What do Calvinists actually believe? – Why Max Weber is misleading
Calvinists? Aren’t that those folks who want to become rich to get into heaven? Or probably not?Even though it is the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the whole world looks to Wittenberg and Luther I want to debunk a myth today concerning Calvinism. Although Max Weber, the pioneer of sociology, operates in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” very nuanced it is probably the source of many misconceptions regarding Calvinism. One cannot easily hold Weber liable for it because he as a sociologist is of course more interested in popular devotion than in the real doctrines of the Calvinistic theological system. However, Weber’s book seems to have caused some confusion between German intellectuals. There is still that persistent idea between the educated people that Calvinism teaches that a Christian can only see by his laboriousness and worldly wealth whether he is elected by God for eternal life or not. Accordingly, Calvinists are diligent in their labors and cultivate an ascetic lifestyle always fearing to elsewise end up in hell.
What does Calvinism actually teach?
To start with what is true: The reformer John Calvin taught in compliance with the bible indeed that God before the creation of the world elected some people for eternal life and reprobated others for damnation. Yes, an Calvinistic work ethic should as any other genuine Christian work habit rather lead to more wealth than to impoverishment. Christianity teaches diligence, honesty and investing its own talents wisely. Protection of ownership, rule of law and a minimal state are Christian ideals as well. For a reason, free market principles flourished especially in those countries which had a Christian influence and led to wealth. But surely one needs to differentiate between the ideal and eventually lived faith. In order to understand Calvinism and to not wrong it intellectually, we need to study the official doctrines and not some self or foreign-alleged followers who might not even know be correct themselves in their understanding of Calvinism.
Commonly there are a few basic theses which are always mentioned in connection with Calvinism: The so-called 5 points. Those actually come from the Synod of Dordrecht of 1619 and were formulated in dissociation of an upcoming heretic group, the Remonstrants, but were also held by the name giver Calvin itself and origin from the bible:
- Humans are totally corrupt and depraved according to their sinful nature. And they cannot live according to God’s moral intend by themselves and don’t even want it.
- God chooses in His sovereign free will some people which He saves from sin and judgment.
- For this purpose, Jesus’ substitutional dying on the cross is perfectly sufficient but only applies to those chosen people.
- Whoever is chosen by God He will surely lead to his predestined goal by His Holy Spirit. The human will is not neutralized or evaded by God but is subordinated to God’s working and control.
- Thus, all true Christians will all their life not fall out of this graceful election of God because Jesus’ sacrifice of the cross atones for their sins and the Holy Spirit enlightens the hearts of the believers.
Weber’s attempt to explain
No matter if Weber’s analysis of the Protestants’ popular devotion is correct or not, he tries to give an explanation why many Protestants saw in their career’s success an entrance ticket for heaven. Unfortunately, this mere attempt to explain became the general knowledge regarding the term Calvinism. Weber’s thesis regarding the Calvinist (which are also called “Reformed” to differentiate them from the Lutherans) is the following: In contrast to Calvin himself many Reformed Christians later believed that doubting the own election by God would be a problem for your salvation and that you could not be truly chosen if you do not believe this with full self-confidence. Even temporary doubt would indicate that one is not truly elected and is actually one of the reprobates. Here the inner and subjective assurance of salvation replaced the outer and objective certainty of salvation. Worldly success quickly became the benchmark of the own subjective assurance and therefore standard and key for your salvation itself. This shows the total perversion of this idea. Because the actual biblical teaching which were once again uphold in the time of the Reformation says that one only gets access to salvation through faith. Or rather that the already God determined salvation reveals itself in the fact that one as a truly elected Christian is even capable of believing. So, the faith in God’s work of salvation is the evidence for the own participation in this salvation which is a gift of God’s grace and cannot be earned or caused anyway by humans because of our corruption. This teaching stands in strong opposition to the pseudo-Reformed mentioned by Weber who meant to be able to gain security by means of worldly labor. And if a believer comes to this conclusion during his Christian life he obviously never true knew or understood to Gospel.
The Gospel – a message that liberates
The Gospel promises to liberate. Therefore, it is an interesting message for all freedom-seekers. Gospel means good news. It is a message which doesn’t produce fear for your own soul but sets the recipient of this information free. So, Jesus Himself says in the Gospel of John chapter 8 verse 36: “So if the Son of Man sets you free, you will really be free.” In this context, Jesus explains to a group of Jews that they aren’t actually free because they can’t even follow the commandments of their own religion. Jesus relates here to the 1st point mentioned above which says that human beings are sinful in their core. The person who hasn’t been liberated by Jesus is not capable to act not in accordance to his sinful nature. Therefore, by nature man is never completely free from his own unmoral passions and ideas and, therefore, will never be free to live a life in accordance to God’s moral standard. Man is captured in a latent and bitter expectation of God’s final payoff in the Last Judgment. If he hasn’t successfully learnt to cauterize or suppress his conscience will plague him with continuously reminding him of his perdition which he is heading towards. Whoever the son sets free, whoever believes in the good message of the Gospel will escape the life of fear and trembling and realizes that he was chosen by God for eternal life according the the 2nd point mentioned above. Also, a strive for good works and a successful career which is driven by fear and not by gratefulness origins from an ignorance of the 3rd point which talks about the fact of Jesus’ substitutional redemption for all past and future sins. Existential fear and emotional bondage plagues a Christian only when he is not aware of points 4 and 5. It is God who cares for the salvation of the Christian and He will also make sure in the future that He will be successful with His salvation plan. To take the Gospel as a license for sinning doesn’t take in count the essential fact that God works in the heart of the Christian and that God is surely no abettor of sin. One can see: The mentioned 5 points are a coherent system which is only available as a total package. One point derives from another. If you take out one point you will end up in problems. Christians who want to prove themselves by the moral law underestimate point 1 and that they are hopelessly lost if they are on their own. Yes, God has given His law to humanity as a moral standard but predominantly man shall see in it his hopeless situation in accordance with point 1 and that only God alone is the one who can help him out of this unfree position according to the other 4 points. The Gospel empowers man to be free of fear of the punishment for his trespasses and then to follow Jesus in gratefulness for remission of sins.
Did you already know what Calvinists believe? Or do you have ongoing questions or criticism to share? Then please write them down below in the comment section!