On what basis should people be compensated for their work? Economists say the value of labor is a function of supply and demand. Wages should correspond to the economic value of work. Theologians often object. (Note: We are all theologians but here I’m referring to those formally educated in theology.) They say it dehumanizes people. People are not faceless cogs in a machine to be differentially valued based on their economic contribution. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes. Income and wealth should be shared equitably.
What do you think? How do we sort this out? Is one right and the other wrong? My short answer is that human beings are created in the image of God. We have intrinsic value that transcends any instrumental purpose we might serve. The goods we produce do not have intrinsic value. Value is set by the interaction of a community’s subjective desire for a good and the good’s objective availability; so also with an hour of labor. God sets the value of people while the community sets the value of particular types of labor. The value of a person’s labor is not an indicator of a person’s intrinsic value. And that leads to some important theological and economic challenges. Let us unpack this.
Humans are unique. We have a hybrid existence. On one side, we are like creation and unlike God. We are material beings. We share much in common with other mammals. We have bodies subject to the laws of thermodynamics, just like the rest of the material world.
On the other side, we are like God and unlike creation. We are spiritual beings. We have the ability to love, to see beauty, to reason, to create, and to discern morality and meaning. We are meant for eternal life.
We are a body and spirit fusion. These two realities must be held together. We are not spirits inside of bodies. In the end, we believe in “the bodily resurrection,” not transformation into spirits. In the language of Genesis 1:27, we are the image of God … eikons … in the created order. Not eikons in the sense of lifeless statues, but rather as God’s agents, discerning and acting in ways that are so integrated with God that God’s character and purpose are evidenced through us.
As agents, we have a mission. Genesis 1 and 2 give us the grand stories of creation that highlight that mission but due to our preoccupation with what these stories might say about origins we often seem to miss the point. I’m persuaded that origin is not the driving subject of these stories. The purpose of these stories is to articulate God’s sovereignty and our mission.
I think the best way to understand Genesis 1 and 2 is by analogy. Imagine creating a garden in your backyard. There are two phases. First, we take a plot of ground that is “formless and void” of the vision we have in mind. We remove rocks and weeds. We loosen the soil. We might add some fertilizer. We plant some seeds. Maybe we put a protective border around the garden and put up a fence to keep animals out. Having done so, we are done with the first phase and we “rest” from “creating” the garden. But the garden is not done.
In the second phase, the garden must be continually weeded. The fence must be monitored and repaired as needed. Plants must be protected from hard freezes or hail. There will be occasional watering. Some plants may need regular pruning and others will yield fruit that periodically needs to be harvested. Only when the garden has come to full flourishing can we say the garden is complete.
Genesis 1 and 2 are phase one of God’s garden project. When God is finished creating, Genesis says God rested. Phase 1 was done. Now it was time to enjoy bringing it to fullness. In keeping with this narrative, Hebrews 4:1-11 says that God has been living in this seventh day of rest since creation. But this second phase work is not work God has chosen to do alone.
At the end of the sixth day of creation, God creates eikons of God’s self, and gives them the mission of exercising dominion over creation. Despite various perversions of “dominion” as a right to do as you please, the idea here is that human beings are God’s agents participating with God in realizing God’s vision. I will not unpack this all here, but in view is humanity as God’s vice-regents over creation and creation as God’s temple in which we serve as priests. Human beings are intended for loving communion with God as they and God go about the work of bringing “the garden” to full potential.
Now I do not understand the early chapters of Genesis to correspond to historical events. They are stories that relate profound truths about God’s vision and mission, and humanity’s role in that vision and mission. In short, God is sovereign over creation and human beings are God’s image-bearing agents in the world, participating with God and each other to realize God’s ends. Genesis 3 and onward reveals humanity’s sin and failure to embrace this mission. The biblical narrative is the story of God’s redemption and reclamation of that vision, even as God continues to “work the garden” and bring us into that work. Revelation records that in the end, “You have made them [redeemed humanity] to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth." (Rev 5:10) Priests and vice-regents.
Let us return to the question of value. Value is subjective. Nothing has value without someone to do the valuing. This is true in all cases but one. God alone has intrinsic value. No one can set God’s value. "There is one God who is father of all, over all, through all and within all." (Eph. 4:6) All value ultimately extends from God.
What the biblical narrative tells us that God values creation but humanity is valued in a way that is apart from the rest of creation. Human beings are God’s image bearers, springing forth from the love and communion of the Trinity. Human beings have immeasurable value in God’s eyes. Because God values human beings, we have intrinsic value by extension. It is God’s intention that human beings, individually and corporately, should thrive. Consequently, the measure of a shalom-filled community is one where all of the members thrive together. All human beings are precious in God’s eyes. As Christians thinking theologically and economically, a key end has to be a community where all have resources and opportunities to thrive. Sharing in material abundance is a component of that vision. But it is not the only component. …