Posts tagged with: john calvin

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, December 16, 2013

Bhutan - Flickr - babasteve (2)At last week’s Acton on Tap, I discussed the economic teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism, beginning with the divine origin of material blessings as expressed in Lord’s Day 50, which explores the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The catechism emphasizes God as “the only source of everything good,” echoing the classical Christian understanding of God as the fons omnium bonorum, a Latin phrase meaning the font or source of all good things. This formula appears in many places, notably in the work of John Calvin.

The conclusion from such an understanding is, as the catechism puts it, that we are “to give up our trust in creatures and trust in you [God] alone.” So even though the bread we normally consume each day is brought to us by the work of others, including farmers, millers, and bakers, we are to look beyond these secondary means to the origin of all good things, giving thanks to him.

In his guide to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Rev. Cornelis Vonk provides us with a powerful image connecting the divine origins and the human means by which our material blessings normally are provided. Vonk writes,

Someone might nonetheless ask, “How can we ask the Lord for bread when it is already prepared and ready on our table?”

We see the same thing when a child takes an apple from a bowl on the table, after first asking, “Mother, may I take an apple?” The child does this even though those apples were purchased for him. But Mother is the owner. In the same way, before we enjoy a finely furnished meal, we acknowledge our heavenly Father as the owner by saying, “Please.”

The Lord’s Prayer is a way of gratefully acknowledging that God has provided for our material needs, most often through the work of our neighbors, and asking in faithfulness that such provision continue.
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calvinThough primarily a theologian, the famous Reformation figure John Calvin had much to say about the application of biblical principles to politics. His focus on the sovereignty of God in all aspects of Creation led Calvin to believe in God’s ordinance not only in the spiritual realm, but also in civil government. Citing Scriptural passages such as Proverbs 8:15-16 – “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth” – Calvin demonstrated that all governments are ordained by God. In Calvin’s mind, therefore, the rule of civil authority was paramount to the governance of society.

Law had been the subject of Calvin’s studies before he joined the Reformation movement. Although originally decided for the priesthood, Calvin had been sent to Orleans to study law by his father following a dispute with a local bishop in Paris. It was in Orleans that the importance of the legal order was first engrained into his mind. From there, he moved to Bourges to study under Andrea Alciato, an ingenious Italian humanist lawyer who taught Calvin new ways of studying and analyzing historical legal sources. Calvin would later use these skills in his analysis and interpretation of the Bible. All his training in France would prepare Calvin for a life of theology and statesmanship in Geneva. (more…)

Trade and Mutual AidIn the forthcoming issue of Comment magazine, I examine how free trade orients us towards the good of others. In doing so, I argue against the value of pious banalities and cheap slogans. I include examples like, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” or, “When goods do not cross borders, armies will.” The latter is often attributed to Bastiat, and while it captures the spirit, if not the letter of Bastiat’s views, the closest analogue is actually found in Otto Tod Mallery: “If soldiers are not to cross international boundaries on missions of war,” wrote Mallery in 1943, then “goods must cross them on missions of peace.”

I was struck by the disconnect between ideology and reality, or between idealism and realism, in an anecdote from a recent foreign policy speech from Sen. Rand Paul. As Paul notes,

In George Kennan’s biography, John Gaddis describes President Clinton asking Strobe Talbot “why don’t we have a concept as succinct as ‘containment.’” Talbot’s response [was] “that ‘containment’ had been a misleading oversimplification; strategy could not be made to fit a bumper sticker. The president laughed… “that’s why Kennan’s a great diplomat and scholar and not a politician.”

I guess that’s also the reason that I’ll never be a politician, either. As Lord Acton observed, “Every doctrine to become popular, must be made superficial, exaggerated, untrue. We must always distinguish the real essence from the conveyance, especially in political economy.” The key for responsible governance is not to lose sight of the complexity that lies behind popular exaggerations and conveyances.

As I argue in “Trade and Mutual Aid,” the temptation to rest easy with simple formulas to complex problems is common, but must be resisted: “Divorced
from a more comprehensive conception of the human person and social flourishing, an uncritical reliance on free trade to solve the world’s problems can well become destructive.” Even so, I conclude, “Free trade is a system that imperfectly, and yet with some measure of success—as Bono and countless others are beginning to recognize anew—orients us toward the good of others.” In the course of this piece, I draw on a variety of sources, including Frédéric Bastiat, Adam Smith, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Pope Paul VI, and Friedrich Hayek.

To get your copy of the Comment issue on the topic of persuasion, including my piece on the fundamental persuasive nature of exchange, “Trade and Mutual Aid,” subscribe by March 1. You’ll also find content from new editor James K.A. Smith, Anne Snyder, Jim Belcher, Ashley Berner, Jonathan Chaplin, Marilyn McEntyre, Janet Epp Buckingham, D. Bruce Lockerbie, Calvin Seerveld, Natalie Race Whitaker, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Trailer at Overton Farm, Cranham - geograph.org.uk - 670364In today’s Acton Commentary, “Mike Rowe and Manual Labor,” I examine the real contribution from a star of the small screen to today’s political conversation. Mike Rowe, featured on shows like The Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs, has written letters to both President Obama and Mitt Romney focusing attention on the skills gap and our nation’s dysfunctional attitudes towards work, particularly hard labor, like skilled trades and services.

In his letter to Romney, Rowe writes that “Pig farmers, electricians, plumbers, bridge painters, jam makers, blacksmiths, brewers, coal miners, carpenters, crab fisherman, oil drillers…they all tell me the same thing over and over, again and again – our country has become emotionally disconnected from an essential part of our workforce.”
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At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)

Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)

So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”

On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”

But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,

The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.

This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”

Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:

Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.

So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.

Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,

the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.

And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”

“You’ve lost a good opportunity to shut up.” So said French president Nicolas Sarkozy to UK prime minister David Cameron as an instance of what BusinessWeek has dubbed “Europe’s Insult Diplomacy.” But it’s a retort that strikes me as equally relevant for the pontifications that pour forth from ecumenical officials in Geneva on almost every topic under the sun.

The latest instance of imprudence in the cause of desperately seeking relevance is the claim from Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), that the reformer John Calvin “would have been in the streets of New York or London with a placard,” joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I explore the dynamics of what I call the “ecumenical-industrial complex” in my book released last year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. One of the points I make in the book is that ecumenical officials like Nyomi cannot seem to resist the opportunity to weigh in on contemporary political and economic issues as if there is a single, univocal, and absolute Christian position.

The claim that Calvin and OWS are kindred is precisely the kind of obfuscatory rhetoric that we don’t need from ecclesiastical representatives, whether at the congregational, denominational, or ecumenical level. On the constructive side, in Ecumenical Babel I make the case that the ecumenical movement, rather than making absurd claims akin to that of Calvin and OWS, might “decline to issue doctrinaire and casuistical proclamations about this or that particular policy. Instead, the ecumenical movement would understand its role in this sphere to provide broad guidance rather than particular judgments.”

The upshot of such a change would be that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness would place correspondingly less emphasis on direct political engagement and advice…and correspondingly greater emphasis on providing moral guidance to the church.” As opposed to saying that JC (whether John Calvin or Jesus Christ) “would have been in the streets of New York or London,” as Nyomi claims, instead “the character of ecumenical statements on social issues…would be far more restrained and chastened than we find today.”

But as long as the mainline ecumenical movement continues to conflate unity with unanimity on particular social questions, don’t expect reform to happen anytime soon.

This week’s Acton Commentary. Sign up for our free, weekly email newsletter here. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Victor Claar’s new monograph, Fair Trade: It’s Prospects as a Poverty Solution, in the Acton Bookshoppe.

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Searching for Meaningful Work: Reflections on the 2010 Economics Nobel

By Victor V. Claar

This year’s Nobel economics prize was awarded to two Americans and a British-Cypriot for developing a theory that helps to explain why unemployment can persist even when job openings are available.

The economics prize is not one of the original awards established by Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, but is instead a relatively new prize. Established in 1969, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Nobel — its official name — is funded through proceeds from a 1968 donation by Sweden’s central bank.

This year’s winners — Americans Peter Diamond and Dale Mortensen, and British-Cypriot Christopher Pissarides — were honored with the $1.5 million prize for their illumination of the obstacles that may keep buyers and sellers from finding each other in some markets as efficiently as economic theory traditionally predicts.

In some markets — where information is low-cost and individual buyers and sellers are not particularly unique — parties can quickly find each other and engage in mutually-beneficial exchanges. Any buyer is happy to trade with any seller as long as the price seems reasonable to each.

But in other markets the fit matters more. And, as Diamond’s early work in the 1970s suggested, sometimes fit matters a lot. An extreme example is the “market” for spouses. Because marriage is a lifelong joint endeavor, men and women search extensively for partners with whom their eventual marital union may fully flourish as God intends.

