This essay is adapted from a paper given at Science, Religion, and Culture’s 2015 conference, Ways of Knowing. You can find other contributions on theological approaches to the crisis economy here, and in our upcoming spring issue.
The root of the term crisis refers to the notion of a point of decision or judgment. With this in mind, the claim that the democratic, capitalist West is built on a paradigm of perpetual crisis makes some sense—after all, both democracy and the market economy rely on the concept of the decision. It’s for this reason that Protestantism is often implicated in the origin story of capitalism, or of a society built on crisis. Magisterial Protestantism did argue quite strenuously that divine judgment or decision alone determines salvation, which is itself received through faith rather than works. Sola fide.
But something about the link between sola fide and capitalism just doesn’t sit right with me. To put it very simply, it seems prima facie strange to claim that a doctrine of justification by faith, a doctrine designed to critique works as a valid medium of divine judgment, would in fact prop up a system in which works and reward are the definitive medium of social judgment.
This uncertainty, along with an interest in the genealogy of the crisis economy, raises two questions. First, how and why did this doctrine yield such a counterintuitive, and very likely unintended, legacy? Why did “faith, not works,” become “works are divine signs of election”? And second, might it be the case that the details of these early arguments offer resources for recovering the critical force that has been lost in the rather radical claim that divine justification is by faith, not works? This is an increasingly pressing question—we live in a world in which all value is increasingly reduced to monetary value, and in which monetary value is attached to particular forms of work deemed meritorious by market forces. The early Protestant category of faith might—counterintuitively—help us recover an alternate logic of value alien to the logic of the market.
I begin, then, by re-considering the argument for the relationship between sola fide and the structure of the crisis economy. Katherine Little, who works on the Protestant reception of Piers Plowman, summarizes the situation helpfully:
In medieval writings, rural labor plays a central role in explaining religious beliefs and practices as a metaphor for spiritual works: everyone must work in his or her estate, and everyone must do works (penance, prayers, good deeds) to be saved. This is not to say that works dominated medieval discussions of doctrine, although they were popular material for sermons; only that when they do appear, works were commonly represented through rural labor.
If one unpacks this metaphor of rural labor within a spiritual framework, the act of plowing represents a tangible form of human activity within the larger context of divine grace. What’s key about plowing is that it is tangible. The diligent farmer can exert ordinary control over whether or not he plows, even while relying on God for everything else, such as the seed and the harvest. Plowing signifies a form of activity that is doable, that is actionable, and that does not rely on the internal state of the farmer.
This analogical relationship between spiritual work and rural labor pervaded the popular culture of late medieval Europe, and may help to clarify why Martin Luther’s sola fide effected a crisis of representation. In his polemic against indulgences, Luther forwarded the radical claim that works have no spiritual merit. Within the symbolic logic of the plowing analogy, this might imply that plowing, in actuality, has no real relation to the outcome of the harvest, if the harvest is linked to divine favor. From the human perspective, then, the entire harvest cycle relies fundamentally on an inscrutable, divine decision, with no necessary relation to ordinary activities or signs.
According to Little, this theological shift effected a symbolic shift. Instead of linking divine favor to labor, divine favor is now linked to the harvest, or to the fruit that grows naturally as a result of inscrutable divine election. Taken on its face, the analogy of good works as the natural fruit of election is an analogy that undermines the real significance of human labor, rendering the human subject entirely passive and at the mercy of the inscrutable divine decision, the evidence of which only appears in retrospect, after the fruit has grown.
But in all his talk of the need for confirmation, Calvin does not offer the faintest suggestion that earthly prosperity should function as the token of divine election.
Following this argument, the widely recognized connection between Protestantism and the crisis economy makes some sense. If the ordinary human person can no longer reliably connect the activity of labor to divine favor, the symbolism of work is rendered arbitrary. Quite literally arbitrary: it is subject to hidden arbitration over which the subject has no control. If the decision is hidden, and if works themselves are emptied of meaning, then a tangible sign of divine favor is visible in only one place: the fruit. Here, the thrust of Max Weber’s magnetic argument connecting Protestantism to capitalism comes into view: spiritual significance gradually becomes attached to the fruit of labor—or to signs of worldly success—as the tangible, retrospective sign of God’s elective favor. This lays the symbolic groundwork for monetary reward to signify divine favor.
When divine favor shifts from labor to fruit, this sets up an economy that exists in a perpetual crisis, in a perpetual state of decisions that could go either way. The significance of labor becomes something like Schrödinger’s cat, dead or alive according to divine election, with unclear worth on its own.
However. This connection relies on two theological claims entirely absent from the arguments of the major sixteenth-century Reformers: that divine judgments are entirely inscrutable, and that earthly blessings are natural signs of divine favor. John Calvin’s 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, calls for a reevaluation of the relationship of faith to works on two levels: first, Calvin argues that faith does in fact provide symbolic legibility for human works; and second, he connects the logic of faith to the formation of human judgments. This might allow us to ask: what does “faith, not works,” suggest about how a believer should judge the worthiness of other human beings?
Surprisingly—or perhaps predictably if we give him some credit—Calvin does anticipate the potential symbolic crisis connected to “salvation by faith, not works.”. He thus claims that faith must provide something tangible and dependable to embodied human beings—something in and through which human activity can be reliably (rather than arbitrarily) interpreted. In his words, faith needs “confirmation,” or something to “grasp.” If earthly works are not to be symbolically linked to divine favor, then some other kind of visible sign must fill this vacuum.
