Praying for the Conversion of our Enemies

Awhile ago, there was something of a debate on here as to whether it was legitimate for Christians to desire the destruction of their enemies.  I argued–not being an outright pacifist–that, although it might be legitimate in certain cases to take action to kill enemies, it would never be legitimate to rejoice in that action; we might have to destroy our enemies in rare cases, but we should never desire their destruction.  Various Biblical counterexamples were alleged against my position, and it was suggested that perhaps the difference between my interlocutor and I was that his position was logically a pure Calvinist position, whereas I tended to qualify my Calvinism with a heavy dose of Barthianism.  

So I was intrigued today to come across, in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 12:14-21, a resounding and powerful statement of the need for Christians always to desire the good and the salvation of their enemies–not only not to take vengeance, but not to desire that vengeance be taken:

“In this passage, Paul requires a train of conduct yet more difficult, not to pray for evil and curses to light on the heads of our enemies, but to wish them every kind of prosperity, and supplicate God to grant them every blessing, however much they may harass, and treat us with the most barbarous inhumanity.  We ought to labour after the attainment of this mildness with the more intense diligence, in proportion to the difficulty of its attainment….”

“Prayer for our enemies is more difficult than to refrain from the active revenging of an injury which we have suffered.  For there are some characters, who, notwithstanding they hold their hands from violence, and are not driven on by a desire of injuring their enemies, would still be glad to find destruction or loss befall them from another quarter.  Even if the injured are so much appeased as to wish no evil to their foes, yet scarce one in a hundred desires the safety and prosperity of the injurer; a large portion has immediate recourse, without feeling any shame, to horrid imprecations.  But God, by his word, not only restrains our hands from any act of violence and injury, but also subdues all bitter feelings in our minds.  Nay, he even desires us to be solicitous for the eternal salvation of those, who bring ruin on themselves by cruelly harassing us in an unjust manner.”

“Not only does Paul prohibit us from executing vengeance with our own power, but we are not to indulge such a desire in our hearts; and on this ground any distinction between private and public vengeance is altogether vain and frivolous; for that person is no more to be excused, who implores the aid of the magistrate with a malevolent intention, and a determined resolution to revenge, than we can acquit the voluntary contriver of plans for self-revenge; nay, we ought not always to ask God, as will afterwards appear, to avenge us; for if our requests for this purpose arise from private affection and passion, and not from the pure zeal of the spirit, we do not make God our judge, but a servant of our depraved desires.  We are not therefore to give place to wrath in any other way than by patiently waiting for the proper season for deliverance, wishing and praying, in the mean time, that such as now vex and disquiet us may become our friends by repentance.”  

“We ought not, indeed, to supplicate God to avenge our enemies, but should pray for their conversion, that they may become our friends; and if they pursue their wicked career, they will experience the same judgment, which other despisers of God may expect.”


Of course, then the question remains–what do we do with the imprecatory Psalms?

Calvin and Commerce Redux

You may recall that a month and a half back, I was busily blogging my way through David Hall and Matthew Burton’s book Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies, as preparation for a short review I was writing for the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.  That review will be published in the Autumn edition of the SBET within the next couple weeks (the much longer and more interesting VanDrunen review, alas, will not, having been postponed to the Spring 2011 issue out of space considerations).  If you were following any of my posts on Hall and Burton, you may have noticed that I stopped only a couple of chapters in, and never posted a full review.  This was, to be frank, simply because it became clear that the book wasn’t worth the time.  Hall and Burton did not have really have any coherent arguments, nor any coherence in the way they said them out, and so it became impossible to justify expending the time to patiently analyze and deconstruct the text.

As I put it in the opening to my original draft of the SBET review (omitted in subsequent revisions, but worth stating here):

“In any work of writing, the author’s goal is to bring about a meeting of the minds between himself and his readers, to bridge the chasm between alien consciousnesses, that he might impart information and generate insight in his readers.  This task is never an easy one, and successful execution has at least three prerequisites: a facility in the use of the medium–language; a distinct and readily grasped shape for the content; and a clear conviction underlying the content, that will excite sympathy in the reader.  Unfortunately this volume raises serious obstacles for itself at each of these points.  At many points, neither the language nor the organization are sufficiently lucid to grant the reader insight into just what the authors are seeking to convey, and the driving purpose and assumptions behind this work are never clearly stated.”

