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Archive Civic Polity Economics Natural Law Steven Wedgeworth

John Calvin on the Use of Goods and Money

Some of our friends are arguing about Capitalism and Marxism, so I thought we would do what we usually do– turn to the archives! What did the stuffy dead guys say about this? That’s a big task, though (and one that we have been doing piece by piece over time), and so, true to form, I’ll here focus on Calvin. For non-Calvin lovers, you may cease reading now. For others, you should want to pay attention because so many of today’s economic arguments are actually larger philosophical arguments, grounded on human nature as such, as well as universal ethical laws and the claims of justice. Calvin may have been incorrect about particulars, but it is unlikely that he was wildly off-base on these architectonic principles.

So what did Calvin think about economics?

As far as we know, Calvin did not write any sort of treatise on economic theory. Further, standing at the intersection of the Renaissance and early modernity, he was prior to either “capitalism” or “Marxism” as we know them today. Thus his work reacts to neither. Andre Bieler has written the definitive work on Calvin’s economic thought. Due to its publisher, however, many Evangelicals have never heard of it. Its size will also repel a broad readership, and so an introductory treatment is necessary. This post will draw heavily from Bieler’s work, though other sources have also been consulted.

We will begin by laying out Calvin’s general philosophy of the social nature of humanity and property, then we will examine what Calvin thought about the uniquely Christian duties of charity. We will conclude with Calvin’s recommendations for how the church and civil magistrate ought to order these ideals in ecclesiastical and political life.

A Social Animal With Natural Dues

Calvin held to a classical Christian philosophy, and as such he believed that man was a social animal by nature. This means that he rejected individualism as not only undesirable but unnatural. “Man was formed to be a social animal” (comment. Gen. 2:18). The seed form of this society was marriage and the family, but it extends to all mankind. Calvin puts it this way:

Christ might have stated simply, that the word neighbor extends indiscriminately to every man, because the whole human race is united by a sacred bond of fellowship. And, indeed, the Lord employed this word in the Law, for no other reason than to draw us sweetly to mutual kindness. The commandment would have run more clearly thus: Love every man as thyself. But as men are blinded by their pride, so that every man is satisfied with himself, scarcely deigns to admit others to an equal rank, and withholds from them the duties he owes them, the Lord purposely declares that all are neighbors that the very relationship may produce mutual love. To make any person our neighbor, therefore, it is enough that he be, a man; for it is not in our power to blot out our common nature. (comment. Luke 10:30, found in the Harmony of the Gospels vol. 3)

While this section of Calvin’s commentary is introducing Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, he has actually not framed these concepts in terms of the gospel. Instead he is describing natural duties: “the whole human race is united by a sacred bond of fellowship,” “withholds from them the duties he owes them,” “it is not in our power to blot out our common nature.” Thus, neighborliness itself is not a supernatural work of charity. It is a feature of the natural order, and it is under the natural law.

Calvin extends this to the use of goods and industry:

…our Lord has established a sharing between us, so that it is impossible for anyone to content himself with himself; that is, to be sufficient unto himself. Though a man be as clever as he please, yet he cannot live in this world without the help of his neighbors. A good farmer might well work for his living, if he needed only to eat and drink. Yet, if he needs light at night, where will he get a candle? If he needs a pair of shoes, how is he going to make them? Then, if he requires a garment to cover himself, will he go get a sheep or a calf and skin it and clothe himself with the sink? That is all he would know how to do. Thus, when we have given careful consideration to our estate and condition, we perceive that no one can do without the help and aid of his neighbors. Rather, there must be a give and take whereby everyone serves in his way and everything relates to the life of all.

…since God has ordained this give and take among us–so that no one can do without the help of his neighbors–we are also obliged to them in turn. Everyone must look to his own ability and resources and to the graces he has received so that he may serve others, just as he must receive from them. What, then, is necessary? It is not enough that my neighbors serve me, for God did not only create them for me. I must also acquit myself for my part, knowing that I was also created for them. Let me offer myself, and ask only to provide what I have received, so that there may be a reciprocal duty as our Lord has commanded. This is what we must do.

…Now that we perceive God has created humanity in such wise that we should join forces, no one sparing what he can provide, but rather bringing all that we can to serve the common good, must this not incite us to such sharing? (Sermon on 1 Cor. 11:11-16, published in Men, Women and Order in the Church: Three Sermons, trans. Seth Skolnitsky, Presbyterian Heritage Publications 1992, pgs. 47-9)

Calvin asserts that when this social order was originally created, it was marked by plentiful equity:

And hence we infer what was the end for which all things were created; namely, that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to men. In the very order of the creation the paternal solicitude of God for man is conspicuous, because he furnished the world with all things needful, and even with an immense profusion of wealth, before he formed man. Thus man was rich before he was born.

