Church HistoryCultureReformedTheology & Spirituality

Max Weber and Assurance

The relationship between Western Christianity and capitalism has occupied observers of the West for a couple of centuries now. Without a doubt there is an inextricable link between the two; many would argue there is a codependence. Others emphatically attribute the power of the West to the power of moral foundations of Christianity, specifically Protestantism.1 Over the past five hundred years, the “[W]estern model of industrial production and mass consumption left all alternative models of economic organization floundering in its wake.”2 This phenomenon has prompted historians to find a distinctive, explanatory source for this dominance and unprecedented rapid growth, especially in our own time, when continued Western economic supremacy (and Christianity’s dominance, for that matter) seems less than certain.3  

As historian Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the ironic thing about Christianity is that it has been identified by some as the fatal solvent of the first fall of Western civilization (i.e. the fall of the Roman Empire), but is identified by others as the catalyst for the rise of the modern version of Western civilization, and indeed what Ferguson calls in Civilization: The West and the Rest the sixth “killer app” of the West that gave it advantages over the rest of the world.4 More specifically, he emphasizes the “peculiar ethic of hard work and thrift with which it came to be associated.”5  

Ferguson notes that following the Reformation there was an economic shift away from Catholic nations and toward Protestant ones, insinuating a connection between the forms of faith and economic prosperity.6 What made them different? Ferguson, like so many others, looks to Max Weber, the father of modern sociology and coiner of the phrase “the Protestant work ethic.” Weber was preoccupied with the relationship between economic and religious life, and his conclusions have taken on a life of their own in modern thought, often referenced and affirmed uncritically.

Weber in America

Weber believed that prior to the Reformation, spiritual life was separate from material affairs. The medieval church elevated the life of pious poverty. This disregard for wealth and elevation of beggary was essential to medieval Christianity within a feudalistic society where so few would ever experience even relative plenty. But in early twentieth-century America, Weber saw a new economic world where the displays of capitalism were rivaled only by displays of Protestant Christianity. Therein he discerned “a holy alliance between America’s material success and its vibrant religious life.”7 Hence, his seminal essay, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” was born, claiming that the economic success of the West was an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the Reformation, in which industry and hard work had replaced monasteries and penitent pilgrimages; renunciation of worldly goods had been exchanged for a baptized pursuit of wealth and status.   

Whereas the medieval piety had offered medieval Catholics some measure of confidence that they were pleasing to God, the “holy alliance,” observed by Weber, offered Protestant capitalists the same, but to a heightened degree. Whereas the idea of “assurance” as modern evangelicals now think of it was not really present in the theology of the medieval period (even amongst alleged Reformation precursors like Hus or Wycliffe), it was in modern Protestantism. Luther’s own story is a testament to the centrality of assurance in Protestant theology. Whether this nuance between the difference in the presence and operation of “assurance” in medieval and early modern Christianity was evident to Weber is not clear. What is clear is that he saw the capitalist “calling” to industry and generation of wealth as fundamentally religious in motivation and justification. Weber noted that, “[a] religious value was placed on ceaseless, constant, systematic labour in a secular calling as . . . the surest and most visible proof of . . . the genuineness of faith . . .”

“To attain… self-confidence [in one’s salvation as God’s elect] intense worldly activity is recommended,” wrote Weber.8 He saw, in the Puritan heritage of America, the germ of the modern manifestation then before him: a “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling” to labor as if unto God, yet not for the spoils of wealth unto licentious enjoyment. This was the “rational organization of capital and labour.”9

Later critics of Weber’s thesis, like R. H. Tawney, have cast doubt on the “underlying argument that the direction of causation ran from religious doctrine to economic behavior.”10 Ferguson rightly points out in Civilization that the first steps toward capitalism occurred before the Reformation.11 Carl Trueman has challenged the old (tired) thesis too, as well as Bradley Gregory’s and Charles Taylor’s suggestions that the Reformation singlehandedly demystified the world. It is clear that the Reformation cannot be labeled the sole cause of modern economic realities. Luther’s own parents were members of a rising entrepreneurial middle class in northern Europe, well before 1517. And the increasing urbanization of Germany was not a result of the Reformation, but rather made it possible.

