely voluntary. The record makes it perfectly clear that there was no compulsion, and one who did not wish to contribute his property to the common fund was equally in good standing with one who did so contribute.

Beyond the immediate record, however, there are other facts in the New Testament which have not been so commonly understood. When Saul of Tarsus was converted and became the Apostle Paul, and when he began the establishment of churches throughout the great cities of the Roman world, with his keenness and wisdom, he instituted an economic principle diametrically opposed to the community of goods which the Jerusalem group had been practicing. In his earliest epistles, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, he teaches individual thrift and industry, private property and individual responsibility, and he said most emphatically “that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” 2 Thess. 3:10. A moment’s reflection will show that Paul had seen the weakness of the Jerusalem practice.

When there was a famine in both Antioch and Jerusalem, Antioch, where Paul was in charge, had to feed Jerusalem where the communistic experiment had been going on. Thus the New Testament demonstrates the communistic experiment to have been a failure.

At the end of Paul’s life, we find his same doctrine of economic liberty clearly taught in his latest writings. With reference to the care of widows in particular, but with application to all dependents, Paul taught “But if any provide not: for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.” (I Timothy 5:8)

Not only in the clear and direct teachings of the Scripture, but also in the prophetic portions, looking far on into the future and forecasting the conditions under the reign of the Messiah, the visible kingdom of God on earth, individual liberty and responsibility is the ideal. Both Isaiah and Micah, his contemporary, predict that when the Messiah of Israel rules over all the earth, and when all harmful pests and pestilences, noxious weeds and poisonous reptiles, are done away, when the “desert shall blossom as the rose” and when an “handful of corn” in the tops of the mountains shall bring forth fruit “like Lebanon,” in that day of economic peace and blessedness, “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; [not the public vine and fig tree] and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.” Micah 4:4

It is thus the ideal of the Scripture from beginning to end that economic liberty and economic responsibility shall prevail.

This does not mean that Bible believing Christians must necessarily oppose all social economic enterprise. We have no argument as to whether the government of society in general shall, or shall not, own and operate the public utilities. We do not claim Scripture sanction for detailed economic policies of State for all believers under all circumstances. What we claim is that the Bible teaches that the economic world at all times should be so organized that individual responsibility and enterprise will be free to engage in productive activities with honest hope of economic reward.

Some will say, “This theme seems remote from the gospel. It does not sound like Bible teaching.” Let me emphasize the fact that Bible teaching is practical teaching, and that there is much instruction in the Bible for the daily conduct of our lives; finally, and most important, let me point out that economic liberty taught in the Bible, economic liberty coupled with individual responsibility, is quite in harmony with, and is a necessary implication of, the gospel of God’s grace, offered freely to all mankind. Just as the “earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,” and just as he has “given it to the children of men,” (Psalm 24:1 and 115:16), so the grace of God for salvation, for everlasting life, is free and boundless, and offered to all mankind “without money and without price.” As free as the air we breathe, as free as the rain which God sends upon us all, so free for all who will receive it is God’s saving grace.
Dr. Buswell’s conclusion provides us with a fitting Words to Live By:
Christ has come into the world to reveal the love of God for the race of mankind which has corrupted itself and gone the way of sin and confusion. If we obey God’s economic law, economic peace and harmony will prevail; if we accept God’s spiritual plan, we shall discover that “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13. See Joel 2:32)


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