The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The Religious Foundation of Worldly Asceticism


The Religious Foundation of Worldly Asceticism





In history there have been four principal forms of ascetic Protestantism (in the sense of word here used): (1) Calvinism in the form which it assumed in the main area of its influence in Western Europe, especially in the seventeenth century; (2) Pietism…

Pietism first split off from the Calvinistic movement in England, and especially in Holland. It remained loosely connected with orthodoxy, shading off from it by imperceptible gradations, until at the end of the seventeenth century it was absorbed into Lutheranism under Spener’s leadership.

We are interested rather in the influence of those psychological sanctions which, originating in religious belief and the practice of religion, gave a direction to practical conduct and held the individual to it.




Now Calvinism5 was the faith6 over which the great political and cultural struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were fought in the most highly developed countries, the Netherlands, England, and France. To it we shall hence turn first. At that time, and in general even to-day, the doctrine of predestination was considered its most characteristic dogma.

We cannot pass it by, and since to-day it can no longer be assumed as known to all educated men, we can best learn its content from the authoritative words of the Westminster Confession of 1647, which in this regard is simply repeated by both Independent and Baptist creeds.

“Though I may be sent to Hell for it, such a God will never command my respect”, was Milton’s well-known opinion of the doctrine.

Two paths leading to it were possible. The phenomenon of the religious sense of grace is combined, in the most active and passionate of those great worshippers which Christianity has produced again and again since Augustine, with the feeling of certainty that that grace is the sole product of an objective power, and not in the least to be attributed to personal worth.

With Calvin the decretum horribile is derived not, as with Luther, from religious experience, but from the logical necessity of his thought; therefore its importance increases with every increase in the logical consistency of that religious thought. The interest of it is solely in God, not in man; God does not exist for men, but men for the sake of God.13 All creation, including of course the fact, as it undoubtedly was for Calvin, that only a small proportion of men are chosen for eternal the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 59 grace, can have any meaning only as means to the glory and majesty of God. To apply earthly standards of justice to His sovereign decrees is meaningless and an insult to His Majesty,14 since He and He alone is free, i.e. is subject to no law. His decrees can only be understood by or even known to us in so far as it has been
His pleasure to reveal them. We can only hold to these fragments of eternal truth. Everything else, including the meaning of our individual destiny, is hidden in dark mystery which it would be both impossible to pierce and presumptuous to question.

To assume that human merit or guilt play a part in determining this destiny would be to think of God’s absolutely free decrees, which have been settled from eternity, as subject to change by human influence, an impossible contradiction.

The Father in heaven of the New Testament, so human and understanding, who rejoices over the repentance of a sinner as a woman over the lost piece of silver she has found, is gone. His place has been taken by a transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity.15 God’s grace is, since His decrees cannot change, as impossible for those to whom He has granted it to lose as it is unattainable for those to whom He has denied it.

This, the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments (which was in Lutheranism by no means developed to its final conclusions), was what formed the absolutely decisive difference from Catholicism.

There was not only no magical means of attaining the grace of God for those to whom God had decided to deny it, but no means whatever. Combined with the harsh doctrines of the absolute transcendentality of God and the corruption of everything the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 61 pertaining to the flesh, this inner isolation of the individual contains, on the one hand, the reason for the entirely negative attitude of Puritanism to all the sensuous and emotional elements in culture and in religion, because they are of no use toward salvation and promote sentimental illusions and idolatrous superstitions. Thus it provides a basis for a fundamental antagonism to sensuous culture of all kinds.

The means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin26 was done away with.

The same fear which drives the latter to every conceivable self-humiliation spurs the the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 63 former on to a restless and systematic struggle with life. Whence comes this difference?

In the first place it follows dogmatically.31 The world exists to serve the glorification of God and for that purpose alone. The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability.

Brotherly love, since it may only be practised for the glory of God33 and not in the service of the flesh,34 is expressed in the first place in the fulfilment of the daily tasks given by the lex naturæ and in the process this fulfilment assumes a peculiarly objective and impersonal character, that of service in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment.

This makes labour in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by Him. The complete
64 the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism elimination of the theodicy problem and of all those questions about the meaning of the world and of life, which have tortured others, was as self-evident to the Puritan as, for quite different reasons, to the Jew, and even in a certain sense to all the nonmystical types of Christian religion.

For us the decisive problem is: How was this doctrine borne36 in an age to which the after-life was not only more important, but in many ways also more certain, than all the interests of life in this world?

…in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means.47 It and it alone disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace. That worldly activity should be considered capable of this achievement, that it could, so to speak, be considered the most suitable means of counteracting feelings of religious anxiety, finds its explanation in the fundamental peculiarities of religious
feeling in the Reformed Church, which come most clearly to light in its differences from Lutheranism in the doctrine of justification by faith.

