How the Calvinist Work Ethic Changed the World

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" by Max Weber. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What’s the Calvinist work ethic? Where did it come from, and how did it shape society?

According to Max Weber, John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination created the Calvinist work ethic. Weber contends that it was this value (which he commonly refers to as “the Protestant ethic”) that gave rise to capitalism as a world economy.

Keep reading to understand Weber’s argument.

The Calvinist Work Ethic

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber introduces Martin Luther’s key contributions to the Protestant ethic—challenging the Catholic church and introducing the notion of the calling. Then he turns to a discussion of John Calvin. Calvin was a French priest and theologian who carried the Reformation beyond Luther’s initial changes.

To understand how the Calvinist work ethic came about, we must look at the doctrine of predestination, which Calvin introduced. The teaching holds that humans are inherently sinful and deserve only death. God chose everyone’s fate at the beginning of time. Some lucky few would be “elect” (saved), while most of humanity was “reprobate” (damned). There was nothing you could do to change this. You couldn’t lose salvation, and you couldn’t earn it. Further, there was no way you could know your status. 

(Shortform note: Weber presents Calvin’s doctrine of predestination as profoundly grim. However, Calvin may not have seen it as such—to him, it was simply an important truth he’d reasoned out from reading the Bible. He also understood it as a way to humble the prideful, as well as a means of comforting the faithful. The idea was that since God has determined your life ahead of time, you can take comfort in faith and worry not about the trials of life. However, it’s clear that whatever nuance Calvin might’ve intended to convey, the doctrine was frightening and lost many of its finer points to popular thought.)

Calvin’s God, Weber says, was profoundly distant and inhuman. He was divinely, infinitely more than mere humans—cold and removed from worldly concerns. At the same time, Calvin taught that it was your absolute duty to have faith and glorify him, regardless of your status as elect or reprobate (which you couldn’t know, anyway). To think you could understand his will would be presumptuous and unfaithful. 

This view of God stood in sharp contrast to Luther’s, who taught that you could find salvation through faith and could earn or lose it. Weber argues that, by removing Luther’s more easygoing God, Calvin’s doctrine created a powerful motivation for people to live utterly devoted religious lives (though it differed from Catholicism in its focus on the secular rather than spiritual world).

(Shortform note: Calvin himself had a reputation for being cold and focused on the abstract, theological world rather than immediate human concerns. He took his faith very seriously, and he expected others to do the same. There’s some evidence that Calvin even condoned or contributed to the executions of a handful of religious figures who took issue with his teachings. In one letter, he wrote of one such theologian “Servetus offers to come hither… if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive…” Michael Servetus, an acquaintance of Calvin, was arrested when he next visited Calvin in Geneva, charged with heresy, and burned alive—though Calvin may have pressed for a lesser form of execution.)

How People Reacted to Predestination

You might imagine that Calvin’s doctrine worried people. In fact, Weber stresses that it caused people to feel profoundly anxious and alone. Since nobody knew their status, people couldn’t trust each other—nobody wanted to associate with the potentially damned. This intense inner isolation was the psychological backdrop of a Calvinist’s life.    

Despite Calvin’s teaching that you couldn’t know your status, people still wanted to know. Everyone, Weber asserts, would’ve asked: “Am I saved? Or am I damned? How can I know? Calvin was not much help. As an ordained man of God, he considered himself elect and said that you must only trust in God’s will for you. Lack of faith meant, most likely, that you were not chosen for salvation.

(Shortform note: Thomas Bayes, a statistician and Presbyterian minister, might have approached this dilemma with Bayes’ theorem. Given a range of probabilities from a 1% through to a 100% chance of salvation, where each probability is equally likely or unlikely (since there’s no way you can know), you end up with a coin toss: 50/50 chances of salvation. To some, this might seem decent—but believers wanted certainty rather than a chance. However, the insistence on a way of knowing actually goes against Calvinist doctrine, which says that it’s presumptuous to think you can understand the mind of God.)

