Calvin & Culture, Reconsidered

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One of the greatest social scientists credits John Calvin for the rise of capitalism and, by extension, modern Western culture itself. That is quite an influence and quite a tribute to Calvin. Nevertheless, though there is some truth to the claim, the specific scholarship behind it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding, not only of Calvin but of the Reformation.

In 1904, the German scholar Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber was exploring the observation that industrialism began mainly in countries that were Protestant rather than Roman Catholic or non-Christian. In doing so, he made a name for himself as the father of modern social science.

Weber argued that Christianity used to be otherworldly. The higher spiritual ideal, according to monasticism, was found in poverty rather than wealth, a life of prayer rather than a life in the world. The Reformation, though, taught the doctrine of vocation, in which the Christian life was to be lived out in the world, and, specifically, in productive labor.

In effect, said Weber, this meant displacing the monastic-style discipline, self-denial, and ascetics into secular life. Calvinist Christians expressed their religious zeal by working hard, which, in turn, meant accumulating wealth. But they still considered luxurious displays and lavish spending to be worldly and thus morally problematic. So instead of spending all of their hard-earned wealth, the Calvinists tended to save it. Calvinist businessmen plowed their profits back into their businesses or, through banks or stock arrangements, invested their money in other businesses. Thus was invented “capital” and thus “capitalism” became possible.

Followers of Calvin, according to Weber, had a particular incentive to work hard and be successful. Because of Calvin’s doctrine of election, Weber argued that Christians could not be certain whether or not they were saved. Christians could find assurance by finding evidence of their salvation in the fruits of their faith, that is, in their good works and in God’s blessings. Factoring in Calvin’s doctrine of providence, this meant that success in business was considered a sign of salvation.

Weber envisioned seventeenth-century Calvinists busily working hard, making money, and accumulating wealth so as to prove to themselves, and, importantly, their neighbors, that they were going to heaven. 

Notice, however, what this “Weber Thesis” amounts to: Salvation turns out to be by works after all. Weber’s interpretation leaves out grace, Christ, and the gospel.

Followers of Calvin were not, as a whole, tormented with the worry that they might not be numbered with the elect. Rather, they treasured more than most other Christians the assurance of salvation. In fact, they understood the doctrine of election to ensure that assurance. If God has chosen me, my salvation is utterly secure.

Moreover, salvation is in Christ. Faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the conviction that “He died for me” is the foundation of the Christian life. As Calvin taught and as his followers knew, but that Weber missed, we are justified by faith, not by speculations about election or by working hard on the job.

This faith, in turn, is to be lived out in vocation. But this does not primarily mean ‘job,’ as in our modern definition; rather, it has more to do with the relationships into which God calls us. We have vocations in the church, the state, and the family. In all vocations, including the workplace, the Reformers emphasized that their purpose is not to practice spiritually edifying discipline for one’s own sake but to love and serve one’s neighbor. 

The Reformation did profoundly impact the culture but not for the reasons Weber gave. I do think the doctrine of vocation contributed to the “Protestant work ethic” and thus, eventually, to free-market economics. 

But also factor in the social mobility made possible by education, newly made possible for all social classes due to the Reformation teaching that all Christians should read the Bible. A peasant who learns how to read the Bible can also read just about anything, giving him access to information that empowers him to leave the farm and, possibly, to make his fortune.

That the “puritans” Weber speaks of tended to be morally-upright and self-denying was not because they felt under pressure to prove how Christian they were. Puritans were the people who most denied that their works had anything to do with their salvation. And yet, they became so notorious for their moral rectitude that the word puritan has become a byword. But isn’t this evidence for what Calvin taught, that good works are the natural outgrowth of faith?

Some of Weber’s followers today think that Calvin started the shift, so the story goes, from a concentration on the spiritual realm to a concentration on the material realm, from the other world to this world.

The mistake is continuing to think in terms of the old monastic dichotomies. The cultural influence of the Reformation was not to swing away from the spiritual estates to the secular arena. Rather, it was overcoming the separation. Not laws and works but faith in Christ was brought out of the cloister into everyday life. 

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