The religious believer can make himself sure of his state of grace either in that he feels himself to be the vessel of the Holy Spirit or the tool of the divine will. In the former case his religious life tends to mysticism and emotionalism, in the latter to ascetic action; Luther stood close to the former type, Calvinism belonged definitely to the latter. The Calvinist also wanted to be saved sola fide. But since Calvin viewed all pure feelings and emotions, no matter how exalted they might seem to be, with suspicion,51 faith had to be proved by its objective results in order to provide a
firm foundation for the certitudo salutis. It must be a fides efficax,52 the call to salvation an effectual calling (expression used in Savoy Declaration).

If we now ask further, by what fruits the Calvinist thought himself able to identify true faith? the answer is: by a type of Christian conduct which served to increase the glory of God.

Thus, however useless good works might be as a means of attaining salvation, for even the elect remain beings of the flesh, and everything they do falls infinitely short of divine standards, nevertheless, they are indispensable as a sign of election.60 They are the technical means, not of purchasing salvation, but of getting rid of the fear of damnation. In this sense they are occasionally referred to as directly necessary for salvation61 or the possessio salutis is made conditional on them.

In practice this means that God helps those who help themselves. 63 Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates64 his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 69 damned. This brings us to a very important point in our investigation.

The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system.

The moral conduct of the average man was thus deprived of its planless and unsystematic character and subjected to a consistent method for conduct as a whole.

For only by a fundamental change in the whole meaning of life at every moment and in every action73 could the effects of grace the religious foundations of worldly asceticism 71 transforming a man from the status naturæ to the status gratiæ be proved.

It had developed a systematic method of rational conduct with the purpose of overcoming the status naturæ, to free man from the power of irrational impulses and his dependence on the world and on nature.

The Puritan, like every rational type of asceticism, tried to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives, especially those which it taught him itself, against the emotions. In this formal psychological sense of the term it tried to make him into a personality. Contrary to many popular ideas, the end of this asceticism was to be able to lead an alert, intelligent life: the most urgent task the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment, the most important means was to bring order into the conduct of its adherents.

Thus asceticism, the more strongly it gripped an individual, simply served to drive him farther away from everyday life, because the holiest task was definitely to surpass all worldly morality.

Sebastian Franck struck the central characteristic of this type of religion when he saw the significance of the Reformation in the fact that now every Christian had to be a monk all his life.

But in the course of its development Calvinism added something positive to this, the idea of the necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity.

On the other hand, the old mediæval (even ancient) idea of God’s book-keeping is carried by Bunyan to the characteristically tasteless extreme of comparing the relation of a sinner to his God with that of customer and shopkeeper. One who has once got into debt may well, by the product of all his virtuous acts, succeed in paying off the accumulated interest but never the principal.

The Lutheran faith thus left the spontaneous vitality of impulsive action and naïve emotion more nearly unchanged.

Hierdie hoofstuk is seker die hoofstuk van die boek wat die meeste dinge in my wakker gemaak het en gemaak het dat ek  die meeste dink oor my eie denke. Dit lê die Calvinisme mooi bloot asook die vroere Lutherisme, waarby ek meer aanklank vind. Weber se thesis hier maak baie sin oor hoekom die Calvinisme so groot rol speel in die instandhouding van Kapitalisme. Luther het Kapitalisme begin deur dit die roeping van elkeen te maak met sy vertaling van die Bybel in Duits en Calvyn het dit toe verder gevat deur sy fundamentele dogmatiese uitsprake oor die uitverkiesing en hoe die mens nie sy heil kan koop nie, maar vanuit dankbaarheid wel sy roeping ten volle moet uitleef. Met gevolg as jy nie jouself oor ‘n mik werk nie, leef jy nie volgens die wil van God nie, met gevolg jy is nie ‘n uitverkorene nie, met gevolg jy gaan nie hemel toe nie. ‘n Bose kringloop inderdaad. Sou nou werk elkeen homself flou al is daar eintlik geen manier om te weet of hy hemel toe gaan of nie. Luther le klem op geloof alleen, waar Calvyn weer die klem plaas op genade alleen. Die mens se dankbare antwoord op daardie genade is sy uitlewing van sy roeping. Waar die hele gedagte van asketisme inkom is dat dit deel vorm van die Protestantse beweging omdat dit enige magiese/mistieke kragte heeltemal wil teenwerk deur die mens te beroep om sy emosies onder beheer te hou en homself nie oor te laat aan sy natuurlike begeertes nie, want die mens is sondig en daarom moet die mens streef om die aandag te gee aan sy sondige natuur nie, maar eerder te streef na ‘n heeltemalle rasionele verstaan van God. Al is God onbegryplik vir die mens. Dit is egter belangrik om te onthou dat hierdie slegte vorm van Kapitalisme ‘n newe effek van die Reformasie is. Dit is nie ‘n intensionele deel daarvan nie. Tog wil ek myself meer by Luther as Calvyn skaar. Luther laat baie meer ruimte vir die spontane en emosionele kant van die mens waar Calvyn homself heeltemal asketies verklaar, rasioneel, sonder enige neigings na die natuurlike.


Dit was dan The Religious Foundation of Worldly Asceticism