Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Elusive Root Cause

Written by: on February 19, 2022

What influenced the development of the capitalistic way of life? This is the question Max Weber sought to address in The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (and Other Writings). Weber (1864-1920) wrote this treatise in 1905 (the book in which it is found also includes the back-and-forth written conversations he had with critiques of his work).[1] Credited with developing modern social science, he applied his professions of sociology and history to finding an answer to this question in the ethics of ascetic Protestantism—the strict self-discipline and work-as-vocation/calling praxes that arose in post-Reformation Protestant Europe. He postulates these practices arose out of anxiety over how one could know with certainty that one was saved—an anxiety he associated with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.

The Protestant Ethic is classified by the Library of Congress under their large Religion, Psychology, and Philosophy umbrella, and specifically under Christianity in Relation to Special Subjects. Weber gave his treatise an introduction and five chapters (the book of which it is a part also includes a very helpful notes section and suggestions for further reading in addition to the written exchange between Weber and several of his critics). In the first three chapters he addresses the problem he is trying to solve with great nuance, often spending more time describing what he is not going to address. In chapters four and five he develops his take on the connections between the doctrine of predestination, the emotional impact of this doctrine on everyday people and preachers, the resultant development of everyday life practices (especially the view on work and poverty), and the correlation this had with the development of what he calls the “Spirit” of capitalism.[2]

Weber’s thesis has generated a great deal of criticism and discussion over the years. Jason Paul Clark, in chapter three of his dissertation, Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,[3] gives a very helpful summary of these critiques. I found especially helpful his conversation with theological critics of Weber’s work. He notes that Weber misunderstood Calvin and his portrayal of the doctrine of predestination[4] (something that bothered me a great deal in reading Weber). But more importantly I appreciated how Clark utilized Weber’s thinking and misunderstanding (and its influence over the decades) to further his own research hypothesis.

Clark highlights Andre Biéler’s concept of the “Protestant occupational asceticism,” saying: “Biéler describes how this ethic stimulates production, whilst [sic] the ascetic stops consumption, such that the capitalist spirit is to produce much and consume little.”[5] Later, summarizing Guy Oakes, Clark says, “Weber was correct in suggesting a link between a Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, whilst being wrong about the doctrinal premise behind that ethic and its relationship to Calvinism as a theological doctrine.”[6]

Milan Zafirovski offers another important critique of Weber’s treatise.[7] He critiques Weber’s assumption of the uniqueness of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and thus its causal role (admitted by Weber as being one influence among others) in the development of the “spirit” of capitalism. His critique investigates the similarity and distinctions between Calvin’s formulation and that of Augustine, Aquinas, and Muhammad. He finds that Calvin’s formulation is not significantly different, and that concerns and anxieties over the security of one’s salvation existed in the ancient church and world, down through the ages into the Reformation period, Enlightenment, and the era of Industrialization and until today.[8] He raises the question of why then did the “spirit” of capitalism not arise in earlier periods to challenge the spirit of fatalism (or in Weber’s vernacular, the spirit of traditionalism) that was present in ancient times just as it was at the time of Calvin?

So, I am left wrestling with my blog title—the elusive root cause(s) of the “spirit” of capitalism. Clark’s hypothesis provides one helpful lens for better understanding the role of evangelicalism in this history. The movement from assurance to providence (sourced from Bebbington) and the connection that has with vocation/call and work (Weber’s contribution) is critical to keep in mind. As is the emphasis Clark places on how evangelical communities have provided identity for people, as well as ‘islands of social care’ amid a rapidly developing and changing capitalistic world.[9] But still, the sociological, political, and historical soup out of which the “spirit” of capitalism emerged remains convoluted and complex with no one root cause.

These readings and my conversation with all the authors have interacted closely with my organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training held this week. We were discussing the role of capitalism in perpetuating inequities of access to both opportunities and resources and the implications this has for our communal and individual discipleship and how we understand poverty and those impacted by poverty. Clark notes this challenge when he references Miroslav Volf’s book, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, saying: “Volf argues that the Reformers’ understanding of work as vocation can lead to injustice as it reinforces the status quo, which might then include forced, dangerous, and exploited labour [sic].”[10] The questions I am sitting with are: what is the alternative to the “spirit” of capitalism that is the global air we breathe (certainly other economic systems have their deficits as well), what practical discipleship steps (both communal and individual) can I/we take to move in a more sustainable direction (especially since my tradition’s understanding of work/vocation/call has contributed to the economic system that now governs the globe), and are we sick and tired enough of the “machine” (as Weber describes it) and its destructive consequences to forge something new or at least insist on some significant corrections/adaptations (and what might those be)?[11]

[1] Weber, Max, Peter Baehr, and Gordon C. Wells. 2002. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. New York: Penguin Books.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary. 132. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132

[4] Ibid., 81.

[5] Ibid., 82, referencing André Biéler, Edward Dommen, and James Greig, Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Council of Churches, 2006), 434-435.

[6] Ibid., 94, referencing Guy Oakes, “The Thing That Would Not Die: Notes on Refutation,” in Lehmann and Roth, eds., Protestant Ethic, 293.

[7] Milan Zafirovski, Calvinist Predestination and the Spirit of Capitalism: The Religious Argument of the Weber Thesis Reexamined, Human Studies (2018) 41:565–602 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-018-9481-9.

[8] Ibid., 570-572.

[9] Clark, 107-108.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Weber, 120-121.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

20 responses to “The Elusive Root Cause”

  1. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie: This is a wonderful synthesis of this weeks readings coupled with your specific ministry context. I appreciate you emphasizing the misinterpretations that Weber expressed towards the Calvin tradition as it helps me even continue to process the reading. Your conversations in the DEI training this week sound fascinating and I’d love to hear if there were any conclusions that the group made in terms of the impacts capitalism has had on your discipleship efforts.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for your encouraging feedback and question. Clark also discusses the ways in which Weber mischaracterizes Wesley’s words on vocation/work. So, it seems that Weber was caught in what is so easy for any of us to do–proof-texting to support an idea already held. I too am continuing to process this week’s reading…so much to mull over and consider.

      As to our DEI training and conclusions about capitalism’s impact on our discipleship–great question. We are still very much in process. One of the questions that we discussed in break-out groups was: in what ways are you benefitting from the current realities of the capitalist system (or the status quo as Michael names it in his above reply)? In my group of three, there was a colleague from Puerto Rico, a colleague from Korea (both now working with immigrant congregations in the USA), and me. We quickly realized no part of our lives are untouched by the capitalistic system–both in our home territories/countries and our places of work/residence. Even the ability to connect by zoom and the technology that makes that possible is built on unethical mining of rare earth minerals and the devastation that brings to the local communities where they are found (mostly underdeveloped nations). We realized as we talked that our mutual longing is to see some sort of ethical/moral parameters given to how capitalism is expressed in a USA context (and in how this system is experienced outside of the USA). Unfettered capitalism where the only goal is profit is devastating in multiple ways across the globe. So, awareness of the issues and complexities is the first step, and realizing that the system of capitalism impacts different individuals and communities in different ways–some benefit tremendously and others are harmed. The challenge is what concrete steps can then be taken for change/course correction. Hence my closing questions–at a practical level, what are alternatives? Every solution creates new challenges as well. What can we anticipate with any changes? And, for those of us who have disproportionally benefited from this system, are we willing to let go of some of what we have gained so that others might also have life…unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies comes to mind. If we have benefited continue to overly love our lives to the detriment of others, we will end up losing our lives. Much to mull over. Your thoughts? How have these conversations looked in your educational context?

      • Kayli Hillebrand says:

        So interesting on so many levels. I’m sure having different geographical contexts made the conversations that much richer.

        I haven’t encountered this as directly in my work within the higher education system. I can easily identify it in the questionable practices of encouraging students to take out large loans to pay for education which ultimately benefits those of us getting paid. In the work I do directly, we continue to value dignity and follow/train off of the Oath of Compassionate Service which focuses more on empowerment over the ‘doing for’ someone else. This conversation however is making me consider more how we need to examine some of our practices and consider how I can encourage change within the area I have influence over.

