John Calvin and why the Church should be ashamed

The final installment in my series on the biblical command to care for the poor is about a system that is broken. If anyone in church history who is most associated with a system, it would have to be John Calvin (AD 1509-1564).

Calvin remains one of the most influential theologians since St. Augustine. Tragically, most people only remember Calvin for his theology. One can hardly deny that Calvin deserves more credit than any other person for knitting Protestant theology together into a unified sum. His sermons, letters, treatises, and books helped solidify Protestant theology well beyond the boundaries of the German and Swiss Reformations.

From a historical standpoint, however, the greatest impacts of Calvin as a theologian did not occur until well after his death. In fact, the theological positions that are commonly denoted as being forms of ‘Calvinism’ were actually systematized centuries after his thoughts were postulated. At the apex of his ministry, Calvin achieved his greatest influence as a churchman. As a pastor, he helped to develop a biblical structure of church leadership in Switzerland that became the model for Reformed churches. His use of elders, deacons, and lay leadership was a clear throwback to the Early Church.

But Calvin’s theology and ecclesiology can be a topic for another day (spoiler alert – that day will be coming soon!). For the purposes of this study, I want to focus on a contribution of Calvin that can be filed under the heading: ‘least remembered.’ It was Calvin, arguably more than any other reformer, who was an essential part of reviving the lost practice of the Early Church known as almsgiving.

In the selection below, Calvin challenges his people to compare the ease and wealth with which their churches had been blessed in contrast to the Early Church. He then asks them to compare their generosity and almsgiving to that of the Early Church. Thus the reason for shame. These words ought to be a challenge to those of us who make up contemporary Evangelicalism.

And nevertheless when one wants to make a comparison of our time with that of which St. Paul speaks, I ask you, do we not have a better opportunity to maintain what he ordains here, than they had in that time? For those poor Christians were persecuted, they always had a knife at the throat, they were exposed as prey, they were as poor as wanderers having nothing certain. If therefore one compares the charity which was then with that of today, we ought to be very ashamed . . . Alas, the time is long gone when offering was made every day, as was done in that time. There were no revenues or possessions at all, there was no capital, but it was necessary to collect alms each day for that day, to feed the sick and the poor and the widows. God worked so mightily for this, and the faithful had in them such compassion, that there was what was necessary to supply the poverty of those who could not feed themselves.

John Calvin, Sermon 37 on 1 Timothy 5

ALMSGIVING

What is almsgiving? A simple definition of almsgiving would be: “something given out of the compassion of one’s heart to meet a need.” Alms given to the needy may come in many forms including but not limited to: food, hydration, shelter, clothing, money, medical care, transportation, help with employment, emotional support, spiritual care, a welcoming spirit, or simply just kindness.

When I think of almsgiving, I think of Matthew 25:35-36:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (ESV)

Almsgiving is a biblical word. It can be found in both Testaments – and its root are both Hebrew and Greek words which mean something similar to charity. In Greek, the word is eleémosunes, which comes from the word eleos, meaning “mercy.” In Hebrew, the word is related to tzedakah, which means “charity that is upright and just.” See my previous post on Hebrew charity.

Almsgiving - Gustav Dore - 1888

Almsgiving is the word used to describe the actions of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. In Acts 9-10, both Tabitha and Cornelius are praised for giving alms to the needy. Paul encouraged believers to give generously to their enemies (Rom 12:20). Paul also asked the Gentile churches to be generous in their collections, for much of what they gave went to help the needy in Jerusalem and beyond (1 Cor 16:1-2; 2 Cor 8:1-15). James, the half-brother of Jesus, implored believers to honor the poor and acknowledge their place of privilege in the Kingdom of God (Jam 2)._ Finally, the Apostle John exhorted Christians to demonstrate the internal love of God in an external manner, “with actions and in truth,” by giving of their material possessions to those who are in need (1 John 3:17-18). The practice of almsgiving and caring for the needs of the poor served as a demonstration of Christ’s love for all, Jew and Gentile alike, as the gospel continued to spread throughout the nations of the earth.

The most important idea behind almsgiving: Giving to others is in fact giving to God. We know this because God is the ultimate example of giving mercy. He gave life to us; and He blesses us with the opportunity to participate as He gives life to others.

Why almsgiving? Because evangelical churches have forsaken and forgotten one of their most important acts of worship. Because nearly every major religion in the world has continued this practice, including Roman Catholics, while Evangelicals have let it fall to the wayside.

Buddhists participating in almsgiving to the poor

Why should you read any further? Because just like in Calvin’s day, I believe the church has lost one of its most essential practices. We still take up offerings. We still do some ministry among the poor. But Evangelicals rarely if ever make a practice of giving, collecting, and distributing alms among the poor.

*(On Wednesday I will post a follow-up to this article with a discussion on almsgiving as it exists today. I hope you will check back and read it. If you subscribe, you will be automatically notified.)

