Friday, October 23, 2009

Calvin for Profit

In a brand new book, Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economies, by David Hall and Matthew Burton, readers are treated to a smorgasbord of theological, political, and economic wisdom that, if heeded, could transform the nature of the debate taking place in our political arena right now. The book is filled with great research into the political and economic implications of the Reformation, especially the Genevan version, but in this blog I am only going to touch on a very few of the items that are worthy of comment.

The authors make a case that the reforms enacted under Calvin's leadership in Geneva were nothing short of astounding in impact. Largely because of Calvin's consistent teaching on obedience to God, thrift, Sabbath keeping, generosity, hard work, and making use of God's created order as good steards of the gifts of God, the city's productivity sky-rocketed in short shrift. When Calvin came to Geneva in 1536 there were fifty merchants, three printers, and few if any nobles. By the late 1550s Geneva was home to 180 merchants, 113 printers and publishers, and at least seventy aristocratic refugees who claimed nobility (page 27). This was the result of two primary forces--Calvin's teachings and the attractiveness of the city to refugees and others looking for a place to go in fleeing religious persecution.

Those are fascinating statistics. In fact, they are more facinating to me than they were even to the authors of the book, who do not make much comment on the numbers. Here is what I mean. During times of dislocation and demographic movement, it is not common for commerce to thrive. This is especially in the case in static societies, such as Reformation Europe, where people did not typically move far from their birthplace. But think about this even in a more modern context, late nineteenth century European migrations to the United States. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the large influx of "European Trash" (as they were often called at the time) into New York City, Chicago, Detroit and other large northeastern cities knows what the impact was: slum neighborhoods, massive unemployment, crime (Mafioso and others), alcoholism, and social unrest. This went on for decades in some places. But not so Geneva. Why? The major reason is that the city was being reformed under godly teachers, and that the theology of work, whcih is heavily based on a theology of creation, fall, and redemption, caused a rising economy, not a falling economy to develop.

The authors of the book have reasons why this sort of thing would work at all. They write, "Views about wealth flow from theology or ultimate values. The thesis of our claim is that financial and business concerns are not separate from but an extension of theological (in this case Christian) beliefs" (page xvii). What a thought! Financial and business concerns are an extension of theological values. Anyone who has studied the history of economics (even in a cursory way) knows this to be true. Adam Smith argued for free markets, private property, private ownership of the means of production, low governmental taxation, inheritance rights, and freedom of all to engage in whatever commerce they desired, religious liberty. The result--the most productive and wealthiest nation in the history of the world, the United States. Karl Marx argued for abolition of private property, a heavy graduated income tax, the abolition of inheritance, centralization of credit in the hands of the government, the abolition of religion. The result--The Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea.

Ideas have impacts. Anyone who would like a better understanding of the impact of Reformation thought on economics and the potential for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" ought to take a read on this new book. There is an old saw about Capitalism. "Capitalism is the worst sort of economic system around; except for all the rest." I believe that! In a day when our government is edging its way toward the Marxist pathway, we need to wake up and smell the Genevan coffee. Let's don't go there!

Chad Brand


  1. Mmm, good review. I've been intrigued lately, as I've become a small business owner / web development entrepreneur since leaving Boyce College. My crash course into the theological foundations for work and profit was a series of lectures by Wayne Grudem that's been boiled down into this book:

    It was actually quite encouraging, and the whole prospect of theologically motivated business creativity was very inspiring to me during a time of stress / anxiety re: the business. Good stuff!

  2. Dr. Brand isn't this what sociologists describe as the "Puritan Ethic" (in this case it was proto-puritan)? How does the smaller Christian community, that is deemed irrelevant by the larger non-Christian community, make (or begin to make) the kind of impact of a Calvin?