Review: Morality after Calvin

Summers, Kirk.  Morality After Calvin.  New York: Oxford, 2017.

Kirk Summers documents and illustrates the problems facing the Genevan church after Calvin’s death, as illustrated in Theodore Beza’s Cato.

While Beza will defend natural law, he has no interest in constructing a Christian ethic which does not flow from the union with Christ.  The Father conjoins us to his Son by means of the Spirit (Summers 76). The sins Beza attacks are specifically those which disintegrate society; restoration, therefore, will consist of being reintegrated into society.

The Cato

The Cato is a collection of poems (20-21) written by Beza on moral topics.  In keeping with the natural law theme, in Beza’s poem “sinners are deprived of the very things they idolized in life” (Summers 65).

Natural Law

Calvin: the order that God built into nature, which is witnessed to in all people (67).

Usury and Rhetoric of Mutuality

Summers rightly rejects the silly thesis of Weber that Calvin’s decretal theology led to an economic miserliness ultimately manifested in usury.  Even granting Calvin’s allowance of 5% (Geneva later set it at 6.7%) interest, usury was stigmatized by most Reformed ministers, with usurers often facing church discipline (212).

Beza holds to the traditional view that money is sterile (“Against Moneylenders,” 3). Beza is drawing from (if not always directly) the anti-usury tradition of Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, and Ambrose: usury begets money, but never experiences the pains of childbirth–it passes those pains onto others (221). “When the borrower cannot pay, the interest (centesima) is folded back into the principal, becoming a new producer of offspring.”

Etymology of the loan:

Paucapalea: “The term loan (mutuum) comes from the fact that what is mine (meum) becomes yours (tuum).  A loan is osmething that is quantifiable and which I pass on to you witht he expectation of receviing back only as much of the same kind” (Summers 225).

Ownership is indexed by the personal pronouns.  What I receive becomes mine (meum).

Thomas Aquinas

Money has a fixed value. Money cannot be distinguished from its substance.  Therefore, you can’t separate the using of it from its own substance. You can’t sell both (ST  2-2.78).

Luther: Pecunia est res sterilis.

Beza inherits this powerful tradition and offers strong endorsements of his own.  He isn’t consistent, though. He submits to the weakened 10% allowance of Geneva, but defends those who go above it.

Conclusion: “The ethics of the individual comprises more than anything a process of integrating oneself into the kingdom of God, both as it is manifest here on earth through the body of Christ and the community of believers, and eventually and perfectly in the heavenly abode before the presence of God himself.  In short, ethics for Beza are Christian citzenship not in the sense that the citizen lays claim to a set of constitutional rights, but in the sense that certain corporate responsibilities and expectations are incumbent upon a citizen” (255-256).

Sanctifying Physical Relationships


* Women who commit adultery are drowned in the Rhone (259).

* If a married man has sex with an unmarried woman were reprimanded and then thrown into prison for 9-12 days on bread and water. And probably put in the stockade.

* Unmarried fornicators were to be whipped (260).

* One Jacques Lenepveux, an early version of a pick-up artists, was executed because of his heinous way of preying upon young women (265).

The nature of sexual sin (and its punishment) can’t be abstracted from the city of Geneva.  Never mind adultery, fornication creates social confusion. Divorce was initially frowned upon, not simply for covenantal reasons, but because it could create clannish enmities and fractions within a small city like Geneva (263).

“Pierre Ameaux, for example, accused his wife Benoite of a kind of free love espoused among Anabaptists sects of the day” (264).

Calvin’s thesis: “Adultery weakens the key pillars of a godly society by insinuating itself into the bedroom, business relationships, and social arrangements and thus threatening to cause extensive disarray and confusion” (Summers 266).

Per divorce:  Beza isn’t saying that divorce should be allowed on the case of adultery.  He is saying that magistrates should execute adulterers (making it a moot point).  However, since magistrates fail in their duties, “Jesus concedes divorce for this exception because an adulterer has in essence merited death” (269).

Summers gives a fascinating account of the church life in Geneva after Calvin. We see what they considered punishments and how they were punished.




About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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