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.

Reader Discussion

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on September 04, 2017 at 13:50:41 pm

Three very good books on this topic are:

"Puritanism and Liberty" by ASP Woodhouse (1938) [this is focused tightly on the period 1640-50 in England and assumes one is a student of the English Civil wars and has been catechized using the Heidelberg Catechism] ;

"The Reformation" by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2003) [this is by an Anglican theologian and sheds useful light on why the CoE is often seen as neither fish nor fowl on the points raised]; and

"The Reformation of Rights" by John Witte, Jr. (2007)[this a good survey of Calvinism from the American low church perspective].

If your interested, read Witte first, MacCulloch second and Woodhouse last, if your still interested. But Woodhouse is certainly important.

A few questions:

It is my understanding that "evangelical" and "reformed" have been synonyms in the English language since 1533 and that evangelical, reformed and puritan have been synonyms in the English language since about 1600. Why am I wrong?

It is my understanding that magisterial Protestantism is associated with the CoE, English and Scots Presbyterianism and Fifth Monarchist Independents. Fifth Monarchist implies constitutional democratic-republican rule by the visible saints. The Massachusetts Bay Colony and Cromwell's Commonwealth might be best described as a Fifth Monarchist experiments rather than Presbyterian or Independent experiments.

All other reformed English protestant sects can be collected under the heading "Independent." What separates the Independents from the rest is that the Independents believed that the state should have no power over the church and that the Church should have no civil magisterial power - the state and the church must not be one. Am I wrong?

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on September 04, 2017 at 19:06:24 pm

Calvin will be best remembered for establishing that under Christian dogma, Man does not have free will wrt "salvation." lt is the only rational way to read Rom. 8:28, et seq. And to make matters worse, we can't even choose our own leaders! Rom. 13:1-7.

ln short, we are less than slaves. Little more than robots. lt is difficult to imagine a bleaker fate than Christian dogma saddles us with. Or that a god more cruel and sadistic could possibly be imagined.

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on September 05, 2017 at 09:52:32 am

Does ANYONE actually believe in Calvin's predestination? - which incidentally, at least to my mind, contradicts a long struggle, first expressed by the Zoroastrians and later Christianity, to separate Man from the tribe and offer a sense of personal salvation.

Rom. 13:-7 would appear to be the guiding principle for many of our progressive friends as well - "For the one in authority is God’s [the State's] servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.

OMG - I actually quoted scripture. Dawg, ya made me do it! -Ha!

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on September 05, 2017 at 09:57:15 am

"Am I wrong?" - Nope and the long history of the civil authorities co-opting the Church, with predictably dreadful consequences affirms your assertion.
Then again, what is a poor Prince, born second-in-line to do when primogeniture was the Rule of the Land. He simply could not go off and found Google - so it was to be a Bishopric for he, and the power and prestige, provided by the Crown's intervention, of course were to be his rewards.

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on September 06, 2017 at 10:10:05 am

That's my point, gabe. ln the words of Pilate, "O gegrapha, gegrapha." Paul makes it clear that under his iteration of Christianity, you were either predestined for salvation or damned to hell before you were born.

Most cafeteria Christians find this plain reading of Holy Writ unpalatable, and have excised it from their NT with a proverbial X-Acto knife.

Ditto, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Matt. 7:12.

What you are left with isn't Christianity.

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on September 06, 2017 at 10:11:41 am

Fratricide. :)

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on September 06, 2017 at 20:25:37 pm

"Does ANYONE actually believe in Calvin’s predestination?"

Hard to read Romans 9 any other way.

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Jared W Myers

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