Calvin and Commerce

I am currently working on another review for the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology,  this one on a book that is part of the “Calvin 500 Series” called Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies.  One of the authors, David Hall, is a theologian/pastor, and the other, Matthew Burton, is an economist.  Unfortunately, like many such theologico-economic collaborations, this one fails to live up to its promise.  Indeed, I must confess that it fails quite dreadfully.  The book is hampered by an almost unreadably poor writing style and organization, an inability to decide on exactly what it’s trying to argue, and what seems to be a blind ideological commitment to extreme free-market capitalism.  

I will not elaborate on the first of these problems, though no doubt you will pick up on some of it when I include quotations.  It is worth pausing for a moment to examine the second. 

At first glance, it looks like this book is about the old Weber thesis–the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.  However, although the authors allude to Weber fairly frequently, it is not clear what they think of his thesis.  Most often the allusions are critical, though it is rarely clear why, but sometimes they are not.  It seems as if Hall and Burton basically want to adopt Weber’s thesis inasmuch as it paints Calvinism in a good light (it led to capitalism and progress) and reject it wherever it paints Calvinism in a bad light (such as Weber’s observation that with the rise of capitalism from Calvinism, the child must inevitably devour the mother).  However, they do not seem sufficiently conversant with any of the voluminous secondary literature on this question, or even with Weber himself, to make a clear statement one way or another.  In short, the book seems to simply assume as a starting premise, rather than ever argue for, the idea that Calvinism helped foster capitalism.  The rest of the book then seems to be an attempt to present a dual panegyric in favor of Calvin and capitalism, seeking to add to the lustre of each by letting it bask in the glow of the other.  Indeed, the back of the book suggests that their task is not historical at all, but is to “ardently defend capitalism as consistent with Biblical teaching and sensible as well.”  That is perhaps the best summary of the book, and it turns out that Calvin figures only very peripherally in the argument; indeed, when he is quoted, his quotes often seem to bear no relation to or even to contradict the ensuing arguments.

Now what are these arguments?  This shall be my chief concern in upcoming posts about this book.  I will not burden this blog with a long drawn-out deconstruction and dismemberment of the book, as I did with VanDrunen.  If you are interested in reading that longer review, it will be posted in installments at over the next couple weeks.  But here I shall confine myself to observing some of the more notable, disturbing, and all too common theological leaps that they try to make from Scripture to free-market capitalism.

In the remainder of this post, I want to look briefly at a revealing passage in their Introduction, where they explain the relationship between theology and economics as they see it:

“For philosophical minds the logical hierarchy would radiate as follows: from religious beliefs flow theology; from theology flows political thought; political thought then flows to institutional thought; institutional thought flows to cultural thought; cultural thought flows to macroeconomic views; macroeconomic views flow to microeconomic views; and microeconomic views lead to personal economic decisions and actions.”  

Now, whatever “philosophical minds” might think, this sort of hierarchy is not the way the world works and certainly not the way the Bible speaks.  Our thinking begins not at the most abstract level of a stratified theoretical system, but at the practical level of ethical decisions and actions.  When the Bible talks about economics, it never does so at in some ethereal theoretic level well above macroeconomics, but does so in terms of very practical, down-to-earth principles, laws, and exhortations about how to act toward your poor brother, how to administer your wealth, how to share it, when to give it away, how you may justly earn it, etc. 

Biblically, the hierarchy is in fact just the opposite of what Hall and Burton have sketched.  The Bible tells us what we as individuals and communities are to do with our wealth; we must start living this out and applying this vision of economic life, and then from this we can start to construct microeconomic views, macroeconomic views, and all the rest–economics from the ground up.  If Hall and Burton really think that all the Bible has to tell us about economics is at this far-removed theoretical level, then no wonder that in this book, the theology becomes so watered-down and disappears altogether by the time it reaches the level of practice.  Yet this, I am afraid, is standard in this genre of “Reformed economics”–we hear all kinds of vague expostulation about creation and original sin as the pillars of a Christian economics, and next to nothing about the nitty-gritty of Biblical economic practice, nothing about Deuteronomy 15 or Jesus eating with the poor. 

This maddening super-abstraction consistently dogs the theological side of this book, and we only get specificity when it comes to pro-business, anti-‘socialist’ policy recommendations.  In some later posts, I will look at some of the principles and recommendations that appear in their first chapter, “Creation.”

Big Government in Europe?

We hear a lot in the US about how, despite the “tyranny” we have to put up with, we’re still much freer and better off than those “socialist” European countries, which are being choked in the stranglehold of big government.  Occasionally these claims are even accompanied by statistics proving that public spending as a percentage of GDP is considerably higher than in the US (and it’s high enough there).  Oddly, though, most Europeans don’t seem to feel choked by big government as much as we Americans do.