In practice, Calvin’s answer didn’t do much to assuage people’s anxieties, so Calvinist pastors tried to give better answers. Weber says that they gave two main pieces of advice:

  • #1: You must regard yourself as elect—it’s your moral duty to have faith. Doubts come from the devil, and they mean that grace (God’s favor) isn’t active in your life. 
  • #2: You must work tirelessly in your calling. Building on Luther’s notion of the calling, Calvinist pastors taught that you could develop self-assurance in your status as elect by working faithfully in your calling. God gave you your calling, and to work in it tirelessly was to bring glory to him. This echoed Luther’s teaching that to honor your God-given calling was your highest moral duty.

Acting on this advice, the everyday Calvinist began to live his life in complete service to God’s will for him. Calvinist pastors taught that, when you work tirelessly in your calling and faithfully regard yourself as elect, God’s favor will manifest in your life as grace. Practically, grace looked like success in your calling and the complete cessation of doubt or worry about your status. According to Weber, everyone wanted to achieve this state. 

The Notion of Grace in Christianity

Grace is a central concept in both Protestantism and Catholicism; it broadly refers to a freely given gift from God that takes the form of divine favor and an experience of the divine nature. The question of the means by which an individual obtains grace is a primary schism between Protestantism and Catholicism:

Protestants generally believe that grace comes through faith alone, and it’s given by God alone. Upon receiving grace, you are “born again” into the true Christian faith.

Catholics hold that you receive grace over time through participation in the sacraments of the church, as well as through works and faith.

In Weber’s argument above, then, Calvinist Protestants were looking for a definitive moment upon which God gave them grace. The various sects disagreed about specifics—whether it was an internal, emotional experience of God entering your soul, or an outward sign such as social and financial success—but all looked for that “born again” moment. 

How Protestants Pursued the State of Grace

Weber explains that, since achieving grace meant you were (probably) saved, the most important thing in a Protestant’s life became proving their state of grace. They wanted to prove this to themselves and their community. To prove it to themselves was to end their existential anxiety; to prove it to the community was to secure high social standing. 

To achieve this, Weber argues that Protestants began to live ascetic, systematic lives in order to attain the state of grace (following the example of Catholic monks, except in the secular world). In plain language, the ideal Protestant had strict daily routines, habits, and standards of moral conduct. 

(Shortform note: Protestants distinguished between two concepts surrounding the idea of grace: “sanctification” and “justification.” Justification referred to God’s gift of grace when given to the elect, and it was what Protestants sought. Sanctification referred to the purified, holy behavior that an individual was thought to demonstrate once they were justified. Proving grace, then, meant experiencing justification and proving it to your church community through sanctified behavior—hence the rigorous, methodical lifestyles lived in utter devotion to God’s will.)

The ideal Protestant systematized two main areas of life: his internal relationship with God, and his external work in a calling.

  • Internally, the ideal Protestant constantly monitored his state of grace. While Weber doesn’t explain exactly how, he suggests that Protestants kept records of their inner religious lives and compared themselves to Bible ideals for saints and holy men.
  • Externally, the ideal Protestant conducted his life in a methodical, rigorous way. To maximize his chances of attaining grace, he built his whole life around his calling. He rose early, ate simply, and worked diligently through the day. He was scrupulous, honest, and hardworking to the extreme.

As a result of this intense, methodical focus on attaining the state of grace, Protestants had no room in their lives for anything superfluous. Idle talk, drinking and feasting, and other “instinctive” pleasures were all off-limits. Anything that took away from working in your calling to glorify God was a waste of time. Weber calls this way of life “innerworldly asceticism,” which refers to the Protestant’s way of working in the secular world but not for it (rather, they worked for God).

(Shortform note: Weber termed this process of systemizing life “rationalization.” By this, he meant that people began to use reason to find more efficient ways of conducting their practical affairs. Thus as above, rational thought had merged with religiosity to produce a thoroughly optimized, systematized way of life. Outside of The Protestant Ethic, Weber discusses rationalization in relation to bureaucracy, explaining that bureaucracy is the form of administration that arises when people systematize and optimize the functions of government.)

How the Calvinist Work Ethic Changed the World

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism summary:

  • How the Protestant way of life lead to modern capitalism
  • The history of the 16th-century Protestant reformation
  • Why the Protestants were so distinctly prosperous

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.