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.”

2 thoughts on “Calvin and Commerce

  1. Bradley

    I want to read more about "the old Weber thesis." Did Protestantism–or more specifically, Calvinism–really promote a better work ethic? Is it true? How does a person measure work ethic anyway? Maybe Protestantism never promoted a better work ethic; maybe it (indirectly?) promoted a more wealth-oriented view of life. When I think of Catholic countries like Italy and France, I think, "relaxed about money, work, and life." When I think of Germany and England, I think, "workaholic industrialists." Why such a big difference? Maybe it doesn't even have much to do with Protestantism vs. Catholicism. Maybe it's something else entirely. But what?


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Brad,Well, have you read Weber's book itself? That's the best place to start, obviously. After that, I've heard that R.H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is supposed to be the best and most balanced response to/adaptation of Weber. Also, for the angles you seem to be particularly interested in, I would highly recommend John Hughes's The End of Work. The whole book is geared toward developing a truly Christian work ethic, and I seem to recall that the first section deals with Weber a lot.But yes, I think you are on to something. We always congratulate ourselves on the notion that we contributed to the development of this work ethic. But even Weber wasn't convinced that was such a good thing. Biblically, while hard work is certainly a virtue, it hardly seems to be a particularly prominent one, and indeed, I would have to say that the Bible tends to be more positive about rest and leisure than about work…it's often forgotten in books like Hall and Burton's that hard work was a result of the fall, and that the New Covenant is the beginning of the Sabbath rest of the people of God. Why do we assume that Anglo-Saxon workaholism is somehow more Biblical than Mediterranean leisureliness?…very good question.


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