However, since many of the arguments they made constitute staples of “baptized capitalism,” I do hope to return to discuss some of the points they made, two in particular, that I will simply flag briefly now (since promising here that I’m going to post something, although far from a guarantee that I’ll actually do so, does help me prioritize it a bit more.)

The first is the notion of what I’ll call reactive, rather than proactive charity, something I find myself coming back to over and over in my theo-economic ruminations (see here particularly).  Basically, the reactive charity paradigm looks something like this: pursue your own legitimate self-interest, build up your wealth and financial stability, seek in every way to prosper, and then, once you’ve done all this, share the benefits of your aggressive acquisition.  This is, after all, how most of the great philanthropists of the past couple centuries have worked.  They’ve been ruthlessly efficient and amoral when it comes to running the business that is the source of their wealth, but then, once they’ve reached the highest echelons of society, they become renowned philanthropists, giving enormous sums to various charities and setting up various endowments named after themselves–Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bill Gates, etc.  But of course by the time they do all this giving their wealth is so massive that it’s small change for them, the interest and not the principal.  I was struck by this in my recent reading of the history of the Rothschilds, in which Niall Ferguson seemed to think that this philanthropy served as a rebuttal of accusations regarding the Rothschilds’ vicious business practices.  

The logic of those who would endorse this approach to charity is impeccable.  As Hall and Burton put it,

“In the late 1990s a Christian baseball pitcher was conflicted about the size of his contract, because of its overwhelming value.  He privately discussed the guilt he felt with a leading Calvinist minister, who admonished the pitcher that had he failed to get the highest value for his work, he was potentially guilty of sin.  The justification for the minister’s counsel was that all men are given talents and abilities and are called to pursue them so that they can make as much as possible (within the law), so that they can in turn save and give frequently.  With regard to biblical economics, anything that impedes or reduces the three key activities of earning, saving, and giving is an inefficiency.” 

If you don’t make the most money you can possibly make, then you won’t be able to give as much later.  

Logical or not, this makes makes me mighty uneasy.  For one thing (perhaps not so much in the case of the baseball pitcher, but certainly in other cases, like that of the Rothschilds), this attitude can serve to justify an amoral or even downright immoral approach to earning and saving.  It doesn’t matter how many people you trample to get to the top, so long as you distribute 10% of your winnings to them once you’re on top (Hall and Burton, as Christians, add the qualifier “within the law,” but I’m still uneasy).  But of course, if the winners weren’t so heedless about trampling people on their way up, then perhaps there wouldn’t be as many losers in need of their charity later on.  Simply from an economic point of view, I wonder whether a society might be much more effective if it were proactively charitable–that is, making sure the fruits of prosperity were more evenly shared at the front end–rather than reactively charitable–letting a few people reap most of the rewards and far outstrip everyone else, and only then share.  

I also have an ethical concern.  The kind of reactive charity that gives 10% of its income–or even 100% of its income–from a securely-established position of ample savings and large income is never genuinely vulnerable.   They are like the Pharisees who stand by and give generously “out of their abundance” while the widow, in faith, puts in the only two mites that she has.  I am not sure that this is what Christ calls us to.  The generosity to which Christ calls believers is one in which we give self-sacrificially, making ourselves vulnerable and putting our faith in God, not our savings.  How all this works with the genuine call to the virtue of prudence, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s something I want to pursue further.


Wow, that was a bit more than “briefly flagging”–this second point shall be much shorter.  Hall and Burton, like many Reformed, like to appeal to the notion of “Providence” as a guide for economic affairs.  We recognize that, in God’s providence, all are not supposed to be equally rich or equally poor–God has allowed some to suffer poverty and others to make enormous profits.  While we should be charitable to those in need, we should not think that inequality is inherently a bad thing, that we should work to overturn.  Rather, we should encourage everyone to embrace and rejoice in the providence God has called him to, and by and large accept the distribution of wealth that we see as a manifestation of God’s providence.  For now I will merely point out that on this line of argument, one could ratify all wars as just wars because they happened in the providence of God.  Indeed, perhaps this is all I need to say, since the argument is so self-evidently vacuous, but I hope to return to the theme at some point to see how Hall and Burton try to use it.

