Calvinism and Free Market Economics
Were one to take a map of the world and shade in those countries most influenced by the theological wisdom of John Calvin, one had better have plenty of crayons. Calvinism, that system of Biblical understanding, which of course pre-dated John Calvin, enjoyed at the time of the Reformation even wider acceptance than Lutheranism. The two main tributaries of the Reformation, of course, to mix a metaphor, had a great deal of overlap. But the Reformed, or Calvinistic branch of the Reformation reached deep into not just Switzerland but the Netherlands. Through the faithful labors of John Knox, Calvinism came to Scotland. Knox, upon his return to Scotland from exile in Geneva, as he set about to bring Reformation to his native land, ordained to gospel ministry as his first order of business, Robert Campbell Sproul, my direct ancestor. Through the courage of the Huguenots, Calvinism influenced, though it did not over-run, France. Calvinism became the dominant school of theology in England through the labors of such churchmen as Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, as well as later non-conformists like John Bunyan.
Calvinism, of course, did not remain a strictly European affair. First, there was the New World, where sundry bands of hearty Calvinists made new lives for themselves. These in turn, over the centuries, sent missionaries across the globe, planting churches committed to Calvinism, what the Prince of Preachers Charles Haddon Spurgeon called but “a nickname for Biblical Christianity.” In our day, some of the largest Calvinistic churches in the world are in Korea, thanks in large part to earlier missionaries there.
Now were one to take a second map and shade in those countries which over the years have enjoyed the greatest prosperity, a curious phenomenon would occur. You would find that these two maps are remarkably similar. Lay one over the other, and you will find that they are virtually identical. Those countries which have been most profoundly influenced by Calvinism are, by and large, those countries which have over the centuries enjoyed the greatest amount of material prosperity. If we Calvinists are correct that God is sovereign over all things — that the falling of leaves, the rising of tides, and the rising and falling of the stock market all rest in His hands — then there must be a connection.
That is not to say, of course, that God is a celestial vending machine, doling out economic goodies to those peoples and nations that score the best on some theology quiz. Instead I would suggest that God works in and through how He ordered the universe, and that where there is sound and Biblical theology, there there will be freedom. Where there is freedom, in turn, there will be prosperity. And I believe this, because I am not only a Calvinist, but a Presbyterian pastor, for three principle reasons.
First, the Word. Like our Lutheran brothers in the other main stream of the Reformation, Calvinism is committed to the doctrine of sola scriptura. Here we not only affirm that Scripture alone has the power and the authority to bind our conscience, rejecting church tradition as a twin source of divine revelation, but we in turn turn to that Word with joyful expectation. The Word guides us not just theologically, but practically. Here we may well get closest to the celestial vending machine perspective. That is, the Word itself suggests, nay promises that as we recognize our dependence upon His sovereign grace, and upon His wisdom, He will in turn bless us. Solomon tells us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3: 5-6). These words were not meant merely to be stitched on a sampler and hung upon our walls. They were intended instead to be always before us, to be guiding principles for men and nations. Those nations that acknowledged God, that rested in His sovereignty, God — true to His promise — blessed.
This principle, of course, has broader applications. It is in His Word that we are called to not to steal, and not to covet. If freedom and free markets are built upon anything, they are built upon property rights. (You may remember that the earlier drafts of our own Declaration of Independence affirmed that among our inalienable rights were “life, liberty, and property.) His Word, in fact, drives the other two principle reasons why those nations most influenced by Calvinism have been in turn the most prosperous nations.
Second, work. Prosperity, in the end, is the fruit of our labors. Calvinism, as a system, is one which sees work not only as a good thing in itself, but as a profoundly spiritual thing. Following in the wise footsteps of Martin Luther, Calvinism affirms the priesthood of all believers. Whereas Rome tended to bifurcate the world into the spiritual realm and the natural realm, relegating our labor to the lower realm, those committed to the Reformation affirmed that all honest labor is God-honoring labor. The Westminster Divines, who gave us the Westminster Shorter Catechism, in fact, understood our labor in the context of our bearing the very image of God. Question 10 asks, “How did God create man?” and answers, “God created man male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” Our dominion reflects the glory of God in creating the world.
Of course, in a world governed by the folly of Darwinism, wherein creation just happens by chance, we should not be surprised to find people believing that wealth is created by chance and thus should be equally distributed. A Calvinist world is one where we work and are prospered. A Darwinian world is one where we play the lottery and are impoverished.
Third, strangely, and for the sake of alliteration, is woe. Calvinism as a system begins with this affirmation that all men everywhere are totally depraved. We acknowledge our sin, which acknowledgment is a potent impetus for prosperity. Ironically, of course, those who oppose free markets do so on the basis that while they might work in a perfect world, they are far too dangerous in a world filled with fallen men. Free men, after all, might exploit one another. We cannot enjoy economic liberty, because men are evil, is how the argument goes. Calvinists, of course, turn the argument on its head, and rightly so. We do not deny the sinfulness of man, but affirm it. Which is precisely why we must have free markets. The greatest blessings of free markets, of course, is that they are free. No one must buy this product or that. No one must take this job or that. When we are dissatisfied, we can change. And in this environment, the only way to prosper is to meet the needs of consumers better than your competitors.
The other option is, of course, controlled markets. Governments, Calvinists have always remembered, are made up of men. The same sinful propensities that plague men in the free market plague men in the government. The difference is that the government is empowered to use force. Enlightenment optimism about the inherent goodness of man has brought us socialism, communism, and fascism. Calvinistic skepticism about the goodness of man has brought us free markets and prosperity.
Herein lies the wonder of the world. The more we acknowledge Him, the more He will bless us. The more we labor coram Deo before His face, doing our labors as unto the Lord, the more He will bless us. The more we acknowledge our sin, the more He will bless us. There is nothing new under the sun. Beyond freedom and dignity, as my father always told me, there is only slavery and indignity. Within freedom and dignity there is blessing.
God has blessed us with the Reformation. He has blessed us with wisdom of John Calvin. He has blessed us with prosperity here in these United States such as the world has never seen. And if we will repent of our sin, if we would work diligently, and if we will acknowledge Him, He will forgive us, prosper us, and set us free.