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Acta Theologica

On-line version ISSN 2309-9089
Print version ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.28  suppl.10 Bloemfontein  2008


Paupertas (poverty) in John Calvin's Institutes



R.M. Britz

Department of Ecclesiology, Faculty of Theology, University of the Free State, P.O. Box 339, Bloemfontein, 9300, South Africa. E-mail:




This article investigates the references to and use of the term paupertas ('poverty') by John Calvin in his Institutes. It appears that he uses paupertas in its physical and spiritual meaning. In the physical sense, the appropriate references are expressed in compelling language and denote helplessness when faced with the demands of life. Paupertas is also embedded in the theological context of the teaching of Scripture on the knowledge of the providentia Dei. In the spiritual sense, paupertas denotes the desperate aspect of spiritual poverty (i.e. 'unsaved, lost') and is related to the righteousness and work of salvation of Christ. In terms of Calvin's argumentation, it is clear that paupertas is linked to the (provided) true knowledge of God, Christ and 'ourselves' in terms of biblical revelation and qualification. Calvin thus reveals the landscape of reality in which the presuppositions of the popular philosophical concepts of fate, fortune, chance and other meta-historical causes are considered meaningless. In referring to poverty, or to the victim of poverty, Calvin neither argues that the providentia Dei is a passive perpetual divine determinism nor that it is sacrificed to a temporal interim divine involvement. He cautiously upholds a reverent distance in respect of God's knowledge. However, when considering true and credible knowledge of God, the pastor withholds nothing from the splendour of the teaching of Scripture in this regard. In his inscrutable Deitas Dei the Father of Christ is, and remains, unconditional even when poverty strikes. Instead of examining the causes of poverty, Calvin emphasises the living presence of God in terms of his relational and biblical thinking. Because the Bible speaks of poverty, and because of its visible presence in and impact upon Europe2 and Geneva,3 Calvin raises the issue of poverty (paupertas) in his textbook for theological students.This research traces Calvin's references to and use of the term paupertas (poverty) in the Institutes. It limits itself predominantly to verifying the Latin editions of the Institutes (or Instruction),4 taking into account its text-historical development.5 In order to enhance a comprehensive understanding of Calvin's use of the noun poverty (paupertas) in the Institutes, equivalent terms - and derivatives - in the corresponding semantic fields have also been considered. This article endeavours to delve into Calvin's subjacent Denkfiguren, into the dynamic ideas and relational conceptualisations behind the applicable notions and articulation, rather than to provide a formal list of his use of the term. Calvin's references to the poor, the needy, the destitute, the deprived, et cetera were, however, deliberately omitted. Calvin's views in this regard will be argued in a follow-up article.

Keywords: John Calvin, Providence of God, Institutes, Poverty, Spiritual poverty, Suffering, Affliction

Trefwoorde: Johannes Calvyn, Voorsienigheid van God, Institusie, Armoede, Geestelike armoede, Lyding, Beproewing



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