All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Book Review: Christianity and Economics in the Post-Cold War Era: The Oxford Declaration and Beyond Edited by Herbert Schlossberg, Vinay Samuel, and Ronald J. Sider

A Book of Little Economic Value

Eerdmans Publishing Company • 1994 • 149 pages • $11.00 paperback

Dr. Robbins is president of the Trinity Foundation.

As part of an ecumenical effort to articulate a religious view of economics and economic systems, 36 conferees describing themselves as evangelical—an undefined term which apparently means neither Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, nor liberal Protestant—gathered in 1987, and over 100 gathered in 1990 at Oxford and again in New Delhi in 1995.

The result of the second meeting in 1990 was the Oxford Declaration. This volume, which includes the text of the Oxford Declaration and 11 essays that are commentaries on it, explains the genesis of the Oxford Declaration as being organized by Ronald Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. (The editors fail to list the signatories of the Declaration, and to disclose who funded this expensive project.)

What is the Declaration itself? Its full title is The Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics. It makes pronouncements on four major topics: Creation and Stewardship; Work and Leisure; Poverty and Justice; and Freedom, Government and Economics. It is actually an updating, a greening, of the old social gospel, the gospel of altruism, that swept through American Protestant churches at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Declaration makes no contribution to an understanding of either Christianity or economics. It makes a thorough muddle of both. It is an ambiguously worded document of undefined terms and emotive phrases.

Filled with the jargon of socialism, interventionism, and welfare liberalism—basic needs, common good, exploitation, selfish individualism, empowerment, ecology, dehumanization, environmental devastation, inequitable distribution of wealth and income—the Declaration calls for government action on several fronts, for example: (1) to create and enforce just frameworks of incentives and penalties . . . [to promote] ecologically sound practices; (2) the right to earn a living would be a positive or sustenance right. Such a right implies the obligation of the community to provide employment opportunities; (3) We encourage governments and international financial institutions to redouble their efforts to find ways to . . . ensure the flow of both private and public productive capital where appropriate; and (4) We urge that a major part of the resulting ‘peace dividend’ be used to provide sustainable solutions to the problems of the world’s poor. There is more, but by now the reader gets the general idea.

The only redeeming economic value this book has is two essays by Calvin Beisner (of Covenant College) and Herbert Schlossberg (of the Fieldstead Institute), both participants in the Oxford conference. Beisner attacks the Declaration directly for its contradictory ideas about justice, and Schlossberg finds it astonishing that the Declaration (1) says nothing at all about capital formation, and (2) assumes the Marxist notion that economic theory rests on and is concerned only with material factors.

The Declaration implies a rejection of both capitalism and central planning, but the notion that there is a third way is a chimera. Neither social stability nor freedom can be achieved by attempting to combine the primacy of the individual with the primacy of the group; or equality before the law with partiality for favorites; or the rule of law with the rule of whim.

The Declaration concludes: We acknowledge that all too often we have allowed society to shape our views and actions and have failed to apply scriptural teaching in this crucial area of our lives, and we repent. Would that they had.