Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Social Calvinism

How the Reformer challenged conventional wisdom in government and economics

A statue of John Calvin along the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland Engraving by I. Covens and C. Mortier/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Social Calvinism

Ten years ago, I felt honored to write a chapter in a book edited by John Piper and David Mathis, With Calvin in the Theater of God. Many of our readers have read John Calvin and are deeply aware of his theological brilliance, but here’s a slightly adapted part of the chapter in which I looked at 10 ways Calvin challenged his era’s conventional wisdom concerning government and economics. In this election year, as the full fury and superficiality of half-blind 2020 politics assaults us, let’s spend a few minutes looking deeper.

1. Sacred politics

Many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that work in a church or life in a monastery was the best way to follow God’s will. The theater of God, in short, was not the whole world but only the parts of it where priests removed themselves from the world. But Calvin wrote in his Institutes Book 4, Chapter 20—other quotations in this section also come from there unless otherwise noted—“No one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.” Such thinking led many of the founders of the American republic to enter politics.

2. The cleanness of the courts

Many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that they should not go to court. One result was that the weak had little redress against the powerful. Submission to church and state authority was a Christian duty. Any back talk in court or otherwise was rebellion against God. But Calvin wrote, “As for those who strictly condemn all legal contentions, let them realize that they therewith repudiate God’s holy ordinance, and one of the class of gifts that can be clean to the clean. … The Christian endures insults, but with amity and equity defends the public interest. … [He will use] the help of the magistrate in preserving their own possessions.” Such thinking led Americans to push for a government of laws, not of men.

3. Kings under authority

Many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that rulers and magistrates could do virtually whatever they want. The powerful were bound only by their own power, and their edicts were not to be challenged by Scripture. Calvin, though, wrote that “kings should not multiply horses for themselves; nor set their mind upon avarice. … [Princes] should remember that their revenues are not so much their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people which cannot be squandered or despoiled without manifest injustice.” He argued, “If [note the if] kings want to be considered legitimate and as servants of God, they need to show that they are real fathers to their nation.” Such thinking led Americans in the 1760s and 1770s to argue that taxation without representation was tyranny, because they had a right to decide how their taxes should be levied and spent.

American founders … knew that, given sin, few kings could resist robbing and even killing to get what they wanted.

4. Choosing one’s leaders

Christians throughout medieval times had seldom been able to vote for leaders, but in exegeting Deuteronomy 1:14–16, Calvin stated:

“… those who were to preside in judgment were not appointed only by the will of Moses, but elected by the votes of the people. And this is the most desirable kind of liberty, that we should not be compelled to obey every person who may be tyrannically put over our heads; but which allows of election, so that no one should rule except he be approved by us. And this is further confirmed in the next verse, wherein Moses recounts that he awaited the consent of the people, and that nothing was attempted which did not please them all.”

Calvin also argued, in his commentary on Micah, that it is “the best condition of the people, when they can choose, by common consent, their own shepherds. … [W]hen men become kings by hereditary right, it seems not consistent with liberty.” In commenting on Acts, Calvin wrote, “It is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.” Such thinking led the American founders to establish a republic. They knew that, given sin, few kings could resist robbing and even killing to get what they wanted.

5. The right to rebel

Before they could establish freedom to choose, though, the founders had a problem: What loyalty did they owe to the king? That question leads to my fifth and final point in this section. Many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that it would be un-Biblical to rebel against those said to rule by divine right, but Calvin, while arguing against private individuals taking the law into their own hands, wrote about “magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings.” He wrote that such magistrates must not “wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk.” He wrote that a refusal to oppose monarchs in such situations is “nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.”

Calvin in his writing did not stretch out that doctrine. His most notable defense of rebellion concerned one of the greatest aggressions in history: Pharaoh’s order that all Hebrew babies be killed. Calvin in his commentary on Exodus defended the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed. He wrote that obedience in this situation was “preposterously unwise.” He argued that those who obeyed were attempting to “gratify the transitory kings of earth” while taking “no account of God.” Calvin largely defended rebellion to preserve life.

His disciples, facing a murderous monarch, went further. Roman Catholic aggression had its major 16th-century manifestation in the so-called St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which began on August 23, 1572, and ended with the murder by governmental decree of anywhere from 5,000 to 60,000 Huguenots (estimates vary widely). That tragedy precipitated new declarations of the right to oppose kings. One Calvin disciple in 1579 wrote Vindiciae Contra Tyranos (Vindication Against Tyrants), which contended that even military revolt might be necessary to defend God’s law against kings who give orders contrary to it.