A very illuminating chart from an excellent recent article in the Economist on the new Tory agenda in the UK suggests a more complex picture.  It shows the percentage of total gov’t spending that comes from the central government in various western countries.  Britain, unsurprisingly, is one of the worst, with the national budget making up more than 70% of total public expenditure.  In the US, it is still pretty bad–around 57%.  However, in all those “big-government” European countries like France and Germany, it ranges from 19% to 36%.  This is particularly striking when you realize that in a country as vast as the United States, with 50 states, many of which were once semi-autonomous, you would actually expect federal spending to be relatively lower than in a smaller country.  Or at least, I would.  

This chart seems to confirm something I have come to suspect in recent months–that it is not government per se that is the problem, but excessively centralized government.  You can have a huge public sphere and get along just fine, if that hugeness is dispersed in every local community, instead of massed together in one great Leviathan.  Perhaps conservatives in America should start looking to places like France as examples to profit from, not run from.  Now there’s a crazy idea?


Religious Freedom in the New Israel

In a discussion regarding the 9/11 Mosque madness, my friend Alex recently challenged me on my advocacy of relative religious freedom within a hypothetical Christian nation, arguing that this stance was incompatible with the Old Testament witness.  His challenge was, “You seem to have developed a sharp, revolutionary dichotomy between the economy of the covenants. I am baffled that you have arrived at such and would like to know how you make it work.”  He asked me to blog about it here, so I will try and make a stab at it.   

(Since I haven’t had all that much time to spend on this, this is painted in rather broad brush-strokes, rather than being argued through careful exegesis.  I’m interested to see where you (Alex) disagree with this picture, and then we can argue those points in a nitty-gritty, my-verses-versus-your-verses way. 

First, I think a little historical perspective is in order.  It has been fairly standard for Christian theology, particularly when it comes to political theology, to draw a pretty sharp distinction between the economies of Israel and of the Church.  Although this is a dramatic oversimplification, I think it would be fair to say that only during the Carolingian period and in certain sectors of the Reformed tradition from around 1540 to 1790 was it normal to see Israel’s political experience as significantly normative for a Christian nation.  So if in fact I have “developed a sharp, revolutionary dichotomy between the economy of the covenants” on these issues, that hardly makes me an odd innovator.  

Also, at face value, it seems that there are some pretty dramatic shifts between the two covenants, spelled out quite clearly and forcefully by Paul and other New Testament writers.  The key difference for our purposes concerns the nature and identity of the people of God.  What was Old Testament Israel?  It is a theonomist fantasy to imagine that it consisted of an Israelite “state” and an Israelite “church.”  Of course, there were certain distinctions between civil and religious institutions and authorities, but Israel as the people of God, as a religious community, was inseparable from Israel as a political body, a nation with certain lands, certain loyalties, certain markers of national citizenship.  It was not so much that civil authorities were charged with the task of punishing “religious” sins, but that idolatry was a threat to the nation, a tear in the social fabric of Israel, and hence had to be punished, had to be rooted out, by the king, if need be.   

Given this inseparability of religious and political, it seems clear to me that if the Church is the New Israel, then the Church is the new political and religious body; the shift of the covenants is not one in which a Christian Church replaces the Israelite “church” and a Christian state replaces the Israelite state; rather, the Church is a complete upgrade package.  Nowhere in the New Testament do I find a hint that the Church only partially replaces Israel (this would be a dispensationalist notion).  If the Church then is not merely a new religious body, but also a new political body, does this mean the Church imposes political order in the same legal, coercive way that Israel did?  Hardly.  Because Jesus didn’t just come to change the names of the players, but to change the rules of the game.  This much seems fairly obvious and straightforward, and in my mind throws the burden of proof on any who want to suggest that religious coercion of the Old Testament type continues.  But let’s try to explore a couple reasons in particular why it does not.


First, Christ comes as the judge judged in our place, the judgment to end all judgment.  The cross is God’s verdict of justice against all his enemies, and strangely, it is a verdict that falls not upon them, but upon Himself.  Judgment has been rendered upon mankind, and it is a judgment, shockingly, of mercy.  All who will not receive this mercy will at the last receive a final judgment of destruction, the only possibility left after they have rejected God’s penultimate verdict of mercy.  Now, this earth-shaking event–the entrance of the Judge himself onto the stage of human history, and pronouncement of a verdict of judgment that fell on Himself, would seem to have a dramatic effect on human judgment.  Before Christ, Yahweh was judge, and as judge, he pronounced a guilty verdict on those who remained in rebellion against Him.  His people were called upon to carry out this verdict from time to time, executing the most egregious rebels, particularly those who led His people astray into idolatry.  Now what about now that Christ has come?  The verdict he has rendered is a verdict of mercy, a verdict we are to preach and to carry out in all the world.  Of course, this verdict carries with it the promise that those who reject it will be subject to everlasting destruction, but this final verdict is in the hands of Christ alone, at the end of history.  We are not to preempt it, though we may warn of it.  In the meantime, we are to announce the verdict of mercy, and not only that, but we are to imitate it, like Christ interceding for the world and taking its sins upon ourselves.  All this seems to me to decisively overturn any idea that we are to carry out decisive temporal judgment against idolaters; to do this would be to preempt Christ’s eternal judgment.


