Would Calvin Support the Occupy Movement?

Five years ago it was a leading premillennialist saying that were Calvin alive today he would, in effect, be John MacArthur. Now, the Secretary-General of the World Council of Reformed Churches, lecturing at Princeton Seminary (HT: Sovereign Grace News), claims that were Calvin alive today he would be in the streets supporting the Occupy movements. He says,

Calvin expressed opposition to all forms of social oppression resulting from money… Today, it is the global economic systems and practices that have more sophisticated forms of effects.

 

This is amusing but wrong for two reasons:

1) It’s an anachronism. It’s true that Calvin lived on the cusp of what we know as capitalism but contrary to the typical schoolbook presentation (derived from Max Weber) the connections between capitalism and Calvin are best characterized as indirect. There were a number of changes afoot in the 16th century that helped set the preconditions for modern capitalism and Reformed theology was one of them.

Calvin was not exactly a free-market capitalist but neither was he any sort of socio-economic anarchist or statist or whatever social-economic views the Occupy movements represent. In some respects Calvin was socially “progressive” insofar as he was willing to reconsider the existing order. He represented his brother in divorce proceedings, which was a fairly progressive thing to do in the sixteenth century. He did not oppose charging interest (which was a significant change from the typical medieval practice) but he favored strict limits to prevent usury. The charging of interest is essential to capitalism. Calvin certainly believed in private property and in a relatively limited government. E.g.,  he contested the Genevan City authorities to achieve independence of the church from civil control. Most of Calvin’s rhetoric regarding money (e.g., in Book 4 of the Institutes) was intended to mock the Roman church for its lavish spending, its abuse of the poor, and its failure to discharge the diaconal ministry.

2) It simply misrepresents Calvin’s concerns. If there was a single potential effect of the Protestant Reformation (and other social changes that coincided with the Reformation) that he feared it was the social chaos that might be unleashed as result of the changes. He was deeply worried about social mayhem. In that respect he was quite conservative of the established order. Even though his theory of two kingdoms  (Institutes, 3.19.15) has become strangely controversial in recent years he formed that theory within a web of Constantinian assumptions about the nature of civil power and the righteousness of the civil enforcement of religious orthodoxy. Calvin opposed the Anabaptist movements not only on theological grounds but also on socio-political grounds. He, like the rest of the magisterial Reformers, saw in Münster Rebellion (1534–35) a realization of what might happen were the radicals to gain influence or power.

As long as we’re speculating about what Calvin would do, were he alive today, the idea that he would be in the streets with those he could only have seen as a socially disordering rabble is historically ridiculous. His nightmares were populated by the likes of the Occupy movement.

5 comments

  1. Though there is much we can learn from Calvin, articles like these makes me wonder if respect for Calvin is approaching idol worship in that we should be more concerned what Jesus wants for us than what Calvin would do.

    Perhaps, another way to put across my point is to ask more than what people of our times could learn from Calvin but what Calvin could learn from people in the 20th and 21st centuries. What could Calvin have learned from Bonhoeffer? What could Calving have learned from Joseph Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King? And could Calvin also learn from Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Zinn, or Noam Chomsky?

    We can easily figure out what the above could learn from Calvin. That is a given. But if we assume that he could have learned nothing from any of the above mentioned people, are we not elevating Calvin to places he should not be?

    I am a member of the OPC and a charter member of Occupy Wall Street. And I am afraid that the Reformed Churches in America have no witness to the Left because they ignore regard it as being full of radicals. But remember that radical is a relative measurement. Martin Luther was once considered a radical.

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