And because searching for just the right person takes time, effort, and perhaps many first dates, plenty of eligible men and women remain single at any given moment. Web sites like match.com and eHarmony are popular with singles because those sites help reduce search costs by improving the amount of information available to singles about potential mates.

Diamond, Mortensen, and Pissarides have studied extensively markets with such search costs. When both buyers and sellers are unique, it requires considerable searching for each to find just the right fit. Even in a well-functioning housing market with plenty of available homes, buyers may struggle to find homes they like. So the buyers keep looking.

All three recipients of this year’s prize have carefully extended Diamond’s work to better understand why we may observe persistent unemployment in the labor market even when there are plenty of job openings available, and with interesting policy implications — especially for unemployment insurance programs. Their work shows that more generous unemployment insurance programs will unambiguously lead to longer average unemployment spells: a result with very strong empirical support.

There are two ways to interpret this policy conclusion, and neither is incorrect. On one hand, quite generous welfare benefits may — at the margin — backfire in the sense that they make finding employment less urgent than it would be otherwise, resulting in less search effort by job seekers. This interpretation provided part of the motivation behind the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the “welfare reform” bill), which shortened the amount of time individuals may receive welfare payments without working. The bill made unemployment look less attractive.

But on the other hand, meaningful work is a gift. God desires that men and women — the only creatures that He made in his image — imitate him through their creative work. Work is our collaboration with God’s creative purposes. Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther stressed the idea, gleaned from Scripture, that every believer is called by God to certain work — a vocation — and has a duty to respond to that call. And John Paul II, in his letter on human labor, observed that work is “one of the fundamental dimensions of [a person’s] earthly existence and of his vocation.” Thus while low unemployment is an important goal, we should not be too quick to put policies in place that force unemployed persons to settle too quickly for jobs that are not a good match. Doing so would deny people the opportunity to pursue their unique callings — ones in which each person can exercise stewardship to the glory of the Creator.

The enduring contribution of this year’s economics Nobel winners will be their suggestion that unemployment insurance alone cannot guarantee meaningful work, and that future policy efforts to reduce unemployment would do better to focus on improving information and reducing search costs, leading to enhanced opportunities for meaning and human flourishing in labor markets. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Pissarides pointed to the UK’s New Deal for Young People, which directly attaches government assistance to job seeking and training (rather than unemployment per se), as one example “very much based on our work,” he said.

Dr. Victor V. Claar is associate professor of economics at Henderson, the public liberal arts university of Arkansas. He is a coauthor of Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices, and author of the Acton Institute’s Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, December 28, 2009

As we enjoy the final days of 2009, notable for among other things the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, take the time to enjoy this video creation from James C. Schaap, professor of English at Dordt College, featuring quotes about creation from the writings of John Calvin, music by the Dordt College Concert Choir, and photography by Schaap.


As Calvin writes, “Nothing is so obscure or contemptible, even in the smallest corners of the earth, that it can’t display some marks of the power and wisdom of God.” This is of course a sentiment held not only by Calvin, but also by other Reformed predecessors, contemporaries, and followers, as well as by those within the specifically Augustinian and broader Christian traditions. Peter Martyr Vermigli said that “nothing may be found in the world so abject or lowly that it gives no witness to God.”

The best book related to these themes in Calvin’s work that I can recommend is by Susan Schreiner, Theater of His Glory: Nature & the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Baker Academic, 2001).

Cross-posted to Mere Comments.

Light for the CityIn connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.

“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.

And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.

Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.

The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).

Today marks the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth. Over at the First Things site, I take the occasion to pay special attention to Calvin’s concern for articulating the antiquity, and therefore the catholicity, of the Reformation.

Among the factors that converts from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism very often cite as major influences on their move is the novelty of the former compared with the antiquity of the latter. This is, undoubtedly, an important point that ought to be addressed by concerned Protestants.

But I argue, in continuity with the Reformers, I think, that this concern is best answered in the first place not by discounting the value or the importance of antiquity, but rather by doing justice to the claims of the Reformation itself to representing the ancient and catholic faith.

Sometimes the Reformation is summed up by reference to the five “solas,” and Calvin is associated with the saying, “Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere.” (“I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”)

But the motto of the Reformers might just as well have been (as a colleague has put it), “Expellete nova, impellete vetera!” (“Out with the new, in with the old!”)