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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


GOUDZWAARD, B. Calvin's ethics of socio-economic life. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2009, vol.49, n.3, pp.434-452. ISSN 2224-7912.

Against the background of the medieval Roman Catholic depreciation of manual labour and the flourishing of trade and commerce this article portrays the contrast between the traditional static medieval hierarchical understanding of society and the approach of Calvin. The said depreciation of manual labour is aptly captured in a medieval legend where we learn of a person who found demons in every nook and cranny in a monastery, but surprisingly only one demon was found on a tower in the marketplace. When the person mentioned was surprised, a cleric responded by explaining that there is a greater need for demons in a monastery because many are needed to seduce the monks. At the marketplace however, one is more than sufficient, because everyone there is already a devil! This legend shows clearly how the medieval tradition devaluated the mercantile estate. This under-evaluation took its stance alongside a new appreciation of the self-esteem of human beings. However, the latter was accompanied by an increasing anarchy and immorality which indeed made Christians hesitant to participate in the horrible practices of this domain of life. By avoiding being a merchant one is not threatened by temptations. Add to this that the medieval view of society as an organic whole, where every sector of life had its well-assigned and properly integrated place, did not really contribute to the development of a constructive and dynamic economic life. The estate of merchants was kept in place by the doctrine of the "fair price." The system of guilds also did not allow for fair competition. However, breaking through this static establishment soon generated a cold and calculated rationalistic attitude towards life where even personal affairs were treated in economic terms - such as where a difference of opinion between two merchants led to an inscription that that person's life is owed, followed by a subsequent credit inscription: "Debt paid." When Calvin wrote his Institution the point of gravity of trade and commerce shifted to the Netherlands (Antwerpen), although the Roman Catholic church still held an enormous power, particularly evinced in the maintenance of the prohibition of interest. A very useful study in this regard is found in the work of A. Biéler, La penseé économique et sociale de Calvin (Die ekonomiese en sosiale denke van Calvyn). The title of this work is somewhat pretentious because Calvin largely entered into a discussion of social-economic issues as part of the advice he gave to believers. This included directives such as the regulation of the duration of work, making primary school education compulsory, the medical treatment of invalids and ill people, public works and the re-training of unemployed people, aid to strangers who pass by, a prohibition to begging because in the Geneve of the time this was no longer necessary. Interestingly Calvin also made a plea for a fixed price for bread, wine and meat (the necessary means of life at the time). As extensively shown by Bohatec Calvin constantly advocated the idea of what is just and fair. It was supported by his new, non-hierarchical, view of society and his conviction that all of life ought to open up to the service of God. This view transcended the medieval prohibition on interest, and broadened the scope of God's kingdom to encompass all of life - where the execution of every walk of life became a calling equal in importance and dignity to every other calling in life. Particular attention is given to the famous Weber thesis that capitalism is the outcome of Calvinism. At the end a 2009 "Postscript" is added in which a number of similarities and analogies between the era of Calvin and our own contemporary situation are highlighted, while holding on to the basic positive perspective initially advanced in the substantive article.

Keywords : Calvinism; equity; capitalism; Puritanism; interest ban; Kingdom.

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