The one thing Political Science profs (I earned a BA in Poli Sci, University of Nebraska, 1984) think they know about John Calvin (1509–64) is that his doctrine of predestination created grave doubts in the hearts and minds of his followers and they sought to relieve this doubt and demonstrate their election through hard work and the accumulation of capital.
To anyone who has ever read Calvin and/or his orthodox successors this unlikely account of Calvin and Calvinism will seem utterly bizarre. This is because neither Calvin nor his orthodox successors taught or practiced any such thing. What Poli Sci profs are repeating is known as the Weber Thesis, named for the great German sociologist, Max Weber (1864–1920). Weber was neither a Reformation scholar nor a theologian but he was a German who wrote with the sort of imperious authority that Americans find simultaneously attractive and intimidating. Calvin was, obviously, not in vogue in the 19th and 20th centuries and folk were predisposed to believe that he was the source of all manner of evil. Thus, if an authoritative-sounding German scholar claimed that Calvin and his lot said it, well they must have done.
This caricature was repeated recently in the pages of that learned journal, USA Today, in an article by Alia E. Dastagir, “If you keep putting work before health and happiness, you may be suffering from internalized capitalism” (June 17, 2021). In this piece, Anders Hayden, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia lays the blame for your low self-esteem at Calvin’s feet. Dastagir writes, “Hayden said while the term may be increasingly popular, the concept of internalized capitalism is not new. It appears to be a more novel way of describing the Calvinist work ethic, he said, a value that equates hard work and success with salvation.” Hayden says, “The Calvinists … had this incredible doubt of whether they were worthy and to prove that they were worthy, they had to be able to show that they could be continually industrious, and continually producing and frugal as well.”
So, according to Hayden (parroting Weber), the Calvinists were not Protestants at all. They did not teach salvation by grace alone, through faith and assurance of faith through trusting in Christ and his promises. Rather, because the Calvinists were so wracked with doubt about their election, they had to prove that they deserved to be chosen and they proved it by hard work and frugality.
What Calvin and the Calvinists Actually Said And Did
One should think that after all these years someone would have proved the Weber Thesis from the sources. I first encountered it in the early 80s, as an undergraduate and refuted it in a senior thesis for my political theory professor. Calvin’s Geneva was hardly a bastion of laissez-faire capitalism. As any social historian can tell you, Geneva regulated interest rates very strictly. His greatest opponents were the wealthy old-money (think country club) families in the city. He was more likely to think of poverty than wealth as an indicator of election. Weber’s thesis rested on assumptions and extrapolations from what he thought must be the case in view of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. A remarkable number of German scholars did this sort of thing in the 19th century. Orthodox Reformed theology, like medieval theology before it, seemed most distasteful to them and they were prepared to believe the worst about it.
Did Calvin and the Calvinists encourage believers to be industrious? Certainement. Like Luther and the rest of the magisterial Protestants, they taught that sinners are elected unconditionally from eternity, saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), and that as those who have received so much grace, they ought to seek to fulfill their vocation in the world to the glory of God and the welfare of their neighbor. As the Reformed number the Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment arguably addressed the economic life of the Christian most directly. On this the German Reformed, Calvinists, some of whom studied with Calvin, explained:
110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?
God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, ells, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also a covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts.
111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?
That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.
Not much here regarding the accumulation of wealth as proof of one’s election.
In the second Genevan Catechism (1545) Calvin himself had said much the same on the eighth commandment (M = teacher):
M. Does it only prohibit the thefts which are punished by human laws, or does it go farther?
Under the name of theft, it comprehends all kinds of wicked acts of defrauding and circumventing by which we hunt after other men?s goods. Here, therefore, we are forbidden either to seize upon our neighbour?s goods by violence, or lay hands upon them by trick and cunning, or get possession of them by any other indirect means whatever.
M. Is it enough to withhold your hand from the evil act, or is covetousness also here condemned?
We must ever return to this — that the law given, being spiritual, intends to check not only outward thefts, but all counsels and wishes which incommode others in any way; and especially covetousness itself, that we may not long to enrich ourselves at the expense of our brethren.
M. What then must be done to obey this commandment?
We must endeavour to let every man have his own in safety.
How are Christians to know that they are elect? According to Calvin, we know it from the gospel promises and especially in the sacraments. It was under his discussion of the sacraments where the word assurance appeared. The sacraments are the visible expressions of the gospel promises. They point us back to Christ and his promises. There our faith rests. Wealth, industry, and capital never entered into the discussion.
In the 1559 Institutes, the handbook of Reformed theology, piety, and practice that Calvin first published in 1536 and revised almost until his death, he expounded the 8th commandment in the same fashion as outlined in the 1545 catechism. The sum of the 8th commandment is, “we are forbidden to pant after the possessions of others, and consequently are commanded to strive faithfully to help every man to keep his own possessions” (2.8.45; Battles edition). Everything we have has been given to us by God. This is true for one’s neighbor as well. Calvin warned against open theft but also “malicious deceit” and fraud, even that done by “legal means.” In Institutes 2.8.46 he exhorted believers to “share the necessity of those whom we see pressed by the difficulty of affairs, assisting them in their need with our abundance.” We will find more of the same in his biblical commentaries (e.g., his commentary on the last four books of Moses) and in his New Testament commentaries.
The history is that nowhere in Europe were poor better treated than in Calvin’s Geneva. The ministers in the city were funded by taxes but the congregation took an active relief ministry for the refugees who flooded into Geneva from Italy, the British Isles, and elsewhere. They provided shelter and relief for widows and orphans. The relief of the poor in the congregations was regarded as a sacred obligation. Scholars have been publishing about the extensive diaconal ministry in Calvin’s Geneva for decades. See, e.g.,
- Hudson, Winthrop S. “The Weber Thesis Reexamined.” Church History 30, no. 1 (1961): 88–99.
- Innes, William C. Social Concern in Calvin’s Geneva. ed. Susan Cembalisty-Innes. Pittsburgh Theological Monographs, New Ser. 7. Allison Park, Pa.: Pickwick Publications, 1983.
- Jacob, Margaret C., and Matthew Kadane. “Missing, Now Found in the Eighteenth Century: Weber’s Protestant Capitalist.” The American Historical Review 108, no. 1 (2003): 20–49
- Kingdon, Robert M., Social Welfare in Calvin’s Geneva.” The American Historical Review 76, no. 1 (1971): 50–69.
- Kingdon, Robert M. Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva. Harvard Historical Studies, 118. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
- Manetsch, Scott M. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Monter, E. William. Calvin’s Geneva. New Dimensions in History: Historical Cities. New York: Wiley, 1967.
- McKee, Elsie Anne. John Calvin on the Diaconate and Liturgical Almsgiving. Travaux D’humanisme Et Renaissance, No. 197. Genève: Libr. Droz, 1984.
- Olson, Jeanine. Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse Française. Selinsgrove Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1989.
- Sunshine, Glenn S. “Geneva Meets Rome: The Development of the French Reformed Diaconate.” Sixteenth Century Journal 26 (1995).
Modern Calvin research has responded to the Weber thesis but USA Today reporters apparently are unable to contact them for comment.
John Calvin was not Mr Burns of The Simpsons. For Calvin, as for Luther, we obey the law out of gratitude not in order to obtain favor with God or even salvation. Christian obedience required Christian charity toward the poor, not avaricious capitalism but the Weber Thesis is just one of many caricatures of Calvin and the Calvinists that will not die not because they are true but because they fulfill a social function in certain groups by providing convenient bad guys to prop up lazy narratives.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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A special thanks to M. J. Denning for his editorial help with this essay.