The Secular Script in the Theater of God

Calvin on the Christian Meaning of Public Life

Desiring God 2009 National Conference

These are notes from the session, not a manuscript.

I'd like to concentrate on some things Calvin taught about the Christian meaning of public life. Things which contradicted what just about everyone else was saying.

As some know I used to be the village idiot. I grew up in a kind of dutyism that emphasized focusing on customs. I became an atheist and participated in anti-war demonstrations at the time. I cared about the poor in an abstract way. I joined the Communist Party and learned Russian to communicate with my Russian big brothers. I eventually ran across a Russian New Testament. I began to read through it slowly and came to Matthew 4. Jesus said when he was tempted, "It is written." This interested me as a writer.

Purely through God's grace I began to have faith in him. I joined a church in 1976. A pastor I knew tutored me in Romans. He also bought me 2 volumes by Calvin called the "Institutes of the Christian Religion."

John Calvin brought back the Christian meaning of public life after the Medieval church had stripped it of its meaning.

Here are five things Calvin taught about Christians and government. First, many Christians throughout Medieval times had learned that working in a monestary was the best kind of work in the world. But Calvin wrote, "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." It's thinking like that that led many of the founders of the American Republic to enter politics.

Second, many Christians throughout Medieval times had learned that they shouldn't go to court at any time. The weak seldom had any redress against the powerful. Calvin wrote against this.

Third, many Christians throughout Medieval times had heard that rulers and magistrates could do whatever they wanted. Calvin wrote, "Kings should not multiply horses for themselves nor set their minds upon avarice. Princes should remember that their revenues are not so much their private chests as the treasuries of the public people which cannot be squandered without manifest injustice."

Fourth, many Christians thought they shouldn't vote for their leaders. Calvin wrote otherwise after studying Deuteronomy. He saw that "Moses awaited the consent of the people and that nothing was attempted that was not pleasing to them all." In commenting on Acts he wrote, "It is tyrannical if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure."

This may seem like old stuff to us but it was radical five centuries ago. It was such thinking in the 18th century that led the Founding Fathers to establish the American republic.

Fifth, many Christians had heard that it would be unbiblical to rebel against those said to live by divine right. But John Calvin wrote that magistrates "must not wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault a lowly folk." He wrote that a refusal to oppose such abusive monarchs was "nefarious perfidy because they betray the trust of the people..."

Sin is always with us, but work in politics and law can sometimes glorify God. Monarchies can, and probably will be, ungodly. With republics there is plenty of sin to go around as well, but they are probably going to be better.

Now, here are five points Calvin taught about Christians as entrepreneurs. Calvin emphasized that all honest labor glorifies God. People who were engaged in ordinary life were not ordinary. Their's was not a secondary existence. 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…has a God-given occupation." Work itself is not part of the curse. No work done to God is secular.

Second, Christians throughout Medieval times had heard that the way to get closer to God was by some added disciplines such as penance, self-flagellation, etc. Calvin wrote that God didn't require this. I spent some time in the past learning about Japanese Buddhists who would immerse themselves in freezing mountain streams or sit in the Lotus position until their muscles would cramp up and they could hardly work. Severe disciplines such as Calvin encountered did not merely belong to the past.

Calvin, in essence, asked the question, "Why substitute unproductive and unnecessary hard practice for productive hard practice?" Why force men to perform unnecessary disciplines when God had called them to do hard things in their everyday lives?

In a commentary on Deuteronomy 24 Calvin wrote, "Any removal of work throws human life into ruin." Many people today retire while they are still healthy and realize the truthfulness of Calvin's quote.

Third, Calvin's stress on the importance of work led him to promote a vastly improved Christian understanding of what can be accomplished through business. We can talk about five levels understanding through which people can progress in the way they think about work: 1) work gets us our daily bread but isn't valuable for much else, 2) work gets us our daily bread but also allows us to support those involved in Christian work, 3) a job supports families and ministries but it also allows us to be exposed to unbelievers in the workplace, 4) work is stewardship that improves what we are given and creates the possibility for multi-generational wealth, and 5) building a business is more than a means to an end. In work, individuals gain more dignity and grasp more freedom.

Fourth, Calvin understood that the building of businesses required the proper use of credit. Christians throughout Medieval times had heard that they should not make loans because of the church's condemnation of usury. But Calvin showed that loans issued to build a business were a different matter than issuing a loan to a poor man and charging interest.

Fifth, many people throughout Medieval times had heard that the best way to help the poor was to give them spare food, clothes, coins, etc. In other words, help them materially. Calvin essentially emphasized opening businesses and helping people gain a trade rather than simply giving them food.

Over time, some Christians stopped fighting poverty and embraced the lifestyle. Some believed that money and possessions in themselves were evil. They would take vows of poverty. Calvin showed that voluntary poverty arose from within a wrong-headed understanding of salvation by works. He wrote that poverty does not make people more godly. It may make people more susceptible to Satan's snares.

To sum up the points in 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. Interest-bearing loans that help people start businesses are good. We should help the poor learn a trade. We should not aid people who are physically able but unwilling to work.

I want to emphasize as I come to a conclusion the fundamental way in which Calvin undercut what Christians had heard from centuries of priests: he told all of his followers that they were in the theater of God. He instructed all his followers to pay attention to the events around them. The theater was not the monastery or the church building. The theater was all around us. Jesus told his disciples, "Look at the birds of the air."

Christians throughout Medieval times heard that they were holier if they abstained from material pleasures. Calvin, however, opposed any doctrine that "deprived us of the lawful fruit of God's benevolence."

Calvin was a sinner. He had weaknesses that grew out of his strengths. For example, Calvin could not stomach grand parties and rich clothes amidst poverty. He wrote, "Christ was not a tailor." He believed that. He wanted people to spend more money on opening businesses rather than buying fancy clothes. I think, however, that Calvin went too far on this point. He needed to realize that the greatest need was changed hearts and consciences rather than regulations imposed from the outside.

Calvin advocated a different understanding of government, politics, business, and economics. Today, surrounded by a media cacophony we often repeat what we hear. But this country would be better if we paused to think about what is written. What is written in the Bible. What is written in our founding documents. What is written by men who loved the Bible like Calvin.

is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of books including Compassionate Conservatism and Reforming Journalism.