John Calvin's Concern for the Poor - Marten H. Woudstra

Taken from "The Outlook" Feb. 23 1983 Vol. 33 No. 2, Pg. 8

John Calvin's Concern for the Poor



Earlier this year I taught a course on "Calvin as Old Testament Exegete." While doing some reading for this course I came across a publication of the English translation of some of the Reformer's sermons on the book of Job. These sermons were originally preached in the year 1554. One of them dealing with Job 31:1623, contains in a nutshell some of Calvin's opinions about poverty and the care of the poor. It is the purpose of this article to summarize the Genevan Reformer's exposition of this passage. His remarks are of intrinsic and historical significance. And because of Calvinism's great significance for the later development of Christian political and social thought, they are also significant for the present scene.

Calvin's Expository Method

First a word about Calvin's sermonic method as evidenced in these sermons. The approach is expository, which is to say that Calvin takes a given section of the book of Job as his text and then proceeds to comment seriatim on the various parts of the text, making applications to the situations of his hearers as he goes along.

Furthermore, Calvin uses the words of Job and his conduct as an "example" for both Jews and Christians. Since there is considerable confusion about the word "example" and its use in sermonic treatment of Biblical characters it may be well to make clear what Calvin means by the term.

First of all, Calvin does not just equate Job with any of his hearers in the church of Geneva. The Reformer makes it abundantly clear that there is a time-gap between Job and the Christian church. Job lived during a time "when the church of God was not as yet trained up as it has been since" (p. 9). Calvin holds Job to be a representative of the descendants of Esau. Though clearly stating that God had cursed Esau with all his lineage, Calvin also recognizes that one of Esau's descendants still has a pure religion, that is, not polluted with the idolatries and superstitions of unbelievers. Calvin considers this to be a case of the "little seed" which God preserves even among pagans. Thus viewed, Job could serve as a judge of his own country. The "seed" of religion is meant to bring pagan people to adore God and to convict those who have turned from the right road.

If, therefore, Job is an example, he is such in a very qualified sense. For, as Calvin remarks on p. 127, Job "did not have a doctrine one hundredth as familiar as we have." It is clear, therefore, that if Job is to serve as "example" this must be seen within the context of the history of redemption and the progress of revelation.

Calvin observes the same distance between Job's friends and his hearers in Geneva. Speaking of Elihu, the last one to address Job in his misery, the Reformer states: "We see, then, people who had no Scripture, who had had nothing but the doctrine which Noah and his children had published after the flood; we see those to be prophets of God, having an excellent spirit" (p. 218).

One more instance of how Calvin uses the word "example" will suffice to show its unique usage. Calvin believes that the book's original intent was to give to the Jews of the Old Testament a "mirror and a pattern" (p. 7) as to how they had to observe the doctrine of salvation which was given to them. This is argued, not from the similarity between Job and the Jews, but from the distance between them. Job was "of a foreign nation", yet he had so "preserved himself in purity" (idem). The Jews could know that people like Job were not like them "separated from the rest of the world" and that they lacked the sign of circumcision.

All this goes to show that Calvin's use of the word "example" should be properly understood. It does not run roughshod over the line of redemptive history which runs through the Old Testament to the New. If there is an example and instruction to be gained, it will be from the less favored to those who now have the full light of Scripture, and the full development of the Church. Significantly, however, this argument from the less to the more can also be turned into an argument from the more to the less. For the great godliness of Job in those days when there was no fully developed church and no completed Scripture can also be turned around to condemn those of Calvin's own day. "Nevertheless," says the Reformer, "there was much more integrity than there is today, even in the Papacy. In fact, we see how from the time of Abraham, Melchizedek had the Church of God, and sacrifices were without pollution" (p. 9). It is true, the "greater part of the world" of that time was "wrapped in many errors," but God "had reserved some little seed to himself,"

Thus Calvin speaks sometimes of the time before Job, whom he holds to be Esau's descendant, and sometimes of the time of Job himself. But the principle is the same. In the midst of the error and the false and wicked fantasies of paganism, God has preserved a few who have integrity, while others are full of infamies and many errors.

Sermon on Job 31

We shall now present briefly some of Calvin's leading points in his sermon on Job 31:16-23. Page references here and in the above are based on Sermons from Job, Selected and Translated by Leroy Nixon, Introduction by Harold Dekker (Baker Bookhouse, 1952 (1979). The years in which Calvin preached these sermons saw a large influx of refugees into Geneva. Dr. R. Langdon, in a lecture soon to be published in the Calvin Theological Journal, quotes a demographic study which calculates that the Genevan population between 1550 and 1560 rose from 13,100 to 21,400-a 60% increase. Some of these foreigners came for a short time. Not all of them were poor, some were even well-to-do. They came from countries where there was persecution, Italy, Spain, France, England. Still, one can imagine that the acute need for relief may well have been great. In other words, Calvin knew what he was talking about when speaking of poor-relief.

For practical purposes we shall tabulate the various points in Calvin's sermon which we deem to be significant.

1. We must help our neighbors in need. "The Holy Spirit," thus the Reformer, "exhorts us to alms deeds" (p. 199). Required for this is (a) a pitiful spirit toward the needy neighbors and (b) a seeking of means to help them.

2. The heart needs to be involved in alms giving. We may give all our substance to the poor but if the heart is not touched with compassion it will be of no avail. We should have a "humane heart," inclined to pity (p. 205).

