The Reformation is one of the most important and far-reaching events in world history. The shift from Catholicism to Protestantism in many places represented the most severe theological rupture imaginable. It is possible to argue that the theological and social that came about as a result of the development of Protestant, Lutheran theology laid the ground for both social institutions and for dominant social type as they exist in the modern world. The paper will prove the importance of the Reformation by considering theological content of Protestantism alongside its social impact. By doing so, it will demonstrate that many of the facts and character types that we now take for granted can be traced directly to Luther’s reforms and theology. It will begin by demonstrating a key component of this theology as it relates to a thinking of grace and redemption and will then discuss how this thinking can be directly related to contemporary society through the identification of the protestant ‘work ethic’ with the capitalist personality.
The contemporary meaning of modernity must be related to an understanding of the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, the transition from feudal relations to bourgeois democracy which marks both European and, to a lesser extent, North American history in terms of modernity is precisely a transition to this mode of production, its specific concepts of the individual and property and the theological complements which it finds in the world. In order to understand that importance that the Reformation can be seen to have had for this modernity, it is necessary to understand the way in which protestantism and capitalism may be seen to intersect.
According to Paul Tillich, the Reformation was the first instance in world history that maintained a purely qualitative relationship to God. According to the doctrines of Grace and pre-destination developed by both Luther and Calvin, it was no longer possible to assume that one could a qualitative or piece-meal relationship to salvation. One was either saved or one was not, and there was no conceivable middle ground. Tillich (1968) writes therefore that ‘prior to the development of Lutheran theology there was no need to look to one’s own life for evidence of salvation, as salvation could be gained on earth itself (p. 137). The protestant Reformation developed a theology in which it was no longer the case that one could assume that one was to be saved by simply observing doctrine or buying indulgences, rather, how it was possible to assume signs of membership of the elect as manifest in material success.
According to the sociologist Max Weber, this led to what is generally recognised as the Protestant work ethic, whereby individuals would deprive themselves of earthly happiness in order to gather as much material capital as possible. Such capital, were it to remain with a person could be taken as a sign that they had been predestined for salvation and, in this respect, that they were a member of the elect. This thought could equally be combined what Weber termed a specific ‘eschatological indifference.’ This term refers to the general idea present after the Reformation that the second coming was soon to come and that there was nothing that those who wished to follow Christian doctrine could to either speed its coming, or to slow it. As such, the Reformation personality was one that both worked extremely hard to achieve material success and that saw no need or importance in the overthrow of contemporary social structures or motions of inequality within society.
According to Weber, (2010) both of these characteristics can be taken as crucial for the development of the capitalist subject who accumulates material wealth and capital for no other reason than itself. He writes ‘that this moral justification for earthly events was a crucial aspect of Luther’s theology is beyond doubt, and is even a platitude’ (p. 41). If Weber’s thesis is correct then it is possible to posit the ontological shifts that took place as a result of the Reformation as amongst the most important historical events to ever have occurred and to represent the necessary pre-condition for modernity. This is a modernity that is based on and that has developed through the Capitalist mode of production, with its necessary continuous emphasis on accumulation and competition. Indeed, what is now meant by the word modernity is inconceivable without this system of production and the social relations that it generates. As such, it is clear that it is possible to draw a direct line between the theology of the Reformation and the development of the social relations that constitute modernity. Given this fact, it is clear that the Reformation itself should be seen as key, if not the most important, event in the path to this modernity.
In conclusion, this paper has shown how the theology of the Lutheran reformation may be understand as providing an ontological ground for the development of modernity by providing two key elements in the formation of a capitalist subject. The first of these is the development of a doctrine of grace and predestination, with its accompanying work ethic, and the second is the development of an eschatological indifference that enabled this work ethic to sit alongside a continued state of content with regard to early capitalist social relations. When both of these factors are taken together, it is clear that the Reformation should be seen as a hugely important event with regard to the development of modernity.
- Tillich, Paul. (1968). A History of Christian Thought. New York: Touchstone.
- Weber, Max. (2010) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.