John Calvin: a man of compassion - Rev. J. L. Van Popta

Taken with permission from the Clarion September (1988) Vol.37, No 20.

* References to The Institutes of the Christian Religion will be given as follows (3.7.1 689).


calvinMany have spoken and written in disparaging tones and words of John Calvin. It was not long after his death that the vicar general of the diocese of Rouen presented Calvin as " `the author of a religion of the table, the stomach, the fat, the flesh, the kitchen,' in whom the whole Reformation only tended to `establish the reign of wine, women, and song' " (Stauffer 21). Some of the charges were of a more subtle nature. Stauffer categorizes them in three groups: 1. Calvin was lifted up in pride and played on the theatre stage of Europe. 2. Calvin was an autocrat with a quick temper. 3. Calvin had a "morose and bitter spirit" and displayed a terrible sarcasm (22). These charges have coloured the understanding of John Calvin's work, for they still persist today.

Many think highly of John Calvin and yet are influenced by the false reporting concerning this great Frenchman. T.C. Hall, in an address at Union Theological Seminary in 1909 said, "We must remember that stern old John Calvin . . . stood at the threshold of a new world . . . (Scotchmer 318) [italics mine). But there seems to be little evidence that John Calvin was indeed "stern."

These perceptions are completely misguided and ill-informed. John Calvin was a man of sensitivity and compassion. This can be seen in his personal correspondence, in his scholarly, theological works, and in his ecclesiastical ordinances. It would be futile to answer to all the charges laid against the character of this great reformer. Rather, by examining his own writings it can be illustrated that Calvin had a deep sense of commitment to those who were in need, both spiritually and physically.

His letters

In his little book, The Humanness of John Calvin, Richard Stauffer presents Calvin's personal correspondence. We will survey some of these letters to show that Calvin was deeply moved by human suffering.

Calvin had been appointed by the authorities in Strasbourg to attend a conference. While he was attending to his appointment, news arrived that the plague had struck Strasbourg and that some of his own household (i.e. boarders) had died. In a letter he wrote to his dear friend, Guillaume Farel, he confided ". . . These events bring me such sadness that they completely overwhelm my soul and break my spirit" (Stauffer 41). These are not the words of an "acid, negative person, withdrawn, embittered and unfeeling, coldly committed pessimist. . ." (Father FavreDorsaz, as cited in Stauffer 26).

There are also letters extant that Calvin wrote after the death of his wife of nine years, Idelette. To Viret, he writes,

Though the death of my wife has been a very cruel thing for me, I try as much as possible to moderate my grief . . . [Y]ou know the . . . softness of my soul . . . . Of course, the reason for my sorrow is not an ordinary one. I am deprived of my excellent life companion . . . . (45)

These deeply personal communications belie the charges that Calvin was a cold, emotionless man. It may be that his expression of grief was not public, for he also writes (to Farel), ". . . I consume my grief in such a way that I have not interrupted my work" (45).

Calvin also demonstrated in his letters that he had a deep concern for the peace of mind of others. On the occasion that a son of a dear friend had run away to Geneva to study in the Academy, Calvin writes to his still Roman Catholic friend,

I beg you not to let loose the bridle of your passion in such a way that you do not judge equitably to find some good that God may have done . . . . But above all I hope that you will be at peace with him. It is not as if he had left like a corrupt and dissipated young man, but since he had zeal to follow God, you would do yourselves a favor by being contented . . . . (52)

Calvin clearly demonstrates his compassion and understanding for the concerns and troubles of his friends.

Calvin furthermore expressed his deep friendship with Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret in his dedication of his commentary on Titus. In it he writes, "I think that there has never been, in ordinary life, a circle of friends so sincerely bound to each other as we have been in our ministry . . . . [Y]ou and I seemed to be one" (276).


With this brief look into the heart of Calvin we will examine his understanding of Christian ethics in the role of material goods. Throughout his Institutes of the Christian Religion (ICR) Calvin deals with poverty, riches, and care for the poor. When Calvin's critics accuse him of being heartless, they only show an ignorance of his work and writing.

Calvin's concern for the poor, the lonely, the sick, and the dying as evidenced in his letters is worked out in the ICR. It is in one chapter in particular that he developed "The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves" (Book 3, Chapter 7, page 689).1 Calvin shows from Scripture that self-denial is an "even more explicit plan" (3.7.1 689) than the law "even though the law of the Lord provides the finest and best-disposed method of ordering a man's life" (3.7.1 689). Since men are to be transformed by the renewal of their minds they must only act to the glory of God. To John Calvin this is the "first step, that a man depart from himself" (7.1 690) to serve the Lord. He wants to impress that in self-denial comes peace. There is no joy in pursuing the "vain-glory" of the world. If there is "[t]rust in God's blessing only" (3.7.9 699), the Christian man will not seek to promote his own benefit at the cost of others. There is no possibility of blessing when a man engages in "frauds, robberies and other wicked arts" (3.7.9 699). Self-denial will remove greed and avarice from a man and encourage him to be generous (3.7.5 695). As Calvin points out, it is impossible for a man to seek the benefit of his neighbour unless he engages in self-sacrifice.

