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Calvinist Capitalism

How can Christians in business bear witness to Christ? This question takes on new urgency in our current political and intellectual environment. The rise of “post-liberalism” and “national conservatism,” especially amongst Catholic thinkers, portends a fundamental reorientation of man’s relationship to all aspects of society, including commerce.

But the new right is hardly alone in thinking about markets in ways that reject liberal-revolutionary presuppositions. Neither is this approach exclusively Catholic. Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Calvinist theologian and politician from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wrote extensively on business and commerce as part of his public ministry. Kuyper founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, explicitly dedicated to opposing the principles of the French Revolution, and even served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. Given his deep faith, intellectual prowess, and political acumen, his perspective on Christianity and commerce deserves a hearing, now more than ever.

Thanks to Lexham Press and the Acton Institute, he will get one. The newly published volume On Business & Economics collects some of Kuyper’s most important writings on business that span decades of his public life. The book is an important window into the life of a man with rare gifts, as well as an example of nuanced thinking on commerce. Kuyper is no doctrinaire opponent of business, but neither is he blind to the temptations to sin posed by wealth. Kuyper’s answer to the moral challenges of commerce is simple and profound: consecrate everything to God. What this means, and what it implies for private enterprise, families, the church, and the commonwealth, is worth exploring.

Kuyper on Christianity and the Vocation of Business

The volume contains extensive introductory material, which provides valuable historical and theological context. This is especially helpful for readers unfamiliar with Reformed Christianity. The editor’s introduction emphasizes the doctrines of “particular grace” and “common grace,” the latter of which is important for understanding Kuyper’s thought. “Particular grace” means “the grace by which people turn from their sins, put their faith in Christ, receive the regenerating work of his spirit, and inherit the gift of eternal life.” In contrast, “common grace” means “grace at work in the world at large, by which God holds back the forces of evil, restrains the effects of the fall, and allows civility and human culture to flourish.” Business and economics are legitimate parts of “civil and human culture” and hence are fortified by common grace. But the business vocation of Christians can be especially fruitful because of the mixing of particular and common grace in the church.

Another essential concept for understanding Kuyper’s views on economics is “sphere sovereignty,” the idea “that every sphere of society (business included) enjoys a certain freedom because its authority comes from God rather than from the state.” Business “helps human beings and the social spheres they inhabit to flourish to the glory of God.” Kuyper’s ideas of “common grace in business” and “sphere sovereignty” make for a richer perspective on commerce than most theologians.

The volume introduction focuses on the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), “a key confessional document in the Reformed tradition,” and one particularly relevant to Kuyper’s writings. This essay emphasizes the foundational ideas of superabundance, stewardship, and Sabbath. Superabundance means God’s grace spilling forth into and suffusing material creation; stewardship means man’s recognition that he is a caretaker of the cosmos, not its owner; and Sabbath means finding rest in God, which “is the end or goal of temporal work in this age.” In summary: “If the origin of our economic activity is God’s superabundance, and the essence of that activity is stewardship, then the goal or telos of economic activity is Sabbath rest…The economic teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism thus prepare us both for grateful and faithful stewardship in this life and for patient and hopeful expectation in the world to come.”

The first Kuyper essay explains the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, rendered popularly as, “Give us today our daily bread.” This is an excellent place to begin, since it gets at the heart of man’s absolute dependence on God. Christ commands us to pray for bread, because it is good and proper to ask the Creator to provide His creatures with sustenance. But the petition is about much more than bread. We must not  “imagine over and over that something created is something of its own right…so that we see it existing apart from God,” Kuyper writes.  This we must never do: “No, your money is nothing, your physical strength is nothing, and all your wisdom is nothing except to the degree to which God is at work in them and is using these means to guide you.” In asking God for bread, and for material blessings more generally, we remember that God creates and sustains the means of our flourishing. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, the “quintessence of this fourth petition” is that we “withdraw our trust from all creatures and place it alone in Thee.”

Kuyper also discusses the eighth commandment in another essay, “Thou shalt not steal.” There are many important themes in this long text. Kuyper again emphasizes God’s sole ownership over creation, which means humans are merely stewards. Human property rights are never absolute. They must be regulated for personal and communal flourishing. “As God’s minister, the government is charged with the responsibility to ensure that the regulation of the right of ownership does not lead to the ruin of society.” Kuyper also discusses the double-edged sword of money and capital. “When money functions as the means of exchange it is possible to…provide help and exercise benevolence in ways that are both great and small. However, that same money disrupts natural relationships, [and] makes room for shrewdness and cunning.” For Kuyper, the eighth commandment is realized through the “rule of the Apostle Peter: As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.’ [1 Pet 4:10]”

Next is the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” How to honor the Sabbath is a live issue, as evidenced by Sohrab Ahmari’s May 2001 essay defending “blue laws.” Kuyper’s perspective is different. He rejects both excessive spiritualism, which trivializes the Sabbath, and excessive literalism, which makes an idol of it. He writes that the purpose of this ordinance is “not a spiritual life on one day in the church, and then a spiritless life for six days in the world. Rather the reverse: to enrich us with spiritual provisions and spiritual weapons on the Sabbath, to continue the following six days with less danger on our pilgrimage through this hazardous life.” Thus, the fourth commandment contains the most basic reality of life in Christ: “human life must be ordered in accordance with the pattern of God’s life.”

