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Public Theology: John Calvin Would Have Seen This Crisis Coming
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John Calvin Would Have Seen This Crisis Coming
The Protestant Reformer, born 500 years ago, could teach us a thing or two about fiscal idolatry, diplomacy and democracy. But would we listen?

By Henry G. Brinton

At times of crisis, we look to our leaders to find just the right words, just the right tone, and just the right insight and wisdom to guide us through the tumult. Yet often, the wisdom has been there all along, if you just know where to look or rather, when to look. Say, about 500 years ago.

John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer who was born in 1509, could have seen the global financial meltdown coming from a mile or mere centuries away. No, he wouldn't have foreseen derivatives or credit default swaps or the other financial instruments that would have given even Albert Einstein a migraine. But he knew human weakness. Indeed, we are entering a Calvinistic period in American life, one that is falling into line with the insights and innovations of Calvin. Although often depicted as a stern theologian with a pointed beard and strong views about eternal damnation, Calvin was interested in a wide range of issues far beyond the walls of the church, and his ideas reshaped the economic, political and educational life of the Western world. His perspective can benefit us today, in this time of political change and economic crisis.

American idolatry

Calvin was deeply concerned about idolatry and worried about the human tendency to worship things instead of the one Lord God, creator of heaven and earth. He would have been troubled but not surprised by an article that appeared in The Atlantic 10 years ago, "The Market as God." At that point, many were seeing the stock market as all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present throughout all of life. Millions of us were putting our faith in the market and trusting it to usher in our cozy future.

I think we all know what a false god the stock market has turned out to be. Not that investments are always a bad thing, but the market should never be confused with God. "Every one of us is," warned Calvin, "even from his mother's womb, a master craftsman of idols."

But Calvin was not opposed to capitalism. He eliminated the medieval prohibition against interest and allowed people to earn a fair return on their investments. By calling for Christians to live frugal, disciplined and simple lives, he helped foster savings a message that is once again resonating today.

In addition, he encouraged people to seek the public good in their economic lives, not just private gains. "For Calvin the greatest theft is perpetrated by legal contracts and transactions, not by explicitly criminal behavior," says Randall Zachman, professor of Reformation Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Calvin thought that "it is the duty of every citizen to speak out when they see that unjust laws are causing their neighbors to be oppressed and robbed 'legally.' "

Clearly, Calvin would not have been opposed to increased regulation of the banks and brokerage firms that have caused financial ruin for so many.

Another Calvinistic priority was vigorous education of the young, which is a critical priority in establishing a foundation for sustained economic growth. In Geneva, where Calvin established his church, he ruled that "youth should be faithfully instructed," and this included poor young men and women a small but significant step in women's rights. Calvin supported free schools in Geneva, and his emphasis on literacy and an educated clergy was taken by his followers to Scotland, and then to America.

Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, says, "In a time in which women weren't even supposed to read, Calvin had the courage to imagine them not only as educated citizens, but also as religious and political leaders. Unfortunately, his thinking is ahead of some of our churches, even today."

He was a progressive thinker for the 16th century, and in a number of ways our churches are still trying to catch up with him.

A complex world

In ethics, Calvin was not comfortable making sharp pronouncements about good and evil. Political talk of an "evil empire" or an "axis of evil" would have struck him as overly simplistic, since he believed that sin corrupts every person, community and nation on earth. He realized that all people were good and valuable, but also distorted and dangerous.

"Calvin's sharp eye for ambiguity gives him an ingrained skepticism about human interactions that would have made him a first-rate investigative reporter for a major newspaper," notes David Kelsey, who taught theology at Yale Divinity School until his retirement in 2005.

Calvin refused to simplify human interactions "into an edifying drama of good guys vs. bad guys," says Kelsey. Such wisdom is, perhaps, even more applicable today than in Calvin's day, as technology has created a smaller, interconnected world in which effective diplomacy is often deployed in shades of gray rather than black and white.

Perhaps seeing some of the failures of his predecessor, President Obama seems to get this. His nuanced diplomacy thus far, at least is not a surprise, being that one of Obama's favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century theologian with a Calvinist pedigree. Niebuhr, who embraced tension and irony in American life and politics, is famous for saying, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." Like Calvin, he knew that human beings could never approach the perfection of God, but still we are challenged to work together for justice and clarity in an ambiguous world.

Finally, democracy itself owes a debt to Calvin because he established a form of church government in which clergy and lay leaders had equal power. Ministers, deacons and elders (presbyters) were selected by the people of the church, and this democratic practice eventually formed the basis of the Presbyterian Church. In England, the American Revolution was criticized as being a "Presbyterian rebellion," and the Presbyterian form of church government went on to have a major influence on the formation of American civil government.

It's hard to say whether a Calvinistic revival in American life can provide us with the inspiration we need to rise out of our troubles. But given the positive impact that John Calvin has had on much of our history, I'm willing to put some faith in the old man.

Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia and author of Balancing Acts: Obligation, Liberation, and Contemporary Christian Conflicts. This article appeared in USA Today. (Illustration by Web Bryant/ USA TODAY)

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Date Added: 5/5/2009 Date Revised: 5/5/2009

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