Posted by: davidwhall | September 5, 2008

Calvin and Wealth: Part 7

Personal Security

The next rung of charity was, surprising to some, personal security. By that, one was responsible to provide for his own life and for his dependents. Calvin and other Reformers broke with the previous Medieval pattern of alms-giving. Instead, they endorsed a personal-responsibility ethic. Commenting on 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Calvin noted that while there are “different ways of laboring,” each person should aid “the society of men by his industry, either in ruling his family, or by administering public or private affairs, or by counseling, or by teaching, or in any other way . . . [to] not be reckoned among the idle.” (Paul’s Commentaries to the Thessalonians, vol. 2, 355). He also could not resist stating that “indolence and idleness were cursed by God,” explaining:

Besides, we know that man was created with this view, that he might do something. Not only does Scripture testify this to us, but nature itself taught it to the heathen. Hence it is reasonable that those who wish to exempt themselves from the common law should also be deprived of food, the reward of labor. . . . [Paul] forbade that the Thessalonians should encourage their indolence by supplying them with food.

Calvin, thus, through his teachings on vocation and through the work ethic he cultivated, expected that a charitable outlook would lead individuals to eschew being drains on others. To expect others to support oneself, when one was capable, was hardly loving. Again, Calvin applied 1 Tim. 5:8 generally, claiming that those who did not support their own family not only had “no piety towards God,” but also denied the faith, rendering them “worse than brute beasts.” For Calvin, the “criminality of this conduct” is based both on nature itself, in which even “infidels are so prone to love their own” and on the higher expectations rightly given to those who profess to follow Christ’s commands. The work ethic was applied within the family of God.

A few verses earlier he noted the biblical distinction (on 1 Tim. 5:5) between a widow with a real need as opposed to one who could care for her own needs or have family assistance. Simultaneously, he cautioned against widows who gave themselves over to “pleasant idleness,” “convenience,” or “excessive mirth.”

A later Calvinist work expressed that if charity was taken out of the hands of the private sector and given to an invisible, “Big Government,” then it would become easy for the recipients “to think that some goods and services, such as healthcare and prescription medicines, have no cost. The costs are still there, but the people who pay those costs often are out of sight and mind for those who not only take the result of government’s redistribution of property but begin to act as though they are entitled to an increasing amount of such benefits.”

Each person has a divine calling to work-to use his time and resources for the glory of God and for the furtherment of one’s neighbor. One cannot give as charitably as possible if his own bills were passed to someone else. The essential building block for genuinely charitable giving could be laid only after a secure base is set. Moreover, if consistency in charitable giving is desired, the more secure those personal bases, the more consistent planning may occur in long term charitable projects. For example, if a group wishes to begin a denominational college or adopt a multi-year charitable effort, sustained giving is needed; that will normally come from mature and established giving units who have first secured their own financial security.

In his sermon on 1 Tim 6:17-19, Calvin noted that one remedy to “correct a depraved attachment” to the world’s wealth is “the right use of our possessions. A man’s opportunities to do good to others increase with the abundance of his riches, and because we are always more reluctant than we should be to give to the poor, he [Paul] uses many words in commending this virtue.” In another sermon on the Gospels, Calvin called for “contentment with what has been allotted to us,” so that even those with means may see their greater responsibility. Similarly, those who are poor are called, under the Doctrine of Contentment, to accept their station and condition, without coveting or stealing. Calvin wrote,

When a person has the means to increase his wealth, let this be done without doing an injury to others-and also without being consumed with envy. What is more: not only should the rich man be contented with what he has but he should also have the spirit of a poor man-that is, each and every day he should be ready to abandon all that God has given him, and not torture himself on that account; and if God wants to make him richer, he should take the blessing he is offered. If God wishes to give him less, he should realize that this is to his advantage.

Calvin, in what may be curious to some, even described the materially poor as having a unique ministry to serve as “messengers” to probe the faith and love of those around them; they are “proxies” to test the compassion of the wealthy. Calvin referred to the wealthy who failed to care for the poor as “murderers,” who deprived others of what they should have: “For otherwise they are like murderers if they see their neighbors wasting away and yet do not open their hands to help them. In this, I tell you, they are certainly like murderers.” While interpreters of Calvin may differ on applications of this teaching, it seems that his point is to condemn the callous wealthy not so much advocate for some other agency to take their wealth and redistribute it to preclude the wealthy from being murderers.

Calvin noted the prophetic denunciation of hoarding, particularly by Isaiah, as a manifestation of discontent. Those who “never have enough, and whom no wealth can satisfy” were keenly covetous to “have everything just for themselves and reckon everything which others have to be something they are missing.” Calvin cited Chrysostom’s opinion that the avaricious would confiscate the sun from the poor if possible. Those whose only “care is to swallow up a great deal” never have enough and never model moderation. He applies this hoarding even to “the size and spaciousness of houses”:

For Isaiah points out the ambition of those who are desirous to inhabit magnificent palaces or spacious houses. There is nothing reprehensible if someone who has a large family has a large house; but when people, swollen with ambition, make superfluous additions to their houses, only that they may live in greater luxury . . . this is empty ambition and out justly to be blamed. Such persons act as if they were to be the only ones that enjoyed a roof, and others should only have the sky for a blanket or must go somewhere else to find an abode.”

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