The Secular Script in the Theater of God

Desiring God 2009 National Conference

With Calvin in the Theater of God

It is a privilege to contribute this chapter in honor of a man, John Calvin, who wrote an enormously influential book. He did not go by what everyone was saying. He read what God’s authors had written in the Bible. He instructed his flock to ignore much of the received theological and political wisdom of the time. In this chapter, I would like to concentrate on some things Calvin taught about the Christian meaning of public life that contradicted what just about everyone else at the time was saying.


Let me begin with something from my own life. As some of you know, I did not have the advantage of growing up in a Christian home and knowing from an early age the basics of what is true. I grew up in a Judaism that emphasized following old customs, not thinking about what was true. During the 1960s, I gravitated to whatever I heard that seemed cool. I became an atheist. I participated in antiwar demonstrations. I cared about the poor in an abstract way.

Then I went further, joining the Communist Party in 1972. I studied Russian to speak with my Soviet big brothers. In 1974, though, I picked up a copy of the New Testament in Russian and started reading it just to improve my humble Russian language skills — or so I thought. I read very slowly, so it took me a while to get to chapter 4 of Matthew.

That is where I read something striking: Satan tempts Jesus three times. Each time Jesus responds, “It is written.” This interested me as a writer: Jesus cared enough about a book to emphasize its writing — even when offered magnificent prizes if he would act according to what he had just heard.


Up to that time I briefly had encountered two variants of what passed as Christian practice. Growing up in Boston, I had heard Roman Catholics purportedly taking care of their sin by repeating Hail Marys. At college in New Haven, I had heard William Sloane Coffin criticizing the war in Vietnam, so I associated liberal Protestantism with antiwar demonstrations. But here Jesus was saying something radically different. It is written.

Eventually, purely through God’s grace — I was not seeking but completely lost — I gained some faith in Jesus and in 1976 joined a church. That was the year of an evangelistic campaign in which people wore buttons saying, “I Found It.” That’s what I heard — people saying, I found it.

But in 1977, a Reformed pastor in essence told me that what I had heard was theologically incorrect. I knew from my personal experience that I had not found it, since God in his mercy had drawn me to himself. The little theology I knew (only later did I learn that there was a difference between Arminian and Armenian) contradicted my experience and, more importantly, what is written in the Bible. The pastor took me through Romans over several days of tutoring. Then I read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and saw that he emphasized not what the pontiff said but what is written, in God’s special book.

My point is this: We should not go by what we hear. We should go by what is written, and particularly by what Christ and his apostles taught. This is remarkable. Five centuries ago just about everyone went by what they heard. Ordinary people in Europe, with the exception of Jews — and there is little about Jewish history that is ordinary — were illiterate. The Roman Catholic Church viewed this not as a minus but a plus: The view was that if people read the Bible, they would become confused, so they should merely listen to their priests and do what the priests said.


John Piper recently has written about William Tyndale’s contribution and Thomas More’s attacks on Tyndale (Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton, 27–52). John writes, “Thomas More’s criticism of Tyndale boils down mainly to the way Tyndale translated five words. He translated presbuteros as elder instead of priest. He translated ekklesia as congregation instead of church. He translated metanoeo as repent instead of do penance. He translated exomologeo as acknowledge or admit instead of confess. And he translated agape as love instead of charity” (Ibid., 49).

“We should not go by what we hear. We should go by what is written.”

John Calvin did something similar in his Institutes and other writings, not by translating but by exegeting. He brought back the Christian meaning of public life, after the medieval church had essentially stripped it of meaning and said that only ecclesiastical life was significant. He particularly changed thinking about the role of Christians in government and in entrepreneurial activity. Tyndale translated five words. So we will look at five ways in each of these two areas, government and business/economics, where Calvin challenged the conventional wisdom.


1) Sacred Politics

First, many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that work in a church or life in a monastery was the best way to follow God’s will. The theater of God, in short, was not the whole world but only the parts of it where priests removed themselves from the world. But Calvin wrote in his Institutes, book 4, chapter 20 — other quotations in this section also come from there unless otherwise noted — “No one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.” Such thinking led many of the founders of the American republic to enter politics.