        • Elmarie Parker says:

          Hi Kayli. Thank you for your reply and for refreshing my attention on the Oath of Compassionate Service out of Toxic Charity. It’s been a while since I’ve read that, so I found it very helpful to hear how you are practically implementing those practices in your work with students. What ‘ahas’ have your students experienced as they engage this Oath?

          Thank you too for raising the issue of student loans and for the ways you are trying to challenge this in your setting…

          I’m looking forward to what we all continue to learn as we grapple with these immense issues and challenges.

          • Kayli Hillebrand says:

            It’s been wonderful to watch students when the lightbulb goes off on understanding the difference between enabling and empowering. For many, when they can experience how you can truly serve while still reinforcing and emphasizing dignity in someone else, they not only understand the long-term benefits of that type of relationship but begin to understand how to take more personal responsibility and ownership for what is happening in their own lives. I think it also has encouraged more critical thinking in challenging students on if what they are trying to do is causing unintentional and systemic harm. It’s been great to help them see that many times there are organizations, cities, and collaborative networks working together to address a problem, even if they can’t see the immediate needs being taken care of.

          • Elmarie Parker says:

            Thank you, Kayli, for sharing some of your students’ ‘ahas.’ So exciting and encouraging!

            I don’t think you’ll see this because the blog wouldn’t allow me to reply directly to you…I guess there’s a limit to how many times we can go back and forth :).

  2. Elmarie, I very much love Dr. Clark’s connection to Volf as well. Thank you for including it!

    Here’s the quote: ““Volf argues that the Reformers’ understanding of work as vocation can lead to injustice as it reinforces the status quo, which might then include forced, dangerous, and exploited labour.”

    The reinforcement of the “status quo” is certainly a function of institutions generally – be they the church or the state. I’m not sure these institutions can do anything else, and perhaps nor should they. But how do you reconcile and press forward as someone questioning the status quo, but also supported by it?

    Going deep! 🙂

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Michael. Thank you for your question. This is so much of what I’m wrestling with (and my colleagues as well). Almost every, if not every, aspect of my life is supported by the status quo. Within our organization, over the past two years we have been in a very deliberate conversation questioning how these larger status quo dynamics are present in our organization and what are we going to do about it. One of the practical things that has emerged is a very deliberate shift in who among us leads or is centered in a conversation. I’m grateful for how our organization has stretched in its hiring practices. The faces in our national offices have become much more diverse (and we are a 90% white denomination…but having more than token representation among our top leadership by people of color is generating an important shift in how we go about our work). What this has meant for me is that I have needed to be willing to relinquish some of my space at the table in order to create room for others to be at that table. As a result, our conversations and awarenesses are much richer and more complex. It also has meant that it takes a lot more time to move forward on practical work because different questions are being asked that reveal harmful assumptions that have been made in the past. So, working through those harms and the dynamics of reconciliation take time. I’ve learned a lot, that is for sure. It’s been uncomfortable at times and liberating at others. We still have a long way to go as an organization, and I still have a long way to go as an individual on this journey.

      Some of my reply to Kayli also addresses your question.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve shared with both of you.

      I’ll turn the question back to you! How do you reconcile and press forward as someone questioning the status quo, but also supported by it?

      • I love this Elmarie, thank you for your detailed response. I’m wrestling with this question daily as well. Certainly within my denomination I’ve had honest and hard conversations, but I don’t have active relationship or context with any pastors or leaders. I focus my efforts more with George Fox and Portland Seminary. I’ve sought to illuminate issues and assumptions in our application process that are inherently, ableist, middle class, and patriarchally rooted. For example, GFU fired all full time staff support for international students over the past few years. Of course, they still want us to recruit international students to our graduate programs. I’ve pushed for clearer communication around requirements for international students. Through this GFU has hired a part time staff person to handle this life (not great, but a start), and streamlined the process to avoid international students falling through the cracks. Part of my role is also not mislead international students fully inform them of cost, and the visa process. My role has privilege and a platform to effect change in how students are on-boarded to the seminary, and other graduate programs. I also feel free from anxiety about losing my role. I can only live congruent and in solidarity with those who are most likely to be excluded.

