John Calvin’s Big Dream

W.A. Visser ’t Hooft once wrote the following thought-provoking words about John Calvin:

    “If [people] had paid attention to Calvin, certain great misfortunes would never have happened. I will offer only one example. Everybody now knows the immense importance which the slogan ‘To each according to his needs, from each according to his capacities’ has had for Communism. Lenin thought that Communism would reach its final goal the day this slogan had become a reality. Lenin said that this slogan came from Marx. . . . But neither Lenin nor Marx was aware that three hundred years before Marx, Calvin had already formulated this thought in his exposition of 2 Corinthians 8:13-14. Calvin had there said: ‘God wills that there be proportion and equality among us, that is, each [person] is to provide for the needy according to the extent of his means so that no [one] has too much and no [one] has too little.’

    “If the churches had really taken seriously and practiced this teaching, Communists could never have been enabled to take this basically biblical thought out of its Christian context and transplant it into their materialistic and totalitarian outlook” (in The Social Humanism of Calvin by André Biéler, 1964).

When John Calvin accepted the plea of his friend William Farel to lead Geneva’s Evangelical Reform, he laid plans for a change far greater than the mere correcting of a few wayward theological errors.

Calvin aimed to shine the gospel’s light on every facet of Genevan society—its economics, its politics, its healthcare, its education, its culture. He wanted the city to become a lived-out model of the gospel’s promises and commands—a “city set on a hill” (Matt. 5:14) for all of Europe to see and imitate.

So Calvin set to work. Under his leadership, Genevans built hospitals, reformed schools, tackled poverty, and welcomed refugees—to name but a few of the sweeping changes. And all of this was done in conscious devotion to Christ, whose gospel commands, Calvin boldly declared, help people flourish and live well together as God intends.

One scholar calls Calvin a “social humanist.” Perhaps so. But at heart Calvin was a mere Christian who wanted to apply Jesus’ teachings. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Take Calvin’s ideas about the role of money in society as an example. Money, Calvin said, is an effective tool in the Lord’s hands—or at least it can be. Through it God can accomplish his will for both the rich and the poor. Richer people, through generous giving, can become “ministers of the poor.” And the poor, in turn, through grateful receiving, can serve the rich as “solicitors of God.” Through such a flow of money, both rich and poor bring delight to God.

With prophetic boldness Calvin encouraged his fellow Christians toward a “liberal and kindly sharing of [what we possess] with others. . . . Let this, therefore, be our rule for generosity and beneficence: We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are to help our neighbor, and are required to render account of our stewardship. Moreover, the only right stewardship is that which is tested by the rule of love. Thus it will come about that we shall not only join zeal for another’s benefit with care for our own advantage, but shall subordinate the latter to the former” (Institutes III.vii.5). How’s that for a radical—and thoroughly Christian—economic manifesto!

And that’s but a narrow sliver of Calvin’s big dream for an entire society renewed in Christ’s name.

Given our present sad and desperate hour—life today shot through with self-maximizing individualism and callous disregard for others—Calvin’s utopian Christian dream deserves another look.

Heirs of John Calvin, it’s your move.

FOR DISCUSSION:
  1. Do you agree with the slogan "To each according to his needs, from each according to his capacities"?
  2.  From a biblical point of view, what exactly is wrong with communism? How is it different from the ideals of living in a Christian community?
  3.  Did Calvin overreach himself by trying to make every facet of Genevan society follow Scripture?
  4.  Should we apply God's Word to our society today? Where? How? And how do we deal realistically with the fact that we live in a pluralistic society?
  5.  Cooper calls Calvin's dream of applying Scripture's light to every facet of our lives "Utopian." Is that a good term for it? Is the dream realistic? Could it ever be?

About the Author

Rev. Dale Cooper is chaplain emeritus of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. The Banner thanks him for writing a special series this year on highlights from John Calvin’s teaching.

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