Scripture & Practice - Paper 5 


As the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin occurs on 10th July 2009, this is an opportune time to take cognisance of what, even though it may be incidental,  he has to say about building, buildings, built environments and builders.



Some references to EVERYDAY BUILDING

The concept of practical and lay vocation

Approaches to built environment ethical issues





David Cornick [2008] writes, ‘Reformed spirituality is about public space... about the “theatre” of God’s glory, the world. It is about building a city of the saints, creating an academy of vocations’.  

In an article on the significance of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, Cornick [2009] says further;  

Every believer, Calvin felt, had a vocation. The shoemaker, the banker and the teacher were chosen by God, just as much as the pastor or preacher -  “Artisans of every sort are ministers of God .... and have the same aim as ministers: namely the conservation of the human race.” With vocations comes responsibility, and that responsibility was worked out in society. Time, wealth and ability were to be used for the benefit of the community, thus honouring God. Human beings are truly the stewards of creation.

André Bieler [2005] has drawn together much of Calvin’s writing on economic and social matters. Although building and built environment are not one of Calvin’s themes as such, there is inevitably much about building and buildings to be discovered in his thought My purpose here, therefore, is to set out systematically what Bieler has quarried from Calvin. I do this under the following headings:

·         Some references to everyday building

·         The concept of practical and lay vocation

·         Approaches to built environment ethical issues

·         Wider issues of finance and aesthetics

In conclusion I will add some observations.


Some references to EVERYDAY BUILDING  

Calvin is not writing an architectural or civic history of Geneva, still less a travel guide, but rather setting out what it means to be a Godly city. In the course of doing so, he comments on the everyday building scene.

People in Calvin’s Geneva concerned with everyday building

The urban economy took shape. The towns, consisting of merchants and craftsmen, were islands of individualistic law…. the merchants came together into guilds to safeguard their activities, while the craftsmen united in corporations (craft- guilds) to regulate competition among themselves, guarantee the quality of their produce and establish a hierarchical social order between the different classes associated in working together.  (Bieler p124)

One of the statistics of the period gives us an idea of the relative importance of Geneva ’s trades. The following were, in descending order, the most numerous: lawyers, butchers, tailors, dressmakers, carpenters, drapers and cloth manufacturers, builders, apothecaries and makers of purses. (Bieler p131)

  …. some intellectuals felt no reluctance at turning to manual work to gain a living. Instances were that abbot of Trub who, having left his monastery to embrace the new faith, applied himself to making shingles.  (Bieler p117)

A key activity concerned the city fortifications

Geneva prepared for the worst. It began to re-erect fortifications, and … the magistrates, pastors, nobles and artisans worked feverishly at re-building them. (Bieler p120 )

Every effort was made in every way to provide refugees with remunerative work. Those who could not find work in their own trade were temporarily assigned to building fortifications. But so that each of them could take on this work freely, in line with their strength and inclinations (many refugees had reached Geneva in highly exhausted condition), the mode of remuneration was changed, replacing payment by the day with a salary matching the work achieved  (Bieler p137)

Good property management is essential

To [Calvin] the school constituted an essential part of effective ecclesiastical organisation, and he never ceased intervening with the Councils to improve teaching conditions and the state of school buildings. (Bieler p119 )

Both the material and spiritual life of believers are subject to the same divine order. They are so interdependent that the deacons’ social service is seen as an ecclesiastical ministry, just like the pastoral and teaching ministries. It was divided into two functions: managing the community’s property … and care of the sick. (Bieler p135 )  

It will be necessary to ensure with care that the general hospital is well maintained – both for the sick and the old who cannot work, as well as widows, orphans and other poor people. But let them be kept in separate accommodation apart from the others. (Bieler p136 )

The fact that the pastors were also continually presenting complaints about their pay was the result of real poverty in which they lived …. Calvin asked that “they should be able to live decently” and should not be compelled to live in a dwelling where there is no “proper accommodation for study”.  (Bieler p138)


The concept of practical and lay vocation

Calvin interprets everyday work of all types, including building, in terms of vocation.

The generic activity of work is affirmed

God, in creating man, called on him to work…. each person is not called on to do the same work. So individuals have to fulfil the work God gives them to do, and to be spurred on and find satisfaction in it. (Bieler p356)

Most work is properly seen as vocational

Most occupations are worthy of the vocation to which God calls human beings. The regard in which some of them were held in the time of the Reformation differs very greatly from that which prevails in our days. In a society of craftsmen and manual workers like that of the sixteenth century, a tendency could exist to discredit some professional occupations that did not seem directly productive….

