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.

2 thoughts on “Calvin and Commerce Redux

  1. M Kreitzer

    Hi Brad, I have been greatly benefited by your essays on the Two Kingdoms. As to your views on economics, here are some thoughts. 1) Scripture mandates that the civil magistrate must be totally impartial with a single legal standard based on the moral equity of the law of God (capsulized in the 2 great commands, summarized in the 10 Words, applied to culture in a new covenant form of universal equity of Hebrew contextualized judicials — see Chris Wright, W Kaiser, J Frame and V Poythress for those attempting this).2) The magistrate, thus, cannot make any law advantaging or disadvantaging any individual, group, or corporation (common to all social democratic and corporatist visions — e.g., Democrat and GOP, Labour and Tory).3) Earn as much as is possible, save as much as is possible, and give as much as possible was J Wesley's dictum but never outside of the principles of num. 1. 4) Liberty from the magistrates coercive influence was a fruit of the Reformation but several steps away from Calvin, etc. as theologians thought through the issues more carefully.5) Libertarianism is indeed anti-Christian as you note. It does not take into account the equal ultimacy of the one and the many (Van Til). But so is Socialism. Orthodox Trinitarianism does indeed have social theological ramifications that need to be worked out. I would urge you to work through this. (Start with Gunton, Moltmann, Rushdoony, and yes the early J Jordan each with their permutations and insights).6) I agree, we need pro-active charity but also reactive charity within the freedom of the Gospel and our Lord's teaching on wealth.7) Last, Corporatism (GOP, Tory) and Social Democracy (DEM and Labour) are both evil. Althusius' original vision (Subsidiarity) as somewhat embraced by the original US Constitution was indeed profound social theology based on Scripture. This was and is the way foreword.Yours in His service,Mark R. Kreitzer, PhDDirector, International MDiv (English)Kosin UniversityBusan, So Korea


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