Searching for God’s Economy in Protestant Theology

A Proposal: God’s Economy as a Responsibilist Ethic

[wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]

The ethical category for thinking about God’s economy can be rather elusive in Reformed theology. If we take Calvin as a model, there are certainly points at which our understanding could be labeled as deontological, but we nevertheless would want to include some purposive language which would remove it from that category. This language might lead us to assume the social ethic we are working towards is teleological, but it certainly prioritizes right action (in this case obedience to a call) over any human conception of the good in such a way that puts it at odds with the dominant stream of teleological thought. We might more fruitfully explore a Reformed vision of God’s economy as belonging to a third category, that of responsibilism as defined by H. Richard Niebuhr.

Niebuhr defines responsibilism in contrast to both deontology and teleology by examining the questions each ethical system asks when faced with a moral dilemma. The teleologist will ask “What is my goal?” while the deontologist will ask “What moral law applies?”[37] A responsibilist ethic asks neither one of these questions first, but rather asks “What is going on?” and therefore, “What is fitting?”[38]

Particularly important to Niebuhr is that the responsibilist ethic always occurs within the context of a group of people in society. Niebuhr writes, “Our ethic is responsible, it appears, when it is a response to action upon us in a continuing discourse or interaction among beings forming a continuing society.”[39]

[/wpcol_1half] [wpcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]

I would propose that any theologically honest appraisal of God’s economy must take into account that we are responding to an action upon us, that action being the calling by God to fulfill a particular role. It is always directed outwards toward others and it recognizes the need of other actions by other persons differently called to fulfill its ultimate purpose. God’s economy is action within a true community, and not within a collection of essentially disassociated individuals.

As we have seen in the story of the Puritan interpretation of various aspects of Calvin’s thought, overemphasis on individual virtues (industriousness, thrift) may lead to a chilling effect on a concern for the social responsibilities of God’s economy. If we lose the vision of human vocation in the service of God’s providential ordering of society, with all the abridgement of personal ends entailed, we run the danger of diminishing the transformative power of the doctrine into a vague admonition of leading a pious, individual existence.

It is perhaps understandable, given the intimate connection of the United States with the classical liberal tradition and its emphasis on individual liberty, that our public discourse is reluctant to advance, so far as to posit, the purpose of our human labors as service to the neighbor. Yet it is precisely such an understanding that Calvin’s vision of God’s economy demands.



Photo by Andrew Hildebrand.



[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 156.

[2] Richard M. Douglas, “Talent and Vocation in Humanist and Protestant Thought, Action and Conviction in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Memory of E.H. Harbison, eds. Theodore Rabb and Jerrold E. Siegel (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969), 292.

[3] W. Van’t Spijker, “The Influence of Luther on Calvin According to the Institutes,” John Calvin’s Institutes: His Magnum Opus: Proceedings of the South African Congress for Calvin Research (Potchefstroom: Institute for Reformational Studies, 1986), 104.

[4] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 194.

[5] John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume One, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1958), 134.

[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1948), 410.

[7] John Calvin, On God and Political Duty, ed. John T. McNeill (New York: MacMillan, 1950), 47.

[8] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: William B. Eeerdmans, 1995), Book III, chapter x, 31-32.

[9] André Biéler, The Social Humanism of Calvin, trans. Paul T. Fuhrman (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), 22.

[10] Ibid, 33.

[11] W. Venter, “Calvin and Economics according to the Institutes,” John Calvin’s Institutes: His Magnum Opus: Proceedings of the South African Congress for Calvin Research (Potchefstroom: Institute for Reformational Studies, 1986), 305.

[12] For an entertainingly trenchant dissection of this belief, see W. Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and his Socio-Economic Impact (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971), 66ff.

[13] John Calvin, cited in Graham, 66.

[14] Herbert Lüthy, From Calvin to Rousseau: Tradition and Modernity in Socio-Political Thought form the Reformation to the French Revolution, trans. Salvator Attanasio (New York: Basic Books, 1970), 73.

[15] Douglas, “Talent and Vocation in Humanist and Protestant Thought, 295.

[16] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 110.

[17] Kemper Fullerton, “Calvinism and Capitalism: and Explanation of the Weber Thesis,” Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics, ed. Robert W. Green (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1959), 19.

[18] R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1962), 227.

[19] Ibid, 229.

[20] Ibid, 230.

[21] Ibid, 230.

[22] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), 224.

[23] Catherine Albanese, America: Religions and Religion, Second Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992), 125.

[24] Russell Conwell, Acres of Diamonds (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1915), 18.

[25] Ibid, 21.

[26] Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America: Fourth Edition (New York: MacMillan, 1987), 282.

[27] Ibid, 219.

[28] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 129.

[29] Ibid, 130.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Harlan Beckley, Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville: Westminster/John Know Press, 1992), 33.

[32] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 366.

[33] Ibid, 155.

[34] Hopkins, 222.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 223.

[37] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1963), 60.

[38] Ibid, 61.

[39] Ibid, 65.

Back to Table of Contents

Photo of the U.S. Constitution, "we the people"
Previous Story

The American Covenant and the American Dream: Can We Restore Our Sense of Community?

Photo of sleeping homeless man with open Bible
Next Story

Covenantal Economics: God’s Household