Professor Berkhof Takes Us to School

The heirs of the Protestant Reformation are wrangling amongst themselves (once again) as to where the Church ought to stand on issues of social justice. Is “social justice” (however defined) merely the specter of Marxism and the Social Gospel, which threatens to seduce us from our mission of proclaiming Christ and the Gospel of grace? Or is opposition to social justice a form of hyper-spiritual quietism that straight-jackets the Christian life into an hour on Sunday mornings, and to the private life of the mind?

It strikes me that there is sloppy thinking on both sides of this discussion. I hope that we might achieve greater clarity if we examine how Professor Berkhof approached this question. Yes, Louis Berkhof, the systematic theologian.

Louis Berkhof is best known for writing perhaps the most successful modern Reformed Systematic Theology. Professor Berkhof’s Systematic Theology gained wide usage because of its unparalleled brevity and clarity. His definitions are precise. His arguments are cogent. His proof-texts are relevant to the point at hand. There is nothing bold or innovative. His work accurately and clearly presents the Reformed consensus. In spite of his colorless and encyclopedic approach his work is a joy to read. Every sentence is to the point.

Berkhof’s clarity is exhibited in all his writings. Lesser known is his book, Historical Theology, which charts Christian doctrinal development across the span of church history. Berkhof manages to squeeze a lot of information into a thin volume.

Perhaps under the category of “the Forgotten Berkhof” we can include his address, “The Church and Social Problems.” This lecture was published in 1913 when many conservative Christians were reacting against the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. Berkhof begins by stating that Christianity has always had a positive influence on the social structures of society, especially in the Protestant Reformation. Berkhof proceeds to interact with Rauschenbusch and others at length. Rauschenbusch outlines the social injustices of his day and brings his indictment against the Church for not doing more to address these inequities. Berkhof agreed that Rauschenbusch has identified many true problems of industrialized society, but he rejects the idea that Marxism provides the only or the best solution. There are non revolutionary ways we can correct the injustices in society. Common sense reforms that are consistent with our traditions and institutions will provide the most effective remedies.

The central question for Berkhof, however, is “what is the role of the church in ameliorating the social problems of the day?”

Reformed theology teaches that there is no dualism between nature and grace, body and soul. The natural as a gift of God is just as good as the supernatural, only it has become subject to sin; it is in bondage. “The grace of God is a redeeming, liberating force. It seeks the redemption of man, body and soul; the removal of sin and its dire consequences; the sanctification of life in all its relations; the restoration of the world to its pristine beauty. This grace is both general and particular. Common grace restrains the evil forces working in the world, makes a well ordered life possible, yea even makes for refinement and beauty and virtue. Particular grace, revealed in Jesus Christ, exercises a saving influence. It implants in man the principle of a new, of a higher, of eternal life. It does not supersede common grace, but adds something to it, so that believers become partakers of both.” It follows that Christians, as citizens of heaven, remain engaged citizens on earth. We are to be the salt and light in the world.

The church, however, is a holy institution, and a minister of God’s particular grace. The church does not establish common society and is therefore not directly responsible for its social problems, yet we cannot say that the church ought to maintain indifference toward such problems. We cannot “separate absolutely the natural and the spiritual” so as to “parcel out life in such a way that the Church as an institution would find her duty only in the spiritual sphere.”

We therefore affirm that the church, as an organization, “has a task in the movement for social reform.” Berkhof emphasizes the following points:

  1. “The Church should be the nursery of true, healthy, virile spiritual life.” We must not overlook that sin is at the root of our social misery and injustice. Sin is not restricted to sins of weakness (intemperance, vice), but includes sins of strength: the wealthy and powerful oppress, rob and do violence to the poor, in ways perfectly legal, of course. 
  2. “The Church should never forget the social message entrusted to her.” Our unique embassy is to prepare individuals for eternal life through the proclamation of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. No other organization can do this. Pastors are not sociologists. They are not economists. They should not speak authoritatively about subjects on which they know less than what they think they know. Nor should they take a stand on every little issue. At the same time we recognize that the “Bible contains many directions for social life, reveals to us the principles that should control every movement for social reform…. and no sinister influence should ever induce the preacher to hide this light.” God obligates us to speak to the “broad underlying principles of social life” so that no one can lay to our charge that our teaching is exclusively “other-worldly.”
  3. “It is the duty of the Church to exemplify her teachings in this respect in her own social life.” A Christian church should be a microcosm of a just society. It is the family of God where social divisions of class and race disappear. To promote this unity God appointed the office of deacon whereby those blessed with material abundance may find their joy in ministering to the poor among them.   
  4. “The Church should not neglect to bring the gospel to the submerged masses in the downtown districts of our great cities.” If we send our missionaries to the farthest flung places on earth, surely we shouldn’t neglect our urban centers close to home.
  5. “The Church… ought to make a thorough study of all the problems that present themselves in social life and of the movements for social betterment, in order that she may know what stand to take.” Denominations should appoint study committees (ideally comprised of experts in the field) to study social conditions, problems and possible solutions in light of God’s word. Ministers and ministry students could study these reports and become more knowledgeable in social ethics. In turn, ministers will be better equipped to guide their congregations in thinking through these issues.
  6. “The Church should encourage the organization of her members on a distinctly and positively Christian basis for social and philanthropic purposes.” Individual Christians perusing their callings in the world with excellence, act as leaven permeating the dough, endeavoring to bring all of life under the Lordship of Christ. While praying “Thy Kingdom come” they should endeavor to do his will on earth, as it is done in heaven.

The Professor admits that the church has not always acquitted itself in an exemplary manner. At the same time many demand the church to act in a way that is not in harmony with her character and vocation. Church influence is naturally indirect. The Church “gives birth to new leaders, furnished them with their new ideas, developed for them their character, provided their inspiration, and was the recruiting ground for their battalions.” He cites many positive examples including the Social Creed produced by the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, which won broad support across Protestant denominations. The Social Creed defined a sixteen plank platform for social justice, and was subscribed by confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. Berkhof praised the work of seminaries and denominations that were giving more thought to sociological issues and were proceeding along the lines he had indicated.

The professor concludes: “Let us not be caught napping. We need not become one whit less Calvinistic for it; perhaps just a little more so…. Calvinism faithfully preached and applied has been of momentous significance in the past. It has fostered in one nation after another political democracy. The liberty we enjoy in our country is in no small measure to the fruit of Calvin’s work. And Calvinism also contains the principles and forces that make for industrial democracy, for the establishment of God’s rule in every sphere of life, for the introduction of a better social day, and for an ever increasing fulfillment of the Church’s constant prayer: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”

John Calvin Was a Social Justice Warrior

John Calvin recalled his impression when he first arrived in Geneva. “When I first arrived in this church there was almost nothing. They were preaching and that’s all. They were good at seeking out idols and burning them, but there was no Reformation. Everything was in turmoil.” One of the objectives Geneva’s senators had in calling Calvin back was to improve the management of the city’s care for orphans, widows and other poor. This was something that Calvin was also zealous for. In his commentary on Psalm 82 he wrote “A just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Rulers are “accounted guilty before God of negligence if they do not, of their own accord, assist those who stand in need of their interference.”

1. Reforming Welfare

The primary institution for accomplishing this obligation was Geneva’s General Hospital. The Hospital was not principally an infirmary, but rather a place of hospital-ity. It provided public housing and care for widows, orphans and other poor and destitute. Since medieval cities were periodically ravaged by the plague, caring for orphans was the largest need. The hospital provided public schooling for both boys and girls. When the young men came of age the hospital would put up the apprenticeship fee. Likewise, the hospital payed the dowry for young women who desired to marry.

Hospital residents were expected to work as they were able. They farmed the garden, prepared meals, cooked and cleaned. They often raised a surplus of oats that were sold on the open market to help fund the hospital’s operation. Calvin was instrumental in implementing a fabric-weaving program as a way to reduce unemployment. As a result Genevan textiles soon became a major export and an economic boon for the city.

In addition to providing for the Hospital residents, the Hospital also distributed bread and wine on a weekly basis to poor families that were having trouble making ends meet. They gave out short-term, interest free loans to those who needed help purchasing essential items.

Due to these innovative measures the Hospital was not expensive to run, yet it provided far more social value than the hospital systems in other cities. Also, because Geneva was committed to a policy of full-employment, everyone who was able to work was able to find work to do.

2. Reforming Immigration

John Calvin was a French immigrant living in Geneva, and was not granted citizenship until shortly before his death. He had great compassion for his fellow exiles. He also regarded such compassion as a duty required in God’s Law. “Let us learn from this passage [Isa 16:3-4] to be kind and dutiful to fugitives and exiles.” “When God recommends guests and sojourners to them [Lev 19:33-34], just as if they had been their own kindred, they thence understand that equity is to be cultivated constantly and toward all men.”

The first major wave of French refugees arrived in Geneva in 1545. Geneva was neither large nor rich. Land was restrictive. Employment opportunities and food were limited. This influx was more than the General Hospital system could handle, and so the city councils ordered the caravan to make plans to leave town. In response, Calvin and twenty eight other individuals generously contributed to establish the French Refuge (Bourse) to extend the work of the hospital to the refugees.

The inflow of immigrants from France, Italy and elsewhere stoked nationalist and anti-immigrant feelings in Geneva. Ami Perrin led the anti-immigrant party, the “Children of Geneva.” Gangs of young people harassed and assaulted immigrants on the streets. They would bear their swords with shouts of “at the traitors!” “French devils!” and “kill them and their supporters!”

In spite of fierce opposition, refugees continued to arrive in Geneva from 1550-1560. By 1555 it became apparent to most that immigration would not spell the end for Geneva. Immigrants brought an entrepreneurial spirit, different skills, and new capital to the city. The new economy in Geneva focused on exports to France and the rest of Europe. Exports of books, textiles, pewter pots, jewelry, gold work, clock and watch-work became the new economic backbone of the city. Although Geneva was the principal city of refuge in Europe, it was not the only one and its corresponding benefits were not unique.