John Calvin–Friend of Usury?

By defenders and detractors alike, John Calvin and his followers have often been identified as laying the foundations for modern capitalism.  Weber’s version of this thesis, focusing on the so-called “Protestant work ethic” is the most well-known, but a great deal of attention has also focused on Calvin’s reinterpretation of the usury prohibition to allow for commercial lending.  As Reformed pro-capitalists (like Hall and Burton of Calvin and Commerce) tell it, Calvin’s thought facilitated massive social progress by liberating Christians from the oppressive constraints of backward medieval economic thinking, that simply didn’t understand the productive capacity of money.  He removed the stigma on money-lending, thus helping Western Europe embrace all the wonderful advances in productivity that come with a credit-based economy.  In previous posts, I have pondered the question of to what extent Calvin’s new ethic worked as an interpretation and application of Scripture, but here I want to ask a more fundamental question–what did Calvin actually say about usury?

When you read his Letter of Advice on Usury, the striking thing is not its permissiveness, but its restraint; not a sanguine embrace of the possibilities of credit-based economics, but deep suspicion and hesitance of the practice, mindful of the greed of the human heart.  While, in one short and crucial passage, he does question and dismiss (though without much argument) the medieval dictum “that money does not engender money,” a move with potentially radical consequences, the tone of the letter as a whole is remarkably conservative.  Indeed, anyone wishing to follow the principles Calvin lays down would have to condemn almost the entirety of the modern system of credit, and if he were a banker, investor, or mortgage lender, would have to subject his business practices to serious scrutiny.  Let’s look at some of the letter.

In Luke 6:35, he says, Christ

“corrects the world’s vicious custom of lending money [only to those who can repay] and urges us, instead, to lend to those from whom no hope of repayment is possible.  Now we are accustomed to lending money where it will be safe.  But we ought to help the poor, where our money will be at risk.  For Christ’s words far more emphasize our remembering the poor than our remembering the rich.  Nonetheless, we need not conclude that all usury is forbidden.”   

In other words, “Yes, of course, the majority of our lending should be to the poor with no hope of return; I’m just saying that loans at interest to the rich are not completely forbidden; they are the exception to the rule, to be sure, but a permissible exception.”  Ha!  Imagine an economist or ethicist today saying that.  

A little further on he says, “What am I to say, except that usury almost always travels with two inseparable companions: tyrannical cruelty and the art of deception.  This is why the Holy Spirit elsewhere advises all holy men, who praise and fear God, to abstain from usury, so much so that it is rare to find a good man who also practices usury.” 

Wow, that’s pretty stern stuff.  Calvin does not feel that he can legitimately pronounce a ban on all usury, but he hardly wants to present himself as a fan of the practice, and wants anyone contemplating the practice to examine themselves and the circumstance very carefully before they do so–in stark contrast to we moderns, who waltz nonchalantly into the world of paying and charging interest about as soon as we’re old enough to drive.  Moreover, his permission of usury is not a permission of usurers…because of the dangers of the practice, he doesn’t think anyone should make it his regular line of work: “I must reiterate that when I approve of some usury, I am not extending my approval to all its forms.  Furthermore, I disapprove of anyone engaging in usury as his form of occupation.”  

