What did Calvin think the government should do for the poor?

There are many conservative Christians who think that if pastors faithfully preached the Bible they would demonstrate from Scripture that government should not tax people for the purpose of providing for the needs of the poor, and that government should not insure health care for those same poor. The argument here is not that solid political philosophy or even wisdom lead to these conclusions; it is that Scripture authoritatively teaches them.

It is helpful to pay attention to the reality that many orthodox Christian denominations (including most notably the Roman Catholic Church) teach precisely the opposite from Scripture, and it is even more helpful to note that leading Christian theologians throughout the ages have held quite different views of the nature of property and liberty than do many contemporary Christians. That does not mean contemporary Christian conservatives are wrong economically or politically, but it may suggest that their views do not exactly derive from Scripture.

Given that many of these Evangelicals are Reformed, it is worth considering what Calvin taught was the obligation of government towards the poor.

Calvin believed that the civil magistrate is appointed as God’s servant to use the sword to ensure that the poor receive at least a modicum of equity. In fact, because they receive their authority from God magistrates must imitate God by providing special protection for the poor above and beyond that of their other subjects (see Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 10:1). Writing on Psalm 72, which he views in part as a description of “the end and fruit of a righteous government,” Calvin notes that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence… David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate” (Comm. Ps 72:4).

Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that “a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, “that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world” (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).

In a sermon on 2 Samuel 1:21-27 Calvin declared that although it is very rare, “it is praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.” Indeed, it should be considered to be the virtue of a king or prince if he keeps his subjects in comfort and promotes their wealth. “Then they can grow richer as they run their households, and each one can have enough for himself and his descendents. When, I say, a prince maintains these conditions, he will be valued far more highly.”

In another sermon (on 2 Samuel 5:1-5 Calvin compared a good king to a good shepherd. “Now two things are required of a shepherd. The first is that he provide his animals with good pasture, and then that he keep them safe from all thieves and wolves and trouble. Now that I say is what princes must do. If they think that they will render an account to God for the charge that is committed to them, they must see to it that their subjects live in peace and that they are maintained; and then, in the second place, that they defend them against all troubles.

When it comes to the details of how magistrates should succor the poor, of course, Calvin gives few details (he did not preach political sermons per say), but the details he does give are significant. He indicates at one point that magistrates should provide for the poor by building poor-houses, hospitals, and even schools (Comm. Is 49:23). He is harshly critical of forms of usury in which the poor are taken advantage of, and yet he insists that the alternative to usury is not refusing to lend to the poor, but ensuring that the needs of the poor are met (Serm. Deut 23:18-20). In his sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he defended a prohibition of begging for the sake of “common order and honesty” and on the basis of “nature”, but then insisted that such a prohibition is only just if the government ensures that the poor do not need to beg. Part of “keep[ing] order and policy,” he suggests, is establishing “hospitals … for such needs.”

From this it is evident that Calvin did not view the generous acts of individuals or even the organized operations of groups as sufficient for meeting the needs of the poor. For the civil government to enforce a ban on begging it was responsible to ensure that poor relief was sufficiently funded, organized, and regulated. Calvin’s judgments therefore suggest that he believed the state did have a role in providing for the poor (or at least in ensuring their provision), and he grounded that belief in Scripture.

Of course, Calvin may have been wrong. But it is worth remembering that if there was anything he was absolutely committed to in his preaching and in his teaching it was only to declare what Scripture itself declares. Calvin was rigidly careful about this. To be sure, nothing Calvin wrote or said suggests anything one way or another about the wisdom of a particular program or policy in our own day and age. But Calvin’s words do suggest that if we are going to declare the teaching of Scripture regarding government’s obligation for the poor we had better be sure that we are not spouting off our own political or economic opinions. And if we actually pay attention to preachers who do faithfully teach Scripture to us we might discover that it is our own views that are out of line with the will of God.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 11, 2012, in Calvin, Health Care, Politics, Welfare State and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What did Calvin think the government should do for the poor?.

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