Calvin and the Christian Calling

Alister McGrath

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 31-35.

The sixteenth century was a period of tumultuous change in Western Europe. The need for some kind of moral and intellectual shake–up within the church had been obvious for some time. Many religious and political writers of the fifteenth century had been aware of the weaknesses of the medieval church and the society in which it was embedded. However, there are good reasons for thinking that few were really prepared for the radical events of the sixteenth century, which are generally referred to collectively as "the Reformation."

The Reformation remains of central importance for Christian theology and the life of the Christian church. As the discussion of the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" document has made clear, the theological agenda of the Reformation remains of continuing importance to modern Christianity, particularly in the United States. The Reformation raised issues that remain live issues today—questions such as "How am I saved?" or "How do I recognize a true church?" Although modern academic theology prefers the mystical world of Baudrillard’s praxis of location and the semiotics of a post–Saussurean world of self–referencing signifiers, it is clear that the issues raised by the Reformation simply will not go away. Nor should they be allowed to. They remain essential if the churches are to retain their identity as Christian bodies.

In taking a retrospective look at the second millennium, it is therefore both inevitable and entirely proper to explore the continuing impact of the Reformation, particularly concerning religion and public life. Three figures would immediately suggest themselves as candidates for discussion. Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) represent the first phase of the Reformation, John Calvin (1509–64) the second.

It is easy to understand why the editors of First Things chose Calvin for their purpose. Calvin’s task can be thought of as consolidation rather than initiation. The first phase of the Reformation focused on issues relating to personal salvation and the need for reform in the life of the church. Although Calvin never lost sight of these themes, he is perhaps best remembered for his detailed exposition of the leading themes of the Reformed faith in his Institutes of the Christian Religion—widely regarded as the most significant religious work of the sixteenth century—and his wrestling with issues concerning the identity of the church and its place in public life. This second aspect of his thinking developed against the all–important background of the life of the city of Geneva, which can be thought of as the laboratory within which Calvin forged his new ideas.

Calvin has excited a variety of responses, both from those who read him and from those who only read about him. He has been the object of much attention from theologians, church leaders, and historians. Some of that attention has been uncritical and laudatory; in that view, Calvin is the man who got (virtually) nothing wrong. For others, Calvin was the "dictator of Geneva," a personally unattractive person who got (virtually) nothing right. Neither approach is of much value in understanding the man and his legacy.

Although Calvin is widely regarded as Swiss (did he not work in Geneva?), it needs to be made clear from the outset that he was French. Born in 1509 in the city of Noyon, northeast of Paris, he was baptized as "Jehan Cauvin." His father intended his son to have a career in the church, and took what steps were necessary to secure this. At some point in the 1520s, Calvin went to the University of Paris to study arts, his intention being to proceed to study theology, where it is generally thought that he became acquainted with at least some of the leading ideas of Lutheranism. Calvin’s original career plan went awry, though not on account of his personal religious views. His father appears to have become embroiled in a financial scandal at Noyon, making an ecclesiastical career problematical for Calvin. As a result, Calvin left Paris at some point between 1526 and 15 28 and studied civil law at Orleans, graduating in 1531. Calvin’s competence in matters of civil law would be of no small importance during his Geneva period.

Meanwhile, Paris was becoming increasingly agitated with Lutheranism. While the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris was hostile to the new religious movement, the King of France, Francis I, was more positive. The agitation grew so great that when the rector of the university, Nicholas Cop, delivered an inaugural address in 1533 suggesting the need for reform of the church, it provoked outrage, and obliged Cop to flee for his life. It is not entirely clear why Calvin came to be associated with the address—some believed he had a hand in writing it—but in any event he too left Paris in haste. Cop sought refuge in the Swiss city of Basle where Calvin joined him in early 1535.

By this stage, Calvin appears to have accepted something of the agenda of the Reformation—Calvin scholars have spilled much ink over a tantalizingly opaque passage in one of Calvin’s later writings, which speaks of his undergoing a "sudden conversion" at some unspecified date and place. Early writings, such as a privately published commentary on Seneca’s On Clemency (1532), cast little light on his religious views. Yet while in exile in Basle, Calvin penned the first edition of a work that would establish his reputation as a vigorous and informed defender of the reformed faith. Institutes of the Christian Religion appeared in 1536, and would undergo successive revisions until the final edition of 1559. While it would not be fair to Calvin to suggest that this is his only work of importance, there is little doubt that it continues to be his most influential work.