Loans at interest, Calvin goes on to say, are only legitimate if they are made for the benefit of both parties, not merely the creditor.  Just because someone wants a loan and is willing to agree to a certain interest rate does not mean a creditor should give them the loan–only if they are confident that the debtor is in such a position of stability that he is almost certain to derive great benefit from the loan, even after repaying the interest.  Calvin develops this principle to list seven rules to distinguish lawful from unlawful usury: 

“The first is that no one should take interest (usury) from the poor, and no one, destitute by virtue or indigence or some affliction or calamity, should be forced into it.  The second exception is that whoever lends should not be so preoccupied with gain as to neglect his necessary duties, nor, wishing to protect his money, disdain his poor brothers.  The third exception is that no principle be followed that is not in accord with natural equity, for everything should be examined in the light of Christ’s precept: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This precept is applicable every time.  The fourth exception is that whoever borrows should make at least as much, if not more, than the amount borrowed.  In the fifth place, we ought not to determine what is lawful by basing it on the common practice or in accordance with the iniquity of the world, but should base it on a principle derived from the word of God. [Which means that one can never appeal merely to the “market rate of interest” as justification for charging a certain rate, but must determine what is just and appropriate for the needs of the debtor.]  In the sixth place, we ought not to consider only the private advantage of those with whom we deal, but should keep in mind what is best for the common good.  For it is quite obvious that the interest a merchant pays is a public fee.  Thus we sould see that the contract will benefit all rather than hurt. [Thus, for instance, a creditor should not lend to an investor who proposes to build a development or expand a business that, while quite profitable, will harm the surrounding community.]  In the seventh place, one ought not to exceed the rate that a country’s public laws allow.  [Which means, of course, that Calvin is presupposing that it is legitimate for governments to put restraints on the interest rates that can be charged, instead of taking a laissez-faire approach.]”

Needless to say, if these principles were consistently followed, it would rule out a substantial majority of the lending and borrowing that goes on today–not just the dubious dealings of “Wall Street” investment bankers, but even much of the ordinary flow of credit that comes from “Main Street” banks and mortgage lenders.  It seems that once you actually look with any attentiveness at his work, it becomes impossible to enlist Calvin as an early proponent, or even an ancestor, of laissez-faire capitalism.

Toward a Truly Free Market

John Medaille, a fellow with whom many of you may be familiar, and with whom I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding over the past months, recently published a very exciting new book which promises to answer all our questions (and perhaps provides that “Solution in a Nutshell” that I rashly promised)–Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.  

If like me you are eager to read it, but like me aren’t sure when you’ll have the time, you can find an excellent temporary substitute in Bp. Chuck Huckaby’s thorough review at, which he was kind enough to send my way.  Medaille is a writer well-versed in the Roman Catholic ethical and political teaching, and in modern economics, which is extraordinary rarity and makes his work very important for all of us trying to find a truly theological but genuinely workable solution to the twin evils of capitalism and socialism.

Some Theses on Natural Law

In my interactions with Peter Escalante over at Wedgewords, the topic has turned, for the time being, from defining what the Church is to the only slightly less challenging task of defining what nature and natural law is.  Since Peter has asked me to explain my understanding of natural law, I’ve decided to give it a shot…. This is my first attempt to reflect systematically on this question and offer a proper definition from start to finish, so this may turn out to be incoherent or heretical or something.  Feel free to let me know.  I have avoided defining my position via explicit reference to any other theologians because that would pose too much temptation to lazy shorthand, but you are welcome to come in and slap labels on what I’ve said: “Aha!  So you’re just a Barthian Anabaptist Hegelian” or something of that sort, to help me resolve my identity crisis.

To cover such a broad sweep concisely, it was necessary to make this all rather abstract, and as I have not mastered the scholastic art of being simultaneously very abstract and very precise, you may be puzzled as to exactly what I am trying to say at certain points.  Please push me for clarification, and I will try to provide it if possible, though I can’t guarantee it will be:

1. There is such a thing as natural law.  

  a) When God created the world, he intended for it to operate in a certain way, he intended it for a particular destiny.  This destiny was communion with God, not of course in a narrowly-construed way that would simply instrumentalize nature–the beauty and goodness of the creation was an end in itself for the Creator–but such that the goodness of creation’s end, although not reducible into communion with God, is not separable from it either; creation achieves its full potential and perfection when it is ordered toward the love of God.  

b) natural law is, quite simply, that which is necessary for creation to achieve its perfection, to successfully reach the end appointed for it.  When creatures turn away from natural law, they become perverted from their true end and perfection, their created destiny; when they observe it, they are oriented properly toward their telos, the perfection of their own natures in congruence with the love of God

c) natural law is, therefore, implanted in every creature at creation, as an instinct or understanding of its purpose which it freely wills to obey.  


