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  • Poverty in the Theology of John Calvin
  • Randall C. Zachman (bio)
Poverty in the Theology of John Calvin. By Bonnie L. Pattison. Eugene: Pickwick Press, 2006. iii + 379 pp. $37.00

Bonnie Pattison has chosen to examine the way that Calvin discusses the topic of poverty in the context of the broader European Reformation, and especially in light of the Martin Luther's theology of the cross. Pattison is not interested in critiquing the thesis of Max Weber, that Calvin's theology directly influenced the [End Page 235] rise of capitalism—indeed, Weber is not even mentioned in the bibliography—but is rather interested in showing that Calvin does make the issue of poverty central to his understanding of Christ and the Church, over against Philip Mulhern's claim that "poverty was given minimal consideration" in the writings of the Reformers (1). Pattison's thesis is that "in Calvin's theology, poverty, and affliction—not splendor and glory—mark and manifest the kingdom of God on earth" (4). More specifically, Pattison argues that poverty is the key to the self-revelation of Christ as King, and hence is the essential mark of his kingdom. "Christ's poverty is the visible sign in the divine revelation of Christ's royal position as King, and thus the identifying mark of his kingdom" (160). Pattison uses this claim to argue for another related thesis, namely that since real physical poverty reveals both Christ the King and his Kingdom, Calvin essentially integrates physical and spiritual poverty in a way that distinguishes him from Martin Luther in particular. "Calvin understands Christ's physical poverty to be a "visible symbol" of his spiritual kingship" (179). According to Pattison, Luther develops a univocal understanding of poverty, namely that the poor are Christians who are suffering spiritual affliction, especially Anfechtung (97). Calvin builds on Luther's theology of the cross, but in a way that integrates spiritual and physical poverty (146).

However, the net result of this integration of physical and spiritual poverty is ironically to desacralize poverty in an attempt to eradicate it, over against the Roman Catholic view of poverty, which sacralized poverty and hence perpetuated it, especially through the meritorious activity of alms-giving. "Though this affinity of Christ in the economy of salvation gave the poor particular social significance in the Christian community, it also yielded something else, namely, a blasphemous acceptance of the state of poverty in society, that not only 'obscured the realities of misery,' but also 'perpetuated' and 'maintained' them" (68). Thus Calvin is described as sharing with Luther the desire "not to sanctify poverty but to abolish it" (92). Pattison seems to think that this was actually done in Geneva through the effectiveness of the deaconate, making Geneva a "remarkable city" (139). "Through the ministry of a lay deaconate and the generous gifts of the people of Geneva to the Bourse francaise, the hungry were fed, orphans were placed in families, refugees were housed, and the sick were cared for" (140).

It is hard for this reader to see how both of these theses can be maintained at the same time. If the kingship of Christ is revealed by his poverty, then poverty is sacralized christologically, as Pattison is at pains to argue throughout her book. Drawing on Calvin's claim that Christ's birth into poverty "consecrated poverty in his own person," Pattison claims that Calvin taught that "God bestows honor upon the poor" (159), so that "the poor are now endowed with a sacred status in the divine economy" (186). Moreover, Pattison repeatedly cites a statement made by Ronald Wallace, that "the suffering of the Cross for the Christian has the value of a sacrament" (201), leading her to claim that the "experience of poverty in the Christian life has potential as a vehicle of divine grace and blessing for the believer" (189–90). Pattison also claims that for Calvin physical poverty has the power to renew the believer spiritually. "In essence, physical poverty cultivates spiritual poverty in the life of the Church" (280), so that "the renovation of the inner man springs out of the decay of the outward man" (281). It is hard to...


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