Calvin – 500 years ago: precursor of Capitalism?

Today (10th July) is the 500th anniversary of  Calvin‘s birth, the french theologian, founder of the Calvinism branch of the Protestant religious reformation.

Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist. From the collection of the Bibliothèque de Genève (Library of Geneva)
Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist. From the collection of the Bibliothèque de Genève (Library of Geneva)

There is an interesting article on the German magazine Focus [in German], titled “Money must work – Why the reformer Johannes Calvin is wrongly considered as a precursor of the Capitalism“.

This is referring to one of the legacy left by Calvin’s work: in Max Weber’s classic workThe Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” he argues that Calvin’s teachings provided ideological impetus for the development of capitalism.
The classic Christian religious devotion usually accompanied a rejection of worldly affairs, including the pursuit of wealth and possessions, specifically lending money in order to ask for interests and gain money on it was considered unmoral and a sin (a roughly similar approach is in the Islamic religion), this is one of the reason why the first bankers and money lenders were Jewish.

In the book Weber quotes Benjamin Franklin example that “money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on” and that this spirit of capitalism find its origins in the religious ideas of the Reformation.

The Roman Catholic Church assured salvation to individuals who accepted the church’s sacraments and submitted to the clerical authority. However, the Reformation had effectively removed such assurances.

In the absence of such assurances from religious authority, Weber argued that Protestants began to look for other “signs” that they were saved. Calvin taught a doctrine of predestination, in which from the beginning God chose some people for salvation (not anymore assured by simply accepting the church’s sacraments and submitting to the clerical authority) and others for damnation. It became an absolute duty to believe that one was chosen for salvation, and to dispel any doubt about that: lack of self-confidence was evidence of insufficient faith and a sign of damnation. So, self-confidence took the place of priestly assurance of God’s grace.

Worldly success became one measure of that self-confidence. And investing money was considered better than donating it to beggars (an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God).

In the article, the theologian Georg Plasger is explaining that Calvin never indicated that the quality of one’s beliefs and lifestyle an indication of the predestination to salvation. What is true is that Calvinists and especially the puritans were saving their money and investing it and that Calvin allowed to ask interests till 5% on it, arguing that “money must work”.

Also, the idea that one can serve God through his work more than with other means, is not coming from Calvin, says Plasger; this was a misunderstanding coming from the fact that Calvin and the first puritans were sort of workaholics  and very disciplined.

What Calvin surely influenced was the idea of “personal responsibility” and “personal independence” (a consequence of him being a refugee and the Calvinists at the beginning only a small community in Geneva).

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