“It is odd to call someone so famous an ‘underrated thinker’ but indeed Calvin is,” says economist Tyler Cowen. One of the reasons Calvin is so underrated is that he is so often misunderstood. Most people’s perception of Calvin is not based on his work but on the most dour members of the group we now call Calvinists (which includes me, though I’m not crazy about that label).
Calvin was one of the best minds of his day. From an early age, he was a precocious student who excelled at Latin and philosophy. He was prepared to go to study of theology in Paris, when his father decided he should become a lawyer. Calvin spent half a decade at the University of Orleans studying law, a subject he did not love.
Calvin wrote his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, at the age of 27(!) (though he updated the work and published new editions throughout his life). The work was intended as an elementary manual for those who wanted to know something about the evangelical faith—“the whole sum of godliness and whatever it is necessary to know about saving doctrine.”
Calvin was a bit of a workaholic. During his ministry in Geneva, he preached over two thousand sermons. He would preach almost every weekday, and twice on Sunday, for more than an hour—all without using any notes. And as Christian History notes, when he could not walk the couple of hundred yards to church, he was carried in a chair to preach. When the doctor forbade him to go out in the winter air to the lecture room, he crowded the audience into his bedroom and gave lectures there. To those who would urge him to rest, he asked, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?”
Along with preaching, Calvin was preoccupied with the creation of a collège, an institute for the education of children. Although the school was a single institution, it was divided into two parts: a grammar school called the collège and an advanced school called the académie. Within five years there were 1,200 students in the grammar school and 300 in the advanced school. The collège eventually became the Collège Calvin, one of the college preparatory schools of Geneva, while the académie became the University of Geneva.
So while Calvin was a theologian and academic, he wasn’t cloistered away in an ivory tower. He was a man engaged with the world and a keen observer of humanity. Not surprisingly, he had a lot to say about economic affairs. (As Cowen says, “If you read John Calvin you will find a great deal of what we now call behavioral economics.”)
My friend Steven Wedgeworth recently wrote an article examining Calvin’s thought on economics:
We will begin by laying out Calvin’s general philosophy of the social nature of humanity and property, then we will examine what Calvin thought about the uniquely Christian duties of charity. We will conclude with Calvin’s recommendations for how the church and civil magistrate ought to order these ideals in ecclesiastical and political life.
In his conclusion Wedgeworth writes,
Thus we see Calvin’s “economics.” They were not unique for his day. While Calvin did introduce an interesting and helpful distinction regarding just and unjust forms of interest on loans, he was not a revolutionary thinker. It’s also worth remembering that the population of Geneva never reached more than about 7,000 people in Calvin’s time. So its polity cannot simply be cut and pasted onto larger and more diverse ones.
Still, his ideals and interpretations of natural law and Christian charity are valuable. Seeing how he enacted them in church and state is also a helpful illustration of legitimate applications of those principles. In a time when economic choices are often presented as a variation of Scylla and Charybdis, the older example of Protestant Christendom may help us to find better solutions.
You can read the rest of Wedgeworth’s article here.