The Protestant Work Ethic

The Protestant work ethic promotes excellence. But what is the connection between Protestantism, work, and excellence? The pioneering sociologist Max Weber was the first to draw attention to the Protestant work ethic. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1904, Weber studied the phenomenal economic growth, social mobility, and cultural change that accompanied the Reformation. He went so far as to credit the Reformation for the rise of capitalism.

Usually, he said, religion is otherworldly. But the Reformation doctrine of vocation taught that religion is to be lived out in this world. Weber did not completely understand the doctrine of vocation. He had the idea that the early Protestants worked so hard so as to build up evidence for their salvation. But the early Protestants knew better than anyone that their salvation had nothing to do with their works or their work, trusting in the grace of God through Christ alone.

Weber also assumed the early Protestants were ascetics. While their hard work inevitably made them lots of money, he said, their moral scruples prevented them from spending it, at least on worldly pleasures. So instead, they saved their money, put it in banks, and invested it. That is, they transformed their money into capital, thus creating capitalism. There may be something to this, but modern research has shown that the early reformers — despite the stereotype of “Puritans” — were not particularly ascetic, a quality that better describes the medieval Catholics they were reacting against.

But Weber is right to see the transforming power of the doctrine of vocation. Medieval Catholicism taught that spiritual perfection is to be found in celibacy, poverty, and the monastic withdrawal from the world, where higher spiritual life is found. But the reformers emphasized the spiritual dimension of family life, productive labor, and cultural engagement. “Vocation” is simply the Latinate word for “calling.” According to Luther, God calls each of us to various tasks and relationships. We have vocations in the family (marriage, parenthood), in the workplace (as master, servant, exercising our different talents in the way we make a living), and in the culture (as rulers, subjects, and citizens). We also have a vocation in the church (pastors, elders, organists, congregants), but the spiritual life is not to be lived out mainly in church and in church activities. Rather, when we come to church, we find the preaching of forgiveness for the sins we have committed in our vocations. Then, through Word and sacrament, our faith is strengthened. Our faith then bears fruit when we are sent back to our vocations in our families, our work, and our culture.

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Topics: Vocation

About the Author

Dr. Gene Edward Veith is provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN.