Bible versus capitalism

Bible versus Capitalism

  • Introduction

Even Christian theologians discuss matters of economy and society. They use the bible as a source of wisdom. The first Testament is about the origins of our reality, and about the history of the Jews. The second Testament is about the redemption offered by Jesus, in the name of God. In a earlier article I discussed the contributions by the theological economist Goudzwaard (Keizer, 2020). He observes that Western societies suffer from modernity – ni Dieu, ni Maitre. Humans are rational and able to get their situation increasingly under control. In contrast to the typical modern approach, Goudzwaard uses the Biblical wisdom to interpret global economic, social and political developments.

Another theological economist is Duchrow. He uses a different framework to interpret biblical texts, and reach different conclusions (Duchrow, 1998). Goudzwaard encourages people to make justice, peace and love to their absolute goals. Duchrow agrees with that, but also notices that global capitalism is a totalitarian system, that must be transformed by political action. In section 2 and 3 we discuss Duchrow’s analysis of global capitalism and the biblical alternative. Then we will criticize it from Goudzwaard’s perspective. Next to that, I will offer my ideas about the topic. We end up with some conclusions.

  • Duchrow’s analysis of global capitalism

According to Duchrow the introduction of money was a major historical event. It   made possible for persons and families to accumulate wealth. They began to specialise in particular products and exchange them on markets. The first markets were local, and embedded in the culture of the people. But the growth of long-distancing markets distorted the social and environmental restrictions, set upon market behaviour. Communities fell apart. Individualisation and class conflicts led to a long cycles of accumulation of wealth and (political) power for a relatively small elite.

The emergence of Italian city-states in the period 1000 – 1500 was the beginning of capitalism. Globalisation is one of the unavoidable outcomes of it. Venetian merchants financed the Crusades and the travels to the East. In this way they gained increasing control over large areas. Genoa did the same by travelling to the West. Later the Dutch took over control of sea routes. Amsterdam became the capital of ‘global capitalism’. So far, the trades were limited to matters, such as spices, gold, cotton and artistic objects. Local markets offered the indigenous people their necessities. But the importance of long-distancing trades increased. The economic activities were increasingly protected by the army of the centre-state. History shows that empires grow, flourish and stagnate. This long-run cycle is caused by regular overaccumulation of capital, making capital less profitable. Capitalists react by searching for new markets in the world. Speculation on the financial markets, and starting a new war, thereby taking valuable raw material from the weaker areas, are other much applied strategies. Labour and land were exploited, and over time resistance grows. An empire crashes, when the resistance becomes too strong. After a period of chaos new powers take over.

Recently the USA installed a global empire in 1944. In Bretton Woods they pressed the other countries to adopt a monetary system, which was based on the dollar. By linking this currency to gold, and linking all other currencies to the dollar, a stable system was constructed. Over time the USA abused their power, and issued much more dollars than was necessary for the American economy. By creating a structural deficit on the current account of the balance of payments they exported dollars to other countries, which used them as a medium of exchange in the international trade. A very lucrative business, of course. In 1971 the USA stopped the right to buy monetary gold, a distrustful measure. From the 1980s onwards, neoliberal policies were introduced. Deregulation of financial and labour markets, monetarist monetary policy according to the doctrines of monetarism, and the application of the balanced-budget rule. Full-fledged capitalism under the leadership of Thatcher and Reagan. The Americans were more opportunistic than the British and the European Continent: budget deficits were considered no problem. It led to capital flows into the USA structurally growing. Today another global empire in status nascendi, China, has a huge amount of dollar-assets in its portfolio!

Duchrow wrote his book in 1998. So, when writing he was not aware of the coming crises: the credit crunch of 2008, and the subsequent global depression, the migration crisis of 2015 in Europe, and the first negative effects of the global climate change. All crises can be explained as the predictable outcome of global capitalism, as interpreted by Duchrow..

  • Duchrow’s interpretation of the Bible

Many theologians approach the bible in a very logical and analytic way. They develop a conceptual framework and produce doctrines. Others approach their God in a more pietistic way. Belief is a personal emotion about the personal relationship between believer and his God. But Duchrow considers bible texts as the history of the Jews, and their relationship with their Jahweh. He is the God of all people, with a special attention for the poor and excluded. Duchrow’s historical approach is about the here and now, not about heaven and hell in the aftermath.

In contrast to the surrounding empires Israel considers Jahweh as the only King – He symbolises the unity of the human community, and is known by his preference for justice, peace and love. He created humans, who have a choice. They can go for personal and familial wealth accumulation, and for pleasure and comfort. But they can also try to reflect His love for justice and peace.