3. No definite standard of the extent of our alms giving can be set. We must give of free devotion and not of necessity (Romans 12:8). "No man can impose a definite law by saying: 'thou shalt give so much"' (p. 201).

4. We cannot supply all the needs we see. This means that there will be times when a Christian may well mourn in his heart, without putting his hand to his purse. God will accept even this for an alms deed (pp. 199/200).

5. When we give, not with niggardliness but from a free heart, God will accept our alms as a sacrifice of sweet savor, even though there may be some "saltiness" in it, and even though we do not do one tenth of what we ought to do (p. 202).

6. We may inquire about the true need of the party asking us for help. "The Holy Spirit does not wish to take away discretion from almsgiving so that men would have no regard for how their goods were used" (p. 204). The Reformer knows very well of the misuse that is made of the liberality of the rich. There are people, thus he says, who will pretend to be poor, only to rake all to themselves. In fact it can be said that "hardly will a man find one among a hundred who is worthy to be helped" (p. 204).

7. But let not our prudence and our discretion in almsgiving be a cover for our stinginess (p. 205). In doing good, it simply is impossible not to be cheated (p.205). The Reformer's realism is very strong in this section. He recognizes that one must expect unthankfulness and even slander as response to one's doing good. And he states that we shall see "today," that is in the Reformer's lifetime, that "the poorest are the proudest," (p. 207). However, even if the person who has received relief in clothing may show unthankfulness in his person, never the less his very "ribs" which have been clothed shall bless us. This Calvin says in connection with Job's remarks about the "loins" of the poor "blessing" the giver. But this can also be turned into its opposite: if these "loins" go unclothed because we have closed our eyes and shown no pity, then these same loins will cry out vengeance against us (p. 208).

8. Injustice and corruption among magistrates and judges have been with us for a long time. God could have removed these from the earth but did not do so. This should teach us patience. For God "wills by this means to teach us what it is to suffer" (p. 209). This trait may well be cited by Calvin's critics as just another sign of the fatalism to which consistent Calvinism or Christianity in general are bound to lead. Yet, the whole tenor of the sermon is directly against such a conclusion. Calvin is realistic enough to know that one cannot alter a deep-seated situation of evil and he admonished himself and others to learn from an unjust situation in which one finds himself. Yet, this does not lead to a false passivity. What it does teach is patience. The two are not the same.

9. Those who administer justice should have the fear of God to refrain them from doing wrong to their neighbor. At this point Calvin makes the archaeologically correct observation that the word "gate" in the Old Testament often stands for the place where justice is administered. This word, used by Job, thus becomes the occasion for Calvin to introduce the thought of public justice administered by magistrates. Calvin observes that in his day the magistrates were "timid", they were often venal and looked for monetary rewards. Job, on the other hand, for all his riches and "credit", which he had among his citizenry, abstained from doing this kind of evil. Broadening the scope of the passage somewhat so as to include all of his hearers, Calvin states that any bribery or attempt to buy the judge is an outrage against God. (p. 211)

The sermon is concluded with a powerful reminder of the fact that man stands before God the heavenly Judge. God's punishment is far heavier than any human punishment, however severe. Citing a New Testament passage from Hebrews 10:31, Calvin drives this point home. The awareness that God is Judge serves a twofold purpose. It keeps us from doing evil and it urges us on to walk in fear and patience, knowing that all is in the hand of the heavenly Judge. Before his judgment seat we all must some day come to give account.

Preaching Christ

Properly speaking, a sermon such as this, though it sheds light on Calvin's understanding of the passage and also on his opinions concerning a very relevant question, does not overtly "preach Christ". Throughout Calvin's exegetical works we find a great restraint in the use of specifically Christological interpretations. Even his treatment of the well-known passage "I know that my Redeemer liveth" exhibits this restraint. Calvin finely remarks that "this could not be understood as fully then as now"(p. 117). And on p. 127 he states that we, to whom Jesus Christ presents Himself, shall not be excused when we shall have gone astray. Here again is Calvin's drawing the line from the less to the more.

In general, therefore, taking account of what Calvin says at significant points in this series of sermons, one may say that the broader context of what he says in a sermon such as here discussed is the Christological one, that of redemptive history.

Calvin was quite unlike his contemporary Erasmus and the other humanists in that regard. Erasmus was after the "philosophy of Christ" in his study of the Bible. He rarely used the Old Testament, and then mostly the Psalms, Isaiah and. some other more "reflective" books. Calvin, on the other hand, preached through whole Bible books for months or even years on end, knowing that in doing so he would acquaint the people with the "course of deliverance" which God was already pursuing in the days of the Old Covenant.

This broader contextual awareness keeps Calvin's approach from lapsing into the sheer moralism to which the example method, also the modern one, is so often exposed. The God before whom rich and poor will stand in the last day is the God who already in the Old Testament Scriptures has set out His redemptive program.

The Calvin who holds up to his audience the "example of Job's humaneness" knows very well that such humaneness as such will not make better people out of those to whom he is preaching. Several sermons earlier in this same series, forty-two to be exact, he had asked his congregation this searching question with which I shall conclude this essay: "and we, shall we be excused when we shall have gone astray this way and that, indeed, after our Lord Jesus Christ presents Himself to us, in Whom dwells all the fullness of divine glory, and all the power of the Holy Spirit is shown in Him when He is raised from the dead?"

This haunting question of the Genevan Reformer applies to both faith and morals. Let it carry its full message also for us.

Note: Dr. Marten H. Woudstra is Professor of old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary at Grand Rapids, Michigan.