HOW THE PROBLEM AROSE THE FIRST TIME

During the Middle Ages, the offertory that had formerly been an integral part of worship began to disintegrate. In the Early Church of the first three centuries, the churches would collect offerings during worship to share in common with others in the church (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35), to disperse among the poor (Acts 24:17; Gal. 2:10), or to be given to other churches whose members had found themselves in a state of need (Acts 11:29-30;1 Cor. 16:1).

As far as we can tell, the only internal use of offerings was to help provide for the elements used in the Eucharist (communion). In the late fourth century, however, many churches had become cathedrals and the costs associated with managing facilities and orders increased significantly. With the exception of certain congregations, such as those of John Chrysostom, Augustine, and the Cappadocians, the practice of giving alms for the poor evaporated almost completely. By the time the Medieval Church was in full swing, regular offerings were generally only given during mass and were generally only for internal purposes. Only sparingly would the church take a regular collection of alms for the poor.

This was one of the areas that became a major point of contention among those from the reform movement within Catholicism (like Erasmus and Ignatius Loyola), and the reformers who would soon leave the Roman Catholic Church to be Protestant pioneers (like Luther and Calvin). By the time of Calvin, Protestants had almost universally rejected the Roman Catholic forms of collections because they were seen as forms of “works-based” theology. Fortunately, Protestants did not altogether abandon the Early Church’s commitment to giving alms for the poor. In fact, early Protestantism saw somewhat of a rebirth in almsgiving – at least for a time.

CALVIN AND GENEVA (AD 1541-1564)

It was from Geneva that the pastoral leadership of John Calvin helped inaugurate a fresh emphasis on almsgiving. John Calvin and the churches of Geneva were largely responsible for bringing the collection of alms for the poor back into worship. In his view, taking alms for the poor was a necessary part of communion before God. In other words, to take communion without collecting alms for the poor was to render worship incomplete; and to to give alms without taking communion was to remove worship from the act of giving.

That Calvin connected almsgiving to communion, and not approaching the table empty-handed, is clear. Records exist following his death which suggest that alms began to be taken in every service in Geneva, along with the Lord’s Supper.

Several evidences point to Calvin’s emphasis on almsgiving:

  • Calvin and other Swiss believers mention that the churches in Geneva had “alms-boxes” for abandoned children.
  • They also took up collections for the poor during worship, and, on some occasions, even went about the city collecting alms from house to house.”
  • The church was flooded with beggars and people in severe need. The fact that they kept coming to the churches in droves is itself an argument for the Protestant churches’ generosity.
  • Calvin’s teaching is clear: almsgiving was more than just an act of worship; alms were necessary to live out the gospel in a practical way, and to help sustain the lives of the needy.

And Calvin’s emphasis was contagious. Protestant churches throughout Europe began to display a renewed commitment to almsgiving. “Alms-boxes” were set up in many churches for the collection of gifts, resources, or money to help the poor. Other churches would pass an “alms-bag” with the intention of distributing the collected money to the poor. Sometimes these collections were even taken at weddings and funerals. Many Protestant records offer details of believers who gave alms through philanthropy, care for the sick, and other benevolent ministries. Some scholars even argue that this emphasis spread back into the Catholic church. This would not be surprising as most Catholics to this day have maintained several forms of almsgiving as a part of their system and worship – while most Protestants don’t even know what the word means.

Before getting to the final selection from Calvin, I would like to recommend a resource for those of you are interested in Calvin’s use of “liturgical almsgiving.” Elsie Anne McKee has written several works on this topic. The first comes from her doctoral dissertation and is titled, John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. It is not an easy source to find, but a good preview is available on Google Books here.


For, aroused and moved by the reading and explanation of the gospel and the confession of our faith, which is done just before, we ponder in memory that Jesus Christ is given to us of the infinite goodness of the heavenly Father. With Him He has given all things: the remission of sins, the covenant of eternal salvation, the life and righteousness of God, and finally, all desirable things which are added unto the children of God, to those who seek His kingdom and His righteousness.

Then with good and just cause, we offer and submit ourselves completely to God the Father and to our Lord Jesus Christ, in recognition of so many and so great benefits. And, as Christian love requires, we testify to this by holy offerings and gifts which are administered to Jesus Christ in His least ones, to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick, or held in prison. For all who live in Christ, and have Him dwelling [in] them, do voluntarily what the law commands them. And the latter commands that one not appear before God without an offering.

From John Calvin, La forme des prieres, OS 2 – in McKee, 50.

For those of you who made it to the end – there is more. First, you can read more about Calvin’s bio below. It is a solid summary which discusses even the darker parts of his story. Second, I will be posting a follow-up later in the week which discusses forms of almsgiving in the church today. This is a very important topic – I hope you will read carefully.

MORE ABOUT JOHN CALVIN

According to Justo González, “While Luther was the daring trailblazer for the (Protestant) movement, Calvin was the careful thinker who bound the various Protestant doctrines into a cohesive whole.”