Yet, Weber was pointing out an undeniable trend (even if for the wrong reasons)12 of economic growth in newly Protestant lands, following the Reformation. The underlying causes of the trend can be debated. Ferguson, contra Weber, sees the connection between economic prosperity and Protestantism in the Reformation, in the sixteenth century emphasis on literacy (and by extension, the individual reading of the Bible) and printing, which together “encouraged economic development (the accumulation of ‘human capital’).”13  This “encouragement” was then spread by missionaries throughout the world, producing “measurable long-term benefits to the societies they sought to educate.”14 Thus, Ferguson surmises that it would be better to speak of the Protestant “word ethic” than “work ethic.” This is a thesis I am keener to support. Yet, it is fascinating to note, as John Mickelthwait and Adrian Woolridge do in their book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World, that the connection between the rise of Christianity and economic growth in the East, as well as the simultaneous demise of Protestantism and employment (and work hours) in Europe (what Ferguson calls the “atheistic sloth ethic”). It is this simultaneous decline in Europe and the divergence between American and European economies that supports Weber’s theory more than any growth could.15 In short, there is something to be said about “the God factor,” even if these days it is more of a generic-religion factor, and certainly no longer Protestant or American exclusively .    

That religion affects economic outcomes is not disputed or in direct focus here. What is of interest, is the enduring (improper) attribution of Weber’s thesis to Protestant theology, despite some uncertainty within the thesis itself. Meaning, that over a hundred years after Weber put his conclusions to paper, people still absorb them thoughtlessly; falsely assuming that Weber’s evaluations are a true reflection of Protestant theology as such.; Namely, that said theology sees a strong work ethic and material gain as proof of salvation, a source of assurance, or as the raison d’être in the Christian life.  

No doubt many people spoken to and observed by Weber in his tour of middle America thought this. Given the persistence of prosperity gospel teaching in North and South America (as well as in Africa, and not always for the better),16 many people today hold the same opinion.17 But, as I argue here, this is not a reflection of the teachings that emerged from the magisterial Reformers, nor the post-Reformation (Reformed) Puritans, including those who traversed the Atlantic to the colonies. Therefore, Weber’s version of Protestant theology of assurance should not be attributed to these early Protestants. When examining Protestant theology itself—notwithstanding the fact that, empirically speaking, Protestants really do like to work—Weber’s thesis (though not pure myth) is found (theologically) wanting.

Luther and the Theology of the Cross

The implicit theological assumptions and conclusions presented by Weber are not based in the theology of the Reformers, or the Puritans for that matter, but rather, the former is a gross mutation of the latter. The notion that success ensured salvation, and that hard work yielded reward in both the here and the hereafter, has no place in the theology of Luther, Calvin, and their progeny. Luther did, of course, seemingly destroy the division between the sacred and the secular by baptizing, as it were, the mundane experiences (and work) of common life, teaching that all vocation is a calling from God to be done unto his glory (Calvin affirmed this in book 3, chapter 10 of his Institutes) (this is the only acceptable context for his idea of a priesthood of all believers, i.e. . that all men regardless of earthly status have access to God). But Luther did not make success a sign of salvific divine favor or predestination.

To do so would have been to drift into a materialist theological framework of self-glorification. Such a framework is in direct contradiction of Luther’s central theology, the theology of the cross.18 First expounded at the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther, drawing from 1 Corinthians, emphatically taught that appearances are deceptive.19 Human standards of power and success are not a reliable guide for spiritual well-being. But, within the logic of faith, gained through viewing reality through the lens of the cross, we encounter God’s conception of power and triumph. Weakness and suffering, exhibited most definitively in Christ on the cross, is how God brings about his proper work (salvation) in man. Since Christ was glorified in the bloody abomination of the cross, so too, does God ultimately glorify Christians through the afflictions of life. Thus, (sinful) human standards of success (the epitome of the theology of glory, as Luther defined it, over and against the theology of the cross) are incapable of telling us what is really going on; whether we are truly in a gracious state before God (i.e. whether we are saved through sovereign election), and therefore could never provide assurance. The only true guide for how God works and saves is not found in analogously reasoning from human tendencies up to God, but in divine revelation—namely, the Incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection.

