For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Calvin, covenant theology, and the Weber thesis"

by Zaret, D (1992)


In a strident attack on the Weber thesis, Malcolm MacKinnon' ar- gues that Weber was mistaken and evasive in his interpretation of Calvinism. According to MacKinnon, theological developments after Calvin, in Puritan covenant theology, removed from Cal- vinism the salvation anxiety that might have supplied a motive for conduct which unintentionally rationalized worldly activities. MacKinnon's analysis sharply distinguishes between Calvin's de- terminist doctrine and the voluntarist covenant theology in Puri- tanism, whose serene doctrine of assurance eliminated salvation anxiety. This analysis-I submit-grossly distorts the primary and secondary evidence which clearly shows that Puritan covenant theology contained the essential elements attributed to the Protestant ethic by Weber. MacKinnon's indictment of Weber must be dismissed because the evidence presented for it is an im- plausible and insupportable interpretation of Puritan doctrine. However, MacKinnon's errors are instructive: they illustrate the importance of controlling two types of selectivity effects that can bias sociological interpretations of belief systems. One type has its o-rigins in MacKinnon's exegetical practices; the other, far more interesting type originates in the practices of the clerical authors whose texts constitute the primary data. MacKinnon may have overlooked the second type of selectivity, which involves variable textual representations of a belief system, because he thinks it is impertinent to attribute inconsistency and contradiction to Cal- vinist belief systems. This untenable assumption leads to the clumsy distinction between determinism in Calvin and voluntar- ism in Puritanism that is the keystone in MacKinnon's critique of Weber. The flaws in MacKinnon's critique should therefore be understood in terms of a bad sociology of knowledge implicit in his analysis and not necessarily as a reflection of his evident animus toward Weber.


Calvin, Protestantism, Protestant Work Ethic, Weber, Sociology, Puritanism, Calvinism



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