Debt in the divine economy.


Analyses of the conceptual relations between Christianity and capitalism have typically viewed the language of debt in Christian soteriology critically. Concepts of debt in God’s economy of salvation, several scholars have argued, resonate with concepts of debt under contemporary capitalism that serve extractive and oppressive purposes. As a result, these soteriological concepts of debt allegedly undermine Christian theology’s ability to challenge the deleterious debts of contemporary capitalism—or worse, the former provide moral and theological reinforcement for the latter. In this dissertation I offer a more expansive, nuanced account of how the language of debt is used in depictions of the divine economy by analyzing this usage in three seminal models of atonement theology: ransom, satisfaction, and penal substitution. In so doing, I draw out the diversity and complexity of ways in which “debt” in these models of the divine economy relates conceptually to debt under contemporary capitalism, highlighting points of both resonance and resistance. I also analyze how specific theological factors—beyond the mere idea of Christ’s paying a debt to save sinners—influence these various patterns of resonance and resistance. Ultimately, I submit that the more theologies of salvation abstract “debt” from considerations of humanity’s created nature and ends, the more these theologies risk legitimizing oppressive and extractive uses of debt that trade on similar patterns of abstraction. For many influential soteriologies, however, what debt is, and what it does in the divine economy, is primarily shaped by concepts such as the ontological distinction between creatures and their Creator, the ends for which God created humans and creation as a whole, and the good order with which this creation was made. In these cases, debt becomes a feature of creaturely life oriented to the good of debtors, giving these soteriologies strong grounds for critiquing oppressive and extractive uses of debt. The extent to which depictions of debt in the divine economy reinforce or resist contemporary capitalism’s uses of debt therefore depends in part on how the divine economy depicted is (or is not) accountable to a robust doctrine of creation.