…God could himself indeed have covered the earth with a multitude of men; but it was his will that we should proceed from one fountain, in order that our desire of mutual concord might be the greater, and that each might the more freely embrace the other as his own flesh. Besides, as men were created to occupy the earth, so we ought certainly to conclude that God has mapped, as with a boundary, that space of earth which would suffice for the reception of men, and would prove a suitable abode for them. Any inequality which is contrary to this arrangement is nothing else than a corruption of nature which proceeds from sin. In the meantime, however, the benediction of God so prevails that the earth everywhere lies open that it may have its inhabitants, and that an immense multitude of men may find, in some part of the globe, their home. (comment. Gen. 1:26, 28)

Of course, Calvin does believe that sin has corrupted nature, and so this ideal state is no longer possible. Nor does Calvin believe we should attempt to recreate it absolutely. Still, it is important to see Calvin’s view of corrupted nature. He affirms both private property–“what each individual possesses has not fallen to him by chance, but by the distribution of the sovereign Lord of all” (Inst. 2.8.45); “every man might govern his own house privately” (comment. Acts 2:44)–and a sort human solidarity which sees inequality of goods as a product of the fall. As such, we may pursue wealth, but “the common society of the human race demands that we should not seek to grow rich by the loss of others” (comment. Ex. 22:25, found in Harmony of the Law vol. 3).

Bieler quotes from one of Calvin’s sermons on the gospels which summarizes this concept, “When a person has the means to increase his wealth, let this be done without doing an injury to others” (Bieler, pg. 286). He then adds another from Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy:

When God gives someone more than he needs, he establishes him there as if he was [God’s] own person, to say that “doing good is my special character, for all good things come from me– I make the earth fruitful, I give it the power to produce its fruits”; but in giving me his office God makes me his deputy (lieutenant) as it were; and what is the nature off that honour? So all rich people, when they have the means to do good, are certainly there as God’s deputies (officiers) and carry out what is in their character as such–that is, helping their neighbours to live. (Bieler, pg. 284)

Still, for Calvin this must always be done in relation to other humans, understanding that all property is given by God for a proper use and for future generations as well as ourselves:

…we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition, that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain. Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits to be marred or ruined by neglect. Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved. (comment. Gen. 2:15)

Our solidarity, then, extends to our children and grandchildren, as well as our present neighbors.

Calvin even applies the name “theft” to sins of omission with regards to our stewardship:

…we defraud our neighbours to their hurt if we decline any of the duties which we are bound to perform towards them. If an agent or an indolent steward wastes the substance of his employer, or does not give due heed to the management of his property; if he unjustly squanders or luxuriously wastes the means entrusted to him; if a servant holds his master in derision, divulges his secrets, or in any way is treacherous to his life or his goods; if, on the other hand, a master cruelly torments his household, he is guilty of theft before God; since every one who, in the exercise of his calling, performs not what he owes to others, keeps back, or makes away with what does not belong to him. (Inst. 2.8.45)

Thus we can summarize Calvin’s basic anthropology and sociology as maintaining a notion of solidarity and the common good as moral imperatives. For Calvin, private property is good, prosperity is good, and inequality is bad. This is true because we are members of a larger society that was bestowed upon us as a gift from God. Because of the Fall and continued human sinfulness, inequality cannot be entirely removed, but it should be seen for what it is, a mark of the curse. More perfect societies ought to desire the reduction of inequality, inasmuch as they are able.

Christian Charity

So far, we have only discussed Calvin’s views of nature. Private property, common good, and human solidarity are all marks of the moral created order. They are not grace or charity in the uniquely spiritual or “Christian” sense of those terms. A Christian must certainly strive to honor and maintain the natural order bestowed by God. To do less is to violate the natural law, a great evil. But in what ways should a Christian go beyond this natural order? What “more” does the gospel require?

Calvin routinely wrote against the Anbaptists on this point. They maintained– or so Calvin argued1–that believers were under an obligation to share all goods, what might be called Christian communism or communalism. Calvin rejects this as unreasonable and at odds with the teaching of the New Testament. In order to explain the true meaning of New Testament charity, Calvin gives three general guidelines:

1. “We should not desire the world’s goods through covetousness…” Calvin expounds upon this principle to say that we should bear our poverty in patience, never place our confidence in riches, and always be ready to give up our goods should the Lord require. This is the basic Christian motivation or orientation of the heart towards possessions as such. We should possess as though we did not possess.