        • Elmarie Parker says:

          Hi Michael. Thank you for sharing how you are grappling with these issues in your work context. Keep on keeping on! It is a constant challenge to name our organization’s blindspots. For all our efforts in my organization to ‘decolonize’ our practices, we still have much to transform in how we work with grants–especially to global partners and to economically vulnerable communities in the USA. And, we face the challenge of how we have these conversations with global partners without falling into yet another era of coming across as ‘the experts.’ We shall see…

          On another note, a friend of mine from Lebanon is very interested in the DLPG program. We’re going to talk by WhatsApp in March. I’m hoping that conversation will encourage him to be in touch with you! So, please keep pressing GFU to cultivate a healthy and holistic communication process with international students! Thank you for your efforts in this direction!

  3. mm Eric Basye says:


    Great post. Very thoughtful and well communicated. It seems that you have really sought a deep understanding of this text; well done! I hear your questions at the end too and would love to hear where you land on all of them! In some regards, it sounds as though you have taken the position of capitalism as a negative thing. Is that accurate?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Eric. Thank you so very much for your comment and questions. I’m curious as well to see what I learn and where I land on those ending questions I posted :). Do those questions resonate with your journey? If so, I’d love to hear what you learn along the way as well.

      As to your last question–have I taken the position of capitalism being a negative thing? What I would say is that I’m taking a position of being critical of what I think are the unintended (I hope so!) negative impacts of capitalism. I think, from a positive perspective, that capitalism allows for the flourishing of the entrepreneurial/creative spirit at a much higher level than other economic systems. But the focus on profit being the highest (and only) goal of capitalism is what deeply troubles me. Obviously, many in business have other or additional guiding values. But when profit becomes the only determining value, there are so many catastrophic impacts for workers, local communities, the environment, geo-politics, etc. Weber comments on how capitalism has become its own driving machine. His metaphor resonates with me–this all feels so huge, and how Christ’s church may be called to engage and challenge the negative dynamics of Capitalism is something I am committed to discerning. I’d love to have some conversations with economists who are thoughtfully critical of capitalism. What are the alternatives they are envisioning (reforming capitalism and is that even possible? an alternative system? etc.).

      I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to dive more deeply into the connections between evangelicalism’s history and the development of the “spirit” of capitalism. I’m also very interested in how these intertwining histories have contributed to various forms of Empire in the West and how that is distinct from or similar to the rise of Empire in the East. And, what does this mean for Christian discipleship today…where and how are we in the Christian community (especially the white Christian community) part of reinforcing a culture of Empire as we interact with God’s activity in other parts of the globe and in our own backyards. I find all of this very thought-provoking and convicting.

      How do you evaluate the system of capitalism?

  4. mm Andy Hale says:


    Based on my reading of your blog, we had similar takeaways and challenges for the modern church.

    Well-meaning church people are often the perpetrators of inequitable practices within our political mechanisms and workplaces. Therefore, I am challenged to consider how this fits into the spiritual formation process.

    Outside of Bible books, such as Nehemiah, what are other passages that you have found to provide helpful insight into this conversation?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Andy. Thank you for your comments and question. I’m looking forward to further conversation!

      My NPO is built on the values and practices of justice, equity, reconciliation, and perseverance. The biblical passages I have been drawn to and shape my own spiritual formation in this conversation include: Isaiah 58, Isaiah 61 in interaction with Jesus’s telling of his call/purpose in Luke 4 (very interesting what Jesus highlights and what he leaves out from Isaiah 61 and what he words a bit differently), Kenneth Bailey’s exegesis of Luke 10:25-37, Psalm 99:1-9, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (particularly Antoinette Clark Wire’s analysis of this text). These are the texts I spent time with for my Topical Expertise Essay last Spring. I’m happy to share it with you if you would like. Let me know.

