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Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Weber Was WRONG

A little more than a century ago, Max Weber (1864-1920) gave shape to one of the last things that American elites “know” about the Calvinism that shaped their civilization.

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism held that anxiety over predestination led early Calvinists to stress works as the way to reassure themselves that they were part of the elect—i.e., those predestined from all eternity to salvation. The honesty, industry, support for the community, and other virtues fostered by the Reformed (the real name for “Calvinist”) went on to inadvertently create modern capitalism. Weber’s work also led lesser minds to believe that worldly wealth and success were the marks of the Reformed faith’s elect.

Interestingly enough, after a century of being attacked by Marxists, modern Calvinists are more than willing to accept Weber’s reading of their faith as the fountainhead of capitalism. Even Chinese raised as Marxists who have recently found themselves free of Marxism’s more extreme forms find the Weber thesis attractive.

Weber was trying very hard to stand Karl Marx on his head by finding an example of how economic phenomena were, in fact, expressions of spiritual phenomena. In this, he is probably to be commended for taking on his bullying, embittered, highly selective, and self-deceived countryman who hoped—as Lawrence Peter noted—to abolish hierarchies by positing twin hierarchies of ability and need with the former willingly serving the latter. But Weber was nonetheless terribly, terribly wrong; and it is necessary to point out exactly where he wrong.

First, he misread European economic history. Capitalism was already launched long before the likes of Jean Cauvin of Noyon or even Huldrych Zwingli were born. The Roman Catholic houses of Medici and Fugger succeeded mightily in banking despite their church’s dislike of usury; while the cities between northern Italy and the North Sea became veritable hives of non-agricultural economic activity during the 15th rather than the 16th century.

Second, Weber may have been more than a little influenced by Lutheran accounts of Lutheranism’s Reformed rival. For 17th century Lutheran theologians, who cast a long shadow over theological study in Germany, the charge that Calvinists stressed “works” was a way of saying that they had abandoned the doctrine of justification by faith—17th century Lutheranese for saying that the Calvinists had cloven hooves and tails. Perhaps a Lutheran commentator could enlighten us further.

Thirdly, Weber’s thesis has virtually no support at all in the classical works of Reformed divinity.

For the Reformed, God’s eternal decree to save a people from the fallen mass of humanity unfolded through something that they called the Covenant of Grace. In this, the persons of the Holy Trinity made an agreement that the Father would choose some, the Son would save them, and the Holy Spirit would apply the benefits of that salvation to them. The Reformed were much impressed by the sovereign power of God manifested in Old Testament prophecy, especially the Psalms and Isaiah; and with predestinarian teaching evident in the New Testament writings of John and Paul (as well as in the Synoptic Gospels and in First Peter).

Calvin and his Puritan disciples taught that Christ went to the cross and gave up his life for the sheep whom the Father gave him (cf. John 10: 15, 28-29). The Holy Spirit would ultimately quicken and work faith in Christ in those same persons, whether they were Old Testament saints who hoped in the coming of Messiah, contemporaries of Jesus and his apostles, or in future generations. In Calvinism, no less than in Lutheranism, the faith that justified man before God was confidence in the righteousness of Christ rather than in the righteousness of the believer, which would always be less than perfect due to the lingering effects of original sin.

The Reformed did indeed stress good works—but these were the fruit of a living faith and the Christian’s proper expression of gratitude towards the God who had saved him, and did not justify a person before God. Moreover, such an attitude was scarcely limited to the Calvinists. Luther also included a lengthy exposition of the Decalogue in his Shorter Catechism; while works of practical Christian living flowed effusively from the pens of divines belonging to all Christian denominations.

Thomas Watson, the 17th century English Puritan divine, did indeed enjoin the readers to work in their appropriate callings in his exposition of the Ten Commandments. Yet such work was not to prove themselves elect, but rather to maintain life. Watson and his hearers, after all, belonged to that long stretch of historical time that knew want intimately and plenty scarcely at all, in which the man who did not work did not eat. Towards the wealthy, he is more concerned that their wealth will lead them to forget their God, and has no word of congratulations to them. While he (or Calvin) would have had no objection to a poor believer bettering his condition by industry and thrift, he and his colleagues do not seem to have expected such a thing to happen very often. In short, poor elect people in common walks of life were the most common kind of elect people to be expected.

Perhaps one reason why Weber’s thesis has been plausible was that he tended to take the heirs of English dissent as quintessential Calvinists. Yet in doing this, Weber ignored how the Unitarians, Quakers, and Methodists lumped under the label “dissent” along with Congregationalists and Presbyterians could scarcely be seen as Calvinists. And in noting the prominence of British dissenters in business circles, Weber missed the more likely explanation that a tolerated minority with limited access to political power is more likely to find its niche in commerce. Joel Kotkin’s Tribes, which describes the important role played by Jews, Overseas Chinese, the Indian diaspora, and other communities in the economic development of the world, was probably closer to what Weber should have discovered.

So, after a century, the Weber thesis probably needs to be put to rest.


  1. Excellent essay, Kepha. I read Weber's book in an American history class in college. I thought his arguments were strained at best and certainly not true at all today since affluence is spread equally among the mainline denominations these days, including Roman Catholicism.

  2. Thanks, Charlie. I took my Ph.D. in political science, writing on the theological underpinnings of the rule of law ideal. Because Weber is so prominent in American social science, and because the chief thing that American social scientists think they "know" about Calvinism is what they learned from Weber, I felt constrained to put my doubts down in writing.