When theology does what it was designed to do, which is flow through the streets of our nations like molten lava, it doesn’t behave very much like a cold museum piece of basalt, something that used to be lava centuries ago.
To follow the logic of the Lord Jesus, we should remember that He once said those who are sons of Abraham should bear some kind of family resemblance to him. In the same way, those who call themselves Calvinists should do the works of Calvin. This is really an enormous subject because the Reformation brought a huge transformation in the realms of liturgy, doctrine, politics, ethics, and, to bring us to the point before us now, social welfare. The Reformation brought a transformation in how the poor were loved, cared for, taught, and equipped to be self-sufficient. This means those among the Reformed today who urge that mercy ministry be at the very forefront of our labors are not necessarily in the process of “going liberal.” Care for the indigent was one of the great works displayed in the Reformation. It was one of the central ways the solafidian Reformed answered the taunt — “show us your faith.”
John Calvin himself put it this way: “Do we want to show there is reformation among us? We must begin at this point, that is, there must be pastors who bear purely the doctrine of salvation, and then deacons who have the care of the poor” (David Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin, p. 18). Hall also notes one study that shows, “contrary to some modern caricatures, the Reformers worked diligently to shelter refugees and minister to the poor” (Hall, p. 16).
The kind of thing Calvin had in mind consisted of far more than feel good charitable gestures. He knew that living according to the gospel meant sacrifice.
“In the period from October 1538 to 1539, the city hospital assisted 10,657 poor strangers as they passed through Geneva. This figure does not include those Genevans (estimated at about 5 percent of the total population) who received regular assistance from the hospital. Thus, when this order was issued, Geneva, a city of about 12,000 persons, was attempting to support 600 local poor people on a regular basis and an additional 10,000 in a one-year-period” (William Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation, p. 122).
The Reformers were in it for the long haul. “The ordinances which Calvin drew up in 1541 speak of the ‘communal hospital’ which had to be ‘well maintained’ with amenities available for the sick and the aged who were unable to work, a quite separate wing for widows, orphaned children and other poor persons, and a hospice for wayfarers” (Ronald Wallace, Calvin, Geneva & the Reformation p. 92).
And it is not possible to say that Geneva was an oddity or quirk. This kind of thing was characteristic of all the Reformers — it was something they were known for. Zurich and Scotland provide good exaamples.
In Zurich, “as the city’s religious houses quickly lost members, the civic authorities seized the property of the houses and prohibited the taking of new monastic vows. One convent was kept open for those who desired to remain in holy orders. The bulk of the property formerly controlled by these institutions was diverted to support hospitals and a new system of poor relief . . . Officers in each parish oversaw the regular distribution of relief to the deserving poor” (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, pp. 29-30).
“Scotland had few formal mechanisms for poor relief before the Reformation, but when a series of statutes between 1574 and 1592 produced a parish-based system for the relief of poverty modeled after the English poor law of 1572, the responsibility for levying and disbursing the funds came to reside not with the still embryonic justices of the peace but with the kirk sessions. The church and the its deacons thus came to control the national system of poor relief as it developed here” (Benedict, p. 455).
Of course, in this as in many areas, Geneva set a strong example. In Geneva, “Deacons responsible for the relief of the poor were the fourth [ordained order]” (Benedict, p. 88). And the “title of deacon was bestowed upon the administrators of the city’s hospital . . .” (Benedict, p. 96).
But Calvin knew that the poor were not going to be helped through envy or sentimentalism, something that many modern relief workers need to learn. “If wealth was to flow it must first be produced. Those who have done careful research on the city records give an impressive account of how the authorities, during Calvin’s time in Geneva, encouraged the establishment of new business enterprises” (Wallace, pp. 89-90).
But though it was no sin to be wealthy in Calvin’s view, with great privilege came great responsibility.
“First [Calvin] insisted that as a law of life, where there was lavish wealth there must also be lavish giving by the rich to the poor . . . Certainly he held that every man had a right to own property. This was so basic to his outlook that he did not seek to justify the ownership of property to anything like the same extent as did Luther and Zwingli . . . Since wealth is thus given from above it cannot but be justifiable” (Wallace, pp. 90-91).
But even though the wealthy believers were to be taught to be generous, Calvin did not believe that this was sufficient by itself.
“But Calvin saw that in the developing commerical age even the utmost personal generosity could not be relied on to ensure the welfare of the poor. No private man could be expected to be able to seek them out of fully understand their need. Therefore it was the office of the deacon to keep in contact with them through visitation, to cooperate with the pastors and thus to become familiar with the actual problems of the home and to administer public welfare” (Wallace, p. 92).
When the Holy Spirit moves in remarkable ways, as He did in the Reformation, this kind of thing is something He always does. It is one of His emphases. It is His signature. Not only was this in evidence in the course of the Reformation, it has also been clear whenever there are outbreaks of real Calvinism. A good example would be the work of the great Scottish theologian, Thomas Chalmers.
Thomas Chalmers’ “original efforts to overcomce pauperism in Glasgow constitute the most effective early reaction of Christianity to the evils attendant on the Industrial Revolution” (John McNeill, The Nature and Character of Calvinism, p. 360).
But like Calvin, Chalmers was not a hand-wringer, complaining about how little others were doing on the taxpayer’s dime. “Chalmers adopted the laissez-faire theory that Adam Smith propounded in The Wealth of Nations . . . For Chalmers the deliverance of the poor was not to come from government restriction or action” (p. 422). Not at all — mercy is to be extended in the name of Christ, and should come from the Church.
This brings us down to the present, and, to quote Calvin again, “Do we want to show there is reformation among us?” The poor and helpless enter into how that question is answered.