For whoever helps human society and brings profit to it through their industry, whether in governing their family or administering public or private affairs, or advising or teaching others or by whatever means, simply cannot be counted among the idle.  (Bieler pp358-9)

Essential to the concept of vocation is service

… to understand God’s will we must first choose an occupation related to the service we have to give and not to the profit that is to be gained

….. For it is not enough when a man can say, Oh, I labour, I have my craft or I have such a trade. That is not enough. But we must see whether it is good and profitable for the common good, and whether his neighbours may fare the better by it.. For ought not this to be the end to which all occupations and positions tend, and to which they ought to refer themselves, namely that every man seek to employ himself in that which will not be useless…….. So then, since we must always have before our eyes in whatever calling we live, God must go before us, as if he called us to himself, and we follow the way he shows us by his Word, surely he will only approve of occupations which are profitable and serviceable to the whole community, and which reflect good also to all. (Bieler p357)

Technological work is as valuable as agricultural

As a result of man’s fundamental vocation – called first of all to know God and then given the task of associating himself in the work of God’s providence by taking control of the earth and the whole of creation – the Bible quite naturally displays agricultural work as humanity’s primary activity. But

… this fundamental vocation is not confined to farming work. Through their intelligence, their reflections and their technological activity God’s creatures are called to discovery, to knowledge of the whole universe and to its mastery.  (Bieler p385)

Professional training is important

To continue profiting from God’s good gifts, one must persevere in getting to know God’s Word. At least as much care and importance must be assigned to studying it as is usually devoted to professional training.

Those who devote themselves to the mechanical arts….. devote such effort and labour to learning and knowing them, and those who wish to be counted the most industrious, torture their minds night and day to understand something in the secular sciences … How much we must devote to the study of that heavenly wisdom that surpasses everything and penetrates to the divine mysteries he has been pleased to reveal through his holy Word.  (Bieler p192)

Vocation extends to authorities

As civil or political society is of divine origin, it is limited by God as to its role and purpose. The authorities are the servants of both God and the people.

The authorities may hence learn what their vocation is, for they are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, it is restricted to the well-being of their subjects. In short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power. (Bieler p249)


Approaches to built environment ethical issues

While some of the following references are specific to building, others are generic. All can be viewed in the context of building activity

Morality is fundamental  

.......morality concerns everything in life and embraces it all. For the Christian there is no longer a distinction between religious and secular life. The whole of life is the fulfilment of the work of God through Jesus Christ: “we must cease to live for ourselves, in order that we may devote all the actions of our life to his [Christ’s] service. Holiness is to be practised as long as our life lasts. (Bieler p187)

The state plays a critical role

The state must also see to it that trade takes place honestly between the members of society so that the exchange of goods, which is one of the prime conditions for natural social life in God’s eyes may be carried on without fraud or theft.

But let us note that if men try to enrich themselves by evil, illegitimate means this is like putting up boundary stones or property markers; it is a form of duplicity. What then is it a matter of doing? Just as weights and measures have to be placed under supervision, and likewise money – there will be no communication between people unless there is good faith in this; the same applies to boundary stones. If weights and measures are false commerce will no longer exist; people will be unable to buy or sell; people will be like wild beasts towards each other. If money is not trustworthy, everything will inevitably be theft and robbery. And there is a similar explanation for boundary stones. (Bieler p338)

The state has a legitimate role allotted to it by the Word of God. To be able to exist it needs material resources. Hence those subject to it are obliged to provide them. …..  Thus, taxation must first and foremost focus on the well-being of the people and not on fleecing them.

Princes, however, must remember that their estates are not so much private revenues, but rather to be applied to the public good of the whole people (this St Paul testifies, Romans 13:6), which they cannot, without injury to the public, squander or dilapidate; or rather, they must bear in mind that it is the very blood of the people, which it were the harshest inhumanity not to spare. (Bieler pp339-40)

There must be justice in the provision of housing

According to the Bible, hoarding is to be condemned, because no wealth could belong solely to one individual. Every benefit is really from the result of the collaboration of those who are linked together working on the same task, and more generally depends on the work of the whole society….. Hoarding dwellings when others are denied one is no less harmful to society than amassing lands and wealth.