3. Reforming Capital

The practice of usury was widespread in sixteenth-century Europe. At the same time, church theologians condemned all interest taking. Calvin had a more keen understanding of economics than Scholastic theologians. He understood that industry demanded some sort of credit and interest in order to function. Capital is key to establishing new businesses and thus creating new jobs and new wealth. If capital is directed to the common good, then it cannot be contrary to God’s law, which is the law of love.

Lending to private individuals, however, opens the door for loan-sharking. Therefore Calvin made a sharp distinction between lending in business and lending to private individuals struggling to afford basic necessities (compare Ex 22:25, Ne 5:1-10; Pr 28:8, etc., with Matt 25:27, Lk 19:23). Calvin understood the Bible’s condemnation of usury to refer to those whose lending preys on the poor. For example, wealthy speculators might drive up the cost of wheat, and then turn around and lend money to the poor [at 16-18%] in order to buy bread. In his commentary on Amos, Calvin writes, “He [Amos] speaks here again of the greed for riches, which in times of scarcity is held like a foot on the throat of the poor, and makes them slaves to it.”

Geneva thus adopted a two-tiered interest rate: an annual 5% rate for businesses, while private loans were interest free and administered through the General Hospital. Economic conditions drove these rates up to 6 2/3% in 1557, but Geneva retained the two tiered system.

4. Reforming Consumer Protection

Geneva’s sumptuary laws were aimed at promoting equality, unity and the common good. The law (1549) required that both boys and girls receive a free primary school education; partially to create an educated labor supply and partially to promote informed Christians. Also, trade guilds were encouraged as an efficient way for industries to self-regulate. Businesses were regulated both for quality control and to prohibit profiteering on essential items. No merchant should be permitted to cheat in the marketplace. The city councils considered it their duty to shield the vulnerable from financial exploitation, especially where basic commodities were concerned.

Geneva did not have ample land for farming. Keeping Geneva in foodstuffs was always a difficult affair. The price of wheat was especially volatile and regularly subject to 500% price fluctuations. This required a comprehensive wheat policy. One aspect of this policy has been badly mis-represented. A sumptuary law against selling fancy pastries in time of grain shortage was not introduced because it was supposedly immoral to enjoy desserts. Instead, it was a means of protecting the poor during times of scarcity. Pastries provided bakers with a higher profit margin, which only the wealthy could afford. The misuse of scarce flour would have resulted in a lack of basic bread for the poor.

The Protestant Reformation was about more than reforming the preaching and worship of the Church. It was also about pursuing the ideal of a just society where Christians fulfill their individual callings in the world with excellence and for God’s glory. 

For further reading see: Social Concern in Calvin’s Geneva, by William C. Innes.

The Free Market Family

When Christian churches first faced the threat of disestablishment, ministers were understandably worried. “A Divine and sacred institution shouldn’t be left up to the wiles of a free market,” they argued. In retrospect, most recognized that some positive things came from Churches existing as voluntary organizations. For one, ministers became more concerned with how their people received their ministry. Also, church members had to support their churches with voluntary donations, which gave them a stake in its ministry. This practical focus was likely a deterrent to the spread of Unitarianism and Deism in America.

Other outcomes were mixed. Disestablished churches spelled the end of the parish system, where your church membership is based on your neighborhood.

There are also negative aspects to a spiritual marketplace. It encourages religious entrepreneurialism, which gives rise to novel ideas, new sects, and movements. False teachers tickle the ears of the people and sell them lies that they are eager to buy. Christians flit about from church to church, never committing and never putting down roots.

As Christians we want to emphasize the fraternity we have with one another. All true churches around the world are part of the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Yet individual churches in a given city, whether they like it or not, are locked in a competition for market share. The Church Growth Movement embraced this uncomfortable fact and weaponized it. They viewed the smaller neighborhood churches as “feeder” churches, and they sought to attract large crowds with a battery of programs for all ages. Pastor-shepherds were recast as “ranchers,” and worship services became spectator events.

The community, intimacy and accountability that is natural to a smaller church is necessarily lost in the big-box church. This need, however, can be met through the mid-week small groups. This solution may work for those who have time to spare.

I think it is important for us to identify and acknowledge the ways that our consumerist culture has influenced our approach to church. It is natural for Christians to think of their church like a consumer product. They ask themselves (in more ‘spiritual’ language) “what is the value added to my life?” They evaluate the teaching – and I imagine most ministers hope that people will choose their church based primarily on its teaching. But people also evaluate the music program, the nursery, the youth group and other age-appropriate programs, building aesthetics and more. If things ever become uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be too hard to find another church that will fit their needs.

Such a view of things is based entirely on a selfish perspective. “What do I get out of this?” Entirely absent is the question, “how can I contribute?”

It is key that we reframe our view of what the church is. It is not a market commodity. It is a family.

This perspective is especially important if we ever encounter inter-personal conflict. Instead of retreating from conflict, view it as an opportunity for reconciliation. Rejoice that the Holy Spirit has given you an opportunity to grow in holiness. “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Js 3:18).

Similarly, if a potential or actual area of ministry is lacking, then ask yourself whether this is an opportunity for you to serve others.“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10). Maybe you don’t feel that you need your current local congregation. But consider whether that local church needs you.