TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

A New Myth of Calvinism? Pellicani Against the Theological Origins of Modernity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Robert Wyllie looks at Luciano Pellicani’s “Weber and the Myth of Calvinism,” from Telos 75 (Spring 1988).

In his exchange with Adrian Pabst in Telos 162, Luciano Pellicani argues that the United States’ constitutional founding comes “in clear opposition to the theocratic model of the Puritan Fathers” (160). The Founding Fathers’ radical commitment to the Enlightenment, Pellicani claims, was the opening salvo in the contemporary culture war still raging in America. On one side there has always been the “commercial society ruled by a wealthy bourgeoisie” (155) aligned with the Enlightenment critique of religion (the deism of Paine and Jefferson) behind a secular constitution. On the other side is a populist religious opposition to the Constitution. The medieval and theocratic spirit of the Puritans, Pellicani explains, runs through the eighteenth-century Great Awakening all the way to the modern Christian Coalition. Pabst’s counter-argument proposes that Pellicani’s argument “is all too Protestant in its divorce of rationality from belief” (171). According to Pabst, Calvinism contributed decisively to the secularization of European society and the growth of North American capitalism (166). Pellicani’s hostility to this thesis has a long history in the pages of Telos.

In the Telos symposium on Max Weber in 1988, Pellicani argued that Calvinism inhibited the growth of capitalism and political secularization. Pellicani refuted a common interpretation of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one in which Weber correlates Calvinist teachings (the notion of a “calling,” disciplined worldly asceticism) to the measurable growth of market capitalism. Pellicani outflanks this argument by demonstrating, first, that market capitalism began in medieval towns and Italian city-states (and thus antedated the Protestant Reformation) and, second, that Calvinist theologians and preachers actively discouraged acquisition and bourgeois capitalist values.

Pellicani encircles the Weber thesis with case study after case study. He demonstrates that Calvinist leaders in France, Holland, and England were drawn not from an active bourgeoisie but from a landed gentry with declining economic prospects (68). Calvinist countries like Scotland remained poor and undeveloped during the Reformation period (69). Of course, the Netherlands became famously prosperous in the late seventeenth century. But Pellicani points out that in this religiously diverse country, the bourgeoisie largely sided with the Ariminians, who rejected predestination, while the Gomarists, who aligned themselves more strictly with Calvin, railed against the worldliness and irreligiousness of their bourgeois neighbors (71–72). Pellicani ticks off these historical counter-arguments to emphatically reject the common interpretation of Weber, concluding, “The Protestant Ethic is of no help in resolving the mystery of the birth of capitalism, nor does it contribute to even identifying factors which stimulated the entrepreneurial spirit” (84).

Pellicani’s supreme example of the Calvinist antipathy towards religious tolerance and market capitalism is Puritan New England. In New England during the seventeenth century, Pellicani argues, there was “no room for religious or economic freedom” (73) His best examples are drawn from Jeanette Tawney’s description of the tight economic regulations in Puritan Massachusetts designed at protecting “just prices” (75). The breakdown of this system came when Puritan controls were broken down by immigrants, defectors, and the abandonment of the London government. By Hawthorne’s generation, Yankees would be better known for their thrift than their piety. The reform movement of Wesley’s Methodists in the eighteenth-century Great Awakening tried to stanch this “profane revolution” in New England, but it was too late. The pattern of oscillation between piety and profit, Pellicani’s model for the perennial American culture war, had begun.

On the other side of the 1988 Telos symposium on Weber, Guy Oakes defended The Protestant Ethic. According to Oakes, Pellicani ignores the book’s paradoxical and tragic structure (90). While the Calvinists may indeed explicitly discourage capital accumulation, their theology may have in fact created a powerful unconscious desire for capitalist accumulation. Predestination generated a tremendous anxiety among Calvinist congregations. Here, the spirit of capitalism is an unconscious drive to acquire the “marks of election” invented by neo-Calvinists like Richard Baxter. The prosperous man in Baxter’s congregation could sleep well by counting his blessings. Paradoxically, Calvinism created a lifestyle that explicitly ran counter to its teachings. No medieval capitalist was trapped in this iron cage. Operating in some liminal region between psychoanalysis and sociology, the Weber thesis becomes neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Every condemnation of capitalism from a Calvinist pulpit becomes a “superegoic” repression that paradoxically proves the presence of a capitalistic “id.” Pellicani fires back, “The Calvinist seeking the certitudo salutis [knowledge of salvation] in business is a pure mental construct” (66). In fact, Pellicani shows, Baxter’s certitudo salutis always involves turning away from market economics (83). Frustrated by the neo-Weberians’ turn to psychological grounds, Pellicani complains in Telos 81, “It is as if the Weber thesis were a sort of unfalsifiable metaphysical dogma” (70).

Having reached an impasse with the neo-Weberians, Pellicani explains the enduring popularity of the Weber thesis as a desperate rush to subvert Marxism. Pellicani argues that Weber’s goal was “to respond, with a positive critique, to Marx’s challenge, by demonstrating the autonomy of ideas and values and their power to generate positive social changes. Without Marxism, which was obsessive both from the scientific and political viewpoint, maybe The Protestant Ethic would have never been written” (85). As Piccone noticed in Telos 78, the popularity of the Weber thesis stems from its synchronism with Marxism (97). Marx’s case studies for early industrial capitalism in chapter thirty-one of Capital point first to the Dutch Revolt and England, where the agricultural roots of the Industrial revolution created a proletariat opposed to a well-developed bourgeoisie. Weber’s idealism investigates the most obvious religious movement—the Calvinist Reformation—associated with Marx’s case studies: early modern England and Holland.

The Cold War has long been over, but Luciano Pellicani is still making the skeptical case about the Calvinist origins of modernity. With the specter of Marxism lifted, Adrian Pabst attaches no special importance to the Weber thesis. Instead, Pellicani faces a new myth of Calvinism, where the target is not Marxist materialism but the very concept of the secular. In this new myth—precisely John Milbank’s counter-genealogy that locates the genesis of modernity in the destruction of Hellenic Christian metaphysics—Calvinism is simply derivative from medieval nominalism. Continuing the work of the nominalists, the Protestants level the “sacramental mediation between the individual believer and God” in order to erode the foundations of the Church (166). Pabst charges the American Puritans with a general indictment, criticizing “Protestantism’s nominalist denial of universals in real things and its voluntarist accentuation of God’s absolute divine power” (166). This nominalist inheritance, Pabst claims, is at the core of contemporary Christians’ unmediated faith in American power. Against Radical Orthodoxy, Pellicani may well fear that he is up against a new unfalsifiable myth of Calvinism.

Pellicani is in need of a more nuanced theological history to combat the new myth of Calvinism. His refutation of the Weber thesis does not necessarily mean that faith and reason, or religion and the modern political economy, are antithetical. Reiterating the simplified Straussian opposition between Athens and Jerusalem is less helpful than studied attempts to complicate Pabst’s equation of Calvinism and nominalism. For starters, Calvin and the Reformed churches fit less comfortably under an umbrella category of nominalism than the German Reformation—both Lutheran and Anabaptist—does. Laura Smit’s article “The Depth Behind Things: Towards a Calvinist Sacramental Theology” in the volume Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition—just to give one notable example—complicates Pabst’s identification of Calvinism and nominalism. And while the intellectual-deviation narrative spun by Milbank and Pabst about nominalism has purchase, a scholar like Charles Taylor will argue that it can only be part of a more complex narrative about the Protestant Reformation. For the past twenty-five years, Luciano Pellicani has given Telos readers many good reasons to preserve that complexity. Perhaps now we are in need of new ones.

Read the full version of Luciano Pellicani’s “Weber and the Myth of Calvinism” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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