Calvin’s future remained uncertain. After various meanderings in Europe, he returned to Paris to settle some family affairs. In July 1536, he set out for the city of Strasbourg with the intention of pursuing a scholarly career. A war in the region forced Calvin to make a detour to the south, so as to approach Strasbourg from Geneva. He had no intention of settling there.

Geneva was a free city at the time, having won her liberty through a revolt in 1535 against the duchy of Savoy. With support from the Swiss Protestant city of Berne, the Genevans defeated Savoy’s attempt to regain control, and by the summer of 1536, Geneva proclaimed itself a republic committed to the cause of the Reformation. The religious affairs of the city, although nominally under the control of the city council, were in effect directed by William Farel and Pierre Viret. Farel recognized Calvin during his brief stay in Geneva, and invited him to remain in Geneva and help consolidate the Reformation in that city.

Initially, things went well for Calvin. He played a prominent role in a disputation that led the neighboring city of Lausanne to accept the Reformation in September 1536. Elections to the city council—the supreme power within the new Genevan republic—increased the presence of councillors sympathetic to Farel and Calvin. Yet tensions erupted in 1538 over what both Farel and Calvin came to see as Geneva’s excessive dependence upon Berne. In April of that year, the city council expelled both men from Geneva, prompting Calvin to move to Strasbourg.

During his period in Strasbourg, Calvin served as a pastor to a local French–language church at the invitation of Strasbourg’s great reformer, Martin Bucer, who also introduced him to the widow who would later become Calvin’s wife. The three years in Strasbourg was a productive time in Calvin’s life: he managed to translate Institutes into French, prepare a second edition of the Latin version, and write a major commentary on Romans. In 1541, however, his exile came to an end. Calvin was invited back to Geneva to resume his program of religious reform.

From 1541 until his death in 1564, Calvin was able to pursue his program of theological reflection and application. Although Calvin is remembered primarily as a theologian and biblical commentator, his experience of the realities of public life in the cosmopolitan imperial city of Strasbourg had given him a new confidence to address the issue of Christianity in the public arena. Calvin’s second Geneva period was marked by episodes of controversy (the burning of the Protestant heretic Michael Servetus was only the most notorious), disagreement with the city council, and personal unpopularity. It was also, however, a time in which Calvin’s influence expanded considerably, particularly in his native France. By his death, there was a growing and powerful Calvinist presence in France, which can be seen as triggering the wars of religion in that country.

Calvin understood Christianity as a faith that engages the realities of both personal and public life. He had considerable interest in the development of an authentic Christian theology, and was well aware of the importance of issues of personal piety and spirituality. Yet his vision of the Christian faith extended far beyond the piety of a privatized faith or the cerebral conundrums of an intellectualized theology. Theology for Calvin offered a framework for engaging with public life.

A culture of free enterprise flourished in Geneva, in large part thanks to Calvin’s benign attitude towards economics and finance. A comparison with Luther is instructive here. Luther’s economic outlook—like his social thought in general—was heavily conditioned by the social realities of the unsophisticated rural German territories he set out to reform. His was a world preoccupied with the problems of late feudal rural life, especially the tensions between peasantry and nobility. Although Luther was clearly aware of some of the economic issues of his day—such as whether money should be loaned at interest—he did not understand the issues dominating urban finance. Luther had no conception of the economic forces that were beginning to transform Germany from a feudal nation of peasant agriculturalists into a society with an emergent capitalist economy. In his treatise "On Trade and Usury," written in the summer of 1524, Luther adopted a strongly critical attitude towards those engaged in any form of commercial activity. The fact that Luther’s economic thought was hostile to any form of capitalism largely reflects his unfamiliarity with the sophisticated world of finance then emerging in the public life of the cities.

