Posted by: davidwhall | July 26, 2008

Calvin and Wealth – Part 1

The Swiss reformer John Calvin knew that God was more important than material wealth, and Calvin’s advice can serve to steer investors and stewards in any century away from a chilling materialism. Money is—and ever will be—a creation; as such it should not be worshiped, over-emphasized, or ignored. Like the creation itself, it has a place and is useful. But outside of that designed space, it can become an idol.
Calvin was clear that Mammon was not to be served. In his commentary on Matthew 6:24, he stated the dilemma well: “[W]here riches hold the dominion of the heart, God has lost his authority. True, it is not impossible that those who are rich shall serve God; but whoever gives himself up as a slave to riches must abandon the service of God; for covetousness makes us slaves of the devil.”[1]
Earlier on the same chapter from Matthew he perceptively described how the devil plagued many with the worship of wealth:

Men are grown mad with an insatiable desire of gain. Christ charges them with folly, in collecting wealth with great care, and then giving up their happiness to moths and to rust . . . What is more unreasonable than to place their property, where it may perish of itself or be carried off by men? Covetous men, indeed, take no thought of this. They lock up their riches in well-secured chests, but cannot prevent them from being exposed to thieves or to moths. They are blind and destitute of sound judgment, who give themselves so much toil and uneasiness in amassing wealth . . . particularly, when God allows us a place in heaven for laying up a treasure and kindly invites us to enjoy riches which never perish.[2]

Instead entangling oneself in this world’s snares, Calvin commended the alternative of making it one’s “business to meditate on the heavenly life,” a theme that will be repeated throughout his work. He warned that if money became the chief good, “covetousness will immediately predominate.”[3] Calvin knew—in ways that might be shocking to those who only refract Calvin through Weber and other hostile critics—that “if we were honestly and firmly convinced that our happiness is in heaven, it would be easy for us to trample upon the world, to despise earthly blessings, and to rise towards heaven.”[4] He was emphatic that wealth had a place as a created aspect but that it should never be confused with the Creator.
Moreover, his explanation of the law echoed this teaching at several places. On the first commandment, Calvin called for exclusivity of allegiance to God. If one is subtly tempted to put wealth acquisition above God, he is reminded that God is a jealous God and will not tolerate co-allegiances between God and Mammon. Later, on the 8th commandment, he warned against lusts that could lead to a variety of frauds. As strongly as Calvin supported the holding of private property in that commandment, he also opposed any wrongful taking or seizing of others’ property, which was normally motivated by greed which crossed over into the territory of idolatry (Col. 3:5).
On the 10th commandment, Calvin advised against setting our hearts on others’ property or seeking, as in the 8th commandment, “gain as another’s loss and inconvenience.”[5] Not only was greed condemned in this command, but Calvin perceived that God sought, by it, to “put a restraint on evil desires before they prevail.”[6] He compared coveting and other temptations to “so many fans” that swirled human passions even higher. Perched at an early stage of modern economic development, Calvin certainly knew that wealth had its snares if one’s inward dispositions were not rightly ordered.
Calvin’s comments on the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18 reflect the same principle. It is not enough merely to divest oneself of riches (“he who deprives others, along with himself, of the use of money, deserves no praise”); one is also to use wealth for the glory of God and love of neighbor.

Calvin observed on this passage that to “renounce riches is not in itself virtuous, but rather an empty ambition.” Referring to secular history (Crates the Theban, who tossed his money into the sea), Calvin further noted that the rich young ruler was called to aid others with his income as an act of love: “And so Christ is recommending him not to simply sell but to be liberal in helping the poor.”[7]
Calvin believed that Christ was teaching his listeners not to worship money or riches. He stated that this teaching warned both rich and poor alike to trust in God—the rich being warned of their danger, the poor being called to be “satisfied with their lot—so that each could serve God. While Calvin realized that riches themselves do not preclude obedience to God, in view of the “depravity of the human mind,” it is rare “for those who have a great abundance to avoid being intoxicated by them.”
Calvin had the good sense, the good biblical sense to realize that God did not want humans to worship wealth or any aspect of it. He gave the capacity to humans to use wealth, but if the ever present idol-factory of the human mind confused Creator with creation, it would inevitably lead to disaster.

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), vol. 1, 337.
[2] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), vol. 1, 332.
[3] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), vol. 1, 334.
[4] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), vol. 1, 334.
[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Last Four Books of Moses (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), vol. 3, 187.
[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Last Four Books of Moses (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), vol. 3, 188.
[7] Cited in Bieler, 283.

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Responses

  1. Hi David:

    I woke up at !:42 a.m. to find the following quote which I read earlier today and which so encourages me. “Instead entangling oneself in this world’s snares, Calvin commended the alternative of making it one’s “business to meditate on the heavenly life,” a theme that will be repeated throughout his work.”

    Writing and reading these type of blogs makes it our business to meditate on heavenly life. Thank you.

    Yours truly,
    Bill

  2. Dear Rev. Hall:

    I am so sorry that I addressed you simply as David in the prior comment. I was not careful nor respectful. When I clicked on the Link of Speakers and saw that just about everyone had their PhD, I knew I was in trouble. Please forgive me.

    But, even in the “About Us” link, you refer yourself as the contact person simply as “David Hall”. When I searched you, a source referred to you as “The Rev. David W. Hall …. Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia.”

    In conclusion, I read a review about the book “The Expository Genius of John Calvin,” by Steve Lawson in the latest article in the Creedorchaos blog whose link is http://creedorchaos.wordpress.com/ .

    “Chaos”, the blogger, described Calvin twice as “humble”. Thank you for being humble like Calvin and for your work for this very interesting and fruitful site that I have grown more and more to appreciate and use.

    Yours truly,
    Bill


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