Economics 101 & Theology 101

The Complicated Legacy of Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic’

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This week marks the 151st birthday of Max Weber.

He was born on April 21, 1864, in the Prussian city of Erfurt. He would become a pioneer in sociology and shape many discussions on the relationship between economics and religion for decades after.

Weber’s best known work is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, originally published in 1904–05 and updated in 1920.

The book was first translated into English in 1930 and is still so influential in modern sociological discussions that it was the book chosen to represent that discipline in a recent volume, Twelve Great Books That Changed the University and Why Christians Should Care.

Weber essentially created the discipline of sociology as it now stands, which is no small feat, no matter what other concerns may come from his theories.

On the anniversary of Weber’s birth, we can celebrate his efforts in forming the discipline of sociology, but we should read his conclusions with discernment.

Understanding the Protestant Ethic

The basic aim of The Protestant Ethic was to explain the connection between the economic successes of Western Protestant Christians and the rise of capitalism.

Weber’s thesis is essentially that the Reformation enabled a movement toward rationalism that went hand in hand with industrialization and the displacement of “traditional economies.”

For Weber, the “traditional economy” is a romanticized existence where people only worked for what they needed and didn’t aspire to wealth. In the traditional economy, work is viewed as a necessary evil and not a good that can be used to glorify God.

In contrast, according to Weber, the capitalist system is interested only in the “acquisition of money, and more and more money.”

The rationalization that enabled the rise of this unattractive financial system was encouraged, according to Weber, by the doctrine of predestination and the desacralization of the material world.

Both of these developments are tied to Weber’s understanding of the rejection of the sacramental system by Protestants, which rejected “all magical means to the quest for salvation as superstition and sacrilege.”

According to Weber, “The Protestant Ethic” can therefore be summed up in one simple statement: “God helps those who help themselves.”

Creating Caricatures Christianity

Weber was a pioneer in his field. His book was and is widely read.

As a result of his significant influence, Weber’s portrait of Protestantism has created caricatures of early American Puritans.  It has also misrepresented the nature of the relationship of Christianity to a dehumanizing, individualistic version of capitalism.

It doesn’t help that Weber’s most prominent example of an American Calvinist is Benjamin Franklin, who was a self-professed Deist.

According to Weber, the Protestant Ethic involves a form of asceticism which forbids enjoyment of the fruit of labor. This has contributed to the caricature that Puritans, for example, always went around in black and white clothes as if they were in mourning. Leland Ryken contradicts this portrait, noting that Puritans were known for being fashionable and wearing colorful clothing.

Rather than being drab world-deniers, the Puritans were people who took their religion very seriously and sought to glorify God through all aspects of their lives.

This included a positive understanding of work and vocation, such that “every permissible calling is of absolutely equal validity before God,” as Weber noted in The Protestant Ethic.

What Weber Got Right…and Wrong

Weber’s understanding of the early Protestant view of vocation is accurate, though he draws incorrect implications from it.

For Weber, restless work in a vocational calling was necessary to obtain assurance of salvation. In Weber’s understanding, this is essentially a form of works-based salvation that only slightly shifts from earning salvation to demonstrating being saved. This shift is necessary because the doctrine of predestination precludes salvation by works.

On this point, it appears that Weber is applying an evolutionary concept of religion. In fact, for many of his theological insights, Weber seems to have been influenced by his friend Ernst Troeltsch, who saw Christianity as largely a social construct rather than a revealed religion.

This is theologically inaccurate and unfair to the Protestants who viewed themselves as living by the revealed Word of God. Doctrines were not developed to meet perceived needs, as Weber implies, but in response to the content of Scripture.

Ultimately, what Weber gets right is that many Protestants recognized the connection between diligence, wise stewardship, and financial success. Also, deep seated values, which are often religious values, are a driving force behind practical ethics.

The Complicated Legacy of ‘The Protestant Ethic’

Weber is correct in noticing a change in attitudes toward work and economics among Protestants.

The Reformation caused theologians to reevaluate and alter historic understandings of economics, including the practice of charging interest. Protestantism did not devalue religious vocations but elevated all vocations, anticipating all work being used for God’s glory.

Despite these things, Weber’s portrait of the connection between Protestant doctrine and capitalism is largely inaccurate, though it has been influential in shaping many current understandings. Hence the need to read Weber with discernment.

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  • Adam Kissel

    The assertion that in Weber’s account “the capitalist system is interested only in the ‘acquisition of money, and more and more money'” is out of context and gives an incorrect view of Weber that discolors the rest of the analysis here. Far from that “only”–even for Franklin–Weber writes:

    “Something more is involved here [for Franklin] than simply an embellishing of purely self-interested, egocentric maxims.
    “The complexity of this issue is above all apparent in the summum bonum of this ‘ethic’: namely, the acquisition of money, and more and more money, takes place here simultaneously with the strictest avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of it.” (Kalberg 2001, 17)

    • Spence Spencer

      Thanks for your thoughts Adam.

      I have read the entire volume several times and have reexamined the context as you suggest. However, I believe you are contending that a simplification for brevity is a misrepresentation.

      What you have provided as context tends to reinforce the assertion that the summum bonum was the acquisition of money for its sake and not for its benefits. That is exactly what my assertion is: that the central good in Weber’s understanding of capitalism was the acquisition of money for its own sake.

      This is in contrast to a more humane understanding of wealth building for the benefit of the common good. I do not believe Weber understood that to be the aim of the Protestant Ethic based on his presentation in the text itself.

      I suppose I could have included the remainder of the quote that it was money for its own sake and not money for the enjoyment of its benefits, however I thought that conveyed in providing the quote I did. This is particularly so since the “only” preceding the quote can be taken by a sympathetic reader to mean “to the exclusion of the other potential benefits of.”

      Perhaps I was wrong about how well the sentence conveys the fullness of what Weber intends, and I might elaborate on the quote in future presentations. However, my understanding is consistent with what Weber presents and what you have offered as a corrective, so if that has colored my analysis, that is so much to the good. Thank you for taking the time to participate in the discussion.

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