Capitalism, the Protestant Work Ethic, and Pierre Viret

8 September 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

Somewhere before or during my undergrad years, I came across the thesis of Max Weber that Protestantism spawned capitalism.  Others would go on to say that it was specifically Calvinism or the Reformed theology and worldview that created the capitalist economic system.  So we also find related references to the “Protestant Work Ethic,” or perhaps “Puritan Work Ethic.”  This view is (or perhaps was) widely held.  So, when my wife graduated from college, a big part of landing her first job was the fact that she came from a rural Dutch Calvinist community and thus, her employer reasoned, she would be a very hard worker (which she was and is).

In university I had the opportunity to take History 498, not just once but three times.  This course was a “directed-readings” course and so you could take it several times, as long as the subject matter was different each time.  There was one professor that I did 498 with twice, Dr. N. Wickenden.  I enjoyed our long conversations together about what was I reading.  One day we got to discussing this idea of the connection between capitalism and Protestantism, and again, specifically the Reformed faith.  He directed me to Kurt Samuelsson’s Religion and Economic Action.  Samuelsson argued that Weber misunderstood Calvinism and that therefore his theories were largely incorrect.  Capitalism transcends Protestantism in history.  This book largely discredits Weber’s thesis.

Jean-Marc Berthoud’s Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation lends some credence to Samuelsson. Chapter five deals with “Viret as Economist.”  Viret wrote a book which has been described as “a modern treatise in economics.”  That book was Le monde a l’empire et le monde demoniacle.  Unfortunately, it’s not available online and I imagine that hard copies are difficult to come by.  Viret observed a “anarchical monopolistic capitalism” in his day.  Many of his contemporaries were becoming obsessively attached to wealth and he saw this as a “particularly vile form of idolatry.”  Says Berthoud:

Viret directed a continual polemic against the heresies of the Church of Rome and the social abuses they engendered.  But here his polemic is not only directed at the unproductive accumulation of wealth by the Catholic Church, but against those inconsistent evangelicals (i.e. Calvinists) of his time who saw in the process of the Reformation a liberation from the historical (moral and legal) constraints of a partly Christianized society, and thus refused all submission to the social and economic disciplines implied by the Law of God.  It was this godless antinomianism, often to be seen in what he called deformed (rather than reformed) Christians, that Viret attacked with biting irony.  He saw an expression of this anti-social behaviour in the nouveaux riches who had been quick to forget their modest origins and who now arrogantly gloried in their recent prosperity with wealth, often acquired at the expense of the poorer classes who had been impoverished by the new economic order founded largely on monopolistic speculation (62-63)

Yes, on the one hand, the Reformation era seems to have spawned some economic developments.  But perhaps this is to be seen like the German Peasants War.  It was not that the Reformation produced it as such, or that the theology of the Reformation produced it, but the zeitgeist created the conditions that allowed it to develop.  I think Samuelsson is correct that the development of capitalism transcends Protestantism, but the Reformation “spirit” probably contributed to its ascendance.  But not the theology/worldview.

Back to Viret for a moment:  he was critical of the capitalism that he witnessed.  Berthoud again:  “Such an egotistical cumulative concentration of wealth runs completely counter to the biblical doctrines of productivity, stewardship, charity, and personal sacrifice…this infernal cycle of economic injustice must of necessity breed revolution” (64).  But on the flip side, Viret “would have been strongly opposed to socialist state planning and redistribution of wealth” (65).  He also was highly critical of the gabelle tax, the sixteenth-century equivalent of the Value Added Tax.  According to Berthoud, Viret’s economic ideal was neither capitalist, nor socialist, but biblical.  For the details, you’ll have to read the book for yourself.  I hope to write a review of it in the next week or so.

One response to “Capitalism, the Protestant Work Ethic, and Pierre Viret”

  1. George Helder says:

    Some discussion of economics, especially with regard to the role of the state, would be very interesting and helpful. I’m surpirsed at how many Reformed church members have accepted the interventionist actions of the state. They seem to have no issues with ‘stimulus spending,’ seeing it as a necessity. I’m no libertarian, but a limited role seems more biblical than the state controlled redistribution of wealth through our current tax laws.

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