John Calvin was a second generation reformer who had a great deal of respect for Luther; and a certain amount of disdain for Zwingli. “Jean” Calvin was born in Noyon in Picardy (northern France) on July 10, 1509, to a notary who worked for the local bishop. His family and upbringing were highly aristocratic and his capacity for leadership was clear even from an early age. This was especially true in his academic pursuits. He obtained an arts degree from the esteemed Collége de Montaigu in Paris – where humanists like Erasmus and Ignatius of Loyola had also attended. He also studied law during his master’s work.

His conversion experience took place sometime late in 1532 or early 1533. While the exact time and manner of this conversion are unknown, the event appears to have happened very quickly. Once Calvin was convinced that Protestantism, and not Roman Catholicism, better represented the New Testament Church, he immediately changed teams. Though the event of his conversion seems sudden, that does not necessarily mean the process was quick. As Schaff remarked on the issue, “A city may be taken by a single assault, yet after a long siege.” According to Calvin, his conversion experience coincided with a call to service – much like the Apostle Paul. Not long after his Protestant ministry began to take shape, Calvin found himself unwelcome throughout France and faced a short period of imprisonment in his hometown..

Eventually, Calvin ended up in Basel, Switzerland as an exile. It was there that he would publish his most well-known work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was revised, expanded, and translated several times between 1536 and 1560. This work is, without a doubt, one of the most important pieces of Protestant theology in existence.

In 1536, Calvin came to Geneva, Switzerland for a one night visit. Another reformer, William Farel, convinced Calvin to stay and join in the work there. They were both exiled from the city 2 years later, however, after a conflict with the city council. Thus from 1538-1541 Calvin resided in Strasbourg, France where he spent a significant amount of time with the reformer Martin Bucer. As you will read in a post forthcoming, Bucer had a significant influence on Calvin’s theology.

In 1541, Farel and Calvin were welcomed back to Geneva where Calvin would pastor until his death in 1564. As a pastor, Calvin helped pave the way for Protestant forms of church structure, discipline, and offices that still last to this day. Calvin was a key component in the Swiss Reformation and Geneva became one of the most Christianized and morally upright cities in the history of civilization. “Pure doctrine,” as it were, was the most important emphasis of Calvin’s ministry. He met with other pastors weekly in order to sharpen each others’ scriptural/doctrinal abilities. One of the most important areas of theological influence came from Calvin’s view of the Eucharist – that it was a symbolic act as opposed to the presence of Christ actually being in the elements.

Calvin’s ardent emphasis on theological training was a major impetus for the founding in 1559 of the Geneva Academy, which eventually became the University of Geneva. The forms of church governance that he had developed in Geneva became standard practice throughout the Reformed churches of Europe. His catechisms also became the primary content and method of theological training among Reformed believers.

In this June 10, 2009 photo, a worker pushes a wall, part of a stage decoration, next to the statue of John Calvin in front of the Reformation Wall in the grounds of the university in the center of Geneva, Switzerland. Preparations started to commemorate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin

THE DARKER SIDE OF CALVIN

I would be remiss to not mention the more controversial part of Calvin’s history. Along with being a churchman and theologian, Calvin was also a man on a mission. His mission was to establish Protestantism as the dominant system of faith in the Christian world. Many of his sermons and writings, therefore, were polemical in nature and highly aggressive towards Roman Catholicism and other systems associated with the Christian faith. At times, Calvin displayed a strong temper against his opponents including Catholics, certain Lutherans, and Anabaptists.

Servetus burned at the stake

Most notably, perhaps, were Calvin’s conflicts with Michael Servetus of Spain (AD 1511-1553). Calvin and Servetus were at odds with each other for nearly two decades. At one point, Calvin was so disgusted with Servetus’ theology that he sent him a copy of the Institutes. Servetus responded in kind, by returning the copy of Institutes marked up with criticisms and corrections. Calvin later wrote, “There is hardly a page that is not defiled by his vomit.” Servetus was eventually burned at the stake as a heretic in 1553. History recounts that Calvin had a large influence in ensuring that Servetus was arrested, convicted, and executed. Calvin’s followers, the Huguenots, found themselves in even more conflicts which resulted in bloodshed.

4 thoughts on “John Calvin and why the Church should be ashamed

  1. Mark Tate says:

    Eric, as you well know, some “Calvinists” are just ‘ate up with it.’ When most try to boil everything down to good or evil, black or white, it is so much easier to pontificate and pronounce summary judgement on opinions, interpretations, and even people. Calvin had much to the good; and much to confess-as we all do. You have shown us this well. Thank you for all your wonderful posts.

  2. Don says:

    Eric, sharing your knowledge, influence and example of how to labor for those in need have expanded FBC into what should not only become a national example of Christian caring and servitude, but an international symbol. Grandiose verbiage, maybe, but utterings from the spirit, the heart.

    Don

  3. Gurth Whitaker says:

    I understand that John Calvin tried to intervene with the city council to commute the sentence of burning, but he was not successful. In fact it was the council that had the authority to sentence Serbitus, not Calvin.

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