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Avoid Overdraft Fees, Go Straight to Heaven? David Bentley Hart’s Curious Reading of Calvin

Look, I don’t know why David Bentley Hart keeps writing about Calvin, or why the editors at First Things keep letting him. It’s pretty obvious that he hasn’t read him.

To be clear, that is not meant to be some kind of schoolyard taunt (though the thought of schoolchildren arguing about Calvin on the playground–as they were predestined to do, of course–does give me a sort of frisson). I mean the words ad sensum litteralem, though I rather guess that that sense has something of a diminished profile in Prof. Hart’s exegetical Top Ten List for “reading” Calvin, even if he happily employs a (pseudo-) literalist reading of the Gospels in the essay in question.

One is of course free to find Calvin distasteful, just as one is free to find Friends to be worthwhile television; but the latter has precisely as much as the former to do with reading what Calvin actually said–which is to say, nothing at all. Prof. Hart has expressed his feelings, but he’s demonstrated no more than that.

Prof. Hart’s latest instance of expatiating on Calvin reads as follows:

Even the fact of the system’s necessary reliance on immense private wealth makes it a moral problem from the vantage of the Gospel, for the simple reason that the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil. I know there are plentiful interpretations of Christianity that claim otherwise, and many of them have been profoundly influential of American understandings of the faith. Calvin’s scriptural commentaries, for instance, treat almost all of the New Testament’s more consequential moral teachings–Christ’s advice to the rich young ruler, his exhortations to spiritual perfection, and so on–as exercises in instructive irony, meant to demonstrate the impossibility of righteousness through works. Calvin even remarks that having some money in the bank is one of the signs of election.”

There is much to which one could object in the above. For instance, I don’t think he gets the New Testament itself right on the question of wealth, but that’s not an argument I’m going to make here (a better reading, however, will emerge from Calvin’s own comments below, simply as a service to our readers, offered free of charge).

But the quips about Calvin: well, there are worlds here; they contain multitudes. For instance, the bit about the bank, which Calvin is said to have “remark[ed]”: where? One notices there is no citation. This seems fitting, for I suspect Calvin never said it. I’m no expert (which puts me in good company in this conversation), but I have never come across anything resembling such a position in Calvin. Indeed, as Bruce Gordon notes, even later among the Dutch–the Dutch!–during the Golden Age, the possession of wealth had a relation to election opposite to that expressed above:

This gathering tension in the relationship between the fruits of labor and vocation became explicit after Calvin’s death, during the golden age of the Dutch Republic. In his magisterial account, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Vintage, 1997), Simon Schama has related how the prosperous Calvinists of the Republic were deeply unsettled about their material success, seeing it less as a sign of election than as a form of reprobation.

Curious, that. Prof. Hart also gives a rather thin reading of Calvin’s position on works. Though I can’t believe I have to say it, Calvin, while he does think it impossible to be justified through works, actually has, in addition to his doctrine of justification, a doctrine of sanctification (!), to which righteousness, ethics, and works had some relation. This of course means that he could not simply dismiss the New Testament’s moral teachings as merely ironic–which, of course, he does not do.

It beggars belief that anyone with a passing familiarity with Calvin could confuse him with Joel Osteen, but such is, apparently, the world we inhabit. So, then: let’s have a look at some things Calvin actually says, shall we?

First, commenting on the Magnificat, he writes:

Thus, when Mary says, that it is God who casteth down nobles from their thrones, and exalteth mean persons, she teaches us, that the world does not move and revolve by a blind impulse of Fortune, but that all the revolutions observed in it are brought about by the Providence of God, and that those judgments, which appear to us to disturb and overthrow the entire framework of society, are regulated by God with unerring justice. This is confirmed by the following verse, He hath filled the hungry with good things, and hath sent the rich away empty: for hence we infer that it is not in themselves, but for a good reason, that God takes pleasure in these changes. It is because the great, and rich, and powerful, lifted up by their abundance, ascribe all the praise to themselves, and leave nothing to God. We ought therefore to be scrupulously on our guard against being carried away by prosperity, and against a vain satisfaction of the flesh, lest God suddenly deprive us of what we enjoy. To such godly persons as feel poverty and almost famine, and lift up their cry to God, no small consolation is afforded by this doctrine, that he filleth the hungry with good things.

It is true that Calvin here does not treat prosperity as an intrinsic evil–but, then again, neither does the Bible, pace Prof. Hart–but rather as a great danger. The poor seem almost better positioned with respect to piety, simply because they are more likely to look not to themselves but to God for every good thing. Again, curious (on Prof. Hart’s reading) that they can be “godly,” all the while with no money in the bank, while the rich are likely to be deprived of it. Indeed, Calvin’s comment on the changes of fortune experienced by the rich put a whole new spin on “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

Next, on Matthew 5/Luke 6:

Matthew 5:42Give to him that asketh of thee. Though the words of Christ, which are related by Matthew, appear to command us to give to all without discrimination, yet we gather a different meaning from Luke, who explains the whole matter more fully. First, it is certain, that it was the design of Christ to make his disciples generous, but not prodigals and it would be a foolish prodigality to scatter at random what the Lord has given us. Again, we see the rule which the Spirit lays down in another passage for liberality. Let us therefore hold, first, that Christ exhorts his disciples to be liberal and generous; and next, that the way of doing it is, not to think that they have discharged their duty when they have aided a few persons, but to study to be kind to all, and not to be weary of giving, so long as they have the means.