However, Calvin does recognize the tension that develops. He admits that one of the powerful drives in a person is self preservation and self-love, but he shows how Scripture teaches that "whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church" (3.7.5 695).

Common good

This does not mean that Calvin espoused asceticism. In his discussion on Christian freedom he shows that we may use God's good gifts to His glory (3.19.7 838). Calvin believed that if Christians begin to doubt whether they may enjoy the blessings of God they will doubt whether any pleasure at all is possible. This, Calvin says, leads to the despising of God and therefore to destruction (3.19.7 839). The charges against Calvin that accused him of a life of pleasure may have been in reaction to passages in his writings such as this one. He here discusses the use of linen sheets, the use of napkins, the eating of dainties, and the drinking of sweet wine. Since Calvin does not believe that these must be forbidden, he may have been misinterpreted, perhaps purposefully, as allowing licentiousness.

Calvin teaches that God has created food not only for sustenance but also for "delight and good cheer" (3.10.2 720). Clothes, besides being necessary, also may be for comeliness (3.10.2 720). In nature we find "beauty of appearance and pleasantness of odour" (3.10.2 721). Calvin finds great joy in realizing the beauty which God has made for man to enjoy as he passes as a pilgrim through this world (3.10.1 719). He qualifies the use of the good gifts of God by demanding that they be used in helping rather than hindering the course of the pilgrim (3.10.1 721).

However, Calvin believed that the blessings of God must be applied to the common good of the church. In his writings he often points to the role that the rich had in society. In his commentaries on II Corinthians he writes

Thus the Lord recommends to us a proportion of this nature, that we may, in so far as every one's resources admit, afford help to the indigent, that there may not be some in affluence, and others in indigence. (295)

Here is one of Calvin's profound insights on the role of the Christian man. When modern critics of Calvin declare him to be the father of laissez-faire capitalism (Visser't Hooft 8) they fail to understand the import of (or have not read Calvin on) this issue. The Marxists may claim as their slogan, "to each according to his needs, from each according to his capacities," but Calvin understood that this was a biblical teaching. Visser't Hooft lays the charge that it is in the perversion of later Calvinism that Calvin's teachings of social reform were abandoned and that the Calvinist churches did not for long maintain the courage and vitality necessary for the accomplishment of the prophetic mission entrusted to them - a mission which, for Calvin, had been an essential duty of the church. (8)

In his commentary on II Corinthians 8:15, Calvin writes,

. . . [H]e has enjoined upon us frugality and temperance, and has forbidden, that anyone should go to excess, taking advantage of his abundance. Let those, then, that have riches, whether they have been left by inheritance, or procured by industry and efforts, consider that their abundance was not intended to be laid out in intemperance or excess, but in relieving the necessities of the brethren. (297)

Calvin also inveighed against theft (Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses 110-111). In his understanding, theft included any unjust procurement of one's neighbour's goods. Calvin also found positive messages in the negative commandments (2.6.8-9 374 ff.). When God, in His Word, forbids theft, Calvin recognizes that "this commandment obligates us to care for the others' good" (2.8.46 409). Calvin taught, "Let us share the necessity of those whom we see pressed by the difficulty of affairs, assisting them in their need with our abundance" (2.8.46 410). It is in this context that he preached on the eighth commandment. He instructed the people that the rich had to learn how to be rich [Phil 4:12] (Sermons 193).

In his sermon, Calvin portrays rich men as "insatiable" and much more difficult to satisfy than the poor. "They are almost grieved if the sun shines on the poor." Calvin stresses that it is not enough for the rich to abandon their greed but they must learn to be "poor in spirit" and gentle to those who have less than they themselves. On the other hand, the poor are not to "crave to be rich." Both of these attitudes are symptoms of dissatisfaction with the state God has put them in and therefore lead to theft (196-197).

When Calvin preached against theft, he did not stop at preaching contentment but taught what the positive response to the Law should be.

. . . [W]hen I see with my own eyes someone who has been oppressed and make no effort to help him, indeed, I am consenting to the thief . . . . Now isn't it the same as befriending those who steal when we do not attempt to repress them . . . ? We are guilty of [theft] in God's sight . . . [L]et us see that we preserve and procure our neighbour's property as much as our own. (200)

To Calvin the rich in a society had a primary responsibility to care for the poor. This admonition was not only to be applied actively by giving alms but also by ensuring that justice was done in the sight of God (200).

