Calvin and Commerce: Creation, Work, and Vocation

Today’s post is a preview of Calvin on Commerce, the public lecture that Dr. Hall will give at Bethlehem College & Seminary Downtown Campus on Wednesday, February 8, at 7:00 p.m. We hope you will join us.

Any proper understanding of Calvin on the subjects of money, wealth, or business must accept that these are all created entities. The Genevan reformer knew that God was more important than material wealth, and Calvin’s advice can serve to steer investors, entrepreneurs, 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. Nor should it be shunned. 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.”

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.

Instead of 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.” Calvin knew—in ways that might be shocking to those who only refract Calvin through the lens of Max Weber or 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.” 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, crossing over into the territory of idolatry (Col. 3:5).

Rev. Dr. David Hall

Prayer Requests
  1. Pray that those who attended the 2017 Pastor’s Conference this week would be encouraged and able to implement new tools and knowledge.
  2. For students and faculty as they return to the classroom and the rigors of the new semester.
  3. For every rising graduate of the college and seminary to receive a calling from God to ministry in the church, mission field, academy, or marketplace.
  4. For more to rise to the $100,000 Building Fund matching grant opportunity by March 31.