This was a huge change. The author of Vindiciae argued that fundamental law comes from God, so obeying the law means obeying God, not necessarily the state. Rebellion against an unlawful state act, led by “lesser magistrates” such as local leaders, was thus a justifiable maintenance of true law. Those in power did not readily relinquish medieval thinking. In England, for example, even a diminishing of royal authority did not quickly bring about freedom: English lawyers joked that “parliament can do everything except making a woman a man, or a man a woman.” But as generation after generation of Calvinists read Vindiciae or other works that emphasized the limitations of power, the idea of government-almost-like-God diminished.

According to John Adams and many others, Calvin’s doctrines greatly influenced Americans of the 1760s and 1770s.

I will not trace here the influence from the 16th through 18th century, because David W. Hall does a good job of that in his book Calvin in the Public Square. Many contributed through the decades: Peter Viret, John Ponet, Christopher Goodman, John Knox, Theodore Beza, Hubert Languet and Philippe du Plessus Mornay, Lambert Daneau, Johannes Althusius, Samuel Rutherford—and the list continues to Samuel Adams, who in 1743 defended his Harvard thesis that resistance to the supreme magistrate was lawful “if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.” According to John Adams and many others, Calvin’s doctrines greatly influenced Americans of the 1760s and 1770s.

So, to sum up some of Calvin’s thoughts in this area: Sin is always with us, but work in politics and law can at times glorify God. Monarchies can and probably will be ungodly. Republics are better. Since both rulers and ruled are sinners, limited government is the best help to both. When leaders try to be dictators, lesser magistrates—when a tipping point arises—can be righteously rebellious.

Now we turn to the difference between what Christians had previously heard about work and economics, and what Calvin wrote.

6. Honest labor glorifies God

Calvin emphasized that all honest labor, not just that within churches and monasteries, glorifies God. We take this for granted now, but for centuries those engaged in ordinary life had heard that they were leading a second-class existence.

Calvin emphasized taking dominion over all creation, not just ecclesiastical acreage. In a sermon on Matthew 3, he envisioned God as “beckoning with his finger and saying to each and every individual, ‘I want you to live this way or that.’” Each and every person, not just priests, has a God-given vocation that was “good and profitable for the common good.” Work itself is not a curse, and no work done to God is secular.

7. No need for added discipline

Christians throughout medieval times had heard that the way to get closer to God was through some added-on disciplines such as penance, fasting, and other forms of self-flagellation. But Calvin wrote that God did not require such celebrations of discipline, especially when it took productive discipline for Christians to earn their daily bread and to help others. Calvin knew that requiring what could be called “hard practice” beyond the hardness of life itself could lead to harmful pride and a wasting of talents.

I said “what could be called” not because Calvin used the words “hard practice” but because I spent some time a few years back with Japanese Buddhists who immersed themselves in freezing mountain streams or sat for hours in the lotus position without moving until their legs cramped up and they could hardly walk. I remember one woman in her 40s who had lived a hard life with abandonment by her parents and then her husband. She had one child. When he was a toddler, she began coming to a Shingon Buddhist temple on Mount Koya-san and engaging in hard practice—but it struck me that taking care of a 2-year-old was hard practice in itself. Calvin, in essence, asked the question, Why substitute unproductive and unnecessary hard practice for productive hard practice?

Calvin showed the real way to get closer to God is to do what God has made us to do.

Calvin showed the real way to get closer to God is to do what God has made us to do. If I say, “I want to go to Chicago this evening, and this is a bad laptop because it does not have an engine and seats that will get me there,” I am obviously misunderstanding the purpose of a laptop. Calvin linked anthropology and teleology. He wrote in his commentary on Genesis 2:

“Men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. When God ordained that men should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned, in his own person, all indolent response. … Nothing is more contrary to the order of nature than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping.”

God makes us to work. Commenting on Deuteronomy 24, Calvin argued that a removal of work “would throw human life into ruin.” Today, many people who retire while still in good health find that out. Calvin, with many kinds of health problems, wrote and preached until he died. He proposed and modeled in his life the discipline of work in a calling, and the discipline of service, particularly to the poor. His hard practice emphasized the discipline of getting up early and working through the day, with frequent preaching and an astounding output of writing in those days where the cutting edge of word processing was a quill pen.

8. Improving the Christian understanding of business

Calvin’s stress on the importance of work led him to promote vastly improved Christian understanding of what can and should be achieved through business. My sense is that we can see five levels of understanding:

Level 1 is what some Christians then and now have grudgingly believed: Work gets us our daily bread but has little value beyond that. Level 2 also grudgingly supports work because cash thus acquired can go to support ministries and missions. Level 3 support of work is semi-grudging because a job supports a family and ministries and also allows workers to witness to coworkers.

