Luther, Calvin & Weber

Max Weber argues that ideas are more significant in shaping society than are the economic conditions of life. This is opposed to the doctrines of classical Marxism.

Karl Marx believed that the material world produces the ways people think about their existence. Max Weber believed that the ways people think about their existence produces the material world. Marx was a materialist; Weber an idealist.

Weber’s philosophical idealism led him to search for a set of beliefs, or ideas, which produced a worldview consistent with the development of the social setting in which he was living.

Alongside this, Weber believed that he had observed a correlation between the emergence of modern capitalism and the predominance of Protestant (specifically Reformed, Calvinistic) belief. The very existence of this correlation has been substantially challenged – if not refuted – by numerous writers in the fields of history, economics and sociology. Nevertheless, and not without good reason, Weber’s treatise on this topic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, enjoys an elevated position as one of the foundational texts in the field of sociology.

Having conceived of a linkage between the capitalist order and the Protestant faith, Weber then began to search for ideas inherent to Calvinism which may account for this association.

Weber argued that two distinct ideas of Protestant faith could be proposed as catalyzing the changing world order. These were Martin Luther’s doctrine of Vocation, and John Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination.

Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation

In 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic Monk posted a document on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral which was to shake the foundations of the Catholic Church. The document, known as the Ninety-Five Theses, contained a scathing denunciation of the excesses and follies of the Catholic Ecclesiastical hierarchy. What is most significant about this event is that these theses had grown out of Luther’s careful personal reading of a newly produced Greek text of the New Testament: the work of the mighty Dutch scholar (and all-round hero) Desiderius Erasmus.

Anyone got any nails?
This Greek New Testament was ultimately to be the seed of the Reformation. Luther translated it into the vulgar German in 1522, and the impact was nothing short of revolutionary. New ideas and new ways of looking at the world began to emanate. Amongst these was the concept of Vocation (or Calling).

Vocation meant a calling for men and women to honour God through their everyday lives. This was in stark contrast to previous traditional, scholastic Catholic notions of asceticism in which the way to God was to shun and eschew all worldly contact and influence. Thus monks and nuns were seen as most holy. Luther’s argument that it was possible to live a holy, God-pleasing life in the everyday affairs of normal existence gave people the opportunity to imbue their vocation with a greater, even eternal depth of meaning.

But Weber would argue that still there is insufficient ideological impetus in Lutheran notion of Vocation to account for the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber felt that alongside the doctrine of Vocation a more powerful motivation was needed. Enter John Calvin.

Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination

John Calvin (1509-1564), a French Protestant pastor and theologian and giant of the Reformation, rebirthed the ancient Augustinian doctrine of Predestination. The doctrine is simply described by the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith:

Calvin in his thinking cap
“By the decree of God for the manifestation of his glory, some men and Angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others fore-ordained to everlasting death”
It is correct that the doctrine of Predestination runs through the entire Confession and cannot be mistaken. This therefore suggests that Weber is correct to identify it as a substantial guiding factor in the construction of a Reformed Calvinistic worldview.
Weber argued that Calvin’s version of this doctrine – espoused unswervingly by the Reformation churches – produced a great deal of anxiety amongst the populace as to who might have been predestined to everlasting life and who to everlasting death. He suggested that, in an attempt to assure oneself of being part of the ‘Elect’, Protestant Christians would seek for signs of God’s favour in their everyday vocation. This impelled them to work hard and, crucially for the birthing of the capitalist system, to accumulate and reinvest capital.

I believe there are significant weaknesses in Weber’s analysis of the roots of modern capitalism. Here, I’ll simply deal with those related to the two doctrines mentioned above.

First of all, the Lutheran concept of Vocation carries a much broader application than that ascribed to it by Weber. Weber applied the notion to the world of work, whilst Luther taught that the realm of work was only one element of what might be considered a legitimate calling. He included the calling to family life, church life and community life as being of equal significance and importance as that to economic life.  If the Protestant Ethic grew from Luther’s teaching, we might expect these other ‘callings’ to mollify the unfettered pursuit of gain and moderate the runaway Spirit of capitalism. An explanation is needed for why the supposed Protestant Ethic should stimulate a predisposition to pursue success in economic vocations, without the counterbalances of altruism, brotherly love and care for one’s neighbour, which are just as fundamental to the Protestant outlook and Luther's doctrine of Vocation.

Secondly, with regard to the critical doctrine of Predestination, Weber seems to fixate on one possible outworking: the idea of ‘salvation anxiety’. This appears to me to be drawn from his personal misgivings about the Protestant faith, and ignores the much more significant teachings on the necessary reliance on God, and the abandonment of good works as a means to salvation, which accompany the doctrine as taught by Calvin.

Indeed, any suggestion that one’s eternal salvation might be attested to by the accumulation of capital or by one’s vocational success is a minor point on the psychological landscape of Reformation Christianity: it is at most implied by the text of the Confession, and is certainly strongly counterpointed in the text of the Bible itself.

A Compelling Narrative

Weber offers a compelling narrative for the history of capitalism. His philosophical idealism provided him the basis for his methodology: one which is enormously helpful, and keeps us from putting the cart before the horse (as in Marxist thought). We also learn from Weber that we must consider a range of cultural factors when investigating the causes of the social order and the myriad ways in which these factors interrelate. He shows us how to avoid determinism and reductionism, when constructing a narrative.

That said, I think Weber – in this instance – got the story wrong.

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