Kuyper is no doctrinaire opponent of business, but neither is he blind to the temptations to sin posed by wealth. Kuyper’s answer to the moral challenges of commerce is simple and profound: consecrate everything to God. What this means, and what it implies for private enterprise, families, the church, and the commonwealth, is worth exploring.

Kuyper is particularly concerned with the plight of manual laborers, who were afflicted by economic insecurity and deprivation. While Kuyper insists the government can address this problem, it does not have unlimited authority to prescribe rights and duties to social classes. “Sovereignty exists in distinct spheres, and in each of these smaller circles this sovereignty is bound to primordial arrangements or ordinances that have been created not by the government but by the Creator of heaven and earth.” This is Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty. As a distinct sphere, labor “is a world of its own and best suited to be the judge of its own interests.” It thus deserves a seat at the table in deliberations about reforming the law of the land.

The heart of the volume is the essay titled “The Social Question and the Christian Religion.” It is an historical-theological tour-de-force. He asserts an “intimate connection between the social question and the Christian religion.” Kuyper takes us through Scripture, the Early Church, the Constantinian Revolution, medieval and early modern Europe, the French Revolution, and finally to the late 19th century. The message running throughout is that “[w]e fall short in our sacred calling as Christian citizens if we shirk the solemn task of reconstructing whatever appears in conflict with God’s will and ordinances.” Drawing upon his doctrines of God’s ownership, man’s stewardship, and sphere sovereignty, Kuyper rejects both laissez-faire liberalism and totalizing socialism. The church must infuse society with the Gospel message, which requires institutional responses to the persistent poverty, the struggles of laborers, and the power of the wealthy.

Even when Kuyper the parliamentarian and policymaker takes center stage, Kuyper the theologian is not far off. His “Draft Pension Scheme for Wage Earners” is part policy brief, part political-philosophical essay. Kuyper outlines a plan to keep workers from pauperism in their old age, and in doing so makes several interesting philosophical points. Fascinatingly, Kuyper “refuse[s] to endorse government intervention in regard to the social question, whether it be by appealing to the common good or by invoking the rights of the community.” Government is obliged to assist only when private initiative fails, and even then only temporarily. The state should require contributions and help capitalize the funds by providing start-up financing. But the goal is to “withdraw government assistance and involvement as soon as feasible.” Kuyper is willing to use state power to solve social problems when all else fails, but he is very careful not to reify the state nor conflate it with society.

The final chapter I survey is the latest chronologically, though not the last in the volume. This essay, written in 1917, is also titled “The Social Question.” Kuyper was 78 when he wrote it. Still mentally sharp–and a member of parliament! –Kuyper focuses on heightened class conflict, and how Christians in politics should confront it. Continuing to view society as an organic unity, rather than an undifferentiated mass, Kuyper writes, “[t]he entire social question hangs on the relationship between master and servant.” He laments, “When egoism rules, masters demand the maximum and servants offer the minimum.” There can be no true solidarity when society no longer recognizes the primacy of “moral and religious forces.” He has lost none of his antirevolutionary fervor and continues to defend the social role of government: “Especially as regards the organization of labor, I remain convinced that private initiative alone will never achieve its goals.” While Kuyper does not leave us with any new insights, he displays a commendable consistency in his basic principles, as well as flexibility in how those principles ought to be applied to changing circumstances.

Reflecting on Kuyper

Kuyper writes that he is not “an authority on economics,” and often it shows. His questionable classification of Adam Smith as an advocate of a “complete system of laissez faire, laissez passer” reveals he is not always a charitable reader. His short essay in defense of tariffs, “Feeding the Nation’s Workers,” contains the usual litany of protectionist errors: “Raising the tariff is the obvious means available to us to stimulate our business industry, to benefit our national labor force, [and] to finance sound social legislation,” he mistakenly claims.  In a later essay, “The Sacred Order,” Kuyper also defends tariffs for ethical reasons, such as national solidarity. Economists have no problem with prescriptive arguments such as these, which are beyond the purview of economic science. But economists would have a big problem with Kuyper’s descriptive (means-ends) reasoning here. Even in the late 19th century, it was clear that artificially increasing the cost of trade, and thereby impeding the division of labor, would not deliver economic growth. Kuyper is frequently on the wrong side of the factual, rather than evaluative, arguments.

Nevertheless, there is great wisdom in these essays. Kuyper often recognizes tradeoffs and constraints, as when he calls for public oversight and capitalization of old-age pensions, but rejects generalized transfer payments. Furthermore, Kuyper is refreshingly aware of the variety of liberalisms, and does not conflate the rationalistic French variant with the empirical Anglo-American tradition. Whereas Kuyper is wholeheartedly opposed to the former, he is cautiously optimistic about the latter, although he rightly questions its value to the social and political conditions he confronted in the Netherlands.

I recommend Kuyper’s volume to Christians of all denominations who are interested in commerce. At a time when many are questioning the foundations of liberal public order, Kuyper represents an intriguing alternative to the dominant strains of post-liberal thought. We who have been baptized into Christ must witness faithfully to the Lord in business, just as in politics or civil society. Kuyper’s insights into commerce as a Christian vocation remind us just how radical this calling is.