An important characteristic of the other countries was their monarchy or kingship. All subordinates were obliged to beseech him, and had to pay tributes. This was necessary for the maintenance of a royal economy, which should be defended against foreign and internal rivals. Pre-emptive strikes were quite usual. Hierarchy, inequality and domination were the rule. Exploitation of labour, slavery and terrible injustice were the reason for some Jews to develop an alternative. Gods and kings, who want to be beseeched? No, Jahweh operates as a servant, who cares for his creation. No kingship, no fixed images of god, represented by pictures and sculptures, no fixed place, which is His home. No, God’s love is where there are people. Over time the Jewish people settled themselves in Palestine, and adopted a whole series of institutions, to guarantee that justice would be done to all persons. By way of illustration we mention a few rules now. In the first place, the abolishment of the royal tributes, and the introduction of a social tax. In the second place, local markets were embedded by means of a set of rules, which should protect the weaker market party – food prices not too high, no interest rates in case of poor borrowers, every week a sabbath to give workers the physical and mental rest they need, every seven years debtors are relieved from their debts. Finally once in a period of 7 times 7 year people who had to sell their land were allowed to return to their previous land.

Israelian history shows cycles of justice and peace – up and down, highly correlated with the degree to which the laws of Jahweh were respected. Today’s global capitalism has totalitarian properties – it affects human behaviour in all its aspects. Nobody can really escape from it, neither the rich and famous nor the unseen people, living in their poor and violent neighbourhoods. Political action is needed to change the property relationships of our production processes. Only then communities can flourish.

  • Critique of Duchrow’s analysis by a Goudzwaard-type of analysis

In Keizer (2020) I have extensively discussed the view of Goudzwaard on the global capitalistic system. In short, he considers this system being a consequence of modernity. This phenomenon emerged in Western Europe in the time of the Renaissance (15th century) and became more influential in period of the Enlightenment (18th century). Modernity means that there is no God, and there is no master. We, humans, have to develop ourselves and discover how our environment is working. More knowledge means more control, and more control means more richness. Reliable knowledge can only be based on thinking and empirical observation. Modern mathematics, physics and chemistry, including bio-chemistry are the result of leaving metaphysics, including theology out of consideration. They offer us the technology, which caused gigantic growth in wealth and comfort. Many people in the Western world are liberated from poverty, bad health and bad schooling. There is no reason to be afraid – just work and enjoy.

Goudzwaard characterises this modern view as a tunnel vision. It leaves out of consideration vital elements, such as justice, peace and love. The ultimate goal is wealth accumulation, realised by a relatively small number of people, at the cost of the opportunities of many others. Not only labour is exploited, also nature is seen as an inexhaustible source of raw materials. People have learned to see nature as infinitely exploitable and other humans as rivals. Modern people live without the love and inspiration of the God, who revealed himself in the Bible.

Reality is different. Goudzwaard’s paradigm consists of three axioms. In the first place, our reality is created by God. He is the owner, and we are his stewards. God is always active; his spirit can inspire us. Secondly, we are called to take justice, peace, and love as our absolute goals. Thirdly, keep hope, whatever the circumstances. This paradigm is the pure opposite of the strategies, followed by powerful elites, which are not inspired by the gospel. They trust the stick, take revenge and are filled with hatred of all who stand in their way. They want to dominate and to play as if they are god, who wants to be beseeched.

Goudzwaard’s analysis is quite different from Duchrow’s. Duchrow pleas for political action, and a radical change in the production relationships. Legislation must prevent capitalists being the owner of the productive means. The production organisations must be focussed on a maximisation of their value added to the common wealth of a nation – values that reflect the necessities of the people. Goudzwaard pleas for a change in the mentality and culture of the people. Persons and groups must change their minds and hearts, and realise a shift in focus – not just wealth maximisation, not just material consumption. They must try to specify the absolute goals of justice and peace, and care for our nature. This specification depends on the context – so, people living in and around Vladiwostok will develop a different life style, compared with people in Colombia, for instance. What the various communities will have in common, is their style of leadership: serving those in trouble, never excluding people. The way people treat animals might be telling. Are they just exploited and consumed, or do they have their own rights?

How come that the two authors end up so differently, while both have the same ultimate values? Their scientific paradigms differ, and that leads to a different set of instruments to reach particular goals. Different instruments sounds quite technical; what is meant is a different life style, a different way of approaching each other, and of solving economic, social and political problems. Duchrow uses the typical radical economic analysis to understand capitalism. Goudzwaard uses a social economic approach. I interpret the difference as Marx versus Weber. Marx considers capitalism essentially as an economic structure, which should be altered. Weber considers the understanding of reality of people as the main determinant of their behaviour. What are the models and ultimate goals of consumers, investors, and workers? Duchrow tries to convince people of the necessity of changes in the legal structure. Goudzwaard is doing the same for changes in the ultimate goals of people: from material wealth accumulation to justice and peace. The first ultimate goal leads to hatred, violence, injustice and an irreversible exhaustion of nature. The second series of ultimate goals leads to responsible management of the earth.

