500 years of the reformation
Protestants see ‘no work so lowly’ that it can’t be a vocationBy Erin Kesterson Bowers Special to The Chronicle
Have you ever felt like others in your office were judging you for actually using all of your vacation time? Would you feel guilty if you just sat in a chair and read a book on a Saturday when you could be cleaning an untidy house or doing needed yard-work? Do you consider it a mark of good character if someone comes into work early or if they can work through lunch without taking a break? If so, then your perspective is likely informed by the Protestant work ethic.
The Protestant work ethic has been responsible for great progress and American success, and at the same time, for the tyranny of work in our lives. It is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation – part gift and part curse – and it is still with us some 500 years later.
Among the many changes that occurred as a result of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, one of the most significant for the average person’s day-to-day life was the concept of vocation. Vocation, which is a synonym for calling, was terminology that had long been employed only for the religious life. But with the arrival of thinkers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, no longer was it the case that the professional religious alone could be understood as having a vocation through which one might serve God. All kinds of work could now be considered a vocation through which one might serve and glorify God. All of life belonged to God, and so, the sphere of public life was now sacred, too.
Sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin develops his thought on the matter in a number of places, in his biblical commentaries and in his sermons, but perhaps his most famous work is his theological treatise Institutes of the Christian Religion. The closing lines from the 1541 French edition of the Institutes read as follows: “There is no work so lowly that it does not shine before God and is not very precious, provided we are serving our vocation in it.”
In other words, any kind of honest work could be understood as a calling, every bit as important to God as a religious calling. In this way, there was a democratic ethos about the idea of vocation. At the same time, Calvin was wary about the idea of ambition, and thought it best that everyone seek to serve God in their appointed station, which reminds us that Calvin was very much a man of his time, supporting the aristocratic social ideals of the day.
Over time, this particular influence of the Reformation came to be referred to as the Protestant work ethic, sometimes called the Puritan work ethic or the Calvinist work ethic. The Protestant work ethic is defined by notions of hard work, discipline and frugality. This term was first coined by Max Weber in his classic 1905 work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is here that he develops what has become known as the Weber thesis, that is, the notion that the growth of capitalism was connected to the development of the Protestant work ethic. Part of the thesis involves the notion that Protestant Christians, and Calvinists in particular, were so driven as a result of the doctrine of predestination, in an effort to demonstrate that they numbered among the elect.
This thesis has been the matter of much controversy, and one can easily see why. Even if we approve of the economic system, it is troubling to attribute results that are financially driven and materialistic in nature to a spiritual reformation. The idea that success was a sign of God’s election is surely not something that John Calvin himself would endorse. Instead, this is a way that theological concepts have been largely misconstrued by Weber’s thesis. Election, to Calvin’s way of thinking, is entirely inscrutable, and there is no way that our success or lack thereof or anything that we ourselves do would be any indicator. However, Calvin certainly placed a high value on hard work. Work is of value in that it is an opportunity to glorify God.
But like so many religious ideas born from reformation and the best of intentions, over time they can lose their impact on the world. Religious ideas no longer influence the culture, but the culture begins influencing them. Such is the case with the Protestant work ethic.
One has to wonder whether it is now capitalism’s influence on Protestantism that has led to the understanding of the Protestant work ethic as it is broadly construed, rather than the other way around. For better or for worse, Calvin did not find ambition seemly. It is also not difficult to make the link between the Protestant work ethic and the American prosperity gospel. As some have mistakenly understood that the Protestant work ethic meant that success was a sure sign of God’s election, it is only a few short steps from there to the many different iterations of health and wealth or personal empowerment theologies that have been a part of American culture for the last century and beyond.
As for me, I recently told my husband that while going to the beach and relaxing for vacation was fine, I preferred a vacation where I felt like I had accomplished something. Where I could check off a list – I had seen this or that, been to this or that new place, had this or that experience, achieved this or that goal. I guess the Protestant work ethic goes on vacation, too.Erin Kesterson Bowers is the associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in High Point, N.C.