Calvin does not neglect those pragmatic uses of work and adds one more, which we could call Level 4: stewardship that improves what we are given and creates multi-generational wealth. In discussing Genesis, Calvin advised his readers, “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.”

Calvin’s stress on the importance of work led him to promote vastly improved Christian understanding of what can and should be achieved through business.

We should add to that a Level 5: Building a business is more than a means to an end. Americans employed outside the home typically spend more of their active time at their places of work than anywhere else. Those places can be where individuals gain dignity, grasp freedom, and employ creativity, or they can be domains of forced labor without joy. If the latter, they breed elder brothers—playing off the parable of the prodigal son—who resent what only seems like obligation. (And younger brothers who see their elders in what seems like slavish conformity will often run away. That’s one reason why, in the United States, 1950s culture mutated into 1960s culture. But I digress.)

9. The proper use of credit

Calvin understood that building businesses and work opportunities required the proper use of credit and that the medieval church’s interpretation of usury was wrong. Christians throughout medieval times had heard that they should not make loans involving the charging of interest—and as a result, Christians made few business loans. (Jews made loans and became the objects of envy and popular rage.)

Calvin, though, argued that Biblical opposition to usury was not to all interest-bearing loans but to those that took advantage of the poor. He understood that loans to grow a business were different than loans to a starving man—and that charging interest on the former was legitimate. He understood that banning interest in regular economic activity reduced opportunities to promote business expansion and human flourishing. Calvin’s defense of interest was important in his day and may seem to be unchallenged now, but Muslim emphasis on Sharia law, that purportedly bans interest, makes his arguments topical again.

10. Love, not alms

Finally, many people throughout medieval times had heard that the best way to help the poor was to give them spare food, clothes, and coins. William Tyndale’s emphasis on agape rather than charity challenged that, and Calvin’s theoretical writing, plus the policies he implemented in Geneva, showed in practice the meaning of agape. Calvin taught and showed that the best way to tackle poverty was not to distribute alms but to open a business and employ those who would otherwise beg.

The understanding underlying Calvin’s emphasis on helping the poor and the alien was simple: Everyone is created in God’s image and is worthy of respect. He wrote:

“We cannot but behold our own face as it were in a glass in the person that is poor and despised … though he were the furthest stranger in the world. Let a Moor or a Barbarian come among us, and yet inasmuch as he is a man, he brings with him a looking glass wherein we may see that he is our brother and neighbor.”

The formula was not hard: God creates, man respects.

Calvin taught and showed that the best way to tackle poverty was not to distribute alms but to open a business and employ those who would otherwise beg.

Over time, however, some Christians stopped fighting poverty and even began to see it as a road to holiness. They leaped from the Biblical argument that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, to a belief that money and material things by themselves are evil. They took vows of poverty and went begging from city to city, thinking this would draw them and the almsgivers closer to God. Shortly before Calvin’s birth, a French bishop invited beggars from all over Europe to come to his city of Lyon so church members could more readily win salvation by contribution. Soon, local resources were overtaxed, and people were dying in the streets. Church leaders had to call the whole thing off.

Calvin favored neither hair shirts nor indulgent charity. He showed that voluntary poverty arose within a wrongheaded salvation-by-works mentality. The Catholic Church in medieval times sometimes romanticized poverty. The same condescending error occurs today, but Calvin in his commentary on the book of Amos noted that poverty does not make people godly—and might even make them more susceptible to Satan’s snares: “When men are pressed by famine, they would sooner sell their lives a hundred times that they may save themselves from hunger, no matter what the price.” Instead of emphasizing the transfer of food, Calvin encouraged new businesses, particularly weaving. He taught that all vocations except those forbidden by God (such as assassin-for-hire) are good.

Geneva’s war on poverty mirrored Calvin’s emphasis on productive hard practice. To make sure that real needs (and only real needs) were met, the city of 12,000 had 28 districts, each with a population of about 425. A district supervisor screened all requests and presented to the deacons any he thought deserved approval. Deacons visited homes to verify needs. About 5 percent of Geneva’s population received financial help, almost always short term. Deacons, thinking entrepreneurially, sometimes used church funds to pay for tools, raw materials, and the initial rent on a shop. Refugees who were craftsmen could get to work.

To sum up Calvin’s microeconomic thought: All honest labor (not just church work) is good. Self-flagellation is bad. We don’t need to make life harder than it is. Hard work is good, and interest-bearing loans that help businesses to expand and provide more work are good. The poor should work rather than beg, receiving start-up help as needed. No help should be given to the able but lazy. This was Calvin’s model, and social Calvinism became the American way until social Darwinism and social universalism arose in the late 19th century.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...