Second, Christ comes as the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.  This may seem irrelevant to political matters, but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not.  We have become accustomed to sharply distinguishing between civil, moral, and ceremonial laws in the Old Covenant, and making all kinds of neat categorical distinctions about which ones carry over into the New Covenant and how, but it seems clear to me that it’s not that simple in the Old Covenant.  Take the death penalty, for instance: it seems to be more a matter of purging the land of the defilement that has come upon it, than a matter of retributive justice as we would conceive it; it is more a cultic act than a civil act.  We see the same thing with the conquest of the land and the elimination of peoples who are to be “devoted to destruction.”  The evil of paganism defiles the land and the people of God must cleanse it.  All sins must be atoned for, usually by the sacrifice of an animal, sometimes by the sacrifice of the guilty.  Achan is punished not for a straightforwardly civil offense, but as a matter of purging the camp of the defilement that his sin brings.  Before Christ, idolatry could not be permitted in Israel because it polluted the land, and this pollution had to be cleansed by sacrifice; the idolators had to be devoted to the Lord, devoured in His presence.  

But Christ comes as the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, the sacrifice whose power to make clean and whole never wears out.  Before Christ, uncleanness was infectious, and holiness had to be aggressively guarded against the profane and unclean.  If God’s holy presence was to remain with his people, all uncleanness had to be constantly purged by sacrifice.  But no more.  Christ’s sacrifice tears the veil of the temple and signifies a reversal–now holiness is contagious, and uncleanness is under assault.  We do not have to fear the defilement of idols anymore, since we can now see their powerlessness.  We do not need to atone for such defilement by sacrifice, or to devote the defilers to destruction, because Christ has already allowed himself to be devoted to destruction, that he might make the foulest clean.  

What does this mean for us?  It means that if a Muslim wants to build a mosque in the land, we do not freak out and try to cleanse our land of its defilement, but rather rest in the confidence that, if we continue to dedicate ourselves to holiness, it is that holiness and not the mosque’s defilement that shall prove contagious.  God’s offering up of Himself as a sacrifice for the evildoers means we no longer need to offer up the evildoers as a sacrifice to God.

Divorce Culture

When I logged into WordPress yesterday, I decided to click on one of their “Freshly Pressed” blog posts, entitled “Divorce of the Decade.”  It was, more or less, a short, casual post announcing the news story that Elin Nordegren had finalized her divorce with Tiger Woods, and cheering her on for it.  It concluded, “By not being with Tiger, peace (and dignity) is what you will get. Now, that’s priceless.”  Sixty-two comments followed, almost all of them some variant on “Absolutely!  Way to go for her!”  This struck me as a trifle surprising, but then I remembered a poll I had seen some months ago, shortly after the story of Tiger’s infidelity had first broken, in which an overwhelming number of respondents had voted that Elin ought to get a divorce, overruling a small minority that said she ought to at least give him a chance to make things right.  And I recalled similar comments last summer about Mark Sanford, the Argentiniaphile governor of South Carolina.  Back when he had publicly promised to try and make things right with his wife, and she had initially said she was open to reconciliation, a prominent Washington Post columnist had written an article all but rebuking her for saying so, and suggesting that she ought to divorce him.  A chorus of women commented on the story with loud “Amen!”s.

Is this what our culture has come to?  Of course, it may well be that both Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods’s later actions showed that they were not serious about reform and reconciliation, and so perhaps (depending on your theological position on marriage) divorce was a legitimate and commendable option in the end.  But as a first response to the revelation of infidelity–even serious infidelity?  I suppose I had naively thought that in a majority Christian culture, there were still a great many people who viewed divorce as a last resort, and who thought that forgiveness and a valiant attempt at reconciliation was the right response to infidelity, at least, so long as there was an apparently genuine penitence.  Apparently not; the comments I read on both these stories revealed that we have become a culture of vengeance and strict justice rather than forgiveness: the only relevant question is “Did he do it?” and if the answer is “Yes,” then you are absolved of all duties except the duty to look out for yourself and make the guilty one suffer.  (It’s the same mindset, unsurprisingly, as we have revealed in foreign policy since 9/11.)  