2) The Cleanness of the Courts

Second, many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that they should not go to court. One result was that the weak had little redress against the powerful. Submission to church and state authority was a Christian duty. Any back talk in court or otherwise was rebellion against God. But Calvin wrote, “As for those who strictly condemn all legal contentions, let them realize that they therewith repudiate God’s holy ordinance, and one of the class of gifts that can be clean to the clean. . . . The Christian endures insults, but with amity and equity defends the public interest. . . . [He will use] the help of the magistrate in preserving their own possessions.” Such thinking led Americans to push for a government of laws, not of men.

3) Kings Under Authority

Third, many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that rulers and magistrates could do virtually whatever they want. The powerful were bound only by their own power, and their edicts were not to be challenged by Scripture. Calvin, though, wrote that “kings should not multiply horses for themselves; nor set their mind upon avarice. . . . [Princes] should remember that their revenues are not so much their private chests as the treasuries of the entire people which cannot be squandered or despoiled without manifest injustice.”

He argued, “If [note the if] kings want to be considered legitimate and as servants of God, they need to show that they are real fathers to their nation.” Such thinking led Americans in the 1760s and 1770s to argue that taxation without representation was tyranny, because they had a right to decide how their taxes should be levied and spent.

4) Choosing One’s Leaders

Fourth, Christians throughout medieval times had almost never been able to vote for leaders, but in exegeting Deuteronomy 1:14–16 Calvin stated that

those who were to preside in judgment were not appointed only by the will of Moses, but elected by the votes of the people. And this is the most desirable kind of liberty, that we should not be compelled to obey every person who may be tyrannically put over our heads; but which allows of election, so that no one should rule except he be approved by us. And this is further confirmed in the next verse, wherein Moses recounts that he awaited the consent of the people, and that nothing was attempted which did not please them all.

Calvin also argued, in his commentary on Micah, that it is “the best condition of the people, when they can choose, by common consent, their own shepherds. . . . [W]hen men become kings by hereditary right, it seems not consistent with liberty.” In commenting on Acts, Calvin wrote, “It is tyrannous if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.” Such thinking led the American founders to establish a republic. They knew that, given sin, few kings could resist robbing and even killing to get what they wanted.

5) The Right to Rebel

Before they could establish freedom to choose, though, the founders had a problem: What loyalty did they owe to the king? That question leads to my fifth and final point in this section. Many Christians throughout medieval times had heard that it would be unbiblical to rebel against those said to rule by divine right, but Calvin, while arguing against private individuals taking the law into their own hands, wrote about “magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings.”

He wrote that such magistrates must not “wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk.” He wrote that a refusal to oppose monarchs in such situations is “nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.”

Calvin in his writing did not stretch out that doctrine. His most notable defense of rebellion concerned one of the greatest aggressions in history: Pharaoh’s order that all Hebrew babies be killed. Calvin in his commentary on Exodus defended the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed. He wrote that obedience in this situation was “preposterously unwise.” He argued that those who obeyed were attempting to “gratify the transitory kings of earth” while taking “no account of God.” Calvin largely defended rebellion to preserve life.

His disciples, facing a murderous monarch, went further. Roman Catholic aggression had its major sixteenth-century manifestation in the so- called St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which began on August 23, 1572, and ended with the murder by governmental decree of anywhere from five thousand to sixty thousand Huguenots (estimates vary widely). That tragedy precipitated new declarations of the right to oppose kings. In 1579, a disciple of Calvin wrote Vindiciae contra Tyran–os (“Vindication against Tyrants”), which contended that even military revolt might be necessary to defend God’s law against kings who give orders contrary to it.

This was a huge change. The author of Vindiciae argued that fundamental law comes from God, so obeying the law means obeying God, not necessarily the state. Rebellion against an unlawful state act, led by “lesser magistrates” such as local leaders, was thus a justifiable maintenance of true law. Those in power did not readily relinquish medieval thinking.

In England, for example, even a diminishing of royal authority did not quickly bring about freedom: English lawyers joked that “parliament can do everything except making a woman a man, or a man a woman.” But as generation after generation of Calvinists read Vindiciae or other works that emphasized the limitations of power, the idea of government-almost-like-God diminished.

I will not trace here the influence from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, because David W. Hall does a good job of that in his book Calvin in the Public Square. Many contributed through the decades: Pienne Viret, John Ponet, Christopher Goodman, John Knox, Theodore Beza, Hubert Languet and Philippe du Plessis Mornay, Lambert Daneau, Johannes Althusius, Samuel Rutherford — and the list continues to Samuel Adams, who in 1743 defended his Harvard thesis that resistance to the supreme magistrate was lawful “if the Commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved.”

