The once-icon of the Christian Reconstruction movement, Gary North, has recently completed his economic commentaries on the Bible. The Reconstructionists, whose influence has now practically dwindled to nothing, were among the leaders of pushing Christian political engagement from the Right back into the foreground in the 70s and 80s. Their orientation was hard libertarian, and they have influenced countless others, to the point that libertarianism of some form or another holds a monopoly over conservative Christian homeschooling and much of classical Christian private schooling as well.
Since these were all circles I used to run in, I thought I would point out ten problems I have with the approach North takes in his books. Full disclosure, I’ve read almost all of Dr. North’s books, a project that began back when I was hard libertarian myself and which has continued today. I have read all of the volumes in this economic commentary on the Bible series of his (which is the first series in history to actually approach the Bible economically – for this achievement alone he certainly deserves congratulations).
Yet his approach is replete with difficulties. Let’s look at ten of them.
10. North’s commentaries depend upon a systemic error: That God blesses for obedience and curses for disobedience in history, what he calls “positive sanctions” and “negative sanctions.” He writes, “Covenant theology is also judicial. Itr insistes on broad historical predictability in terms of Bible-revealed covenantal laws to which are attached corporate sanctions,” (Sanctions and Dominion, p. 261). But as Hebrews 12:3-11 makes clear, this application is simplistic in the extreme. God works in such ways as blessings look (and feel) like curses, while what seem to be curses are actually blessings. Like the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and others, Hebrews has the effect of transforming everything into blessing, hardship and abundance both. This has the effect of destroying North’s central thesis: that historical sanctions (blessing for obeying, cursing for disobeying) are rigid and unbending rules of law that become predictable in terms of economic outcome (when Israel obeys they flourish, when they disobey, they suffer).
9. North translates the language of Scripture into the language of modern economics. The difficulty is that modern economics is modern, not ancient. While the basic principles were of course known by the time of Aristotle, modern economics would have been totally unknown to the ancient world or to Moses.
8. North depends upon Western categories. The West may have developed in conversation with the Bible, but there are deep and profound – nay, unbridgeable – gulfs between the two. Western culture is more Greek than Hebrew, particularly when it comes to law and justice. North seems to assume that because the West developed out of a conversation with the Bible, that therefore the categories of the much-later Western world can be read backward into the Bible.
7. North is obsessed with law. The Bible contains very little of what we would call a civil law-code. The Mosaic law, the first example that leaps to mind, is actually closer to fatherly wisdom than a strict law in the modern sense. Treating it as if it were the same as, say, the U.S. tax code, is a substantial error.
6. North’s portrayal of God and covenant is entirely juridical and law-oriented. That is, treating the entire Bible as a commentary on economic principles lends itself to transforming God from a loving father into the premier Austrian economist, more interested in rigid submission to the letter of the law and in maximizing efficiency than in mercy and love. As a result, everything becomes about economic utility. We are treated to these sorts of comments on salvation: “Salvation is not in fixed supply, to be allocated by a central distributor on the basis of competitive bidding,” (Sanctions and Dominion, 167). Tithing is “payment for sacred services rendered,” (168). The result is that God becomes the great economical pharisee in the sky, who forces men to swear self-maladictorial oaths in order to enter into a legal arrangement of the payment of blessings for services rendered.
5. North’s economic observations are often only marginally connected to the passages he deals with. Two examples. On Numbers 31:26-27, ob the spoils of war, North finds that “the modern principle of graduated taxation is anti-biblibal,” going on to argue that “those who receive more income, i.e., entrepreneurs who are at greater risk of losing their wealth, are today required to pay the State a higher percentage of their income than those who earn less income,” (274). All this, despite the fact that his views om taxes are suspect at best, and that taxation is nowhere in view in the passage.
4. North transforms the law of God from justice to efficiency. Notice how he deals with the passage regarding God’s merciful provision of cities of refuge to protect the accused of being killed by the kinsman redeemer: “The costs of perpetual warfare is too high. Such conflicts undermine peace. Too many resources must otherwise be expended to reduce violence. The death of the high priest ended all defensive costs for the suspect…The person so condemned probably would have had to change occupations. He would have had to learn to compete in a completely different environment. This no doubt was an incentive for those working in jobs that involved imposing risk on others to take care of their equipment,” (308). The reason God gave this law was because war “cost” too much. Reducing violence expends “resources.” Since the high priest was going to die anyway, at least his death has the net benefit of ending all “defensive costs” to the suspect. Do you see how pragmatism and efficiency become the overriding factors here? North follows this same procedure everywhere.
3. North everywhere assumes, but nowhere proves, that Austrian economics is Biblical. He writes his commentaries from the perspective of the Austrians for sure, but the result of this is simply seeing it in Scripture because one sees it everywhere. He writes much on ground rent and pricing margins and economic supply and demand in his commentaries, but has not shown that they are explicitly or implicitly present in the texts themselves. He has chapters that rail against central planning, graduated taxation, the moocher class, price controls, and so on, but this does little to further his cause – though it does much to persuade others that he is very good at getting to where he wants to go.
2. North’s scholarship is a good generation behind. A quick glance at North’s sources shows that he relies most heavily upon his own work, Ludwig von Mises, and a number of other economic and theological commentaries, most of them written prior to 1990. The more recent his commentaries, the less he cites other people, relying mostly upon his own commentaries and von Mises. He does not engage the critical scholarship or with other readings of his passages (though he is always happy to derisively dismiss anyone who disagrees with him). He ignores much of the economic and political work being done on the Bible in the last ten years. This creates both the impression that nobody is doing what he is doing, and that no one can refute him.
1. North’s commentaries aren’t, ultimately, about the text. When reading North’s economic commentaries, one is first struck by the almost-desperate way in which he always comes back to his economic perspective. I grant that his commentaries are probably the most detailed defense of reading the Bible with an Austrian lens – but this is reading the Bible in the light of one’s own opinion. It does not allow the Bible to speak for itself. As a result, what North ends up hearing (in the words of N. T. Wright) is merely the echo of his own voice. This approach is one of eisegesis, not exegesis.