  • Different paradigms, different analyses, different therapies

Duchrow follows Marx in his economic analysis. In a free market economy, in which the capitalists are the owners of the productive means, many workers will remain unemployed. Wages will not structurally increase above a minimum level of subsistence. Technological progress is of a laboursaving type, which creates more unemployment in the future. The accumulation of capital leads to concentration of the production. The capitalists profit from their monopoly positions. Labour is forced to produce more value than they earn and the difference (=surplus) is taken by the capitalists. There is,however, one big problem for the capitalists: their aggregate behaviour leads to overaccumulation. The smallest companies are going bankrupt, and only the largest companies survive. Capitalists and workers, who offer their capital and labour for a price lower than the market price cheaper, will not survive. That’s the reason why not people, but the system must change. That’s why only a radical political change can stop this process of growing inequality. Duchrow uses the bible to show that there is an alternative. The poor and enslaved people need protection on the markets, and politics must break through the power of the exploiting elite. The victims of this system must organise themselves, and convince the masses of the people which alternatives are feasible. Lower working time, higher wages, more government intervention to prevent education and health care becoming commodities, which values are just market values.

Weber tells us a different history. From the very beginning of capitalism we see that workers develop a countervailing power. Why should capitalists opt for technologies that leads to many lay-offs, while labour is so terribly cheap. Why should they consume much of the profits, while investments are so profitable? Why should the masses of the people, including the unemployed and disabled accept their misery so passively? History shows many cases of successful protests. From the beginning governments face pressure from capitalists and workers alike. ? No, definitely not. But a capitalist system has the potential to transform into a socially more acceptable direction. Marketing tools play an important role? Why just in promoting more consumption of material goods? Countervailing powers can also use marketing tools. If they are less successful, apparently people are inclined to prefer a material life style to a style, which is characterised by justice, peace and love – private wealth accumulation appears a very attractive target. Weber sees a change in the ‘preference structure’ of the people – from a value- an to instrumental orientation; a change, which is missing in the history by Marx. During the last six centuries Western thinking shows a shift from value-rational to instrumental-rational thinking. The ultimate goals of many people have shifted from absolute values, such as justice, peace and love, to the desire to accumulate wealth for themselves, whatever the costs in terms of the absolute values. Goudzwaard uses these ideas (implicitly) to link them to the story of the bible about the one and only god, who is not enslave people. On the contrary, for those who belief in the possibility of a just society, and act accordingly, he has promised to be with these people with his spirit.

When referring to the bible, we see that this book triggers many different interpretations. Orthodox Christian theology formulates a hard core of the relationship between humans and their god. This core can be used to derive logically a series of analyses of the relationships between god, his creation, relationships between humans and the relationship of a person with his self. The theories derived from the analyses are called doctrines. Faith in these doctrines means that living according to god’s institutions leads to well being, justice and peace for all.

Some theologians are specialised in this logic of god. Others criticize this work for not being practical. There is a gap between theological doctrine and concrete behaviour. There are mystical movements within Christianity, which focus on the daily intercourse of a person with his god. If this relationship is characterised by love, and by god being recognised as god, the human person feels safe because of the closeness of his protector.

Duchrow opts for a different approach. This theology and mystical psychology are ignoring the problem that impersonal mechanisms are ruling the world. Markets and hierarchies are structures, which offer barely any room for discretion. So, people must form moral communities, and develop economic, social and political strategies to change these structures. Only then they can transform impersonal mechanisms, which promote private wealth accumulation, inequality and injustice. Which mechanisms lead to justice in the biblical sense? That’s the subject matter of the ongoing communication in the communities people must establish. The bible offers many stories about concrete persons, which can set examples of behaviour, understood in their historical context.

Goudzwaard’s beliefs are an integration of the three biblical approaches just described. His axiom “God is active in our world” can only be observed by introspection. The same holds for “God loves his creation”. Only in an intimate conversation a believer can learn to feel safe. A well-developed belief in these axioms means that the ideas of justice are applied in every field: to the self, to the relationship with other humans, plants and animals, and with impressive natural landscapes.

Conservative theologians stress the relevance of obedience to God and the authorities, which are in power. Progressive theologians tend to organise resistance to the status quo, as long as the situation does not express God’s love fully. Goudzwaard offers a synthesis between the two viewpoints. We all should work on a step-by-step improvement of our selves and our situation. The negative powers are strong and resilient. But through the presence of God we have reason to keep hope on improvement.

