Economists use the language of a ‘zero-sum game’ to describe a transaction in which one person’s gain is directly tied to another person’s loss. The outcome will always be zero, with one side coming out in the negative and the other side coming out in the positive, unless both sides come out at zero.
By contrast, a non-zero-sum situation is that in which the aggregate gains and losses of the interacting parties can be more than zero.
The ancient Gnostics didn’t know about game theory, but they tended to treat God’s glory as if it was a zero-sum contest between God and creation. The glory of God, they seemed to think, could only be maintained by denigrating the created order, or at least denying that anything of spiritual value could be derived from the creation. In fact, the Gnostics adopted such a low view of the material world that they ended up denying that Christ even had a physical body. It would be beneath the dignity of the Divine Being, they thought, to have his glory mediated through material flesh. For precisely this same reason the Gnostics were deeply suspicious of the sacraments. Spiritual growth was directly correlated to being disencumbered with materiality, so that final salvation for the Gnostics involved eternal release from the physical body. (To read more about the Gnostic heresy, see my review of Against the Protestant Gnostics and my article ‘Tears in Things’.)
In this article I will suggest that one of the temptations of the reformed theological tradition has been a tendency to operate with similar ‘zero-sum’ assumptions. What I am calling a ‘zero-sum’ approach (though the economic metaphor is only a metaphor and should not be pressed too closely) manifests itself in a number of ways.