Calvinism and Capitalism: Together Again?

Bruce Gordon

On John Calvin’s 500th birthday, July 10, 2009, BBC News’ web site ran a story on the interest of young Dutch businessmen and women in Calvinism, a faith once prevalent in their land.Why, the reader was encouraged to ponder, might this unfashionable form of Protestantism be making a comeback in the heart of secular, modern Western Europe where church attendance is almost invisible? An answer could be found in the headline:“Economic Crisis Boosts Dutch Calvinism.” 

Have we not been here before? Have we not always assumed some sort of relationship between Calvinism, with its busy transformation of the world, and the marketplace? But wait: is this relationship now being rediscovered, rewritten, intensified? Are people looking again to Calvinism and its ethics to fire the engines of the economy, rather than simply offer consolation and refuge?

The appearance of the article on Calvin’s birthday was a play on the seeming dissonance between modern Euro-sophistication and its supposedly abandoned religious past. What these young women 

What these young women and men claimed to have found in Calvinism were moral certainties, an ethical compass in a world on the brink of financial Armageddon. 

and men claimed to have found in Calvinism were moral certainties, an ethical compass in a world on the brink of financial Armageddon. Lives devoted to work and adorned by the promises of material reward were proving hollow. Where people thought they would find fulfilment, there was only anxiety.

No doubt, as the Dutch pastor interviewed for the article says, the attraction will prove passing, and should the economic ship be righted most will return to their previous habits of thought. Yet we are left with something very serious to consider in the assumptions of this story: the connection of Protestantism and the economy, and the role of Christianity in the secular world.

Age of Anxiety

The sense of dislocation felt by those Dutch citizens interviewed, an inability to make moral connections between their work and what might constitute a meaningful life, pervades our society and raises old questions in new forms. We struggle both to under- stand the nature of the financial and moral crisis that has come upon us and to find a vocabulary for faith in the midst of the storm. As people of faith, if we are to engage with the problems of the financial turmoil we need to understand more clearly the historical roots of the issues.

An informed discussion requires us to return to the changing world of late medieval/early modern commerce and religion. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Catholic and Protestant theologians were at the forefront in the attempt to resolve the moral dilemmas posed by the changing economies of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic world, and the Baltic. They notably agonized over how to square Christian doctrinal and legal positions with banking ethics and the prohibition of usury. Figures as diverse as Calvin and Cardinal Cajetan did not reject the emerging banking houses and their place in society, with their increasingly sophisticated forms of credit, but they strove to define what constituted ethical commerce.

Thinkers of that era grappled as well with an emotion that clearly preoccupies the young twenty- first century Dutch in the news story – anxiety. It lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and of Calvinism in particular, and formed the basis of Max Weber’s understanding of the “Protestant work ethic.” Weber shrewdly perceived that the radical separation of the spiritual and material in the Re- formed tradition, a “disenchantening” of the world, left humanity worried that there was no discernable path to the divine. He saw the anxiety engendered by this shattering realization as transformative.

Signs of Salvation

Weber primarily looked to seventeenth-century Pu- ritans, but the story begins earlier. Following Martin Luther, John Calvin’s conversion experience in the 1530s arose from a deep sense of spiritual anxiety. Calvin never questioned his own election, though he chose not to write about it, and when dealing with parishioners wracked by doubt he directed them to the love of Christ. Outward actions and events – he was emphatic – could never be taken as signs of salvation. Pastorally, however, this proved deeply troubling to the Reformed faith, and Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, made greater accommodation by allowing human deeds to be at least partial indicators of God’s love.

The question of certainty and its attendant pastoral issues remained in tension within the Reformed churches as they emerged in the Netherlands, England, and New England. The matter was not abstract, but hotly contested in terms of how the Bible was to be read, of relations of the church to temporal authority, and of the Christian in the secular world. The Reformation principle of sola scriptura had thrown open the question of how the Bible should be interpreted. Calvin and the Reformed leaders sought to ground interpretation once more within the church, but in so doing they faced fierce criticism that they were doing little more than restoring Ro- man authority. The Reformation made Christianity’s sacred text a battleground over contesting claims to authority – another source of the new anxiety.

With regard to the state, the issues were no less momentous. Although Calvin did not anticipate the separation of church and state, there can be little doubt that in Geneva during his lifetime significant developments began the process of secularization. Drawing on the Augustinian model of the separation of the two kingdoms, Calvin passionately believed

that the church should be free in questions of doc- trine and discipline. He fiercely resisted what he regarded as the unwarranted intrusion of the magistrates in the central affairs of the church.