“Calvin brought back the Christian meaning of public life.”

According to John Adams and many others, Calvin’s doctrines greatly influenced Americans of the 1760s and 1770s. So, to sum up some of Calvin’s thoughts in this area: Sin is always with us, but work in politics and law can at times glorify God. Monarchies can and probably will be ungodly. Republics are better. Since both rulers and ruled are sinners, limited government is the best help to both. When leaders try to be dictators, lesser magistrates — when a tipping point arises — can be righteously rebellious.


Now we turn to the difference between what Christians had previously heard about work and economics and what Calvin wrote.

1) Honest Labor Glorifies God

First and most obvious, Calvin emphasized that all honest labor, not just that within churches and monasteries, glorifies God. We take this for granted now, but for centuries those engaged in ordinary life had heard that they were leading a second-class existence.

Calvin emphasized taking dominion over all creation, not just ecclesiastical acreage. In a sermon on Matthew 3, Calvin envisioned God as “beckoning with his finger and saying to each and every individual, ‘I want you to live this way or that.’” Each and every person, not just the priest, has a God-given vocation that was “good and profitable for the common good.” Work itself is not a curse, and no work done unto God is secular.

2) No Need for Added Discipline

Second, Christians throughout medieval times had heard that the way to get closer to God was through some added-on disciplines such as penance, fasting, and other forms of self-flagellation. But Calvin wrote that God did not require such celebrations of discipline, especially when it took productive discipline for Christians to earn their daily bread and to help others. Calvin knew that requiring what could be called “hard practice” beyond the hardness of life itself could lead to harmful pride and to a wasting of talents.

I said “what could be called” not because Calvin used the words “hard practice,” but because I spent some time a few years back with Japanese Buddhists who immersed themselves in freezing mountain streams or sat for hours in the lotus position without moving, until their legs cramped up and they could hardly walk.

I remember one woman in her forties who had lived a hard life with abandonment by her parents and then her husband. She had one child. When he was a toddler, she began coming to a Shingon Buddhist temple on Mount Koya-san and engaging in hard practice — but it struck me that taking care of a two- year-old was hard practice in itself. Calvin in essence asked the question, Why substitute unproductive and unnecessary hard practice for productive hard practice?

Calvin showed that the real way to get closer to God is to do what God has made us to do. If I say, “I want to go to Chicago this evening, and this is a bad laptop because it does not have an engine and seats that will get me there,” I am obviously misunderstanding the purpose of a laptop. Calvin linked anthropology and teleology. He wrote in his commentary on Genesis 2,

Men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. When God ordained that men should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned, in his own person, all indolent response. . . . Nothing is more contrary to the order of nature than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping.

God makes us to work. Commenting on Deuteronomy 24, Calvin argued that a removal of work “would throw human life into ruin.” Today many people who retire while still in good health find that out. Calvin, with many kinds of health problems, wrote and preached until he died. He proposed, and modeled in his life, the discipline of work in a calling, and the discipline of service, particularly to the poor. His hard practice emphasized the discipline of getting up early and working through the day, with frequent preaching and an astounding output of writing in those days when the cutting edge of word processing was a quill pen.

3) Improving the Christian Understanding of Business

Third, Calvin’s stress on the importance of work led him to promote vastly improved Christian understanding of what can and should be achieved through business. My sense is that we can see five levels of understanding:

Level 1 is what some Christians then and now have grudgingly believed: Work gets us our daily bread but has little value beyond that.

Level 2 also grudgingly supports work because cash thus acquired can go to support ministries and missions.

Level 3 support of work is semigrudging because a job supports a family and ministries and also allows workers to witness to coworkers.

Calvin does not neglect those pragmatic uses of work and adds one more, which we could call Level 4 — stewardship that improves what we are given and creates multigenerational wealth. In discussing Genesis, Calvin advises his readers, “Let him who possesses a field so partake of its yearly fruits that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence, but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated.”

We should add to that a Level 5: Building a business is more than a means to an end. Americans employed outside the home typically spend more of their active time at their places of work than anywhere else.

Those places can be where individuals gain dignity, grasp freedom, and employ creativity, or they can be domains of forced labor without joy. If the latter, they breed elder brothers — playing off the parable of the prodigal son — who resent what only seems like obligation. (And younger brothers who see their elders in what seems like slavish conformity will often run away. That’s one reason why, in the United States, 1950s culture mutated into 1960s culture. But I digress.)