2. We must “work with integrity in order to gain our life.” Calvin reminds us that our work must always be fair and honest:

“We should accept the gain that comes to us as coming form God’s hand, not using evil means in order to take away another’s goods, but serving our neighbors in good conscience; that we should enjoy the profit of our labor as a just salary; that in buying and selling we should not employ fraud, deceitful tricks, or lies, but we should go briskly about our business with honesty, in the same way that we require it of others.”

3. We must conduct ourselves as God’s stewards with regards to our wealth:

“by using it moderately he should employ the property that has been given to him in order to help and to provide for his neighbors, seeing himself as God’s steward who possesses the goods he has on condition that he must one day render an account… whoever has a great quantity of it should only take enough to eat so that whoever has hardly enough might not be in want.” (Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, trans. and edit. Benjamin W Farley, pg. 284-285)

These three points support the rest of Calvin’s thought on the Christian’s relationship to property and money. He believes that Christians ought to give, and to give substantially and liberally. “We must not be so much afraid of going to excess in this department. The danger is on the side of excessive niggardliness” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:13). But Calvin believes that this should be done of one’s own volition, motivated by a sincere conviction of uniquely Christian character:

By this word determined, Luke giveth us to understand that their oblation was voluntary. Which thing ought so to be, as Paul teacheth, that we reach out our hand unto the needy not as constrained, but cheerfully, (2 Corinthians 9:7.) When as he nameth every one, it is all one as if he should say, that one did not prescribe another a law, neither did they burden one another with their prejudice, but that every man did bestow his liberality as seemed good to himself… (comment. Acts 11:29)

…goods cannot be common after this sort, save only where there is a godly agreement, and where there reigneth one heart and one soul… (comment. Acts 4:34)

Still, these qualifications should never lead one to believe that they are free not to give, nor that they can only give if it comes as little burden:

[W]e must not be satisfied with bestowing on the poor what we can easily spare, but that we must not refuse to part with our estates, if their revenue does not supply the wants of the poor. His meaning is, “Let your liberality go so far as to lessen your patrimony, and dispose of your lands.” (comment. Matt. 6:20, found in Harmony of the Gospels vol. 1)

When it comes to giving within the church, Calvin often expresses variations of the old refrain “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Commenting on 2 Cor. 8:13, Calvin says, “Thus the Lord recommends to us a proportion of this nature, that we may, in so far as every one’s resources admit, afford help to the indigent, that there may not be some in affluence, and others in indigence.” He expands on this in another place:

Therefore we must follow this rule, that every one, considering how much is granted him, impart the same courteously with his brethren, as one that must give an account; so shall it come to pass, that he which is but poor shall have a liberal mind, and that a small reward shall be counted a fat and gorgeous sacrifice…  and we must note the word διακονιας, whereby we are taught that rich men have greater abundance given them upon that condition, that they may be the ministers of the poor in the dispensation committed to them by God. (comment. Acts 11:29)

That the rich have a particular burden to give liberally is something that Calvin states in other places as well (and it parallels what Calvin said earlier about the rich understanding themselves as sort of “gods” on the earth):

For consider too the conditions on which God places benefits in the hands of the rich: so that they may have both the opportunity and ability to help their poor neighbours. In a word, that [element of] humanity must be protected among us all, so that those with the means may make available some of their plenty to their neighbors. (Bieler, pg. 284)

This means that “those, then, that have riches, whether they have been left by inheritance, or procured by industry and efforts, [should] consider that their abundance was not intended to be laid out in intemperance or excess, but in relieving the necessities of the brethren” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:15).

This charitable giving should seek to reduce more extreme inequality in the church. “[T]he Lord recommends to us a proportion of this nature, that we may, in so far as every one’s resources admit, afford help to the indigent, that there may not be some in affluence, and others in indigence” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:13). This is not an outright egalitarianism– “He certainly does not mean, that they should be equal in condition and station” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:14). Calvin is clear on this point: “I acknowledge, indeed, that there is not enjoined upon us an equality of such a kind, as to make it unlawful for the rich to live in any degree of greater elegance than the poor” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:15). But it is a stipulated sort equality, what Calvin calls “proportional right.” He explains:

the system of proportional right in the Church is this — that while they communicate to each other mutually according to the measure of gifts and of necessity, this mutual contribution produces a befitting symmetry, though some have more, and some less, and gifts are distributed unequally. (comment. 2 Cor. 8:14)

He adds more, “an equality is to be observed thus far — that no one is to be allowed to starve, and no one is to hoard his abundance at the expense of defrauding others” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:15). Notice that the refusal to give to the needier members of the church is characterized as “defrauding them.”

