In my introductory blog on the Protestant Ethic, I discussed several economic terms, Christian Medieval work theology founded upon dualism (sacred over secular), and the pre-Reformation Church’s prescribed steps towards gaining salvation. This theology was challenged by Martin Luther (1483-1546) starting in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg University door. Luther was not initially seeking to start a new Christian denomination, subsequently named Protestant, but desired that Christian theology be founded upon Scripture. Regardless of Luther’s initial intent, the ecclesiastical disputes resulted in a schism that endures today.
Dr. Stephen Kalberg, Professor of Sociology at Boston University, translated from German to English Max Weber’s groundbreaking book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011). Max Weber (1864-1920) was a Professor of Economics at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. Weber published his seminal thesis in two parts, the first in 1904 and the second in 1905. In this second Protestant Ethic blog, I will explain some basic theological concepts that Weber examines in his writings.
Luther broke with the Catholic Church on sola fide: salvation comes only through faith in Christ. Believers did not need to perform works to achieve salvation. The cycle of prayer, upholding the commandments, confession of sins, and performing prescribed penance to obtain salvation after death ceased for Luther’s followers. He did believe in election, God’s choosing people to enjoy the benefits of salvation and to carry out God’s purposes in the world, but he did not emphasize it.
Luther was more interested in the concept of “calling: one’s task is given by God. … The concept of the calling is a product of the Reformation. … One aspect was unequivocally new: the fulfillment of duty in vocational callings became viewed as the highest expression that moral activity could assume. … Every permissible calling is of absolute equal validity before God.” (pages 99-101) He leveled the Christian dualism of sacred over secular. All callings that uplifted the community were equally valued by God.
John Calvin (1509-1564), a Protestant pastor and scholarly theologian, followed Luther and systemized this reformed theology into a publication titled Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin elaborated and emphasized the Protestant theology of predestination: God’s eternal decree by which all creatures are foreordained to eternal life or death. The question arose: who are elected by God for eternal life and who are elected by God for death? Calvin did not worry about this issue as those professing faith in Christ are the elect. Weber thesis is that election became a major issue in the subsequent years after Calvin’s publications. “Indeed, the next life absolutely dominated people’s religious thinking at that time. The moral awakening, which considerably influenced the practical life of believers, would not have been set in motion without the overarching power held by the next life over the believer.“ (page 115) No longer could a person feel certain of eternal life by just following the Church’s prescribed process.
Calvin also followed Luther’s concept of calling, but with different dogma:
“The world exists, and only exists, to serve the glorification of God. The predestined Christian exists, and only exists, in order to do his part to increase God’s glory in the world through the implementation of His commandments. Indeed, God wants the Christian to engage in community activity because He wants the social organization of life to be arranged according to His commandments, and thus according to the goal of serving His greater glory. … It follows that work in a calling is also affected by this aim, and hence this-worldly work stands in service to the community as a whole.” (page 122)
Luther preached faith and trust in God. Calvin taught the faithful to serve their community for the glory of God. “Work without rest in a vocational calling was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banishes religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved.” (page 125) Calvin certainly believed that only faith achieved salvation. But laypersons wanted proof, not theory. “Good works are indispensable as signs of election. They are technical means, but not ones that can be used to purchase salvation. Rather, good works serve to banish the anxiety surrounding the question of one’s salvation.” (page 127)
As the Protestant Reformation movement grew, Calvinism dominated certain regions of Western Europe. English Puritanism adhered to Calvin’s theology of vocational calling and made it orthodoxy. This will be discussed in my third blog on the Protestant Ethic.