      I’m interested to hear more from you of how you are making use of Nehemiah in this formation conversation! Please share more with me.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Andy, another passage I’ve been reflecting on more recently is the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matt. 13:24-30). One of my take-aways from this is Jesus seems to recognize that God’s kingdom on earth will always have a mix of the good seed taking root and weeds trying to invade and choke out that good seed and its fruit. But, there will come a time when Jesus, as Lord of the harvest, will ultimately sort all of this out. My question is what doe this mean for our participation in God’s work in the here and now in the context of injustice of various kinds sourced in various ways across the ages. It would be easy to take a complacent posture. But I think, when Jesus’ teaching (and scripture as a whole) is fully taken into account, we (meaning the church universal) must actively press back against the influences of the enemy who plants weed seeds, while recognizing that if we pursue this with puritanical fervor, we end up destroying the good work God’s seeds are doing, for we become the enemy we seek to defeat (and who has already been defeated in Christ’s work). There’s an invitation here to live in the tension, but not in a passive way. This is what strikes me. Your thoughts?

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie I so appreciate your summary and integration.

    You and I both being Presbyterian, I would be interested to hear from you what you think Calvin would answer to your statement, “But still, the sociological, political, and historical soup out of which the “spirit” of capitalism emerged remains convoluted and complex with no one root cause”? My first thought would be something along the lines of the culprit being idolatry. Would Calvin find capitalism as concerning as consumerism?

  6. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hey Nicole. Thank you for these questions! I’m not sure what Calvin would think of my question. I’m pretty certain he would be distressed by how his articulation of predestination has been used, distorted, and abused over the centuries! I wonder if he had any inkling of what his and other Reformers teaching was setting in motion at an economic level?

    Your second question is thought-provoking. To what degree are capitalism and consumerism separate identities today? Consumerism drives the supply/demand dynamic of capitalism. But business owners and boards determine how profit is valued and utilized. I think Calvin’s teaching most address the consumerism angle and the owners/boards angle. If scripture’s plethora of warnings about the dangers of wealth and greed were to be heeded by those on both ends of the capitalistic system, then I think we’d see a positive difference in how capitalism is experienced by those most exploited in today’s world. That’s my current hypothesis…now to do the hard work of investigating that!

    How do you think Calvin would respond to the questions you raised?

    Here’s an interesting list of the most capitalistic countries in the world today…I wonder how they positively experience capitalism and how they contribute to the negative impacts of the same?

    Top 10 Countries with the Most Capitalist Economies – 2021 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom:
    Singapore (Freedom score: 89.7)
    New Zealand (83.9)
    Australia (82.4)
    Switzerland (81.9)
    Ireland (81.4)
    Taiwan (78.6)
    United Kingdom (78.4)
    Estonia (78.2)
    Canada (77.9)
    Denmark (77.8)

  7. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Elmarie, I greatly appreciate how you highlight the need for a thorough and objective theological understanding in identifying the root cause/s of capitalism. Given your engagement with the middle east in recent years, do you foresee the emergence of indigenous, Bible-based suggestions about a healthy approach to stewardship?

  8. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hi Henry. Thank you so very much for your question. I love the connection you’ve made between our readings and the spiritual practice of stewardship. In my experience, the vast majority of the indigenous protestant churches (especially those with whom I most closely relate) in the area of the Middle East I am most familiar with already practice a biblically-based financial stewardship and transparent accountability–this is something they take very seriously. For example, prior to the US invasion of Iraq, all of the local historical reformed-heritage congregations were self-supporting and equipped their membership for a wide variety of ministries. The invasion turned their world and their country’s world upside-down and inside-out, so the situation is a bit different now. But still, the spiritual practices are in place. I see limits to the practice of financial stewardship in one partner church (different country) where the governing body gives financial support to the local congregations. My assessment is that this has short-circuited local congregational financial stewardship practices. One area I would want to investigate further is how these local churches equip their members to understand their everyday vocations as God-given and God-glorifying.

    What are you finding on this subject in your context?

  9. mm Denise Johnson says:

    I appreciate your thorough analysis of this week’s texts. The depth of your questions prompts me to wonder how initiate change while maintaining the free choice gift. Or could the change come through personal transformation, while maintaining choice, hope, and empowerment?

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