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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Protestant Ethics: Cultural Influence or Cultural Carrier?

Written by: on February 21, 2014

The underlying theme in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that capitalism needed a new ethic.  The very nature of capitalism to the pre-modern Christian mind was irrational—“where a man exists for the sake of his own business, instead of the reserve”[i] – and “incomprehensible and mysterious, so unworthy and contemptible.”[ii] It was beyond their mindset to imagine “the purpose of his life work, to sink into the grave weighed down with a great material load of money and goods.”[iii] It is Weber’s task to explain this major shift in thinking that made space for Christian Europe to both embrace and promote capitalism.  Though he will argue that capitalism is not the creation of the Reformation, he does argue that religious teachings (especially Calvinistic theology of predestination) contributed to the “qualitative formation and quantitative expansion of the spirit” of capitalism.[iv]

Weber’s study is grand attempt at connecting the many dots of history, philosophy, economics and religion. Throughout this process, Weber constantly hedges his argument by suggesting other possibilities and influences for the wide dissemination of capitalism.  For instance, he states early on that “capitalistic business organizations are known to be considerably older than the Reformation,”[v] rationalist thinking existed prior to Calvin.  And yet, he finds that Calvin’s theological stance on predestination and its resulting practices as foundational for the acceptance and growth of capitalism. “One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born…from the spirit of Christian asceticism.”[vi]

In reality, we have before us the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? It seems that Weber is giving Protestants a great deal of credit for the state of our modern world. However, this dramatic shift in thinking and cultural practice that brought capitalism into wide acceptance would necessarily find contributions from many forces within culture—-the same forces that brought about the Reformation.  The influences of philosophy, economics and politics of pre-modern Europe that resulted in the Reformation were many of the same factors that lead to the spirit of capitalism.  Had Weber begun with the philosophical development during the time of Reformation, it could be argued that rationalization of life grew out of humanist thinking (especially seen in early scientific progress and ideas associated with the Renaissance).  From an economic perspective, as we saw in Polanyi, the introduction of markets and the ability to accumulate wealth brought tremendous changes in how one lived life and viewed material possessions and life.  From a religious perspective, monasticism was involved in the early on in ordering community of life and developing economic structures, while often accumulating great wealth (often to their demise).  While the practices of the Catholic Church provided an antithesis for the Reformed movements, often based on earlier protest movements that sought new forms of community and social practices.   

 Therefore, the question is raised, was the Protestant ethic that is central to Weber’s study a new development that resulted from this new theological understanding of Reformation?  Or was it a result of a vast array of cultural influences that were adopted overtime by the Reformed churches?   As Vincent J. Miller reminds us, “Christian communities simply do not function as complete cultures.  They inevitably borrow much of their worldview, structures and practices from other cultures.”[vii] If so, then this Protestant ethic must be seen as much an outgrowth of the Reformation context as it was a new theological development.  The argument could be made then that this new rationalized life out of sense of calling (seen as Calvin’s contribution) that laid the foundation for a wide acceptance of capitalism was the result of changes in philosophical teachings and social and economic changes at the time of the Reformation that found application within Reformed teaching. So, we are left to ask, who influenced whom…or what came first, theology or culture? 

The complexity of this kind of historical and philosophical study can never be answered.  It requires a lot of speculation, attributing cause and effect to scattered groups that leaves many dots not connected.  It is much too simplistic (though probably easier) to attribute such force and influence to one agent, especially when you are taking about such a large territory (all of Western Europe and North America) over a vast span of time (about five hundred years).  Though Weber provides an amazingly fascinating argument, in the end it leaves many questions.  But it does remind us once again that even our most cherished beliefs have their context, and that we must always be aware of how culture influences our thinking and our practices.  Weber also rightly suggests that ideas can become effective forces in history,[viii] so we as the Church should be concerned for what ideas we hold to and understand their potential consequences.

 John F. Woodward


[i] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (San Bernardino, CA: Renaissance Classics, 2012), 28.

[ii] Ibid., 30.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, 46.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 114.

[vii] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003), 25.

[viii] Ibid., 46.

About the Author

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John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

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