This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2014 vol. 171 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable SolutionCrossway, Wheaton, IL August 31, 2013
Grudem is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, and Asmus is senior economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis. The authors state their purpose clearly: “The goal of this book is to provide a sustainable solution to the problem of poverty in the poor nations of the world, a solution based on both economic history and the teachings of the Bible. We use the word sustainable because this solution addresses the long-term causes of poverty in nations. If those are changed to become long-term causes of prosperity, the solution will last” (p. 25).
The authors explain that the focus of the book is “the poor nation as a whole . . . because we are convinced that the primary causes of poverty are factors that affect an entire nation. The solutions we propose in this book must include changes in national laws, policies, and cultural values and habits” (pp. 25–26). The steps they “propose must be implemented from within a nation, by its own leaders” (p. 27). They reject a simple solution in favor of a “complex one made up of seventy-eight specific factors” (p. 29). The book is “written for ordinary readers, not economists” (p. 31), for leaders, both Christian and non-Christian, and for students. The authors assert, “This book can play a unique role [because] it combines economic analysis with biblical teachings. Once we are able to set aside limiting assumptions and look honestly at results (asking, ‘What has worked in the past?’), it seems to us that the economic analysis points clearly in the direction that we propose” (p. 37). They provide biblical support for the mandate to help the poor and for their claim that “leaders in poor nations have a special responsibility and a special opportunity” to lead a nation toward prosperity (p. 40). Finally, they argue that material prosperity is not the most important issue: “The Bible gives frequent warnings that a person’s relationship to God is far more important than material prosperity, and that the pursuit of material wealth can, in fact, very easily take first place in one’s life rather than a relationship with God” (pp. 41–42).
The chapters that follow present and defend the seventy-eight distinct factors that the authors believe “will enable any poor nation to overcome poverty” (p. 22). They begin by clarifying the focus they recommend that leaders of a poor nation choose as they begin to address the problem of poverty: “The correct goal is that a nation continually produces more goods and services per person each year” (p. 45). In short, poverty is eliminated through increased production: “Nations can move from poverty to prosperity only by continually creating more goods and services” (p. 55). They assert that the biblical model for reaching this goal is “a free market system . . . in which economic production and consumption are determined by the free choices of individuals rather than by governments, and this process is grounded in private ownership of the means of production” (p. 132). Freedom, especially from government, private ownership of property, individual autonomy, and personal choice are the key factors that will produce prosperity and alleviate poverty, according to these authors. And they claim that the Scriptures support these values.
As a summary of these economic themes in Scripture and as an overview of a path to reducing poverty and increasing prosperity this book makes a positive contribution. The authors present a compilation of biblical teachings on economic issues and much of that work helpful. A minor criticism is the lack of a Scripture index in the book; adding one would help the reader find where specific texts are discussed. But several more significant issues detract from the overall usefulness of this book.
First, the scope of the book and intended audience seem a bit audacious. Although one might hope that every world leader, especially those of poor nations, will consult this book as the solution to poverty within his or her nation, it seems unlikely. It is hard to imagine that world leaders, especially outside of the West, would be looking for economic and political advice from an American theologian in a book published by a small conservative evangelical publisher. Whatever the intended market, it is more likely that conservative American evangelicals are the real market and the message of private ownership, free market economy, lack of government control, and individual choice will resonate with them. American evangelicals on the other end of the political spectrum and with alternative economic presuppositions will likely be unconvinced.
Evangelical Bible readers might also wonder about some of the biblical support cited. For example, there is the strong assertion in several places that the Bible defends private ownership: “Property was to be owned by individuals, not by the government or by society as a whole” (p. 142; see also a similar claim on p. 139). Support is claimed from Leviticus 25:10, the description of the land policies in the year of Jubilee. But in the year of Jubilee, the land was not returned to the individual who owned it but to the family (P. A. Barker, “Sabbath, Sabbatical Year, Jubilee,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Barker [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003], 702). Thus, it seems more accurate that under the Old Covenant, property, especially real estate, was not owned by individuals but by families. Some readers might wonder how such a change in focus might impact the policies proposed in the book.
The authors also employ overstatement and what appear to be false dichotomies; for example, “The opposite of love for freedom is a societal longing for security and government to regulate and control all of life” (p. 331). The phrase “control all of life” seems unduly provocative and dismissive of alternative views. Would it be possible that longing for security could be separate from a desire for governmental regulation and control? Surely there are other options than the two presented here.
Finally, some readers may wish for more emphasis on self-sacrifice, submission to God and other humans, and a biblical concern for widows, orphans, and others who are unable to care and provide for themselves. The Golden Rule is mentioned several times, once as evidence of “self-interest” (p. 208), rather than as caring for others out of love for them. More integration of the responsibility to provide for these needy people would have enhanced the argument (cf. Deut. 14:28–29).
Even with these criticisms, this book is a helpful resource. It presents practical advice not only for world leaders, but for families and churches.
—Glenn R. Kreider