Luther held to the medieval view that God is fundamentally incomprehensible.20 Human reason, therefore, is inept in ascertaining true knowledge of the holy; God must condescend to provide it (see WCF 1.1 and 7.1). What revelation shows us through the history of God’s dealings with his people and the Gospel narrative culminating in Christ’s suffering on the cross is that God achieves our ultimate good (Phil. 1:6) in a way contrary to what would make sense to man (e,g., pain, suffering, and weakness). The very idea of sovereign election itself runs counter to human notions of love. Man’s love responds to the intrinsically attractive. From God’s perspective there is nothing outside of himself that is intrinsically attractive (Rom. 3:23; Isa. 64:6). God’s love creates in man that which is attractive and acceptable to himself (Rom. 4:22; Eph. 2:8). Augustine acknowledged this reality in book ten of his Confessions: “Give what you command, and command what you will. You impose consistency on us.”

The conclusion then, that human standards of monetary prosperity could tell us anything at all about the status of man before God, finds no continuity with Luther (or Calvin). The theology of glory (in which man attributes a merit-based system to God’s economy) is antithetical to Luther’s theology of the cross. It is therefore antithetical to a properly Protestant theology. Luther, at Heidelberg, flipped the theology of the day on its head; whereas, what Weber anachronistically attributes to Protestant theology coincides with the exact brand of theology that Luther was combating.

The Puritans and the Covenant Community

The Puritans must be understood within their theological context of covenants (and their eschatology), which governed both spiritual and social relations. As Perry Miller said, “For the Puritan mind it was not possible to segregate a man’s spiritual life from his communal life.”21 And communal life was not an aggregation of individuals, but an organism, “functioning with definite purpose, with all parts subordinate to the whole.”22 The New England Puritans lived within well-regulated communities, where laissez-faire economics would have been foreign.23 Though the authority of government was created by the mutual compact of all its members, its job was not merely that of an umpire, but of directing and inspiring good conduct in all areas.24 Within this context, all work had a significant purpose far beyond amassing personal wealth and was done out of duty rather than the search for assurance.

Following Luther, with the divide between secular and sacred removed, Christian man was free to practice Christian love for his neighbor and to labor with the confidence that he was pleasing to God in any wholesome endeavor. The Puritan work ethic was one motivated by a strong conception of the coram deo. The omnipresence of God meant that every moment could be transformed into worship of the God who is near. Success in work then was not a sign of God’s predestinating love, but was rather a delightful consequence Christian freedom, and a sign of one’s dedication to the community (and Christian virtue). The ability to do any task unto the glory of God meant that one should work with all the more vigor towards the common good of the covenant community, which itself was to be organized and managed in congruence with the law written on the hearts of all men, and by divine revelation.

All of life, for the Puritans, was an expression of dependence on God and an expression of the joys of living within the kingdom of Christ. But the fruits of labor were decidedly not a sign of God’s special grace, especially any such success experienced outside of the covenant community. Rather, it was a sign of common grace for creation. Assurance of salvation could be drawn only from observation of the faithfulness of God in his dealings with his people, and the subjective, though observable, work of the Spirit in the life of the individual. To be sure, a lazy person was rebuked for their sin, a sin which was magnified in its potential collective effect on the whole community. But the poor farmer, who enjoyed relatively limited prosperity but labored nevertheless in all faithfulness and dependence on God, was thought to be an upstanding member of the covenant community.

It is an unfortunate, materialist simplification of Puritan belief that we find in Weber. It is clear from works like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor, that the Puritan mind was one that gave marked priority to the spiritual realities of life over material concerns. And they were acutely aware of the deceptive lusts of the human heart (see John Owen’s Mortification of Sin) as well as the presence of suffering in the Christian life.25  

In more ways than one, the Puritans lived in continuity with Luther’s theology of the cross, and rejected the theology of glory.

Conclusion

Both Luther’s theology of the cross and Puritan piety lived out in a communal context do not support the conclusions arrived at by Weber—wherein he made Protestant theology to connect assurance of salvation to hard work and success. But I suppose we cannot blame Weber too much. He was only reporting what he saw. To be sure, his observations were apt and prescient. It is the Protestants that Weber encountered in early twentieth century, freshly-industrialized America who maintain more fault. Let us endeavor to not perpetuate their errors.

 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.

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