Faith And Work: John Calvin
January 17, 2007 • By Allistair Mackenzie
When Calvin uses the term ‘calling’ he usually means a calling to salvation, or a calling to the ministry. But he also develops a vocational view of work similar to Luther’s. One difference from Luther is that Calvin tends to identify a calling with the work itself, rather than as something which comes into work: "the Lord enjoins every one of us, in all the actions of life to have respect to our own calling ... he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of “callings”".
Luther maintains that we obey the divine call when through faith we serve God in our estates. For Calvin the work of the calling is the work of the ‘estate’ itself, and so is itself obedience to God.
Although Calvin, like Luther, relates the calling both to the given orders of society and to the particular estate that a Christian is in, his view is not quite as static as Luther’s. A person’s given social position is not so restricted and unchangeable. When Calvin says that a person should stay in their calling, he does not propose this as an iron rule, but only as a caution to prevent undue ‘restlessness’ and ‘fickleness’. Moreover, the way Calvin uses the word ‘adopted’ with regard to the calling a person occupies in his commentary on 1st Corinthians 7:20,24 seems to imply a definite choice. For Calvin, a Christian might, with ‘proper reason’, change a calling and choose another. Calvin encourages Christians to examine the social consequences of their work. He challenges them to seek out a truly Christian vocation. He is explicit about a person’s right to change occupations. Here are the beginnings of an understanding of vocation which suggests a certain voluntarism in deciding on the Lord’s calling. It is a freer conception of the nature of callings.
Another development in Calvin’s understanding of vocation is his stress on the utility of callings. He talks about the ‘advantage’, ‘utility’, ‘profit’, and ‘fruit’ of Christian works. This is not an expression of ambition for worldly success, but rather Calvin’s sense that things of importance are always for something: ‘It is certain that a calling would never be approved by God that is not socially useful and that does not redound to the profit of all (Little 1970: 60).’ This is underlined in the way that Calvin exegetes the parable of the talents (Luke 10:11-27):
Before Calvin the talents of gold, which one should use to glorify God, were seen as spiritual gifts and graces that God had bestowed on Christians. Calvin made a revolutionary change in interpretation when he understood the talents in terms of one’s calling and in terms of people’s ‘talents’: the particular instance he considered was trading. Calvin stressed the historical nature of these gifts and talents and in doing so helped shape the modern meaning of the word ‘talent’. (Marshall 1993: 30)
Accompanying this awareness of usefulness is an emphasis on activity. Calvin stresses that the contemplative life is not better. He stresses that God is very active. God is ‘not the vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence which sophists feign, but vigilant, efficacious, energetic and ever active’. According to Calvin, God put us here to work and ‘the nature of the kingdom of Christ is that it every day grows and improves’. And Calvin is clear that this activity is not restricted to the church or to pious duties, but encompasses the whole of creation. Its purpose is ‘... to establish the heavenly reign of God upon the earth’. Hence Calvin’s emphasis on utility and activity and the purposeful nature of God’s work in the world, give his doctrine of callings quite a different ethos to that of Luther. While both emphasize the importance of quietly accepting the labour and duties that go with one’s estate and abiding in one’s calling, Calvin’s approach to the understanding of callings is much more aggressive and busy. Calvin challenges believers ‘to work, to perform, to develop, to progress, to change, to choose, to be active, and to overcome until the day of their death or the return of their Lord’. He writes as one who is eager to apply his theology to the realities of life in a bustling city.
For Luther the primary reason God gives a Christian a vocation in the world is to encourage a life of loving service, whereas for Calvin the reason is more related to the proper ordering of human life, to maintain order in response to the threat of confusion and chaos and to transform a corrupt status quo to reflect God’s purposes. Therefore, Calvin’s view of vocation encourages a degree of self-consciousness to examine and calculate which actions are most proper and likely to prove the most effective, whereas Luther’s approach provides more room for spontaneity borne of the dynamic of love which has its source in God. Calvin sees vocation as a means of giving glory to God by furthering God’s will in the world, while Luther sees it primarily as a means by which God’s good gifts are bestowed on humankind. Clearly there are some distinct differences in the approaches of Luther and Calvin:
Calvin went beyond Luther’s understanding of work mainly in his stress upon the need for God to bless man’s work, his acceptance of trade and interest, and in his idea (more optimistic, more ambitious than Luther) that Christians in their work order the world aright and restore it and so bring glory to God ... Calvin tied work tightly to the Christian life - even more tightly than Luther had done. (Hart 1995b: 135)
These differences between Luther and Calvin were initially differences in emphasis rather than serious disagreements. However, the fact that they pushed in different directions soon became apparent, especially as some of the differences which were implicit in Calvin’s teaching became explicit in the Reformed tradition which developed after Calvin.
The Reformation resulted in some marked changes in concepts of work. A clear progression is evident. According to Augustine and Aquinas, Christians were to serve in the world when necessary. Luther’s followers must serve in the world, but largely accepting the status quo. Calvin’s followers were called to transform the world as Christian activists. The extent of the longer term social impact of these differences between Luther and Calvin is still being debated. Also up for debate is the extent to which we are likely to further the unfinished business of the Reformation in our own day. Unquestionably, serious recognition of the ministry of all believers still demands urgent attention, especially as it applies to ministry in daily life.
Excerpt from Faith and Work - A Thesis in Pastoral Theology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, Dec. 1997 by Alistair Mackenzie. www.faithatwork.org.nz. Content distributed by HisChurchatWork.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.