Calvin, however, was perfectly aware of the financial realities at Geneva and their implications. Although he did not develop an "economic theory" in any comprehensive sense of the term, he appears to have been fully cognizant of basic economic principles, recognizing the productive nature of both capital and human work. He praised the division of labor for its economic benefits and the way it emphasizes human interdependence and social existence. The right of individuals to possess property, denied by the radical wing of the Reformation, Calvin upheld. He recognized that passages in the book of Deuteronomy relating to business ethics belonged to a bygone age; he refused to let the rules of a primitive Jewish agrarian society have binding force upon the progressive, modern, and urban Geneva of his time. Calvin dealt with the absolute prohibition upon lending money at interest (usury), for example, by arguing that it was merely an accommodation to the specific needs of a primitive society. Since there was no similarity between such a society and Geneva—interest is merely rent paid on capital, after all—he allowed lenders to charge a variable rate of interest. Calvin was sensitive to the pressures upon capital in a more or less free market, and believed that the ethical aims of the usury prohibition could be safeguarded by other means.

Calvin also articulated a work ethic that strongly encouraged the development of Geneva’s enterprise culture. He taught that the individual believer has a vocation to serve God in the world—in every sphere of human existence—lending a new dignity and meaning to ordinary work. Calvin agreed that the world should be treated with contempt to the extent that it is not God, and is too easily mistaken for Him; yet, it is the creation of God, to be affirmed at least to a degree. "Let believers get used to a contempt of the present life that gives rise to no hatred of it, or ingratitude towards God. . . . Something that is neither blessed nor desirable in itself can become something good for the devout." Christians are thus to inhabit the world with joy and gratitude, without becoming trapped within it. A degree of critical detachment must accompany Christian affirmation of the world as God’s creation and gift. Christians are to live in the world, while avoiding falling into that world, becoming immersed within and swallowed by it.

To appreciate the significance of Calvin’s work ethic, it is necessary to understand the intense distaste with which the early Christian tradition, illustrated by the monastic writers, regarded work. For Eusebius of Caesarea, the perfect Christian life was one devoted to serving God, untainted by physical labor. Those who chose to work for a living were second–rate Christians. The early monastic tradition appears to have inherited this attitude, with the result that work often came to be seen as a debasing and demeaning activity, best left to one’s social—and spiritual—inferiors. If the social patricians of ancient Rome regarded work as below their status, it has to be said that a spiritual aristocracy appears to have developed within early Christianity with equally negative and dismissive attitudes towards manual labor. Such attitudes probably reached their height during the Middle Ages.

Scholars are much divided about the spiritual status of work in the Middle Ages. The Benedictine model of monasticism, with its stress on ora et labora, undoubtedly attributed great dignity to manual labor, though the first duty of the monk was always the Divine Office, called his "Opus Dei." It has been urged by some that the Benedictines, with their vast network of monastic enterprises, were in fact "the first capitalists." However that may be, there also persisted a widespread perception in medieval Christianity that those who worked "in the world," as distinct from monastics and clerics more generally, were engaged in a less worthy way of life and, indeed, were second–class Christians. Certainly that perception, combined with various corruptions of monasticism so caustically criticized by Erasmus and others, led Reformers such as Luther and Calvin to sharply contrast the monastic call "from the world" with the authentically Christian call "into the world."

In this view, Christians were called to be priests to the world, purifying and sanctifying its everyday life from within. Luther stated this point succinctly when commenting on Genesis 13:13: "What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well–pleasing to him." There were no limits to this notion of calling. Luther even extolled the religious value of housework, declaring that although "it has no obvious appearance of holiness, yet these very household chores are more to be valued than all the works of monks and nuns."

Underlying this new attitude is the notion of the vocation or "calling." God calls his people, not just to faith, but to express that faith in quite definite areas of life. Whereas monastic spirituality regarded vocation as a calling out of the world into the desert or the monastery, Luther and Calvin regarded vocation as a calling into the everyday world. The idea of a calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to serve Him within his world. Work was thus seen as an activity by which Christians could deepen their faith, leading it on to new qualities of commitment to God. Activity within the world, motivated, informed, and sanctioned by Christian faith, was the supreme means by which the believer could demonstrate his or her commitment and thankfulness to God. To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith. Diligence and dedication in one’s everyday life are, Calvin thought, a proper response to God.

For Calvin, God places individuals where He wants them to be, which explains Calvin’s criticism of human ambition as an unwillingness to accept the sphere of action God has allocated to us. Social status is an irrelevance, a human invention of no spiritual importance; one cannot allow the human evaluation of an occupation’s importance to be placed above the judgment of God who put you there. All human work is capable of "appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God." No occupation, no calling, is too mean or lowly to be graced by the presence of God.