As to the size and spaciousness of houses, the same remark which we already made about fields will apply; for [Isaiah] points out the ambition of those who are desirous to inhabit magnificent palaces or spacious houses. there is nothing reprehensible if someone who has a large family has a large house; but when people, swollen with ambition, make superfluous additions to their houses, only that they may live in greater luxury, and when one person alone occupies a building which might serve for the habitation of several, this undoubtedly is empty ambition, and ought justly to be blamed. Such persons act as if they were the only ones that enjoyed a roof, and others should only have the sky for a blanket, or must go somewhere else to find an abode.   (Bieler p298)

And similarly justice in the use of the fruits of all labour

Since wages are a sign of God’s grace, human beings cannot dispose of their neighbour’s wages at their pleasure, for these do not belong to them.

But our Lord takes stock and argues, saying “What?! Cannot the person who has corn in his barns give to those who have served him, and from whom he has extracted blood, sweat and tears? Must he not at least consider the corn he has in his barns?” The worker has ploughed and cultivated the ground, he is burdened with these things; must he not taste some of the sweat-fruits of his labour? Afterwards God comes to the winepress and the stables, as if to say that each individual should consider what he has, for in line with your resources you are obliged to recompense those who have worked for you and have been the means of such a blessing. (Bieler p368)

Honesty in all work is an obligation

God’s standards for honesty in work are not those of the world. In God’s sight, work is honest only if it is directed towards community service

Even if we abstain from all wrong-doing, we do not therefore satisfy God who has laid humankind under mutual obligation to each other, that they may seek to benefit, care for and succour one another. Wherefore he undoubtedly inculcates liberality and kindness, and the other duties whereby human society and community are maintained… (Bieler p363)

The avoidance of waste – in building as well as food – is an obligation

Calvin frequently denounces waste or, contrariwise, storing, monopolizing and speculation as so many displays of human sin and selfishness, corrupting the natural order of the economy, which in God’s plan was meant to guarantee to every creature the means to live in abundance.

There will be those who prefer to let the corn waste in a barn and be eaten by vermin, and rot, rather than to sell it when it is needed (for they seek only to starve the poor)… See, here we have wheat for harvesting; well, our Lord has bestowed his grace and his blessing widely, so that the poor can be fed. But it will be gathered into barns and kept locked up there, even till it mounts up to such an extent that people cry they are starving and cannot manage any longer. (Bieler p215)

Unemployment is to be avoided

And because work is a gift from God that no-one has the right to despise, unemployment is a scourge that no man or woman worthy of the name must tolerate. The Bible severely condemns those who, being financially able to forgive work to others, deprives them of it if they can do otherwise.

We know that for craftsmen and workers their income lies in their being able to earn a living; they do not have their monies always invested in meadows and fields. As God has placed their life in their own hands, ie in the work they do, if they are deprived of the necessary means, it is just as if their throats had been cut.  (Bieler p361)

Legal contracts have a rightful place

Thus, to ensure some sort of order – the legal order essential for life in society, that legal order whose standards only very remotely and inadequately express moral justice, that minimum order with which believers can never be satisfied – it is worthwhile to make use of contracts and have recourse where necessary to court arbitration  (Bieler p373)



Building is a specific and practical field in which more general ideas concerning money and aesthetics come into play.

Money and profit

Money… is a way of linking human beings, through which they can impart to each other the good things available to them….. Money is also the yield God brings to the work of human beings linked together in their labours. It is a common value granted to those who have worked together…. The quest for only the individual’s profit destroys God’s order and the whole of social existence. (Bieler pp400-1)

Lending money

Lending – without concern for profit – is one of the natural actions of a person who has grasped that he does not own what he possesses but is appointed by God as its trustee to help others….. He drew an important distinction between consumer lending on the one hand and lending to promote production on the other.  (Bieler pp401-2)

…..  if you shut money up in a box it will produce nothing. But can we deal with money differently from any other material good? Neither the earth nor merchandise produces anything by itself. But they do bring a benefit to those who rent the former or trade the second. Is not money the same as any other goods?

