Possessions and Christian Faith

Thanks to the influence of Professor Tony Lane, I have learned to be leery of general statements concerning “Calvinism” or Calvin’s teaching. The Frenchman’s thought is usually more complex than we suppose. On the other hand, I’ve also gained an appreciation for the practical dimensions of Calvin’s pastoral ministry. Here is a particular example involving possessions and Christian faith.

The second book of the Institutes contains a chapter on the Ten Commandments. In this extract, taken from Calvin’s treatment of the Eighth Commandment, the Reformer shows that greed breaks this law of God, having at its root a discontentment with God’s distribution of possessions. In a world with an insatiable appetite for more and more stuff, we need Calvin’s biblical prescription.

To sum up: we are forbidden to pant after the possessions of others, and consequently are commanded to strive faithfully to help every man to keep his own possessions.

We must consider that what every man possesses has not come to him by mere chance but by the distribution of the supreme Lord of all. For this reason, we cannot by evil devices deprive anyone of his possessions without fraudulently setting aside God’s dispensation . . .1

We will duly obey this commandment, then, if, content with our lot, we are zealous to make only honest and lawful gain; if we do not seek to become wealthy through injustice, nor attempt to deprive our neighbor of his goods to increase our own; if we do not strive to heap up riches cruelly wrung from the blood of others; if we do not madly scrape together from everywhere, by fair means or foul, whatever will feed our avarice or satisfy our prodigality. On the other hand, let this be our constant aim: faithfully to help all men by our counsel and aid to keep what is theirs, in so far as we can; but if we have to deal with faithless and deceitful men, let us be prepared to give up something of our own rather than to contend with them. And not this alone: but 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

Footnotes:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 408-409. In other translations see: Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 45. (2:8:45).

Ibid., 409-410. See: 2:8:46.

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