Calvin the Capitalist?

In his Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation, Ronald Wallace shoots the tired old hypothesis full of holes.  After first surveying Calvin’s teaching on usury, and pointing out just how restrictive his “permission” of it was, he tells us: 

“Though he believed in the necessity of some distinctions remaining, he believed that the appearance of extreme differences in wealth and poverty within a community was inexcusably evil.  His comment on Paul’s ideal that ‘through giving there should be equality’ is illuminating.  ‘Equality’, in Paul’s mind, he thinks means a ‘fair proportioning of our resources that we may, so far as funds allow, help those in difficulties that there may not be some in affluence and others in want’.  The vision given in Christ’s parable of Lazarus in heaven lying at the bosom of Abraham implies that riches do not shut against any man the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven but that it is open alike to all who have either made a sober use of riches, or patiently endured the want of them. 

“Calvin believed that Christ’s command to us to ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ might under certain circumstances demand the giving away of capital as well as current income.  It enjoined that ‘we must not be satisfied with bestowing on the poor what we can easily spare, but that we must not refuse to part with our estates, if their revenue does not supply the wants of the poor.  His meaning is ‘Let your liberality go so far as to lessen your patrimony and dispose of your lands.’ . . . The answer the Lord gives to the greedy who argue too much about their rights to keep their own is, ‘It is indeed thine, but on this condition, that thou share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that thou eat it thyself alone.’ . . . This teaching tends to have more in common with medieval thought than that which lay behind the vigorous growth of Capitalism.”

In short, Calvin appears to have held back to the traditional Christian teaching that private right to property must serve the end of common use, otherwise this “right” degenerated into a wrong against the neighbor, and that the persistence of significant inequality in resources was therefore immoral insofar as it was avoidable.  But it gets even more interesting.  Wallace suggests that Calvin challenged the ethos that is perhaps the chief pillar of capitalism and of modern life, an ethos that few even think to question, so deep is our faith in its benefits—competition:

“It must be noted at this point that Calvin could never have approved of the idea of a competitive society.  Rivalry and struggle of one member with another is impossible within a true Christian body.  No member is living in full health while competing with another.  It is interesting to find how closely on this mater Calvin’s thought comes to that of Kropotkin the anarchist.  In contrast to Hobbes, and to all thinkers who look back to the natural state of man in society as being one of continuous struggle, Kropotkin believed that ‘the law of nature was the law of cooperation, of mutual aid rather than struggle.  Within each species mutual support was the rule. . . .’

“Moreover, Calvin was always warning about the deadly effects of covetousness—an unquenchable and irresistible fire in the soul destructive of all individual and social good.  He called those who extorted cheap labour from the poor, blood-suckers, murderers of a worse type than any street thug.  He was never weary of castigating those who used their financial power to draw money from others to themselves.  He expreses his dismay that when prices were so high wealthy merchants could keep their granaries closed in order to raise the price even higher and thus to cut the throat of poor people’.  Nothing in the commercial world, he believed, could be lawful which was hurtful to other people, and ‘all bargains in which the one party unrighteously strives to make gain by the loss of the other party’ are condemned.  The idea that any form of rivalry in commercial enterprise could help society or tht self-seeking could further the common interest could never have entered his mind.  He believed in restraining rather than in setting free the competitive spirit.  

“The spirit of Calvin has therefore nothing in common with the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’.”

To be sure, so insistently does Wallace press his case here that it seems that he has an anti-capitalist axe of his own to grind.  Nonetheless, most our modern cheery capitalist-cum-Calvinists would do well to consider these points of rivalry between the two creeds.

2 thoughts on “Calvin the Capitalist?

  1. Kent Will

    Thanks for these quotes, Brad. All too often a discussion of capitalism turns into a simplistic contrast between private property and statism (though this is an understandable side-effect of the Cold War, etc.). Getting into specifics, such as competition or usury, is helpful for getting past the political distractions. Indeed, as I started reading through some of the old conservatives a few years ago, I was surprised to find scathing critiques of capitalism, at least in some of its forms, as the centerpiece of not a few of their reflections on the nature of man. The same, it might be added, goes for our treatment of creation, though that too has been hijacked by recent ideologies.

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