Protestantism and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows Then and Now

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

One of the important ideas the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) emphasized in his interpretation of Christianity was the idea of “calling,” the task set by God for man to accomplish. According to Luther, fulfilling worldly duties for man was, in fact, fulfilling the will of God. The individual is asked to accept his station in life, for doing so is following the will of God. As Max Weber put it in his authoritative work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the individual is asked to strive to fulfill the will of God by restraining “his worldly activity within the limits imposed by his established station in life.”1

Luther’s idea of calling has been responsible for the development of intense belief in the divine will of God on the part of the individual Christian, which, in turn, has bred an attitude to accept things as they are, including the secular authority which bounds his worldly activities. After all, even the king, or the prince, can be regarded, to the extent that he is a Christian, as performing his “calling” for the benefit of all members of society.

The idea promulgated by Jean Calvin (1509-1564), known today as Calvinism, has also played an important role in the formulation of ideas behind capitalist development. A salient feature of Calvinism lies in its assertion of “predestination.” According to Calvin, “we call predestination that eternal decree of God, whereby He hath determined what the fate of every man shall be. For not to the same destiny are all created: for, to some is allotted eternal life; to others, eternal damnation. According as a man is made for one end or for the other, we call him predestined to life, or to death.”2 Salvation for man is thus regarded entirely as a matter of predetermined gift of God.

According to Calvin, the world exists only to glorify God. The Christian who has been predetermined to receive the grace of God through salvation can fulfill God’s command only if he performs his duty to the best of his abilities. God also wills that social relations be organized for the purpose of promoting His glorification: “The social activity of the Christian in the world is solely activity in majorem glorium Dei. This character is hence shared by labour in a calling which serves the mundane life of the community.”3 The accomplishment of worldly duty is thus seen as identical with the accomplishment of God’s command. The accomplishment of worldly duty is further supported by another Calvinistic theme that the universe is “designed by God to serve the utility of the human race.”4

An examination of Calvinism naturally raises the question of how one knows whether one is predestined to life, whether one is part of the elect. Max Weber notes two principles relevant in answering this question. First, it is one’s duty to consider oneself chosen. Second, once this duty is realized, it becomes incumbent on him to engage in his worldly activity to the best of his abilities. “In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves. Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it.”5

With its emphasis on the duty on the part of the individual Christian to engage in worldly activity with the conviction that the success in it leads to his salvation, it is easy to see how Calvinism came to embody the spirit of capitalism and laid the foundation for capitalist development. Material success thus came to be interpreted as a sign that an individual is among the elect. This emphasis on material success for a faithful Christian is also shared by Pietism, which is known for its express effort to “make the invisible Church of the elect visible on this earth.”6 There are two important beliefs of Pietism which bear direct bearing on the spirit of capitalism. First, the development of one’s own grace to a higher degree of certainty is, in itself, regarded as a sign of God’s grace. Second, God gives signs to the elect, success for their labor being a notable example of such signs. Material wealth can thus be regarded as a sign of God’s grace. And labor, being the activity willed by God, is now rewarded by material success.

One other individual whose is worth mentioning in our discussion of Protestantism and capitalism is John Wesley (1703-1791), the leader of Methodism. Of direct relevance to our discussion is Wesley’s assertion that the works accomplished as a result of worldly duties are not the cause, but rather the means of knowing one’s state of grace. Material accomplishment, just as in Pietism, is regarded in Methodism as a sign of one’s state of grace, a sign that one is among the elect.

The Protestant Reformation, needless to say, is a historical event that took place five centuries ago. To be sure, individuals back then needed these ideas of Protestantism if they were to maintain their Christian faith in the conduct of their worldly affairs of life. But are these ideas of Protestantism no longer needed in today’s world of global capitalism where people from a variety of faith traditions, including market fundamentalism and secular rationalism, are engaged in economic activities? To the extent that those who have amassed enormous material wealth, those who occupy the top 0.1 percent of the world’s population, attribute their success to their faith, we can infer that Protestantism, though it may not go by that name, still plays an important role in the world of global capitalism.

  1. Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Scribner and Sons, 1958, p. 105.
  2. Moeller, J.A., Symbolism, London: Dolman, 1943, p. 115.
  3. Weber, op.cit., p. 108.
  4. ibid., p. 109.
  5. ibid., p.115.
  6. ibid., p. 130.