I get an income from letting out a house? Is this to make money grow? Does not money bear more fruit in goods than any possessions one might mention? Is it to be permissible to let out a piece of ground and unlawful to take some profit from money? What?! If one buys a field, will the money not produce more money? How do merchants add to their possessions?  (Bieler p405)

First of all, the rights of someone who grants funds must never prevail over every human being’s right to hold on to his work and the tools with which he produces… money gives no right over anyone’s private life.

the creditor should not ransack the house nor pick through the utensils in order to choose the pledges at his pleasure. For, if this option were given to the avaricious rich … they would ransack houses or otherwise  (Bieler p417)

High value of the arts

In many passages of his writings Calvin defined the arts as among the

very precious gifts of God that are inspired by his Holy Spirit. The creator of all things is also the one who makes human life more attractive through the spiritual and mental embellishments he lavishes on them, and through the works he allows them to achieve to his glory. … all art must be related to its source and its purpose: it is a gift of God given for “the common benefit of human society”.  (Bieler p391)

Art in religious buildings

While ….  Calvin gives a deep, theological significance to art, he does not accept that painting and sculpture can contribute to Christian worship…. Referring to Herod’s Temple, he wrote:

I call it a mongrel, because God never approves such splendour. For the enormous expense which Herod devoted to the building was more a profanation than adornment and enrichment of the true Temple … Satan used such impostures and crafts, so that he might draw away the minds of the godly from the beauty of the spiritual Temple .  (Bieler p393)

Goodness and beauty generally

Calvin offers some scriptural standards likely to guide Christian freedom and show the believer what judicious use he can make of the countless good things God makes available to human beings.   

Now then, if we consider for what end God created food, we shall find that he wanted to provide not only for our needs, but for our enjoyment and delight. Similarly, in clothing the end was, in addition to necessity, comeliness and decency. In herbs, fruit and trees, besides their various uses he gives to us, he wanted to please our sight by their beauty and give us yet another pleasure in their sweetness of smell……. Has the Lord adorned flowers with all the beauty which spontaneously presents itself to the eye, and the sweet odour which delights the sense of smell, and shall it be unlawful for us to enjoy that beauty and this odour? What? Has he not so distinguished colours as to make some more agreeable than others? Has he not given qualities to gold and silver, ivory and marble, thereby rendering them precious above other metals and stones? Finally, has he not given us many things which we must hold in esteem, although they are of no necessary use for us?  (Bieler p189)


Thus in the evolution of capitalism, Protestant occupational asceticism operated in two converging and extremely effective ways: its ethic on work and striving for effectiveness in practical activity was a stimulus to production and encouraged the acquisition of wealth. But its asceticism, which was opposed to every form of extravagance and useless pleasures, acted as a break on the consumption of the wealth acquired and led to the accumulation of capital….  

Also we note a particular style of Puritan comfort: the temperate tastefulness and practical simplicity characteristic of a good many Protestant interiors springs from eliminating every excessive convenience, conspicuous extravagance, useless finery, pretentious display or flashy baubles. (Bieler p434)



This quarrying exercise of Calvin via Bieler has revealed what we may look upon as a geological structure. Starting from ground level we encounter:

Level 1

In Calvin’s Geneva , as everywhere, building work, such as housing, schools, hospitals and defence structures, just happens and people are employed in it.

Level 2

Calvin affirms the value of work and views it in terms of vocation. Trades people, professionals and public authorities are alike called to their roles and tasks. This means they are not just earning a living but serving their society. Training is important.

Level 3

Both in everyday life and in the working out of the concept of vocation, ethical issues come to the fore. Some of them are generic such as honesty, the avoidance of bad practices such as waste and unemployment, while others are specific to the world of building and buildings such as justice in the allocation of housing.Legally enforceable contracts have a place alongside the more personal aspects of ethical behaviour.

Level 4

Even when viewed as vocation and with alertness to the constant questions of ethics, everyday building is basically pragmatic. In addition, at this deepest level, it is an application of values and principles relating to what should and should not be done with money and how art and aesthetics are viewed and valued.

As I have said neither Calvin nor Bieler sets out to address specifically building and built environment aspects, yet in the context of more general aims they in fact do. This gives us the confidence to say that at both the origin and heart of the Reformed ethos of economic and social life expressing religious understandings, or of church permeating society, our particular field of interest is authentically present.   This geology, it seems to me, is likely to be sufficiently strong to be a substantial component of a foundation for a vocational academy of building.



Cornick, David (2008) Letting God be God: The Reformed Tradition   London : Darton, Longman and Todd

Cornick, David (2009) Under the hand of God    Reform, April 2009 pp20-21

Bieler, Andre (trans 2005) Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought Geneva : World Alliance of Reformed Churches



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