2. Natural law is Christologically-determined from the first

a) the original creation, although without corruption, was not perfect; it had yet to be perfected, because it was not intended to be static, but to mature, through a history involving further action by both Creator and creatures.  The state of the original creation, therefore, although congruent with its final end, does not in itself reveal the perfection of nature and the natural law.

b) Christ is the firstfruits over all creation, the one in whom all things consist, the Last Adam who reveals the destiny of the first, the true image of the invisible God who reveals what man, created in the image of God, is meant to be.  For him and through him and to him are all things.  In short, Jesus Christ reveals for us and leads us toward the true destiny of creation.  It is only by union with him and conformity with him that we attain unto the full stature of our humanity.  

c) Therefore, we cannot properly define natural law except by reference to the revelation in Jesus Christ that illumines the true sense of nature.  


3. Natural law is knowable in part, but not in full

a) from creation, man had implanted in him an adequate, though not perfect, understanding of the natural law.  His being was oriented toward its proper destiny, but had not yet matured into full understanding of it.  This knowledge was limited thus both by immaturity and by the finitude of the human understanding, which could not perfectly grasp the entirety of the natural law in its first principles and its necessary deductions.

b) at the Fall, man lost full fellowship with God, and with it, his conformity to the mind of God that enabled true understanding of himself and his purpose in the world.  Creation itself was cursed with decay as a result of this dislocation between humanity and God, and thus both humanity and the rest of creation ceased to be oriented toward their true end, but, detached from it, became distorted and no longer conformed perfectly to natural law.  Nevertheless, inasmuch as nature continued, though in a wounded state, natural law continued to govern it.  Man’s knowledge of it was impaired now by his lack of fellowship with God, fellowship which gave insight into God’s creation, and by the perverted state of nature itself, which made it more difficult to read nature’s purpose therein.  Thus, man often errs in his grasp of the natural law, not to mention his will to live in accord with it even when it was grasped.

c) The moral law which God revealed to his people in the Old Testament was a more lucid restatement of the natural law, specified as was appropriate for the understanding of God’s people at that point in history, yet pointing beyond itself to a fuller revelation yet to come of creation’s end and how to live in accord with it.


4. Christ is the fulfilment of the law

a) When Christ came, he came as the objective revelation not only of who God was, but of what man was, and what man was intended to be.  Through his life and death, through his teaching while on earth, and through the teaching of the Holy Spirit in his followers, He revealed the true end of creation, and how to live in accord with that end.  That is to say, in his revelation of how men were to live with God, with one another, and with the world (which we could call the “evangelical law”) he revealed the true purpose and structure of the natural law as it applied to humanity in its full maturity.

b) This revelation superseded both the revelation given in creation and discernible in nature, and the revelation given in the Old Testament, not only because it was more direct, but also because it was a revelation of the nature of creation in its full maturity–it was a revelation of the endpoint of history in the middle.  By superseding, it did not overturn or contradict what came before, but rather fully corresponded to that ideal of which the earlier revelations were necessarily incomplete approximations.

c) Although the revelation in Christ is thus the objective revelation of the true natural law, it is still limited in its subjective apprehension.  This is true quite obviously because of the limits of our knowledge–we cannot understand Christ’s revelation either in its full clarity, since we see only through a glass darkly, or in its full extent, because of our finitude.  The long practice of the Church in study and godly living, guided by the Spirit, can help us to grasp the revelation of God in Christ, as well as that in creation, better, but never completely.  More importantly, we are limited in our ability to comprehend, receive, and live out the evangelical law, because we have only tasted of the fruits of the new creation, and still live partly in the old; we are thus still immature where Christ is the fully mature man, and can only receive and live out his revelation to the extent possible in our immature state and the immature state of the world itself.  Again, the sanctification of God’s people through history will lead to a fuller, but never perfect, understanding and practice of the imitation of Christ, until at the consummation, we are perfected in him and attain to the full stature of creation.