In my previous blog on Weber’s critics, I wrote about Ernst Troeltsch’s support for and Hector Monteith Robertson’s critique of Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis. These responses were written within a few decades after Weber’s 1904–6 Protestant Ethic publications. Robert M. Mitchell published a much later criticism of Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis in his book Calvin’s and the Puritan’s View of the Protestant Ethic (University Press of America, Washington, DC, 1979). In his introduction, Mitchell seeks evidence within the writings of Calvin and English Puritans of 14 Weber propositions and then systematically dismantles Weber’s thesis in the subsequent chapters. This blog will highlight a few of Mitchell’s critiques.
Mitchell’s third examined proposition is: “Strictures for everyone to work as hard as possible in his calling.” (page 7) Mitchell believes that Calvin emphasized God’s calling to faith and minimized secular vocational callings. “When Calvin talks of one’s vocation he is usually referring to one’s divine ‘calling,’ not his secular occupation. The uses of vocatio in its double meaning of secular vocation and divine calling are very few.” (page 13) God’s call is focused on faith, not work.
Calvin certainly preached that God did not want humans to be lazy. But did Calvin believe that God called people “to work as hard as possible?” Mitchell believes that Calvin sought a middle path between work and sloth. He quotes Calvin’s Institutes:
“The Lord, who has given life itself will not suffer us to want what is necessary for its support.”
“This is not to say that men should not work, or be indolent, but there should be an intermediate place between careless laziness and extreme concern as to how one is to obtain a livelihood.” (Page 29) Calvin stressed that prosperous workers should proclaim that their material wealth came from God, but Calvin “did not look upon poverty as an indication of God’s disfavor. If men acquire possessions in gold and silver as well as other forms of wealth, in Calvin’s mind this entailed tremendous personal responsibility towards others. It is man’s duty to use his wealth for the good of his neighbors.” (page 27) “Men are not to become so preoccupied with providing for the necessities of life or for riches that they forget or have no time for God.” (page 29)
Weber believed that Calvin’s work theology was taken to extremes by the English Puritans, as exemplified by theologian and pastor Richard Baxter’s writings. Mitchell researched Baxter’s writings and derived different conclusions. Mitchell’s twelfth examined proposition is: “Indications that labor became an end in itself among the English Puritans.” (page 7) Baxter, like Calvin, supported productive work but for good end purposes. “Abundance of possessions is for the maintaining of one’s own estate and condition and for the good of others, for the relief of the poor, and the support of the Church of God and true religion. … The reason for working and even frugality is not to hoard money but to do good and help the poor.” (page 64)
Baxter preached against amassing wealth simply to be rich. “Richard Baxter argued that men are to use the material riches of the world but not abuse them. Men should not labor with a desire to be rich, yet they must labor to give to him that is in need. … Because of their wealth, individuals are to be fruitful in good works.” (pages 64-65)