The work of believers is thus seen to possess a significance that goes far beyond the visible results of that work. It is the person working, as much as the resulting work, that is significant to God. There is no distinction between spiritual and temporal, sacred and secular work. All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God. Work is, quite simply, an act of praise—a potentially productive act of praise. Work glorifies God, it serves the common good, and it is something through which human creativity can express itself. The last two, it must be stressed, are embraced by the first. As Calvin’s English follower William Perkins put it, "The true end of our lives is to do service to God in serving of man."

This insight is important in assessing certain aspects of the Reformation work ethic. Calvin, for example, weighs in strongly in support of St. Paul’s injunction, "If someone does not work, then he should not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Several modern writers have severely criticized Calvin for that view, arguing that his comments demonstrate his insensitivity to the needs of the unemployed. Calvin’s primary target, however, appears to have been quite different: the French aristocrats who sought refuge in Geneva and felt that their social status placed them above the need to work. They would not work; for Calvin, the common human obligation is to labor in the garden of the Lord, in whatever manner is commensurate with one’s God–given gifts and abilities on the one hand, and the needs of the situation on the other. The common obligation to work is the great social leveler, a reminder that all human beings are created equal by God.

In many ways, Calvin’s work ethic can be seen as a development of Paul’s injunction to the Corinthian Christians: "Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him" (1 Corinthians 7:17). Calvin emphasized that the everyday activity of ordinary Christians has deep religious significance. The English poet George Herbert expressed this insight eloquently:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see;
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.

So who can learn from Calvin today? It is ironic that those who perhaps are most willing to listen to Calvin are also those who have most to learn from him. American evangelicalism is a complex phenomenon, and I have no wish to misrepresent it through simplification. However, it is fair to say that most evangelicals—and I write as one who gladly and positively identifies with this movement—regard the sixteenth–century Reformation as a period of heroic renewal of the Christian faith and triumphant rediscovery of the meaning of Scripture.

Yet many American evangelicals are ambivalent about engaging—as Calvin urged—with social and political matters. To become involved in such affairs is, they fear, to compromise the integrity of one’s faith, to risk contamination by the sin of the world. Faith is a private matter, and is best kept that way. In making these observations, I must stress that I am not dismissing them; they represent serious concerns that reflect a perceptive appreciation of what can all too easily happen through uncritical immersion in the affairs of the world.

Calvin encourages believers to get involved—to be salt in the world. For Calvin, it is entirely possible to maintain integrity of faith while injecting a Christian presence and influence within society. This vision of a Christian society held a powerful appeal to our forebears: John Winthrop (1588–1649), the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts, even sought to build on the basis of the gospel a Christian civilization in the New World. Perhaps that vision lies beyond our reach—but it remains a challenge and stimulus to our thinking.

We can see the importance of this vision in Carl Henry’s critique of fundamentalism in the late 1940s. Henry argued that fundamentalists did not present Christianity as a worldview, with a distinctive social vision, but chose to concentrate on personal conversion, only one aspect of the Christian proclamation. As a result, they presented an impoverished and reduced gospel to the world, radically defective in its social vision. Fundamentalism was too other worldly and anti–intellectual to gain a hearing amongst the educated public, and was unwilling to concern itself with exploring how Christianity related to culture and social life in general. The seventy–five pages of Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947)—what Dirk Jellema labeled the "manifesto of neo–evangelicalism"—sounded a clarion call for cultural engagement on the part of evangelicals. Fundamentalism had totally failed to turn back the rising forces of modernism, achieving no significant impact upon the world of its day, because it failed to address the social problems of its time. Henry’s argument was unquestionably of major importance in encouraging a new generation of evangelicals to engage society, rather than withdraw into isolated, defensive, and inward–looking enclaves.

Calvin reminds his modern–day successors that while such engagement runs many risks, it is essential nonetheless if Christians are to be the leaven where leavening is most needed. It is not merely evangelicals who need to hear this counsel. If Christianity is to remain a positive force and influence in American public life, all Christians need to be present within that life, as salt and light. To remain safely behind the barricades may seem more secure, and a lot less risky—but it denies us any chance of reforming, renewing, and recalling our culture. The legacy of John Calvin invites us to engage our world, and instructs us in how to do so with integrity.

Alister McGrath teaches theology at Oxford University and is the author of, among other works, John Calvin: A Life.