Weber, Election, Capitalism, And Betsy DeVos

Credit: Jack Gruber (USA Today)

Betsy DeVos, who has been nominated to become the next Secretary of Education, was on Capitol Hill yesterday for her confirmation hearing. As a matter of politics, however, this is all theater. The probabilities are that her nomination will be sent to the Senate floor, where she will be confirmed along partisan lines.

Her nomination has brought an unusual degree of interest in her religion. As noted before in this space, she has been identified as “Dutch Reformed” and a “Calvinist.” Zack Stanton’s recent Politico story on DeVos, in the 11th paragraph, turns to DeVos’ background in Dutch Calvinism. He compares West Michigan to Mormon Utah, substituting Calvinists for Mormons. In the 12th paragraph he turns to the Weber Thesis, i.e., the influential theory propounded by German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), which Robert Mitchell summarized in 1972 this way:

In chapter four of his famous work entitled “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism,” the origin of the spirit of modern capitalism is found in Calvinism–particularly as it is expressed in Anglo-American Puritanism. The doctrine of predestination, which was the most characteristic dogma of Calvinism, with its inhuman stress on election to salvation, placed man in a place of unprecedented inner loneliness before God. No one could help him. No priest or sacrament could bridge the gulf between God and man. The individual was forced to follow his path alone to be the destiny that had already been decreed for him from eternity. Only God was to be the individuals confidant, and the Calvinists relationship with his guard was carried on in a deep spiritual isolation.

The problem for the Calvinist was to know how a person could be certain that he was one of the elect…There are general two answers given to the above by the English Puritans, according to Weber. First, one should consider himself chosen and to battle all doubts as a temptation of the devil. Secondly, one should achieve self-confidence by intense worldly activity.1

Every reasonably well, liberal arts educated, undergraduate, however still hears university professors lecturing about the Weber thesis as if it is unquestioned truth. I certainly did when I was at university in the late 70s and early 80s but here we are in 2017 and the Weber thesis reappears in the Politico as the explanation of why Betsy DeVos is a critic of public education. There are so many falsehoods embedded in this brief, but accurate, summary of the Weber thesis that it is not easy to know where to begin.

Weber’s thesis relied upon and intensified the caricature of Calvin’s theology published by Alexander Schweizer in the 1850s, that Lutheranism was propelled by the “Zentraldogma” of justification sola fide and Reformed theology by the Central Dogma of predestination. Hence, Weber’s belief that predestination was Calvinism’s most unique doctrine. The Zentraldogma theory, of course, has been discredited for more than a century. B. B. Warfield rejected it at the turn of the 20th century and Richard Muller has been demolishing and refuting it since 1978. Even Karl Barth (1886–1968), who got so much wrong about Reformed theology, understood how grossly false the Central Dogma analysis was.

The Reformed, including Calvin and the orthodox English Protestants, were just as committed to justification sola fide (through faith alone) as Luther and the orthodox Lutherans. Luther himself was one of those dread predestinarians. That is why Erasmus criticized him in 1524 and Luther responded by defending both unconditional election and reprobation in On the Bound Will (De servo arbitrio) in 1525. By the 1570s orthodox Lutheranism moved away from Luther on reprobation but Luther was only following the late medieval neo-Augustinian tradition of Rimini, Bradwardine, and others. Before them, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) taught double predestination in his Summa Theologica and before him Gottschalk (9th century) and before them Augustine of Hippo (354–430) taught these doctrines.2 The doctrine of predestination was hardly unique to Calvin and the English Reformed.

Weber’s caricature relied on Schweizer’s. It has the Reformed Christian looking for marks of election, which Weber identified as asceticism and capitalist industry. Again, this is historical rubbish. The Calvinists of the 16th and 18th century were not more ascetic than the Lutherans. Compared to the 20th and 21st century, virtually everyone was an “ascetic.” Was Calvin a little uptight? Yes. Did Luther drink more beer and say more colorful things? Yes but to build an identity on personality differences is absurd. When the Reformed and Lutherans criticized each other, they did not attack each other over who was more or less ascetic. Calvin’s consistent teaching was that the confidence that one was elect was not to be sought abstractly by asking the question, “Am I elect?” It was to be found by asking the question, “Do I believe?” The syllogism was thus:

  1. The elect believe
  2. I believe
  3. Therefore I am elect

Calvin wrote at length on assurance and its problems. The Reformed continued to address this issue but in all the years I have been reading Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy (European and British) I have yet to see a single writer say anything like what Weber (and his legions of followers) attributed to them.3 The very idea of “self-confidence” was anathema to Calvin and his orthodox followers. Self-confidence would have been a mark of reprobation not a mark of true faith.