Goudzwaard combines his theology with the economic, social and political analysis of Weber. Evolution rather than revolution, reacting on hatred and difference with constructive attitudes – always open to true communication.

  • Conclusion

Duchrow applies a radical economic analysis to understand and change the global capitalist system. The legal structure of this totalitarian system must be changed, before individuals and small groups can adjust their behaviour. The bible shows how Israel tried – time and again – to abstain from endless wealth accumulation and from the honouring of kings, who are the top of the societal hierarchy.

Moral communities should be inspired by this history and focus on political action. A change in the system of property rights is necessary – the capitalist should not be the owner of the investment goods.

Goudzwaard applies a Weberian type of social-economic analysis to understand modern society. He uses the bible as proof of the possibility that ‘we can’. There is a living God, and he loves his creation. He has promised to remain active for the people who want to live according to his laws: love thy neighbour, as you would have him to love you. Neighbour means everything of value – humans, animals, plants, impressive landscapes. Just believe it and work accordingly.

I want to end with a few comments. Buchrow applies a Marxian analysis. It is based on the idea of an intrinsic class conflict between capital and labour. There is nothing personal in it. Progress requires that there is winner and a loser. If necessary the battle is violent, and history shows this time and again. There is no battle about values and preferences. Humans are supposed to be social beings. If the structure of society reflects this essence, people will behave accordingly. But history also shows that the victims of capitalism fight for higher wages, leading to higher material consumption. By leaving the goal transformation out of the analysis, Marxists are not focus their attention to this principal point.

Goudzwaard applies a theo-, socio-, economic analysis. He considers modernity as the greatest danger of our global social and economic systems. About a century ago Weber tried to understand societal developments by means of the concepts value-rationality versus instrumental rationality. Weber was worried about the increasing role of instrumental rationality. Goudzwaard’s analysis means that bible stories can inspire people to transform their preferences from endless wealth accumulation and comfort to the realisation of biblical values, as there are justice, peace and love. Goudzwaard’s analysis is consistent, but we need a theory that links a set of instrumental variables with the absolute goals of the bible. A first beginning has been made already.

Keizer (2015) offers an integrated analysis of the economic, the social and the psychic aspect of human behaviour. It leads to three aspect-systems, not subsystems. The economic aspect is about the homo oeconomicus, who is inclined to maximise his personal wealth as much as possible. His technology to transform inputs into outputs is the restriction, which is responsible for the scarcity he faces. The social aspect is about the homo sociologicus, who is inclined to maximise his status, mostly group-wise. He lives in solidarity with his group felloes, but in rivalry with persons, who are member of rivalling groups. The restriction to these status battles are the common morality of these rivalling groups – moral rules which limit the hatred and aggressiveness of the methods used in the battle. The third aspect is about the homo psychologicus, who is inclined to maximise his self-respect, under the restriction of his rationality. A rational person knows his Self quite well. He is inclined to limit his behaviour, which is based on immediate emotions, satisficing short-term comfort. In this way there is more room for investments, meant to grow as a person. Behaviour is increasingly based on deliberation.

In an integrated analysis there are three restrictions: technology, morality and rationality. It means that technology does not refer to nature only. It is also about the ‘production’ of morality and rationality. When a person becomes more moral and more rational, his goals transform from selfishness and short-term comfort in the direction of common goals: wealth for all, justice, peace and love.

The link with the ideas of Buchrow and especially Goudzwaard is as follows: people are not able to produce ‘inspiration’. By just working hard, does not necessarily lead to become inspired and intrinsically motivated to go for the common good. People must be open to ‘getting inspired (Keizer, 2015). If you have learned that God loves his creation, and you hope to become inspired, you are a kind of open system. You are open to get inspired by the gost of god – like the disciples of Jesus (Pentecost). When people undergo a transformation to a combination of morality and rationality the model shows a shift of the restrictions. Technological developments are influenced by it and facilitate people of good will. But now the blood, sweat and tears are embedded in an culture of hope, giving deep satisfaction. There is a lot to do, but the direction in which we go, is clear.


Duchrow, U. (1998), Alternatives to Global Capitalism, Drawn from biblical history, Designed for Political Action, Utrecht: International Books, with Kairos Europa.

Goudzwaard, B., M. Vander Vennen, D. van Heemst (2007), Hope in Troubled Times, A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Keizer, P. (2015), Multidisciplinary Economics, a Methodological Account, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keizer, P. (2020), Goudzwaard en het Bijbelse paradigma,;  

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