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

When Your Professor Says Write Boring :)

Written by: on February 17, 2022

The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism by Max Weber makes the argument that John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination paved the way for the formulation of the protestant work ethic and in doing so birthed the ethos of capitalism.  Weber, a German sociologist, fancied himself as a historian of economies.  His book offered a study of the relationship between Protestant aesthetics and the emergence of the capitalism economy. Dr Clark’s dissertation,  Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship provides a strong critique to some of Weber’s claims, including “Weber’s Protestant ascetic is that he offers scant methodological explanation for it“[1], and Weber’s narrow application of aesthetic “other than his Protestant Ethic.”[2] The critique that peaked my interest is whether Weber’s understanding and use of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is sound.[3]  It seems as though Weber did some creative proof texting of Calvin’s institutes and in the end seems to misinterpret Calvin’s theology.

There are two key elements of Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination we must hold together, The Sovereignty of God and no free will.  Weber grounded his argument of “salvation anxiety” on Predestination.  Interestingly Luther’s concern of salvation was focused on the selling of indulgences, while Calvin was focused on idolatry.  Both Luther and Calvin’s foci played a part in understanding sin and salvation.  When one closely reads Calvin’s Institutes, one begins to see that for Calvin, the fall of creation in the Garden of Eden revealed our compulsion of idolatry.  He saw humans bound to the desire to make themselves like God; this was the heart of his unpacking of no free will. For Calvin, humans will is “in total bondage to sin, sinning willfully yet under necessity (not coercion), making him utterly dependent upon God’s irresistible grace to liberate him”.[4] Calvin believed that in God’s sovereignty, God held everything together even though so much was a mystery to humans.  He believed that when humans begin to think and act out of an entitled heart, to demand we deserve to know what God is thinking or planning or saving, in our petulant hearts, we have attempted to tear down God and put ourselves in God’s place. “The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet.”[5] For Calvin, it is God’s prerogative to save or not to save, how dare we presume to tell God how to handle salvation? To believe God is Sovereign is to trust God implicitly which in turn is made manifest in how one lives.  Weber does not seem to embrace Calvin’s important theological grounding of Predestination.  Weber also does not seem understand Calvin’s intentional placement of this doctrine after his discussion of Redemption in his Institutes; Derek Thomas indicates that in doing so Calvin seems to say, “that predestination is a doctrine best understood by believers after they come to know the redemptive work of Jesus Christ applied by the Holy Spirit.”[6]

Though Weber may have misinterpreted Calvin, Clark points out that Weber’s work pushes the conversation of religion and its influence on economic markets especially concerning the curating of the ethos of capitalism.[7] I concur with Clark that, “Ironically, ‘Weber may be right about a connection between the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism in spite of or even because of his possible misreading of theological doctrines.’”[8] The ever burgeoning Protestant work ethic from the time of the Reformation has had a staggering impact on social welfare. The Reformation’s turn towards personal responsibility swung the pendulum toward complacency in the church to care for the marginalized. This reality has fed the ethos of capitalism.

The “so what” for me as a leader in the church is to understand the psychology wrapped up in the identity of humans and their money.  I must find the courage to challenge the inherent problems of hyper-individuality when removed from the Sovereignty of God.  I must challenge the places that the Protestant work ethic and personal responsibility have mutated the humans willingness to see the Imago Dei in others.  I must challenge the hearts whose “love of money” has modulated to an assurance of salvation. And if indeed, Weber’s notion that it is the anxiety of salvation that is the driving culprit for capitalism, I must utilize Friedman’s call for self-differentiation to manage that anxiety (you knew I had to go there).

[1] Clark, Jason Paul. n.d. “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 287. Page 95

[2] Ibid. Page 97

[3] Ibid Page 93

[4] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/did-john-calvin-believe-in-free-will/

[5] John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 3.23.1

[6] Derek Thomas, “Bowing before the Majesty of God,” Preaching Like Calvin: Sermons from the 500th Anniversary Celebration, ed. David W. Hall (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2010), 252.

[7] Clark, Jason Paul. n.d. “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 287. Page 79

[8] Ibid. Page 94

About the Author


Nicole Richardson

PC(USA) pastor serving a church in Kansas City. In my spare time I teach yoga and scuba diving

8 responses to “When Your Professor Says Write Boring :)”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Nicole, yes, yes, I did know you would go there (to Friedman). Your grasp of Calvin’s theology and impact is so well informed in this post. You write about the need for courage to confront hyper-individuality when removed from the sovereignty of God. In general, do you believe pastor’s know what they should say about that, especially as it relates to people’s material life but pastors shrink back from making that challenge? Perhaps that was more of a personal application? Also, what role do you see the “molecule of more” playing in this discussion of wealth?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Roy, I do not believe that pastor’s know what to say about this due to the emotional anxiety they have (and church members have) regarding money. I believe there is an interesting enmeshment we as Christians have with our money.
      I believe the Molecule of More is a fascinating discussion partner around money/giving. I think it would be fruitful conversation to consider how dopamine, anxiety, money/generosity and faith play well with each or….or not

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Nicole: This is far from boring writing. Your synopsis of the readings this week, and the anticipated connection to Friedman, made a challenging topic understandable. I’m wondering from your perspective leading a congregation if and/or how some of the areas you desire to challenge people in relation to work and money produce any anxiety or conflict when much of the functioning of a church is fueled by the giving to it. Do you think perhaps these topics are not as widely addressed from the pulpit by some for fear of offending the exact people that financially support the church the most?

    • mm Nicole Richardson says:

      Kayli thank you.

      I believe there is a lot of anxiety over money…both on pastor and members part. This is due to a number a things including “My faith is private therefore so is my money” silo thinking that has pervaded pastoral leadership…the fear of talking about money has only increased the fear…to the point there is not a healthy relationship with it within the church. Then you have members who say, “they talk about money too much”….which I still think bubbles up because we don’t know how to talk about it….it is taboo just like sex.
      The subject of work has been mutated by the idolatry that Calvin was concerned with. I thought this information was interesting: https://uselessetymology.com/2019/11/07/the-origins-of-the-phrase-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps/
      I think this colloquial phrase has shaped the protestant ethic to the detriment of understanding the heart of work.

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Nice analysis of Calvin and Weber and Clark. Theology of predestination/human free will and how it relates to people’s view of work and macroeconomics is endlessly interesting to me. One’s view point of how much free will do I really have has the power to alter how one goes about forty years of their life’s work. I think Weber’s work provides much insight for American’s today and how faith and work are rightly related. Do you think Weber can provide some answers for today’s religious and economic realties?

  4. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great post. It would be fun to have a conversation (in person) about Calvinism and such. I always find it fascinating how our theological framework drives how we think of engage the world and others around us. In light of that, your faith tradition (and more importantly, your personal convictions), where do you see capitalism and/or work part (or not) of the call to Christ and discipleship process?

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Thank you Eric.

    I believe it is important for each individual to understand that work, rest, play etc are all part of our calling/naming. Just as Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circum- stances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:15-18) I think it is important to see work as prayer, as discipleship, as holy endeavor. When work becomes about proof of assurance, celebrating the self, done as though it is one’s own doing, done without a heart that recognizes it is done under Matthew 6:25-34, then work has indeed not be redeemed by and through Jesus in the heart.

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