In Geneva, however, he lost this battle. The Swiss model of churches ruled over by secular authorities prevailed, and Calvin was bitterly disappointed. Nevertheless, what emerged from his thinking is highly significant for modernity. Calvin increasingly conceived of a state where the rulers were limited in order to ensure protection of religion. They were expected to preserve the circumstances in which true religion could be practised. This was the resolution of the devastating Thirty Years’ War in 1648 when the Peace of Westphalia essentially removed religion from the political equation.

Building on medieval models, Protestantism of the sixteenth century named and sanctified work and commerce as part of the godly life. Calvin viewed economics as a way of linking the life of the community with the divine will. In many respects his perspective was entirely practical: as the leading author in Geneva he was responsible for the growth of its printing industry. He involved himself in the commercial life of the city, while his brother Antoine 

Calvin argued for moderation in business ethics. Lending and profit-making should be permitted only insofar as they were useful, never simply to build personal wealth. 

controlled his financial affairs. Calvin understood that loans and lending were an essential part of the market and of Geneva’s place as a trading center at the heart of Europe. He approved of the charging of interest and rejected older notions of usury on the condition that it not be abused. The poor, for instance, should not be forced to pay interest.

Theology of Work

Calvin argued for moderation in business ethics. Lending and profit-making should be permitted only insofar as they were useful, never simply to build personal wealth. All of this fell within his understanding of work and labor as vocations. In performing useful work a person served both God and humanity, and the rewards should be commensurate. His arguments were not new or radical in themselves, but they formed part of his larger theology that sought to understand the relationship of the human and divine. Work and service were for the honor of God, but once more the door was opened to a new, more secular view, that work might exist for its own sake.

This gathering tension in the relationship between the fruits of labor and vocation became explicit after Calvin’s death, during the golden age of the Dutch Republic. In his magisterial account, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Vintage, 1997), Simon Schama has related how the prosperous Calvinists of the Republic were deeply unsettled about their material success, seeing it less as a sign of election than as a form of reprobation. The enormous 

The good of the civil society is not an exclusively Christian claim, but it is a good to which Christians should dedicate themselves. 

wealth generated by the Republic’s trading empire financed the nation’s protection against enemies. At the same time, however, it brought material temptations that could destroy the godly society from within. The result was an unresolved anxiety that, in Schama’s interpretation, deeply troubled any sense that capitalism and Protestantism were easy companions.

Revisiting Weber

This returns us to Max Weber’s famous account Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/5), in which he interpreted the Calvinism of the seventeenth-century as an important source of modern economic practice. The broad outlines of the argument are familiar, though more often than not crudely caricatured. Weber was a subtle and perceptive student of history, theology, and economics. He never argued for a simple causal relationship between Protestantism and capitalism. Rather he identified the ways in which Calvinism contained a “spirit” or “ethic” that made possible the rise of capitalism and granted it legitimacy.

In brief, he wrote that the God of Calvinism is remote and inscrutable, leaving humans uncertain of their salvation. He focused his analysis on the doctrine of predestination and its effects. It is salvation anxiety that drives the desire to pursue with rigor a secular calling in the world. The pastoral literature of English Puritans revealed to him the depth of this uncertainty. The unknowable nature of God pushed Calvinists to seek signs of election in the world, yet, as the Dutch of the seventeenth century experienced, believers did not allow themselves to enjoy the fruits of acquisition. To ease the tension between their piety and their prosperity, wealth was instead to be reinvested in society, promoting an ascetic discipline in which commerce could be con- verted to the service of God. This “ethical” form of capitalism was seen to be consonant with Reformed teaching. As Weber himself fully understood, such conduct was not limited to Protestant lands alone, but it was here, in particular the Anglo-American world, that he cast his gaze.

Weber was clear that by the nineteenth century the religious dimensions of this asceticism had vanished in the increasingly secular and godless soot of the Industrial Revolution. His contemporary, the Dutch minister and politician Abraham Kuyper, responded to this secularization by attempting to cre- ate a Christian society that could embrace diversity. It was this vision, delivered in the Stone Lectures in Princeton in 1898, that spurred the growth of Neo-Calvinism in the United States, a movement currently enjoying widespread renewal. This is a movement that takes many forms, but its guiding principle holds to Kuyper’s view that the whole of creation is sacred (including secular institutions, higher education, science, etc) in which Christians are called to participate. It is an attempt to embrace diversity while preserving the hope of creating a Christian society.

