Christianity, Capitalism, and Socialism

“Do you know any good, solid argument against Socialism, based on the Bible?”

The question was raised by a student and had been occasioned by a professor’s classroom remarks and student discussions.


There are among us many who are highly critical of Socialism, but who, if asked to say just what they believe is wrong with it, might not be able to do so. It is much easier to talk aoout the menace of Socialism than it is to point out just what is wrong with it.

On the other hand, one gets the impression that there are a number of people among us, some among our leadership, who criticize this popular opposition to Socialism as ignorant traditionalism and who themselves either favor the drift toward Socialism or raise little or no objection to it.

The whole subject is one that, in view of its current importance, needs more careful and clearer treatment among us than it usually seems to get. I should like to venture a few observations that I hope may in some way help to promote that kind of discussion.

Some months ago I was especially reminded of the need for such discussion by reading the significant address Dr. Charles J. Miller gave to the 1961 Men’s Federation Convention. Its title was; “Mr. Christian Reformed; His Menacing World.” Much of what Professor Miller said reflected a wide acquaintance with world affairs and commanded the hearty agreement of any Christian. Yet, it seemed to me, after repeated reading, that in so far as he touched on the subject in which we are now interested his treatment of it was so one-sided that his conclusion was misleading.

Dr. Miller, while recognizing the anti-Christian character of Communism, observed that “Far more important than this frontal attack on organized religion, is the common philosophic secularism which Karl Marx shares with the theorists of Capitalism.” Dr. Miller pointed out that although “most frequently in religious circles Marxism is condemned for its materialism…Marx borrows his materialism intact from Capitalism. Each system assumes the primary importance of material things. Neither the hand of a personal God, nor the benevolence of God, nor the Law of God has any part of either system.” “Capitalism and Marxism are philosophic bedfellows.” He went on to observe that both Marxism and Capitalism have undergone great changes so that “Today the clear theoretical distinctions between Capitalism and Socialism or between democracy and Communism have largely lost meaning.”

Dr. Miller, indeed, observed in a parenthesis, (“Need I say to this group that Communism under any name must be condemned by those of us who are Christian?”) but his treatment of the matter leaves the reader wondering why “Communism under any name must be condemned,” especially since he has already been told that as far as the Bible is concerned, “The pattern of Jewish tribal life was certainly communal and the proposed redistribution of property during the Jubilee Years gave little room for the idea of private property except in a personal sense. This too seems to have been the spirit of the early church in Jerusalem.”

We are left with the impression that we ought, indeed, to oppose Communism as anti-Christian, but that Capitalism is just as much so and that in today’s menacing world the Christian should be more or less non-partisan in the struggle between the two, comforting himself with the thought that whoever wins, Christ still rules.1

I allude to this address, not because of any desire to single it out for special criticism, but because it brought to public expression, in very able fashion, what seems to be a rather common viewpoint among our better educated leadership; and the matter is important enough to warrant further critical discussion. Is it fair to say that although Communism is anti-Christian, Capitalism, as its “philosophic bedfellow,” is in principle no less so, and that a Christian ought therefore not to commit himself to the support of either system?



It seems to me that anyone who is interested in this question may very profitably take some account of the thesis of Max Weber and the discussion that it has provoked among various scholars for the past half century. Max Weber, a German sociolOgist, in 1904–05, first published an essay which has been translated under the title, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit at Capitalism. In this writing he declared that the modem Capitalist movement may be largely understood as resulting from the religious revolution of the 16th century and particularly from the Calvinist reformation. As Tawney in his foreword summarizes Weber’s position, “Capitalism was the social counterpart of Calvinist theology.” Weber sees Calvin as breaking with previous tradition in teaching that labor in one’s “calling” is a service of the Lord. Business activity, therefore, instead of being a kind of tolerated necessary evil, among the Calvinists became a religious duty, performed the more diligently, thought Weber, to prove that they belonged to the elect. Furthermore, the sobriety, or “asceticism,” of the Calvinists’ manner of life resulted in their accumulation and investment, rather than spending, of the capital they had gained by their diligent labor. Thus Calvinism led to Capitalism. The wealth thus obtained had a secularizing influence, so that the religious drives and controls in the Calvinist way of life lost their influence and finally only the materialistic striving for gain remained.2

This thesis provoked a great deal of discussion. Ernst Troeltsch in the main defended the position of Weber, attempting, however, to account for Calvin’s economic views as largely determined by the conditions that prevailed in Geneva.3 R.H. Tawney, the economic historian, although dissenting from some of Weber’s argumentation, agreed that the Protestant Reformation had been a strong support to the development of Capitalism, also observing that social and economic influences played a part in both movements.4 Some economic historians and Roman Catholic writers took more critical positions, pointing out that Capitalism in some forms antedated the Protestant Reformation. The whole very extensive discussion, whatever the limitations of individual viewpoints, focused the attention of the world on the relation that evidently did exist between the 16th century Reformation, especially the Calvinist form of it, and the capitalistic commercial and industrial development of the nations in which it was especially influential.3

