U.S. Intellectual History Blog

In defense of the Weber thesis

I’m no historian of the Christian Reformation and just barely squeeze in as an early modernist (for the most part my research covers the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century), but have developed over the years an avid interest in the history of Protestantism. I’m even thinking about antebellum religious history as my next research project—after I will hopefully publish a book on the cultural history of white men in early America. So, in that dubious capacity of someone who considers himself knowledgeable—though far from a specialist—about the Reformation and its legacy, I would like to defend what had originally gotten me interested in the Reformation: the Weber thesis.

In two recent conferences I attended there seemed to be some hostility towards Max Weber’s famous thesis about the affinity between Protestantism and capitalism by scholars of early Protestantism. I first noticed this at the recent S-USIH conference in the panel “Whither Puritanism? Reflections on the State of the Field.” In that panel the eminent scholar of early American Christianity, David Hall, seemed to challenge the notion that the Weber thesis retained much of its interpretive force. I perceived this “tightness” once more at the last AHA conference in Denver in a panel titled “Whither Reformation History: A Roundtable Discussion on the 500th Anniversary.” There, to my astonishment, none of the panelists even alluded to the heritage of predestination, let alone Weber. Once I forced the issue in the Q-and-A portion there was an odd reaction from the panelists, as well as the crowd, that seemed to regard Weber and predestination more broadly as a heavy-handed and outdated way to approach the history of the period.

Now, you might have noticed my over-reliance on the verb “seem” in the previous paragraph. Indeed, much of what I sensed was quite impressionist, with relatively little to go on aside from a few laconic and ambiguous remarks. To some degree then, this impression might be merely my own subjective misreading of a combination of content, tone, and body language. It could be that I’m imagining something that is not there, but it’s precisely these moments that academic blogging was designed for, at least in my mind. In any event, I welcome any push back or added insight in the comments section.

Let’s first walk through the “Weber thesis,” otherwise known as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (In the way I will here cast it I might differ from some detractors of the thesis, but hey it’s my blog post). Weber tried to understand the disjunction he perceived between Protestant cultures and Catholic cultures in the Western, Eurocentric world. Since he often took to “rationality” as his primary category of analysis concerning cultures or modes of thought, he framed his inquiry around an examination of the inner logic of both Protestantism and capitalism. How is it, he asked, that Germany, Great Britain, the U.S.A., and the Netherlands have embraced the rationale of capitalism so whole-heartedly, while Catholic countries seemed to have not fully internalized the logic and morality of capitalism? It is perhaps here also important to note that Weber was not a fan of capitalism, and though not a Marxist—indeed to some degree he wrote the thesis as a polemic against materialism—approached capitalism from a Marxist perspective.

His answer suggested that the true “wild card” in Protestantism, that might provide the key to the mystery, was the notion of Sola Gratia, or in its more radical and Calvinist iteration, predestination: the idea that only by the grace of god people can be saved from eternal damnation. For Weber this was the focal point for the “protestant ethic” that prepared the ground for the “spirit of capitalism.” Attempting a form of psychological analysis on a wide scale, Weber suggested that predestination instilled in its followers a poignant existential angst that could only be relieved by ascetic behavior and constant introspection, if at all. This, according to Weber, injected Protestantism with more gnawing apprehensions regarding the afterlife than their fellow Catholics.

A short version of his thesis is that in time, and with secularization, this would make for a capitalist rationality, that in good Marxist form he viewed as the pursuit of capital as an end unto itself, rather than for the sake of personal gain. A different way to put it is that Calvinists, in a leap of wishful thinking, tried to convince themselves that worldly affairs hinted at the decision made by god regarding their salvation. Thus, in their efforts to reassure themselves that they were chosen for salvation, they cultivated a proto-capitalist rationality of worldly success (which Weber associated with the idea of “vocation”). This, in turn, would underscore a moral view of the world that championed economic rationalization and the manipulation of capital to produce more capital.

Like many other longue durée histories, it is easy to criticize this thesis if one is interested in nitpicking. This after all is a “lumpers” history par excellence, and those interested in “problematizing” and “complicating” will find much to work with. I have heard several valid critiques of Weber that challenge the idea of “vocation” as singularly Protestant, for instance, which sounds convincing. There are many other critiques that I think don’t hold water though, such as that Calvinism was not as influential as Weber had it, or that Calvinists were not as anxious or ascetic as Weber made them out to be. Some have taken issue with the large role Weber assigned to Benjamin Franklin in his interpretation of the spirit of capitalism, but here too I tend to disagree.

Whether or not you find such criticism compelling, the most important observations Weber offered us still stand in my mind, and that especially concerns the kink wired into Protestantism we call Sola Gratia. The problem here, as I see it, lies in this dictum’s capacity to undermine one of the key psychological functions of any religion—or any ideology for that matter: the “end game,” or what scholars of religion call “eschatology.” Though as far as I know he never put it in such terms, Weber suggested that there is something counter-intuitive and highly volatile in the notion that one cannot influence one’s salvation. This stands out starkly when compared with Catholicism, which in its most crude form had allowed believers to purchase indulgences to secure a viable afterlife. It was of course not incidental that Martin Luther devised a reformed Christian theology to a large degree in response to this Catholic overreach.

Furthermore, if one puts the Reformation in the context of contemporary intellectual trends, there is much here to suggest that it was part and parcel of Humanism. Particularly the reification of the self and the elevation of the individual as the cornerstone of society are very much aligned with broader Humanist intellectual trends—including in Catholicism. But here again we stumble against that oddity in Protestant theology: Sola Gratia. Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura, the two other central tenets of Protestantism, the belief in faith alone and in the holy scriptures alone, are commensurate with broad Humanist intellectual trends, but not Sola Gratia. To me this suggests that there is no way to come to terms with the intellectual legacy of Protestantism without locating predestination front and center. And I know of no one who did that better and in more convincing fashion than Weber did in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Coming to think of it, what I take issue with most is that recent commentary I heard about early Protestantism does not afford much space if any at all to predestination. This might be some form of knee-jerk reflex scholars of the period have honed in response to Weber and others. In early colonial North American history, it has become fashionable, for example, to talk about the “Perry Miller problem” as a general, agreed-upon reference to what many think of as an overly rigid, or even simplistic, rendering of Puritan culture. I agree with many of these revisions in our understanding of New England culture, but I am not convinced that predestination was not the central religious predicament of the day for New Englanders. For that matter, I would also argue that doing away with predestination was the most important theological development of the religious awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Given what was at stake—either eternal damnation or salvation—how could it not?

One Thought on this Post

  1. Right! This avoidance seems tortured to me. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s recent survey (awesomely titled All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy) doesn’t mention Weber or double predestination at all. How in the world does a discipline “get over” a thesis like that?

Comments are closed.