What is bizarre is that Weber must have known about the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). It was one of the most famous catechisms produced in the German language. It asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and answers:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

As Paul Althaus wrote in 1966, there is nothing in this part of the Heidelberg Catechism that was not already said by Lutheran theologians.4 Further, Weber’s account of the Reformed doctrine of the Word and sacraments was just appalling. Indeed, it is completely and utterly wrong. Calvin and the Reformed taught and confessed that the sacraments do exactly what Weber said that did not: connect the Christian pilgrim to the risen Christ. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the Calvinist sacrament not a 9% annual growth in earnings.

To paraphrase John Cleese’s character in the Monty Python “Parrot” sketch: Economic prosperity don’t enter into it. Yes, there was a Protestant work ethic, which we all learned from Martin Luther, that all Christians (and not just priests) have a vocation from God and that the Christian should seek to fulfill that vocation, whether sacred or secular. On the 8th commandment, the Calvinist Heidelberg Catechism, however, deeply influenced by Calvin, taught Reformed Christians that they ought to work diligently at their secular callings not for assurance of election but for the welfare of others. Christians work to “further my neighbor’s good” and to be able to “help the poor in their need.” Geneva, Calvin’s alleged theocracy was, in fact, the “hospital of Europe” as Monter and Kingdon and others observed decades ago. They had one of the most generous poverty relief programs in all of Christendom.5

Geneva was not a capitalist paradise. Yes, Christians were allowed in Geneva (contra medieval canon law) to charge interest when loaning money to other Christians but it was not laissez-faire capitalism. Interest rates were restricted to 5% and anything above that number was forbidden as usury. There is no straight line between Geneva and Victorian factories or nineteenth-century child labor.

Christians were also allowed to divorce in Geneva (contra canon law). Indeed, Calvin acted as legal counsel for his brother Antoine in his divorce proceedings against his wife (whom he caught in flagrante). Robert Kingdon characterized Calvin as a pioneer in the modern approach to divorce. Now abused women had a place of refuge from abusive husbands but that liberality and others does not fit the Weber-inspired narrative, so it is omitted.6

I have no idea whether Betsy DeVos will make a good Secretary of Education but I am confident that the sorts of things being written about Calvinism surrounding her nomination and confirmation are mostly rubbish. Analyze DeVos’ educational theories as you will (and please bring an equally intense scrutiny to bear upon the educational philosophies dominating teachers’ colleges and teachers’ unions) but it is long past time to bury Weber and his caricature of Calvinism and capitalism.

1. Robert Mitchell, “The Weber thesis, pro and con.” Fides Et Historia 4, no. 2 (1972): 56–57.
2. For more on this history see R. Scott Clark, “Election and Predestination: Sovereign Expressions of God,” in David Hall and Peter Lillback, ed. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 90–122.
3. See e.g., R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ. Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology, ed. David F. Wright (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005). Reprinted 2008 by Reformation Heritage Books in the Historical-Theological Studies series; Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999).
4. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1966).
5. See e.g., Jeanine Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare (New York: Susequehanna University Press, 1989).
6. Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1995).

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  1. It shows me one good thing in Betsy DeVos considerably into degree of her nomination to become the next Secretary of Education. Based on her religion background in this regard it has sited and confirmed to have characteristics of Calvinist. I wish to congratulate Betsy DeVos

  2. “The willingness to endure four years in a typical school of education often constitutes an effective negative intelligence test.” –John Silber

  3. BG- thanks for the Twitter stream. from this, I note that millions of DeVos dollars have gone to Willow Creek and Mars Hill. Not on the first string of the reformed world, I’d say!

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