In an earlier post, I discussed Matthew Tuininga’s complaint that libertarian-style arguments on taxes are not consistent with the Christian tradition. Tuininga tries to show that Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin would not have supported libertarian views on taxation for welfare.
The libertarian argument Tuininga is arguing against says that taxation for welfare programs is equivalent to theft. (Hard-core libertarians would say that taxation for any programs is equivalent to theft, but we’ll go along with Tuininga here and deal with “lite” libertarianism.) Tuininga followed up his initial post with another that discussed, in part, the views of John Calvin.
In this post, I’d like to look briefly at the views of Calvin on charity and welfare. I’ll follow up in the next post about Tuininga’s use of the terms “justice” and “protection,” as well as the importance of the question of whose responsibility it is to deal with uncharitable people.
Calvin, Charity, and Welfare
While we should not disregard the wisdom of the church fathers, we should recognize that they were sometimes inconsistent, or could at least appear to be. Calvin said in his commentary on Isaiah 58:7,
Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts: first, that we should injure nobody, and second, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together, for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if you refuse your assistance to the needy, nor will it be of much avail to render your aid to the needy, if at the same time you rob some of that which you bestow on others….
By commanding them to “break bread to the hungry” he intended to take away every excuse from covetous and greedy men, who allege that they have a right to keep possession of that which is their own. “This is mine, and therefore I may keep it for myself. Why should I make common property of that which God has given me?” He replies, “It is indeed yours, but on this condition, that you share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that you eat it yourself alone.” And indeed this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right if their hunger is not relieved. That sad spectacle extorts compassion even from the cruel and barbarous.
Emphasizing the requirement of charity is, as I’ll explain more fully in a future post, not the same thing as giving the civil government the authority to force that sharing of property. Not all moral failings are crimes, and not all “rights” are to be guaranteed by the State. Alistair McGrath explains Calvin’s view:
Although he did not develop an “economic theory” in any comprehensive sense of the term, he appears to have been fully cognizant of basic economic principles, recognizing the productive nature of both capital and human work. He praised the division of labor for its economic benefits and the way it emphasizes human interdependence and social existence. The right of individuals to possess property, denied by the radical wing of the Reformation, Calvin upheld.[i]
Calvin’s defense of private property (in opposition to the Anabaptists of his time who favored abolishing private property) is seen in the following selection from Four Last Books of the Pentateuch, Exodus 16:17:
For it is necessary for the preservation of human society that each should possess what is his own; that some should acquire property by purchase, that to others it should come by hereditary right, to others by the title of presentation, that each should increase his portion in proportion to his diligence, or bodily strength, or other qualifications. In fine, political government requires, that each should enjoy what belongs to him….[ii]
Later in the same chapter, Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.
And Paul also, wisely makes the distinction, in enjoining that there should be an equality, not arising from a promiscuous and confused use of property, but by the rich spontaneously and liberally relieving the wants of their brethren, and not grudgingly or of necessity.[iii]
In my chapter on Calvin’s economics in David Hall and Marvin Padgett’s edited book Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010), I pointed out some of the problems with trying to use Calvin as support for left-wing economic policy:
Calvin did not advance economic thought by a revolutionary casting off of all that was unbiblical or logically untenable about medieval economics. He absorbed and reflected the milieu of 16th century Christian social thought. It is the substantial burden of remaining error in Calvin that gives the modern Calvinistic Left a justifiable link to Calvin’s social policy.[iv]
Some of this may be seen in Calvin’s comments on what today would be called a “living wage.” In the Old Testament Harmony, Calvin wrote,
Humanity is recommended to us in general lest, while the poor labour at our service, we should arrogantly abuse them as if they were our slaves, or should be illiberal and stingy towards them, since nothing can be more unjust than that, when they have served us, they should not at least have enough to live upon frugally.[v]
However, Calvin stops short of turning this moral requirement into a legal obligation. Calvin, according to François Dermange, “explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’”[vi] This distinction is lost on many morally concerned statists today, who often act as though any moral requirement must, if at all practical, be a legal requirement as well. It is a non sequitur with terrible consequences.
Calvin…reminds us that charity does not dispense with justice. His purpose is to condemn judges who want to “depart from equity in favour of the poor,” in the name of the gospel, and “follow out a foolish idea of mercy” by favoring the poor. In the name of justice, there should not be any question of providing for the needs of the destitute by causing harm to the wealthy. The Reformer agrees with Paul: while the wealthy have a duty to give alms, one must not compel them to share their possessions. Whatever may be the merit of charity, and the concern to free the poor from tyranny, one should not become less upright by even a hair’s breadth.[vii]
On this blog, there’s a briefer post of mine on Calvin’s contributions to economic thought. My point here is not to show that Calvin would agree with the libertarian position on taxation for welfare programs. He may not have–in fact, the public hospital in Calvin’s Geneva was funded by the municipal government (on the other hand, the Bourse Francaise, which cared for refugees, the poor, disabled, or orphaned, was privately funded). But I think libertarian-ish Christians could plausibly claim Calvin as a fellow traveler.
[i] Alister McGrath, “Calvin and the Christian Calling,” 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 31-35.
[ii] John Calvin, Four Last Books of the Pentateuch, in Robert L. Stivers, ed., Reformed Faith and Economics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), 1989, p. 76.
[iii] John Calvin, Four Last Books of the Pentateuch, in Robert L. Stivers, ed., Reformed Faith and Economics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), 1989, p. 76.
[iv] Some of these links, however, are specious. For instance, David Little argues from some of Calvin’s statements on community, justice, and charity that Calvin would have advocated progressive taxation. As many on the Christian Left are prone to do, Little infers from exhortations to generosity that the State should be involved in broad-based redistribution of wealth. Recognizing to some extent his own non sequitur, Little can only plead that Calvin, to be consistent, might be inclined to redistribute via progressive taxation since he advocated state intervention in some other cases. Given temporal and logical inconsistencies in Calvin, this is a stretch. Even Little admits that Calvin’s “emphasis upon free consent in economic and other social relationships does, as we say, run into conflict with the countervailing emphasis upon a mandatory economic order,” and that Calvin’s thought on these matters was ambivalent and incomplete. See David Little, “Economic Justice and the Grounds for a Theory of Progressive Taxation in Calvin’s Thought,” in Robert L. Stivers, ed., Reformed Faith and Economics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America), 1989, pp. 61-84.
[v] John Calvin, Old Testament Harmony, 3:114, on Deuteronomy 24:14-15, quoted in François Dermange, “Calvin’s View of Property: A Duty Rather Than a Right,” in Edward Dommen and James D. Bratt, eds., John Calvin Rediscovered: The Impact of His Social and Economic Thought (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 2007, p. 39.
[vi] François Dermange, “Calvin’s View of Property: A Duty Rather Than a Right,” in Edward Dommen and James D. Bratt, eds., John Calvin Rediscovered: The Impact of His Social and Economic Thought (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 2007, p. 40.
[vii] François Dermange, “Calvin’s View of Property: A Duty Rather Than a Right,” in Edward Dommen and James D. Bratt, eds., John Calvin Rediscovered: The Impact of His Social and Economic Thought (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 2007, p. 43.