Protestant Work Ethic?

The concept of the Protestant work ethic, which Weber understood to be part of a complex historical process, has been vulgarized into a descriptor for our modern culture of “workaholism.” Stripped now of any real religious content, it imagines a connection between the endless pursuit of goals, the denigration of meaningful leisure, the acquisition of material goods, and some vestige of Protestant con- science. The result, as we know, and as the young businesspeople in Amsterdam realize, is a culture of unhappiness, self-doubt, and fear of failure.

In speaking of doubt, anxiety, and fear we seem to have come full circle. Perhaps, but this is be- cause we have not been attentive to what Weber and others have argued. What the Dutch business- women and men are seeking represents the aspirations of many in our world of Lehman Brothers and subprime mortgages – a connection of ethics with commerce. This cannot be achieved by a return to some sixteenth-century polity or any other supposed golden age; we live in multicultural, pluralistic societies. Christians need to reconsider their relation- ship to the secular, questioning whether this word, so often demonized in our vocabulary, represents something to be embraced. 

A post-Christian society in which the churches have no monopoly on ethics or a dominant voice in the public space requires us to accept that there are places where we as Christians have no expertise. We must live and work in conversation with others. This includes government, economics, and social policy. The good of the civil society is not an exclusively Christian claim, but it is a good to which Christians should dedicate themselves.

As Christians we must respect the integrity of civil society as a place where a plurality of voices and views can and must coincide. That does not require us to sacrifice our beliefs in any form. It challenges 

This opens possibilities for navigating the relations between the moral and financial economies – the very issues debated in early-modern Europe and in contemporary Dutch cafes. 

us to find ways of speaking and acting that enable us to translate our beliefs into the public domain. In our own churches our tasks are different: we are called to bear witness to the teaching of Christ, to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and provide pastoral care.

To an extent we live as people divided, with commitments to church and society, where the ideal of the good is differently expressed. This is where the development of neo-Calvinism presents the Reformed tradition with exciting possibilities. A person doesn’t have to share all of its strictest doctrinal positions to see its value: It brings the Reformed back into conversation with Catholics and other Christians who take seriously the concept of a civil society – a world that recognizes religious boundaries but which also issues a clear invitation to participate in public life.

This opens possibilities for navigating the relations between the moral and financial economies – the very issues debated in early-modern Europe and in contemporary Dutch cafes. The moral vacuums exposed by recent financial disasters require us to act. We cannot afford to leave it to the banks. 

Bruce Gordon, a native of Canada, is Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at YDS. He received a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, where he taught from 1994 to 2008. He is the author of the acclaimed biography, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009). At Yale, he also holds a secondary appointment in the Department of History and teaches in the Renaissance Studies program. 

Draining a Dream

Unemployment among African Americans is at its highest rates in twenty-seven years, threatening generations of progress since the era of martin Luther King Jr.

A report called “State of the Dream 2010: Drained” was issued in February by the organization united for a fair Economy. It says the Great Recession’s damage – the joblessness and foreclosures – has especially punished ethnic minorities and intensified divisions of wealth. The report calls for targeted policies of economic recovery that reunite the nation “by a shared destiny and a shared prosperity.”
Among the findings:

  • blacks earn 62 cents for every dollar of white income; Latinos earn 68 cents for every dollar of white income.

  • Since 1968, the gap between white and black median family incomes has widened. median family income for whites was $69,937 in 2007; for African Americans, $40,143.

  • The poverty rate for children under eighteen rose to 19 percent in 2008, the highest level since 1997. more than one-third of African American children were living in poverty.

  • blacks and Latinos are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than whites.

  • In 2008, less than three out of every ten jobs in the u.S. met the criteria of “good job.” A good job is defined as one that pays at least $14.51 an hour and provides health insurance and a pen- sion plan.

    Policy recommendations include:

  • Identify communities with the highest unemployment rates and target job-creation initiatives there. This policy direction will lift up working- class white communities while narrowing the racial income gap.

  • Recommit to affirmative action policies.

  • Commit to a moratorium on foreclosures.

  • Strengthen financial regulation to end predatory


  • Tax capital gains and dividends the same as ordinary income. Preserve the estate tax.

  • Strengthen the federal income tax. Congress

    should examine the feasibility of a new top tax bracket of 50 percent for incomes over $5 million.