Besides, that no man may cavil at the words of Matthew, let us compare what is said by Luke. Christ affirms that when, in lending or doing other kind offices, we look to the mutual reward, we perform no part of our duty to God. He thus draws a distinction between charity and carnal friendship. Ungodly men have no disinterested affection for each other, but only a mercenary regard: and thus, as Plato judiciously observes, every man draws on himself that affection which he entertains for others. But Christ demands from his own people disinterested beneficence, and bids them study to aid the poor, from whom nothing can be expected in return. We now see what it is, to have an open hand to petitioners. It is to be generously disposed to all who need our assistance, and who cannot return the favor.

Luke 6:35Lend, expecting nothing again. It is a mistake to confine this statement to usury, as if Christ only forbade his people to be usurers. The preceding part of the discourse shows clearly, that it has a wider reference. After having explained what wicked men are wont to do, — to love their friends, — to assist those from whom they expect some compensations, — to lend to persons like themselves, that they may afterwards receive the like from them, — Christ proceeds to show how much more he demands from his people, — to love their enemies, to show disinterested kindness, to lend without expecting a return. We now see, that the word nothing is improperly explained as referring to usury, or to any interest that is added to the principal: whereas Christ only exhorts us to perform our duties freely, and tells us that mercenary acts are of no account in the sight of God. Not that he absolutely condemns all acts of kindness which are done in the hope of a reward; but he shows that they are of no weight as a testimony of charity; because he alone is truly beneficent to his neighbors, who is led to assist them without any regard to his own advantage, but looks only to the necessities of each. Whether it is ever lawful for Christians to derive profit from lending money, I shall not argue at greater length under this passage, lest I should seem to raise the question unseasonably out of a false meaning which I have now refuted. Christ’s meaning, as I have already explained, is simply this: When believers lend, they ought to go beyond heathens; or, in other words, they ought to exercise pure liberality.

The question of Calvin’s relation to usury, or lending money at interest, is complex and I won’t go into it in this post, but you can read a bit about it here. It’s fairly clear in any case that he doesn’t see the immense acquisition of capital through predatory lending as a sign of God’s eternal favor.

Moving on: since Prof. Hart refers to the rich young ruler, let’s have a look at what Calvin says. It is true that Calvin reads the passage in a “legal” way (“Hence we infer, that this reply of Christ is legal…”), but that is not all he does:

The mortification of the flesh is still more strongly urged by Christ, when he says, Follow me. For he enjoins him not only to become his disciple, but to submit his shoulders to bear the cross, as Mark expressly states. And it was necessary that such an excitement should be applied; for, having been accustomed to the ease, and leisure and conveniences, of home, he had never experienced, in the smallest degree, what it was to crucify the old man, and to subdue the desires of the flesh. But it is excessively ridiculous in the monks, under the pretense of this passage, to claim for themselves state of perfection. First, it is easy to infer, that Christ does not command all without exception to sell all that they have; for the husbandman, who had been accustomed to live by his labor, and to support his children, would do wrong in selling his possession, if he were not constrained to it by any necessity. To keep what God has put in our power, provided that, by maintaining ourselves and our family in sober and frugal manner, we bestow some portion on the poor, is a greater virtue than to squander all.

In other words, there are moral duties implied in the passage as well, and Calvin is sensitive to them in their context in a way I daresay Prof. Hart is not.

In commenting on Christ’s teaching that follows this encounter, what do we find?

Matthew 19:23A rich man will with difficulty enter. Christ warns them, not only how dangerous and how deadly a plague avarice is, but also how great an obstacle is presented by riches. In Mark, indeed, he mitigates the harshness of his expression, by restricting it to those only who place confidence in riches. But these words are, I think, intended to confirm, rather than correct, the former statement, as if he had affirmed that they ought not to think it strange, that he made the entrance into the kingdom of heaven so difficult for the rich, because it is an evil almost common to all to trust in their riches. Yet this doctrine is highly useful to all; to the rich, that, being warned of their danger, they may be on their guard; to the poor, that, satisfied with their lot, they may not so eagerly desire what would bring more damage than gain. It is true indeed, that riches do not, in their own nature, hinder us from following God; but, in consequence of the depravity of the human mind, it is scarcely possible for those who have a great abundance to avoid being intoxicated by them. So they who are exceedingly rich are held by Satan bound, as it were, in chains, that they may not raise their thoughts to heaven; nay more, they bury and entangle themselves, and became utter slaves to the earth. The comparison of the camel, which is soon after added, is intended to amplify the difficulty; for it means that the rich are so swelled with pride and presumption, that they cannot endure to be reduced to the straits through which God makes his people to pass.

“How great an obstacle”? “Held by Satan bound”? “Utter slaves to the earth”? These are hardly the words of a man who sees wealth as coordinated to election. Is money listed as a mark of predestination in your copy of Ephesians 1? Mine, neither. I would go so far as to assert with some confidence that Calvin’s copy read pretty much the same.

What is paid employment for, then, in Calvin’s view? It is certainly not for self-aggrandizement, self-glorification, or the acquisition of the assurance of salvation. It is for the common good and for the benefit of others. Or so he says in his notes on 2 Thess. 3.10:

It is also to be observed, that there are different ways of laboring. For whoever aids the society of men by his industry, either by ruling his family, or by administering public or private affairs, or by counseling, or by teaching, or in any other way, is not to be reckoned among the idle. For Paul censures those lazy drones who lived by the sweat of others, while they contribute no service in common for aiding the human race. Of this sort are our monks and priests who are largely pampered by doing nothing, excepting that they chant in the temples, for the sake of preventing weariness. This truly is, (as Plautus speaks,) to “live musically.”

As I said at the outset, it is one thing to disagree with or dislike Calvin. It is another to understand what he actually said. Common sense indicates that the latter ought to precede the evaluation that leads to the former, even if it means taking up one’s cross and denying oneself the gratification of a finger in the eye of a theological tradition one loathes. Dishonest gain is bad in the realm of economics, as Prof. Hart rightly urges; it is equally bad in the realm of letters.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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