Georgia Harkness in her important book, John Calvin, the Man and His Ethics, devotes three chapters to this subject. She feels that, although Weber overstated his case, yet his main point stands, Although Capitalism existed before Calvinism, economic causes too were important, the moral forces involved were not exclusively Calvinistic, Weber’s discussion of Predestination was one-sided, Calvinism was not impersonal as Weber represented it, he had oversimplified the Calvinist system and had obviously done little or no firsthand study of Calvin. Yet she finds (1) there is a historical correlation which cannot be explained by an accidental conjunction, between the growth of Calvinism and the growth of Capitalism, (2) Weber’s analysis of the spirit of Capitalism as a sense of obligation to make money, rather than mere greed for gain is sound, (3) Luther’s and Calvin’s view of “calling” was a stimulus to economic progress, and (4) Weber’s recognition of moral and spiritual forces in the economic process, the effects of which persist after their religious roots have died, is sound. She further points out something Weber hardly mentions: The very important contribution made by Calvin to the Capitalist system when he pronounced the taking of interest within proper limits as legitimate. Tawney called this religious approval of interest a “watershed.”5

To what conclusion does this half-century discussion among the historians lead us? Regardless of how one evaluates various points in the discussion, it seems to be obvious that these writers, perhaps none of whom are evangelical Christians, have called to our attention certain historical facts that every Christian ought to appreciate. The modern Capitalist movement owes a good deal to the influence of Protestant Christianity and especially to the more thoroughly Biblical version of it we call Calvinism. The fact that Capitalism in the course of its development became thoroughly materialistic and largely repudiated its religious roots and the religious restrictions (which if they had been retained would have prevented its abuses) should not lead us to overlook this whole earlier history and simply pronounce it as anti-Christian as Communism.

Karl Marx may well have taken his point of departure in this de·spiritualized Capitalist movement and further developed its materialist perversions into an atheistic philosophy of his own, but that does not yet put the constituent ideas of the two systems on one level. The Christian, finding his standard of judgment in God’s law, must indeed condemn the materialism that generally characterizes both movements today. But looking further into the principles involved, he must go on to pronounce the Capitalist insistence on the responsibility of the individual and the rights of property, right, and just as bluntly denounce the Communist denial of these principles as wrong. It may be true, as Dr. Miller in his speech intimated, that we must not make the mistake of linking the destiny “of the Church of Christ…with the destiny of a particular state or a particular way of life.” At the same time no Christian can afford to be indifferent to the question whether a system that maintains and respects God-given personal and property rights or one that destroys both shall gain control of the world in the current world struggle. To adopt an attitude of indifference in this situation in the name of leaving the matter to the Lord would appear to be a plain evasion of Christian duty. To the extent that a Christian ignores the Christian principles that were behind the development of Capitalism and are being attacked by Communism ho is playing into the hands of the latter and is helping to promote its victory.


Is there a sound biblical argument not only against the avowedly anti-Christian Communist movements, but also against the more moderate Socialist movements? I believe that there is. Let us hastily summarize some of the main teachings of the Bible on these matters,

The Bible teaches that the uniqueness of man is that he was created in the image of God and as such was to have dominion over the world (Gen. 1:26). This elementary fact demands that we respect human life and personality (Gen. 9:6) and also human property rights. The ten commandments accordingly warn us, “Thou shalt not kill…Thou shalt not steal…Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house…nor anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:13–17). God’s law plainly teaches our rights to own and responsibilities for properly using private property.

These property rights, although valid, are not absolute. The government has a responsibility for both protecting them and preventing their abuse. We may recall the Old Testament laws about the year of Jubilee in which property must revert back to its original owner or his heir (Lev. 25:13ff., and especially vss. 23 fl.). Recall also the prophet’s warning against the greedy accumulation of property by a few (Isa. 5:8), Again, we recall the teachings of Paul and Peter about the duty of government to be “a servant of God” “for vengeance on evildoers and for praise to them that do well”(Romans 13 and I Peter 2:14).

The fact that the Bible places certain restrictions on the use of capital and allots to the government a regulatory function has led some argue that the Bible therefore sanctions a kind of “Christian socialism.” What they seem to forget is that there is a big and basic difference between government’s safeguarding and preventing the abuse of private property and—as the Socialists advocate—the government’s seizing private property. One might say the first is preventing theft; the second is engaging in theft. The same law of God that commands the one forbids the other.

While the Bible leaves room for government restraint of the abuses of private property, it also warns against the abuses of big government. It forbids us to entertain the kind of almost unlimited confidence in big government that is being promoted by the Socialists. The warning of Samuel to those who expected that their problems would be solved by bigger and more autocratic government (I Samuel 8:10ff.) has many modem applications. When the government is expected to do everything for everybody—man’s sinful nature being what it is—it becomes, instead of the “servant of God” which it is supposed to be, “the beast” described in Daniel and Revelation which oppresses more ruthlessly than those it is supposed to curb could ever do.

We may further observe that this predicted bestiality of government seems to be especially characteristic of the end time toward which history is moving.

Nothing is more urgently needed to dispel the confusion that there seems to be among us regarding many of these social and economic questions, than that we regard and maintain the plain teachings of God’s Word also about such matters as the nature of man and the proper functions and limits of government. Only as we do this may we hope to find our way as Christians in the complex social and economic cross-currents of our time.

1. Federation Messenger, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Sept. 1961, pp. 41–48.

2. Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1958 (paperback $1.45).

3. Green, Robert W., Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics, D. C. Heath and Co., Boston, 1959 (paperback $1.50, a series of 11 essays presenting various points of view, a bargain for anyone who is interested in the subject!).

4. Tawney, R. H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, a Mentor paperback, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1952, 35¢.

5. Harkness, Georgia, John Calvin, the Man and His Ethics, Abingdon, New York and Nashville, 1931 and 1958 (paperback $1.50, a valuable book on this as well as on many other aspects of the life and work of Calvin). On this subject see pp. 157–220.