Christian charity is more than the natural-law’s provision for the poor. It is not simply the requirements of justice for human nature. It is founded on the “one heart and one soul” of the Christian community. It is one expression of the koinonia of the saints. As such, other Christians enjoy a status of priority with this giving. “Not because we ought never to use any bountifulness, or courtesy towards the unbelievers, seeing love ought to extend itself unto all mankind,” Calvin explains, “but because those ought to be preferred whom God hath joined and linked to us move near, and with a more holy band” (comment. Acts 11:29).

The Role of Church and State

To this point, we have laid out Calvin’s teachings regarding ideals and principles. He has explained economic justice and Christian charity. What of order and implementation? This is perhaps where Calvin will be most controversial to modern readers. Calvin believes that both church and state– the civil magistrate as he calls it– should take proactive steps to ensure a proper and Christian use of goods and money. Yet this must be done carefully and fairly.

The civil magistrate must first protect private property. “There is no law today to make all goods common” (comment. 2 Cor. 8:15). Yet he must also make sure that private property is used for the good of the community rather than to destroy it. Thus, Calvin teaches that the civil magistrate has the right to tax its citizens, enforce a common currency, and enforce contracts. But it can do even more. “Magistrates may indeed make laws, by means of which a rage for superfluous expenditure shall be in some measure restrained” (Comment. 1 Tim. 2:9). Thus Geneva enforced sumptuary laws, not merely to maintain class distinctions but to restrain luxury and guard against the ways it would otherwise harm poorer members of society.

The church also had a collective duty to oversee the charitable tithes and offerings of its members. In classic Presbyterian form, Calvin writes, “thus let us learn to participate with decency and order in the fellowship which believers exercise concerning goods” (Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, pg. 290). The government of the church should order and administer the giving of the people (see also comment. Acts 11:30). Indeed, Calvin modified the older conception of the deacon to dedicate to the oversight and use of the church’s charity. As described by the 1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances of Geneva, deacons would “receive, distribute and care for the goods of the poor (i.e. daily alms as well as possessions, rents and pensions)… [and] tend and look after the sick and administer the allowances to the poor as is customary.”

In Geneva, they felt justified in extending the diaconal ministry to the point of creating a hospital. It was publicly funded and served all of the citizens:

Concerning the hospital

Care should be taken to see that the general hospital is properly maintained. This applies to the sick, to old people no longer able to work, to widows, orphans, children and other poor people. These are to be kept apart and separate from others and to form their own community.

Care for the poor who are scattered throughout the city shall be the responsibility of the officials. In addition to the hospital for those visiting the city, which is to be kept up, separate arrangements are to be made for those who need special treatment. To this end a room must be set apart to act as a reception room for those that are sent there by the officials..

Further, both for the poor people in the hospital and for those in the city who have no means, there must be a good physician and surgeon provided at the city’s expense…

As for the plague hospital, it must be kept entirely separate.

Geneva also had a system of schools, and these fell to the jurisdiction of the church “doctors.” Both the deacons and the doctors were church offices, but they also worked with civil officials, receiving public funds and offering public services. Church and state were distinct in Geneva, but they worked in tandem and shared a common philosophy and religion. Because of this integrated society, Geneva could also outlaw begging. Panhandlers, as we would call them today, were deemed “contrary to good order.” Their needs were expected to be met by some combination of city and church services.

Conclusion

Thus we see Calvin’s “economics.” They were not unique for his day. While Calvin did introduce an interesting and helpful distinction regarding just and unjust forms of interest on loans, he was not a revolutionary thinker. It’s also worth remembering that the population of Geneva never reached more than about 7,000 people in Calvin’s time. So its polity cannot simply be cut and pasted onto larger and more diverse ones.

Still, his ideals and interpretations of natural law and Christian charity are valuable. Seeing how he enacted them in church and state is also a helpful illustration of legitimate applications of those principles. In a time when economic choices are often presented as a variation of Scylla and Charybdis, the older example of Protestant Christendom may help us to find better solutions.

  1. Critics point out that not all Anabaptists held to this extreme form of the position. Whether Calvin knew of their diversity is unclear. It’s likely that he presents the extreme form as the one that he feels is most consistent with the erroneous principles, opposing it then to the correct view.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 replies on “John Calvin on the Use of Goods and Money”

Please read my book, “Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin that Was and Now is Not.”
There was little capitalism in Geneva while Calvin had authority there, and for good Scriptural reason.

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