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John Calvin: Neither Capitalist Saint Nor Theological Boogieman

Peter Feuerherd’s recent column at JSTOR Daily discusses sixteenth century Protestant Reformer John Calvin and his influence on capitalism. Calvin is viewed negatively by most moderns, both because of his identification with the doctrine of predestination – that God has eternally elected those who will be saved – as well as for a common, if not quite accurate, styling of the Weberian hypothesis, that Calvin and Calvinists believed worldly affluence to signify divine election.

Starting with the last point first, Calvin never taught that temporal prosperity provides evidence of divine election. Not at all; he did not presage today’s “Prosperity Gospel” in any fashion. If anything, he warned against trusting outward evidence of that sort as tokening one’s salvation. To be sure, this styling of Weber’s claim is a popular bowdlerization of what Weber in fact argues. Nonetheless, Weber does lead the horse to the water, writing that, for Calvinists, “in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace.” Weber derives his evidence almost exclusively from Puritan authors, Richard Baxter in particular, whom he quotes selectively. Baxter himself nuances his argument in significant ways Weber ignores, and even then, Puritans, while (largely) Calvinists, are not necessarily representative of broader Calvinism, even at that time.

But more than the silliness of Calvin as a putative Prosperity preacher, his identification with predestination has marked him for moderns as an austere, severe reformer and theologian. The irony is that the revival in the doctrine of predestination, formalized at least since Augustine, and recognized in affirmations such as those at the Second Council of Orange in 529 AD, was not a Calvinist distinctive. Indeed, a revival of the doctrine spanned the different currents of the magisterial reformation, both Lutheran (or “Evangelical”) and Reformed.

Indeed, Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will, his reply to an earlier work of Erasmus’s defending free will, is a full-fledged defense of the doctrine of predestination and election. But that Luther would take this position should not surprise us entirely given that he was a member of the Augustinian Order before the start of the Reformation. The official confessional documents of Lutheranism more broadly all endorse and defend a very high view of the doctrine of election and predestination.

There is a bit of a puzzle here. Often forgotten today is that the Reformation, at least the magisterial Reformation, broadly recovered and reasserted the doctrine of predestination as one of its distinctives.

The magisterial Reformation is most commonly associated today with the doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith.” Why would the doctrine of predestination and election been a Reformation distinctive as well, even if one ignored (if not rejected) by most Protestants today? Oddly enough, there was a connection between the motivation for teaching salvation by grace through faith and the motivation for teaching predestination and election at the time of the Reformation: the Reformers believed the medieval Roman Catholic Church placed too much emphasis on the role of human works in salvation. They thought this created too much angst about whether one was, or could be, saved.

In response, the Reformers emphasized both the distinctive of salvation by faith alone and the distinctive of God’s election as doctrines that rejected the need for human works in salvation: Salvation, they argued, was received by faith alone, and that salvation resulted from God’s work alone, without the need of human effort to add to God’s work. Ironically, while the latter teaching is today taken as debilitating, the Reformers considered both doctrines to be liberating (at least initially): They thought they freed people from always wondering whether they had done enough to merit salvation, both because salvation required only faith, rather than works, but also because salvation was entirely God’s work rather than humanity’s. To be sure, what they did not entirely anticipate was that people would then worry not about whether they had done enough to merit salvation, but whether or not God has actually selected them for salvation. So it ultimately opened another set of questions and worries.

Surprisingly, however, given Calvin’s reputation, in his major systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, predestination is not a central focus or organizing principle. Calvin’s approach in the Institutes is surprisingly pastoral and humanistic.

All of this is not to say that Calvin didn’t have anything to say about social and economic relations and civil government. Of particular note is that he ends his Institutes with a discussion of civil government. There is little distinctive for his time in this section, however. He affirms natural law as the basis for government and law. While admitting that any form of government, monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, would be permissible, he was critical of monarchy, preferring a mix of aristocracy and democracy. Here Calvin would not necessarily have identified aristocracy with hereditary aristocracy, but rather as a rule by the best. It is possible, although by no means clear, that he would have been comfortable with a system of representative democracy as a means to achieve the type of aristocratic government he endorsed.

He also discusses the right, indeed, the obligation, of lesser magistrates to resist greater magistrates if and when the latter became oppressive. The American colonists often appealed to this principle to justify why colonial authorities had the right and authority to lead the American colonists in resistance to the metropolitan authority in London. This provided a way for them to throw off the rule of Great Britain without also violating the injunction in Romans 13 to submit to the “powers that be.”

While Calvin reflected the times in which he lived, and embraced beliefs increasing foreign to modern liberal society, contrary to popular perceptions, he is neither the capitalist saint, not the theological boogeyman, that moderns often take him to be.

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