(This post is a summary of part of Wayne Grudem’s talk today at RTS Charlotte’s Fall Lecture Series.)
Until about 1550 AD, there had been almost zero economic growth for centuries– that is, no substantial increase in per capita annual income. From about 1550 to 1750, slow economic growth began to spread, especially in Northern Europe. In about 1770 economic history changed forever with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; per capita income began to grow dramatically, and the growth hasn’t stopped. In 1750, the ratio of per capita income in rich vs. poor nations was about 5:1; today it’s about 400:1.
It wasn’t that everybody started in the middle, some nations became poorer and some became richer. Everybody started at about the same place: poor!
How did this come about? What has made the last 500 years so dramatically different than the previous several thousand?
In his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Harvard history professor David Landes (who is not a professing Christian) credits the Protestant Reformation, beginning with Luther in early 16th-century Germany.
The Reformation brought a new idea: what’s become known as the “Protestant work ethic” or the “Reformed doctrine of vocation.” It was a huge shift in how men and women approached work. Work was no longer seen as a necessary evil, but a way to serve God and fulfill his command to exercise dominion over the earth. For centuries prior to the Reformation, the dominant view was that to really serve God, one had to be a nun or a priest– incidentally, fields that make little economic contribution to society.
With the Reformation, men and women began to see their everyday life as a sphere where they could serve and please God. The farmer, the blacksmith, the housemaid all did work that mattered to God. This understanding provided an incentive for innovation, development, investment, and all sorts of other things that lead to economic growth. The results changed the face of the whole planet.