Care for the poor in Geneva

This teaching of generosity to the poor was not just an intellectual or theoretical exercise for Calvin. He wanted to have these principles worked out in the society of Geneva when he was pastor there, The Ecclesiastical Ordinances which he drafted in 1541 were adopted by the city council of Geneva. These ordinances had detailed directions defining the role of the church diaconate and how it was to be funded. It is in this document that John Calvin's understanding of God's mercy to the poor comes alive.

He points to the ancient church as the role model for distributing monies to the poor (Theo[. Treatises 64). He also instructs the deacons to run the hospitals (some for the poor and indigent) and also the plague hospital (177). W. Fred Graham cites evidence that the diaconate did not always run smoothly. However, these concerns would be presented to the town council and dealt with, with dispatch (103). (The instance related is brought to the council by "M[onsieur] Calvin, minister.")

Medical care for the needy was established in Geneva when the "ecclesiastical ordinances" were passed in 1541. Those who ran the hospitals were to be paid out of the city coffers. By 1569, "Ordinances Concerning the Estate of Medicine, Pharmacy, and Surgery" were passed.

Besides the doctors appointed for the large hospital and for the poor refugees, each doctor is required to visit the poor sick in the quarter in which he lives, being required by charity. (Graham 104)

In his development of care for the poor, Calvin tried to apply his Scriptural insights and his compassionate heart to a difficult situation. Graham estimates that in the twenty years from 1542 to 1561 the city of Geneva had an increase in population of 100%. This was due to the flood of refugees that were pouring out of France (105). Calvin believed that all should be able to work and so began to create employment and industries for the refugees. This compassion was in marked contrast to events in Paris. Graham reports that in France it was not "War on Poverty" but "War on the Poor." In Paris the poor were chained together and driven as if slaves. Being a beggar was reason enough to be whipped (98). It was because of Calvin's understanding of the ethics of property that in Geneva the situation was much different.

In his essay, "John Calvin's Concern for the Poor," M.H. Woudstra comments on Calvin's 1554 sermon on Job 31:16-23. As he observes, Calvin teaches that "we may give to the poor but if the heart is not touched with compassion it will be of no avail. We should have a 'humane heart'" (9). It is our giving from a "free heart" that God accepts as a sacrifice of sweet savour (9). However, Woudstra does note Calvin's instruction "[that t]he Holy Spirit does not wish to take away discretion from almsgiving so that men would have no regard for how their goods were used" (9-10). In his teaching on almsgiving Calvin tries to find a balance between generosity and responsible use of God's good gifts. The almsgiver may examine the situation to see if those benefiting from his generosity are in need or simply impostors attempting to gather all to themselves. This examination may not be a cover for niggardliness, however. Calvin also teaches that the giver of alms may expect unthankfulness, yet the Lord will recognize the gift (10).

Calvin's teaching of generosity tempered with responsibility led to the development of Geneva's sumptuary laws.

God's good gifts and sumptuary laws

As was pointed out above, Calvin believed that the Christian could enjoy God's good gifts. This led to a charge that his was a religion of total self-service. These charges can be shown to be absolutely untrue by reading 3.10.4 of ICR. John Calvin maintained the right (privilege?) of private property, (2.8.45 408-409) but denied the right of its abuse. He taught that one ought to indulge oneself as little as possible; but, on the contrary, with unflagging effort of mind to insist upon cutting off all show of superfluous wealth, not to mention licentiousness, and diligently to guard against turning helps into hindrances. (3.10.4 723)

It is in light of such comments that sumptuary laws in Geneva were passed. This type of law was being passed throughout Europe to control the spending of money and also to keep each person within the confines of his own class. In Geneva, however, these laws were part of the battle against poverty. In the preamble to the 1558 Ordonnance somptuaire the council claims that the law was to stop such superfluities which engender many evils and nourish gluttonous pride, then bring poverty, high cost of living and are the cause of the destruction of many; moreover the principle is that God is greatly offended. (Graham 110)

Graham notes that the sumptuary laws were enforced with impartiality and that several leaders of the council and consistories were fined and punished. Upon reflection Graham claims that the attempt of Calvin and the other pastors was futile, for many flouted the laws and continued to live the life they had led before. One consideration that Graham does not include in his assessment of the reasons for the sumptuary laws is the level of social service the deaconate was giving to the poor. If the city coffers were to supply the poor with their needs, perhaps some laws concerning eating, drinking, and gambling had some merit. The laws may not have changed the morality of the citizens but they did show a clear consistency with the thought and writings of Calvin.


Calvin also had insights into the workings of economics. It is his understanding of "usury" that interests us here. Calvin was part of a society that had forbidden the lending of money at interest for 750 years (since the council of Nicaea in 775). During that period many laws were passed against usury but as many ways around the law were found. It is in this context that Calvin brings new insight into society. Taking interest on loans was officially banned by canon law, but in practice was accepted by the community. In Geneva prior to the Reformation, interest rates were set at 5% per 3 months (Bieler 55).