But in all his talk of the need for confirmation, Calvin does not offer the faintest suggestion that earthly prosperity should function as the token of divine election. In fact, if Calvin pinpoints any worldly sign of divine favor, it is the experience of calamities and trials including poverty (3.8.1).
The privileged signs of divine favor are, however, consistently linked to the implications of Christ’s incarnation. The incarnation means that divine favor hinges on a revealed and revised notion of basic human worth in the eyes of God. The incarnation, for Calvin, is what turns our perception of God’s curse into our perception of God’s favor to us collectively. And this connects in particular to the notion of labor by submitting the value of human works to those works performed by Christ on our behalf, or in Calvin’s words, the particular faith of Christ that invites participation in a legible set of actions and judgments.
Let me offer a few examples from the text of the Institutes. Calvin writes that “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith… For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of God’s judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. But the need to know this will better appear from the knowledge itself” (3.11.1, emphasis mine).
The work of the incarnate Christ performed on our behalf recasts the value of human work, bestowing the sign of divine favorability on human beings through faith. Elsewhere, Calvin writes that a person is known to be favorable to God by wearing the clothing of Christ, thus appearing as if a righteous person. If you think this sounds like a re-tread of Reformed forensic justification 101, you wouldn’t be wrong, but as is so often the case, everything becomes a bit more interesting when we hone in on the metaphors and their logic.
The giver in the passage above is not a wealthy person. It’s a migrant, an ordinary person seeking a better life who is directed to orient his work by the call of Christ and guided by the injustice of inequality.
Let’s start with how Calvin employs the very familiar “good works are fruits of the vine of faith” analogy. He invokes this analogy while discussing the Gospel parable of the vineyard workers. This is a story that presents a very strange business model: all the workers arrive at different times, yet receive the same wages at the end of the day.
When he comments on the parable, Calvin argues that human labor itself plays a positive function inasmuch as it trains human beings to receive fruit, something like a form of meditation. Calvin therefore strives to retain a symbolism of labor in which work itself attains an inherent spiritual value in the doing, but one that bypasses arguments about who deserves more or less as a result of specific kinds of work.
If work is therefore treated as a positive good in preparing a self to receive the fruition of faith, but if the works themselves are severed from any inherent claim to divine favor, the question of judgment remains. How does faith—through the alien logic of grace in which humans are judged not by works but under the clothing of Christ—tangibly direct or guide the formation of human judgments, especially those formed with respect to oneself and other people?
To address these questions means thinking with the positive symbolism that Calvin attaches to of faith. If sola fide teaches that God judges believers by faith through the medium of the work of Christ on our behalf, what does this suggest about how we ought to judge one another’s labor within this framework? Calvin addresses this in another passage, relying on another set of metaphors, this time the image of the believer as a migrant:
We ought, then, to imitate what people do who determine to migrate to another place, where they have chosen a lasting abode. They send before them all their resources and do not grieve over lacking them for a time, for they deem themselves the happier the more goods they have where they will be for a long time. But if we believe heaven is our country, it is better to transmit our possessions thither than to keep them here whereupon our sudden migration they would be lost to us. But how shall we transmit them? Surely, by providing for the needs of the poor; whatever is paid out to them, the Lord reckons as given to himself. From this comes that notable promise: ‘He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.’ Likewise, ‘He who sows bountifully shall reap bountifully.’ For what is devoted to our brothers out of the duty of love is deposited in the Lord’s hand. He, as he is a faithful custodian, will one day repay it with plentiful interest. Are our duties, then, of such importance in God’s sight that they are like riches hidden for us in his hand? And who would shrink from saying this, when Scripture so often and openly attests it? (3.18.6)
Calvin makes at least two important moves in this passage. First, the itinerant structure of faith, or how faith actually directs human action in the long term, is used in a positive way to flesh out a notion of good works outside of the logic of who deserves what. Instead, goodness is realized according to an alternate logic of displacement and the gift. Second, and as a result, that which guides a “good work” is enabled by vicarious logic at every step. The allocation of goods is initiated first, not by a believer’s own judgment (or the judgment of the market), but by her confidence in God’s promise. It is then guided by the location of God’s presence in the other person. The judgment is therefore executed by the believer herself according to a logic of faith and not according to works.
At first, this might seem like a banal call for charity. But recall two things: first, Christ’s labor invigorates human work as a good in itself, as something that is good for people, that prepares us for blessing. Second, the giver in the passage above is not a wealthy person. It’s a migrant, an ordinary person seeking a better life who is directed to orient his work by the call of Christ and guided by the injustice of inequality. If grace means that God judges a human being as if he or she were Christ, then the labor of faith involves judging another human being—especially those who attain a low value according to worldly works—not based on those works, but in faith, as if that other human being were, in Calvin’s words, the Lord.
In the positive symbolism Calvin attaches to faith, it is possible to locate an immanent critique of a market logic haunted by the structure of crisis, one in which monetary or productive value has come to determine who is worth attention, who deserves to eat, who deserves access to good education, who deserves access to work. Perhaps sola fide offers the seeds of a strangely Protestant alternative to this logic, a strange form of humanism, from none other than John Calvin himself. It’s a logic that at the very least decenters so-called “meritorious work” as the basis for the fundamental judgments we form about one another. The positive symbolism of “faith, not works” asks us to form judgments not based on what we’ve done or might deserve, but based on what a life is worth, as it were, to God.
Michelle Sanchez is Assistant Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School.
 Little, Katherine, “Protestantism and the Piers Plowman Tradition” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43:3, 2010, 501.
 All Calvin quotations are from Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. McNeill, trans. Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).
Image from Flickr via Alex Proimos