A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance
By Greg Cochran
Chapter One: Creation
Chapter Two: Fall
Chapter Three: Redemption
Chapter Four: Philanthropy
Chapter Five: Sanctification and Service
Chapter Six: Eschatology
Love him or hate him, John Calvin is a key figure in the history of Protestantism. To mark the birth of this key figure, P&R Publishing released The Calvin 500 Series—eight different volumes on the life and work of John Calvin. Published for the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, Calvin and Commerce examines the influence John Calvin’s work has had on business and economics.
The authors of the book—one a theologian, the other an economist—aren’t seeking to prove that Calvin is responsible for producing our current market-driven economy. Rather, David Hall and Matthew Burton hope to bring Calvin’s theological framework into conversation with contemporary market voices. In truth, Calvin has contributed to the development of a market economy through the theological lenses he provided his followers. The hope of this work is to “provide an informed discussion of the spirit of Calvinism and how it has impacted business sectors” (ix).
While noting Calvin is not solely responsible for the rise of capitalism in the west, the authors attempt to pinpoint the contributions Calvin actually made. The Introductory chapter reviews various historical assessments of John Calvin’s contributions to the marketplace we know today. Those in agreement with Calvin obviously note his positive contribution to economic practices. Even those writing from a “slightly adversarial perspective” still admit that wherever in Europe the economy is flourishing there is a “Calvinist Diaspora seedbed of capitalist economy” (xiv).
The introduction also sets forth the position and tone of this work. The authors note that there is prejudice against Calvin on account of Max Weber’s mischaracterization of his influence on what has been called the Protestant work ethic. The authors also note the uniqueness of their approach as it erases the assumed thick line between theology and economics. Rather, they assert, economics flows organically out of sound, biblical theology.
The authors attempt openly and honestly to avow their presuppositions and admit their desire to avoid recasting Calvin as either a modern day socialist or a modern-day libertarian. Calvin (now 500 years old) does not fit our categories. Presuppositions work the same in economic theory as in theology. Socialism as well as ecological economics both have presupposed ideas about the nature of human beings, just as Protestantism does. And there are consequences to these various ideas. Capitalism, too, “presupposes certain conditions that will make it work” (xxv).
The authors are convinced that Calvin contributed to our current economic success. But his contributions flowed out of his theology. The framework for the rest of the book, therefore, follows the basic pattern of Calvin’s theological works: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Philanthropy, Sanctification, and Eschatology.
Chapter 1: Creation
Chapter one focuses attention on God’s original creation. Calvin notes that the creation narrative portrays human beings as possessing everything in the Garden—a portrait of extravagant wealth. From this and many other texts (Proverbs, Matthew, Colossians, Luke 18), Calvin concludes that wealth is dangerous (leading to coveting and other sins); but Calvin also noted that wealth has its place as a created blessing. The authors summarize Calvin’s Old Testament conclusions on the matter as follows:
- Ill-gotten treasures are of no value
- Wealth per se is not condemned.
- Wealth has a limited long-range advantage, but it should not be idolized.
- Wealth does not endure.
- Godly obedience or righteousness is more valuable than the acquisition of riches.
To bolster his claim that wealth is a blessing, Calvin outlines a number of biblical heroes who amassed varying degrees of wealth. Those heroes include Abraham, Joseph, Solomon, Nicodemus, Mary, Martha, and Barnabas.
Calvin’s doctrine of creation includes in it the notion that God has endowed much of his creation (including humankind) with the capacity to propagate. Humans created in the image of God, then, naturally generate wealth when economic structures (like socialism) don’t restrict the creative function. Creation also reflects wealth—vastly more than a meager existence was available to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Individuals and corporations should strive for abundance, too.
Humanity was placed in abundant wealth and commanded to work—multiply. This original state of humankind demonstrates both an expectation toward work and an accountability to God. Also included in God’s creation design was the idea that work (vocation) would be balanced with leisure (Sabbath). Calvinism expected work and reward. Where Calvinism flourished, a work ethic flourished.
Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic) wrongly concluded that Calvinists sought material success as evidence of their being part of God’s elect. The authors soundly debunk this aspect of Weber’s thesis but affirm the reality of Calvin’s contributions to work, economics, and the marketplace: “Calvin called for hard work but did not necessarily equate success or prosperity with divine blessing…. Weber and others are correct to recognize that Calvinism dignified work and callings of many kinds” (30).
Another aspect of creation integral to Calvin’s contribution is the concept of the Sabbath. Sabbath helps to regulate work, rest, and worship. The authors demonstrate the efficacy of Sabbath practice, how it prevents idolatry, encourages productivity, and leads to holiness and worship. After their detailed defense of Sabbath practice, the authors return to the concept of wealth embedded in the creation account.
Their conclusion on the concept of wealth is that it is “an aspect in neutral territory, it is certainly not morally evil and may be good, if used under grace” (43). Drawing on the work of theologian Wayne Grudem, the authors demonstrate how wealth can be employed for good. They recognize the challenges brought forth by Marx and Greeley and popular depictions of wealth being equated with evil. The authors demonstrate that popular narratives typically don’t tell the whole story on wealth. For instance, the authors provide a table demonstrating that “big oil” is much less profitable than corporations like Microsoft, Google, and Bank of America (48). Their point is to say that the flow of capital is an exercise in human dominion. Use this wealth for good.
Chapter 2: Fall
Chapter two moves from the theme of creation to the theological concept of the Fall. After reintroducing the Genesis narrative of the Fall, the authors note the impact of the Fall on humanity. Calvin’s understanding of human depravity, then, demands a work ethic. The Christian must have a work ethic to fight against sloth and secure productivity. Likewise, depravity demands limited trust and systems of accountability in the marketplace. Particularly important are laws protecting property rights and property owners.
Beyond property rights, laws protecting economic mobility provide needed accountability. Individuals must have freedom to access opportunities. Both employers and employees need protections. The authors move the argument forward to declare that Calvinism is not socialism. Indeed, the authors state that socialism is not natural to humankind. Ownership of private property offers many more protections to human beings than communal or socialist systems can.
The authors argue for the benefits of wealth. Wealth is given to help shape lives (as in the case of Boaz). Wealth is given to support God’s work on the earth (Barnabas). While selfishness is condemned (Ananias and Sapphira), wealth is. . .[To continue reading this summary, please see below....]
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Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies