Anxious About Grace (Some Thoughts on Max Weber)

Even the most formally gracious theologies will be hijacked by the Old Adam’s ego and need for control.

Will McDavid / 2.7.22

This article originally appeared on Mbird in November 2013:

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) has been immensely influential, with the “Weber thesis” being one of the most well-known Interesting Ideas around.  The idea, basically, is that Protestantism, especially in Calvinist and Wesleyan and Baptist and ‘Pietistic’ forms, has been a major contributor to the ‘Spirit’ behind capitalism.

But there’s so much more. In looking at religious ideas not strictly in terms of their truth or doxological value, but also in terms of emphases and influence, Weber helped map out a distinctly modern way of doing and evaluating theology.

When I read his book, I hear a trenchant appreciation of how human hearts take the gifts of divine grace and turn them into methods for propelling ourselves toward God. From the perspective of Christian anthropology, the psychic response to certain Reformation doctrines should be exactly what Weber thought it was.

I’ll preface this by avowing my high affection for the thought of John Calvin, and keeping in mind that the negative theological shifts Weber describes concerning Calvinism could be applicable to any strand of Christianity, at some time or another.

Weber focuses especially on predestination for his analysis, which, by the way, wasn’t developed by Calvin (c. Jansen for a nearly Calvinist formula, Augustine/Aquinas/Bañez for a less extreme, but still predestinarian in the sense of Rom 8:30, formulation). Anyway, the Calvinist formulation was distinct, and separable in its emphases from anything that came before it. It stressed God’s absolute sovereignty and absolute decree, and the Westminster Confession banished human freedom from the realm of salvation in a way that had not been done before (e.g. WC, V.6).

All that to say — Calvin’s predestination was formally an immensely freeing doctrine, one bearing a higher degree of monism and formal grace than anything that had come before. Experientially, it became the opposite, and Weber’s contribution is an attempt to show how, and why. To the man himself, on the early reception history of Calvin:

From eternity, and entirely according to God’s inaccessible decisions, every person’s destiny has been decided. Even the smallest detail in the universe is controlled [what a comfort!]…

For the mood of a generation that devoted itself to the grandiose consistency of a doctrine of predestination, its melancholy inhumanity must have one result above all: a feeling of unimaginable inner loneliness of the solitary individual. The question of eternal salvation constituted people’s primary life concern during the Reformation epoch, yet they were directed to pursue their life’s journey in solitude. Moreover, the destiny they would encounter at journey’s end had been unalterably set for them since eternity, and no one could help them…

The resulting spiritual isolation of believers … provided the basis for Puritanism’s absolutely negative position toward all aspects of culture and religion oriented to the sensuous and to feelings: they were useless for salvation and they promoted sentimental illusions and idolatrous superstition [trans. Kalberg].

Incidentally, the suspicion of religious feelings isn’t the worst thing in the world — it does, theoretically at least, free us from having to constantly examine our emotional state as Christians. But who could doubt the re-emergence of feelings in Protestantism, especially in German Pietism and later Calvinism? We see a strange dialectic at play: that which a certain theology has banished (often graciously) returns in a different guise, a different context. And this re-emergence, this time with regard to control, is precisely the story Weber tells:

A particular question must arise immediately for every single believer. [Predestination] forces all such this-worldly interests into the background: Am I among the predestined who have been saved? How can I become certain of my status as one of the chosen? The question of salvation was not a problem for Calvin himself.. to the question – “How could persons become certain of their own election? — Calvin basically offered only this answer: We should be content with the knowledge that God has chosen, and content with the steadfast trust in Christ that comes from true belief. Furthermore, he fundamentally rejected the assumption that people could discern from others’ behavior whether they were chosen or condemned. According to Calvin, such a belief constituted a presumptuous attempt to intrude into God’s secrets. The elect, he believed, in this life distinguish themselves in no external way from the condemned … The chosen are, and remain, God’s invisible church [J.C.’s gotten a bad rap since Weber].

As normally occurs, the situation for Calvin’s epigone followers was different … The certitudo salutis [certainty of one’s salvation] question must have become for them, in the sense of the recognition of one’s state of grace, intensified to the point of absolutely overriding significance.

I wish I could quote the entire book here: it’s fascinating, and most of Weber’s insights are true even now. I’m sure preoccupied with my own state of grace, and with others’. For Calvin, very rightly, that voice of narcissistic judgment in my head was the voice of the Old Adam — inveterately self-justifying! A bit more Weber:

It was impossible to retain Calvin’s approach, at least to the extent that the question of one’s own state of grace arose. His answer to the question, which never formally abandoned orthodox [Lutheran] doctrine, in principle, referred to his own testimony: steadfast faith would produce salvation [above [] Weber’s] … In place of humble sinners, to whom Luther promises grace if they trust themselves to God in penitent faith, Calvinism now bred self-confident ‘saints’ … a further type of advice was offered by those engaged in pastoral care to address the suffering caused by the uncertainty of one’s salvation status. Restless work in a vocational calling was recommended as the best means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banished religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved.

The reasons that this-worldly work in a calling could be understood as capable of this achievement (that it could be viewed, so to speak, as the suitable mechanism for the release of emotion-based religious anxiety) must be sought in the deeply rooted peculiarities of the religious sensibility cultivated in the Reformed Churches.

He examines that sensibility later, but that’s more sociologically interesting than theologically. As he leaves it here, the steps of his “how?” are in place.

As someone with some Calvinist sensibilities, I’d love to disagree with Weber — but he’s more insightful and better-versed in his subject matter than almost anyone, certainly me. But more than that, I see his insights refracted in my own psychology, day-to-day. Even more convincingly, Christian anthropology often defines sin as self-justification. If self-justification is the baseline of fallen humanity, then Weber’s insights cohere perfectly with the psychology of pride or control or performancism. It’s not anti-Calvin at all — Weber appreciated Calvin immensely — but more a lament for how, in the world of theology, you’re kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” (ha). That is, even the most formally gracious theologies will be hijacked by the Old Adam’s ego and need for control, and this applies as much to Catholicism or Lutheranism or any other tradition as to Calvinism. Weber tells me to relax a bit, because I’m probably misunderstanding almost everything theologically, tinged as I am with anxiety and self-justification (Dutch Calvinists rightfully called this the “noetic effects” of the Fall). And the distinctly Christian addendum we must make to Weber’s thought is that the Spirit is present in “bad” refractions of theology as much as in “good ones”, though Weber never explicitly makes these value judgments. That is, God’s work, thankfully, does not depend upon our transmission of ‘theological traditions’.

Most importantly, Weber lets me know that theology can’t save us; right ways of thinking can’t save us — we need someone outside ourselves. And thankfully — this much at least we can affirm without danger — we’ve got him. The grace of theology is that all is under judgment, to an extent, and all is misunderstood, to an extent. Only within this framework does the real problem — control — remain in check, and despite the fact that our ways of thinking about God fall under the rubric of “comprehensive depravity”, we can approach him in freedom. To close with Rudolf Bultmann,

All our action and speech has meaning only under the grace of forgiveness of sins. And that is not within our control. We can only have faith in it. (“What Does It Mean to Speak of God?”)

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