By 1544 Calvin had "formulated a doctrine about lending money at interest" (55). According to Bieler, Calvin had been set free from the traditional views held by the medieval theologians. Calvin was no longer bound to the traditional views of the past and so was free to develop his own biblical ethics concerning the lending of money (56).

Turning to Scripture, Calvin found many instances in which the lending at interest was forbidden. These would have been the same passages to which canon law appealed; yet Calvin's interpretation was new, even revolutionary. Calvin allowed for the lending of money at interest. By applying new hermeneutical insights Calvin learned that the banning of usury was in relation to lending to the poor. God, according to Calvin, does not want His people to be tightfisted to the poor. In his commentary on the law Calvin interprets the ban on interest in Exodus 22:35 to be a command of charity to the poor and not a total ban on taking interest (Comm. Last Four Books of Moses, vol. 3, 126). In his commentary on Psalm 15:5 Calvin asks the question "Whether all kinds of usury are to be put into this denunciation, and regarded as alike unlawful" (Comm. on Psalms, 212). Again, Calvin points to the role of the rich and the necessity of kindness to the poor but goes on to say that a total ban on interest is not what the psalmist is advocating. If there is a total ban, the man in need of money, who will be sinning by borrowing money, will be "rendered bolder by despair, and may rush headlong into all kinds of usury . . ." (212).

However, Calvin cannot cast off the perception of the moneylender as a terrible man. He agrees with Cato that a moneylender is not much better than a murderer, for they are both "bloodsuckers." It is because those who lend money tend to turn to evil and lose all compassion for their brothers that God forbids usury (213). Calvin realizes that the lending for investment is different from lending to the poor. Therefore, he allows moneylending on a limited scale for the sake of developing business capital (Bieler 56).

Throughout his teaching on usury Calvin is painfully aware of the sinfulness of man. At every turn of phrase he points out the terrible dangers of lending money. Moneylenders turn into greedy and heartless men who will lend only to the rich, for they know they will receive a return on their investment. When lending to the poor, the moneylender plunders and devours them (Comm. on Psalms 213).

Calvin's teaching on usury is one of temperance and kindness. It is a teaching that dealt with the growing industrialization of the European city and the need for capital but still kept the biblical teaching on usury in sight. This teaching was one of compassion for the poor and steeped in a love for the neighbour.


If we examine John Calvin's own writings, he comes to life in a way that most commentators have ignored. Even among followers of John Calvin there is a misinformed view of the man and his life. For those who want to know and understand the theology of John Calvin must get to know the heart and soul of this compassionate man. Calvin's love for humanity and his compassion for the downtrodden is a trait seldom spoken of today. We are fed a never ending stream of references to "stern old John Calvin" (Scotchmer 318), even though he was a man who said of himself, "You know the tenderness or rather the softness of my soul . . ." (Stauffer 45). It is this tenderness which permeates the whole of Calvin's theology and ethics and which is evident in all his writings, whether personal, theological, or ecclesiastical.


Works cited and consulted

Primary sources Calvin, John, Commentaries on The Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).

*Calvin's Sermons: The Mystery of Godliness -and other selected sermons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950).

Commentaries on The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).

Commentaries on The Last Four Books of Moses: Harmony, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), vol. 3.

Commentaries on The Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979). Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics XX-XXI, trans F.L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

* "Ecclesiastical Ordinances. Geneva (1541), " The Protestant Reformation, Documentary History of Western Civilization, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968).

Sermons on the Ten Commandments, trans. and ed. Benjamin W. Farley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).

Calvin: Theological Treatises, The Library of Christian Classics XXII, trans. J.K.S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954).

* not cited in essay

Secondary sources

Bieler, Andre, The Social Humanism of Calvin, trans. P.T. Fuhrmann (Richmond: John Knox, 1964).

*Gilbreath, W.J.S., "Martin Luther and John Calvin on the Ethics of Property," Crux, No. 2, Vol. 22 (10-18).

*Gilgerich, B.N., "Property and the Gospels," Mennonite Quarterly Review, No. 59. (248-267). Graham, W. Fred, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (Richmond: John Knox, 1971).

Scotchmer, P.F., "Reformed Foundations for Social Concern," The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 40, no. 2, Spring 1978, (318-349). Stauffer, Richard, The Humanness of John Calvin, trans. George Shriver (Nashville: Abington, 1971).

Visser't Hooft, W.A., Foreword, The Social Humanism of Calvin, by Andre Bieler, trans. P.T. Fuhrmann (Richmond: John Knox, 1964) 7-8.

Woudstra, Marten H., "John Calvin's Concern for the Poor," Outlook, vol. 33-2, Feb. 1983, 8-10,

* not cited in essay.