4) The Proper Use of Credit

Let’s return to Calvin and a fourth point related to economics: He understood that building businesses and work opportunities required the proper use of credit, and that the medieval church’s interpretation of usury was wrong. Christians throughout medieval times had heard that they should not make loans involving the charging of interest — and as a result Christians made few business loans. (Jews made loans and became the objects of envy and popular rage.)

“Work itself is not a curse, and no work done unto God is secular.”

Calvin, though, argued that biblical opposition to usury was not to all interest-bearing loans but to those that took advantage of the poor. He understood that loans to grow a business were different than loans to a starving man — and that charging interest on the former was legitimate. He understood that banning interest in regular economic activity reduced opportunities to promote business expansion and human flourishing. Calvin’s defense of interest was important in his day and may seem to be unchallenged now, but Muslim emphasis on sharia law, which purportedly bans interest, makes his arguments topical again.

5) Love, Not Charity

Fifth, many people throughout medieval times had heard that the best way to help the poor was to give them spare food, clothes, and coins. Tyndale’s emphasis on agape rather than charity challenged that, and Calvin’s theoretical writing, plus the policies he implemented in Geneva, showed in practice the meaning of agape. He taught and showed that the best way to tackle poverty was not to distribute alms but to open a business and employ those who would otherwise beg.

The understanding underlying Calvin’s emphasis on helping the poor and the alien was simple: Everyone is created in God’s image and is worthy of respect. He wrote,

We cannot but behold our own face as it were in a glass in the person that is poor and despised . . . though he were the furthest stranger in the world. Let a Moor or a Barbarian come among us, and yet inasmuch as he is a man, he brings with him a looking glass wherein we may see that he is our brother and neighbor.

The formula was not hard: God creates, man respects.

Over time, however, some Christians stopped fighting poverty and even began to see it as a road to holiness. They leaped from the biblical argument that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil to a belief that money and material things in themselves are evil. They took vows of poverty and went begging from city to city, thinking this would draw them and the almsgivers closer to God. Shortly before Calvin’s birth, a French bishop invited beggars from all over Europe to come to his city of Lyon so church members could more readily win salvation by contribution. Soon local resources were overtaxed, and people were dying in the streets. Church leaders had to call the whole thing off.


Calvin favored neither hair shirts nor indulgent charity. He showed that voluntary poverty arose within a wrongheaded salvation-by-works mentality. The Catholic Church in medieval times sometimes romanticized poverty. The same condescending error occurs today, but Calvin in his commentary on the book of Amos noted that poverty does not make people godly — and might even make them more susceptible to Satan’s snares: “When men are pressed by famine, they would sooner sell their lives a hundred times that they may save themselves from hunger, no matter what the price.” Instead of emphasizing the transfer of food, Calvin encouraged new businesses, particularly weaving. He taught that all vocations except those forbidden by God (such as assassin-for-hire) are good.

Geneva’s war on poverty mirrored Calvin’s emphasis on productive hard practice. To make sure that real needs (and only real needs) were met, the city of twelve thousand had twenty-eight districts, each with a population of about 425. A district supervisor screened all requests and presented to the deacons any he thought deserved approval. Deacons visited homes to verify needs. About 5 percent of Geneva’s population received financial help, almost always short-term. Deacons, thinking entrepreneurially, sometimes used church funds to pay for tools, raw materials, and the initial rent on a shop. Refugees who were craftsmen could get to work.

To sum up this section, all honest labor (not just church work) is good. Self-flagellation is bad. We don’t need to make life harder than it is. Hard work is good, and interest-bearing loans that help businesses to expand and provide more work are good. The poor should work rather than beg, receiving start-up help as needed. No help should be given to the able but lazy. This was Calvin’s model, and social Calvinism became the American way, until social Darwinism and social universalism arose in the late nineteenth century.


We’ve looked at both politics and economics as stages in the theater of God, but I would like to emphasize the fundamental way in which Calvin undercut what Christians had heard from centuries of priests: He told his followers that they were in the theater of God. He instructed his followers to pay attention to the events around them. That may not seem like much, but artists and writers patronized by the medieval Catholic Church deliberately did not pay attention. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus told his disciples, but artists either did not look or did not help others to look.

The reason for not looking: Realism was virtually a heresy. It was no accident nor lack of knowledge of how to use perspective in drawing that led to generic figures floating off the earth in medieval artwork. The overall goal was to separate from this world. So artists depicted separated saints. But Calvin’s emphasis on providence meant that daily events give us some indication of God’s mind at work and play. “If God does nothing random, there must always be something to learn,” Calvin wrote. Wanting to learn, and considering the world important, Calvinists founded newspapers, colleges, and scientific societies.

Calvinistic mindfulness included paying attention to surrounding languages. Christian intellectuals had heard for centuries that they should write in Latin, but Calvin wrote in French as well and preached in a way accessible to the broad public, not just scholars. His sentences were short and clear, a change from lugubrious prose so remarkable that historians of language see Calvin as the creator of modern French sentence structure. Christians throughout medieval times had heard that they were holier if they abstained from all material pleasures.

Calvin, though, wrote that God “meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer. . . . Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor?” He opposed any doctrine that “deprives us of the lawful fruit of God’s beneficence.”

Calvin was a fallen sinner as all of us are. He clearly had his weaknesses — but those weaknesses often grew out of strengths. Amoral libertines have attacked him for centuries, but so have limited-government libertarians, who criticize regulations that the Geneva city council, sometimes at odds with Calvin but nevertheless under his tutelage, passed during the last decade of Calvin’s life.

For example, starting in 1558, dinners of all kinds were to include no more than three courses, each course having a maximum of four different dishes. Starting in 1560, the wearing of gold or silver necklaces, along with other jewelry, was also forbidden. Calvin supported such restrictions and may have proposed some.

His reasons were public-spirited: He wanted native Genevans to spend less money on themselves and provide more help to the poor refugees who flooded into Switzerland, as France persecuted Protestants who eventually outnumbered the native Genevans. Calvin reacted as many American Christians would if the United States now had over three hundred million immigrants living in great poverty, while the owners of Park Avenue penthouses regularly put on parties for pooches.

“If God does nothing random, there must always be something to learn.” –John Calvin

Furthermore, Calvin had seen the affluent sometimes strip the indebted poor of their furniture and even their clothes. He could not stomach grand parties and rich clothes — “Jesus Christ was not a tailor,” he said — when others were starving and dressed in rags. He wanted the rich to dress simply and spend the money they saved on new businesses that would employ the poor. But such changes need to come through changed hearts. Attempts to force compassion foster resentment.

Calvin and Calvinists made other errors when they attempted to use state power to force biblical ways of living. Calvin himself knew the limitations of power. He wrote in his commentary on John that “the kingdom of Christ, being spiritual, must be founded on the doctrine and power of the Spirit. In the same manner, too, its edification is promoted; for neither the laws and edicts of men, nor the punishments inflicted by them, enter into the consciences.” If Calvin had always kept that in mind, he might have been able to avoid some of his infamous incidents, such as the killing of Michael Servetus that he did not order but did not oppose. That, for some, overpowers the good that he did.

Calvin showed more flexibility in thinking about laws than his reputation suggests. For example, some Christians demand that ancient Israel’s civil law must be our own, but Calvin attacked “perilous and seditious” notions that modern states must adopt “the political system of Moses.” He wrote that while all should follow God’s moral law, “Constitutions have certain circumstances under which they in part depend. It therefore does not matter that they are different, provided all equally press toward the same goal of equity.” He wrote that “the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain.”

Here we see Calvin’s fundamental understanding of secular scripts within the theater of God. He knew that a stimulating theater stages a variety of dramas, and many are tragedies. He allowed room for cultural differences that laws would reflect. He wrote, “How malicious and hateful toward public welfare would a man be who is offended by such diversity.” He demanded only that the state allow people to worship God and not violate “that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men.”

Today, surrounded by media cacophony, we hear all kinds of things, and we all have a tendency to repeat what others say. We have leading politicians who go around talking up vain imaginings. This country would be stronger and better if we paused to look at what is written. What is written in the Bible. What is written in a Constitution that is grounded in biblical thinking. What is written in the books of the Bible’s finest interpreter, John Calvin. Our national leaders should especially hear Calvin’s admonition that they “are ordained protectors and vindicators of public innocence. . . . Their sole endeavor should be to provide for the common safety and peace of all.”

is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, chair of the Zenger House Foundation, and the author of books including Compassionate Conservatism and, most recently, Pivot Points.