I can, however, end on a positive note.  At their general convention this past summer, the Southern Baptist Convention unabashedly owned up to the problem of a divorce culture within their own ranks, and vowed to take serious steps to tackle the problem.  It’s well worth reading about here and here and here.

What is Liberalism?

What does it mean to be theologically liberal?  The term, like all terms used pejoratively more often than not, is frightfully slippery.  To my American evangelical friends, the line to liberalism is generally crossed somewhere around denying literal six-day creation.  After that point, for many, there’s a pretty straightforward progression running to allowing women deacons, then allowing women ministers, then condoning homosexuality, then ordaining homosexuals (with a denial of the historicity of Scripture thrown in somewhere along that line).  On the other hand, I know and respect a minister here who would be fine with all of the above, but would not at all consider himself a liberal.  For him, the difference is that for him, God is at the center of everything, whereas for the liberal, Christianity is basically humanism with God as a sideshow, an assistant, an important additional factor.  Or, to put it more dogmatically, the difference is perhaps over the deity of Christ; if everything depends on God, then Christ must be God, but if it’s mainly about being a good human, then no need for Christ to be anything more than that.  

This ambiguity is a bit surprising because it’s not as if “liberal” were merely a pejorative term, one of those things that everyone calls everyone else but no one admits to for themselves.  There are millions of Christians who would enthusiastically identify themselves as “liberals” and would wear it as a badge of pride, and there have been for decades.  But the battle-lines have not always been the same.  Originally, they were mainly theological: a liberal was someone who denied fundamental doctrines like the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the rest.  Now, these yardsticks don’t seem particularly important, and debate seems to center around ethical and gender role questions.  Some might at first suppose that the shift is just one of a retreating battle line–liberals consider their doctrinal innovations already established, and now they’re moving on to other issues.  But that is clearly not the case; many of the people pushing for ethical liberalism are a very different group than the earlier group pushing for doctrinal liberalism, and are indeed often doctrinally orthodox on those earlier disputed points. 

Conservatives might want to say that the common element, the fount of liberalism, is a denial of Scriptural inerrancy and sufficiency.  Once you let that go, then liberalism of one sort or another will follow.  But I’m not so sure anymore if this is as simple and neat a solution as it seems.  For one thing, there are many Catholics who would not hold to a Protestant doctrine of Scripture, but would insist on the ability of tradition to supplement Scripture, an attitude that it seems might open the floodgates of liberalism; but many of this persuasion are staunchly conservative.  Moreover, if we once allow that there is a diversity of genres in Scripture, a simple appeal to Scriptural inerrancy is not so simple.  For instance, I might confess that I believe Scripture is entirely authoritative and without error in what it wishes to teach us about doctrine and practice.  I might just argue that certain portions of Scripture do not aim to teach us doctrine and practice directly, or in all the same way.  Job, for instance, may be intended as an edifying story, not a historical account.  What if I’m convinced that the same is true about Genesis?  Is this liberalism?  What if I believe that Genesis is a perfectly authoritative story, just not perfectly authoritative history, because it was not intended to be history?  Couldn’t I say I am actually taking the Bible more seriously than the fundamentalist, because I am willing to pay serious attention to the variety of genres it presents to me?  Likewise, I might take the Bible with full seriousness, yet argue that some of its particular ethical commands were intended only to be particular, to apply to a certain context, and that they do not apply in other, later contexts.  (For instance, most evangelicals effortlessly do this with things like the usury prohibition.)

Perhaps we could propose something like this as a distinguishing criterion: If someone honestly desires to apply and act on what they take the Bible to be saying to them, they are not a liberal, but if someone says, “Yes, I know that the Bible intends to say to us X, but I think it’s wrong and I will do Y,” then they are a liberal.  The problem, of course, is that this reduces everything to intentionality, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  If someone honestly believes that the Bible’s warnings on homosexuality do not mean to condemn modern homosexual couples, are they not a liberal?  The problem becomes more pressing when we consider dogmatic questions, like the deity of Christ.  If someone honestly believes that Scripture doesn’t teach the deity of Christ, and thinks they are taking Scripture with full seriousness, do we not call them a liberal?  

Alternatively, we could make the criterion straightforwardly credal–if you affirm what is in the Nicene Creed without reservation, you’re orthodox; if you want to amend it, you’re liberal.  But that of course leaves us with the dilemma that much modern “liberalism” is ethical, not dogmatic, and the creeds have nothing to say about ethics. 

I confess that I do not have a clear answer to this question.  Perhaps a clear-cut defintion isn’t necessary, but it would be nice to be able to pin it down more precisely than common parlance seems to.  I welcome answers that any readers might want to suggest.