Weber the Friendly Geist

A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he argued that the “manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of capitalism” was the product of certain Reformed ideas. Weber’s thesis was popular with secular academics and among some Christians who cited his arguments as part of their cultural apologetic for Christianity. It’s an elegant theory, but only in part true. Much good, of course, like the Protestant Work Ethic came out of the Reformation. But in his recent book, The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark documents that the rise of capitalism actually preceded the Reformation by several centuries! Cultural elites today embrace Weber’s thesis because it makes it appear that progress in areas such as science, economics and politics was the result of the West overcoming the “barriers” erected by Christianity. In this view, the Reformation, as a precursor to the Enlightenment, was just another step in this “overcoming.” Stark, a distinguished professor at Baylor, calls this idea “nonsense.” He writes that “the success of the West . . . rested entirely on religious foundations and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.” As the title of his book suggests, Christian teachings about the relationship between reason and faith are what made this progress possible. Unlike other religions, such as Islam, Christianity taught that human reason could and should be used to increase our understanding of Scripture and revelation. This meant that, unlike other religions, Christianity’s orientation was towards the future, not the past. The cultural result was the Western idea of progress: the belief that conditions can improve and that such improvement is a good thing to benefit humans made in the image of God. According to Stark, capitalism is “the systematic and sustained application of reason to commerce . . . Capitalism was developed by the great monastic estates,” which applied the latest “innovation[s] in agricultural technology.” This, in turn, yielded agricultural surpluses that not only fed the population but created the capital needed to build Europe’s economy. The Christian use of reason wasn’t limited to technology. The monasteries invented, for example, economic staples like the mortgage. History here is convincing. Augustine all the way back in the fourth century wrote of the legitimacy of free markets. And in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, men like Albert Magnus and Thomas Aquinas provided a full moral rationale for our free market system. Long before Adam Smith, Magnus defined a “just price” as what goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale. And Aquinas declared profits to be a legitimate goal. This and other Christian contributions led to what Stark calls the “success of the West” and the progress we take for granted, which make contemporary attempts to deny and even eradicate Christian influence in the West seem especially foolhardy.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary